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Above: Ramdev with PM Modi/Photo: UNI

The apex court has issued a notice to Baba Ramdev on a plea by Juggernaut Books challenging the Delhi High Court’s ban on the publication, distribution and sale of his unauthorised biography

By Shaheen Parween

The “one-sale-off-the-shelves” saga of the book Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev continues. Recently, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta issued notice to the yoga guru on a plea filed by the publisher, Juggernaut Books. The plea challenged the Delhi High Court Order restraining the publication and sale of the book, purportedly based on the godman’s life. Though the publisher had made Amazon India and Flipkart Internet Private limited, who were also selling the book online, parties the Court found it unnecessary.

The book on the controversial godman—who now runs one of India’s biggest FMCG companies with sales that jumped from a few crores in 2009 to more than Rs 10,000 crore now—is written by journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain. Juggernaut Books has maintained all along that it is “a work of serious journalism” and the pro­duct of over 50 interviews, many of them taped, with key players who are close to Ramdev and his family.

Additionally, the book also contains a detailed 25-page note on the sources that lists the interviews, articles, police reports and RTI replies which are the basis for each chapter.

Perhaps wary of the legal complications that the book—believed by many to be an explosive expose on the hugely polarising yoga guru’s life—might get mired in, Juggernaut had reportedly submitted the manuscript for a detailed legal scrutiny prior to publication. The taped interviews had also been vetted by a forensic laboratory, Juggernaut has stated, to counter any possible allegations of doctoring the material to suit a certain narrative.

Despite all this, on August 4, 2017, exactly a week after its launch, a trial court, while ruling that the contents of the book were defamatory and untrue and had been written without Ramdev’s knowledge, passed an ex parte order. The Court restrained the publisher from publishing and selling the book and also restrained the online sale of the book by Amazon India and Flipkart Internet Private Limited till further orders. All pending deliveries of the book were also put on hold.

However, on April 28, 2018, the Additional Senior Civil Judge (ASCJ) passed an order lifting the ban on sale and publication of the book by the trial court. Aggrieved by the order of the ASCJ, Ramdev filed a plea before the Delhi High Court, where Justice Anu Malhotra stayed the order of the ASCJ and said that the right to reputation under Article 21 of the Constitution cannot be sacrificed at the altar of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Ramdev in his petition submitted that the book was published intentionally with a view to harm his reputation and the author had written and the publisher had published defamatory, derogatory and vexatious material about him, regardless of these being untrue. This had caused wrongful loss to him and gains to the respondents.

One of the instances mentioned in the book is related to the CBI investigation into the disappearance of Shankar Dev, who was Ramdev’s guru. It is alleged that the writer has projected it as if the probe was influenced and the case file was being surreptitiously handled. However, Ramdev claimed that judicial records made it evident that the closure report filed by the CBI had been accepted by the courts.

The godman has also alleged that the publishers made false statements that he had not allowed the post-mortem of Rajeev Dixit, once his close aide, who met with a mysterious death. Ramdev claims that the medical record and death certificate of Dixit clearly stated that he had died due to cardiac arrest.

Further, it has been stated by Ramdev in his plea that the book discusses various chapters of his private life and, therefore, consent ought to have been taken from him prior to its publication. The fact that no such consent was taken from him is a violation  of his fundamental right to privacy  and reputation under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Moreover, it has also been alleged that in order to tarnish Ramdev’s image among millions of his followers, the publisher was making copies freely available on the internet and had also reduced the price of the book from Rs 300 to Rs 50 in order to increase its circulation and defame him.

The publisher in a written statement submitted that nothing contained in the book was defamatory and it was written with journalistic objectivity in a fair and impartial manner and in good faith for the public good.

The author also claims that whatever was written in the book was based on documents that were publicly available. The interviews, she claimed, were also recorded and had been published after due verification to the maximum extent possible for a journalist.

Indian courts have been comparatively placid in dealing with issues of defamation unlike western democracies which are known to award enormous damages on proof of libel. Nevertheless, there have been some notable cases.

In R. Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu, the publisher of the Tamil magazine, Nakkeeran, had brought a plea before the Supreme Court for prohibiting the state of Tamil Nadu, the inspector general of prisons and the superintendent of prisons from interfering with the publication of the autobiography of the serial killer, Auto Shankar, who had been convicted for six murders and sentenced to death. When Rajagopal, the editor of Nakkeeran, unveiled a pre-publication publicity drive, prison officials persuaded Shankar to request the magazine not to publish the autobiography.

However, the Supreme Court, while allowing the publisher to publish the autobiography, said, “It must be held that the petitioners have a right to publish, what they allege to be the life story/autobiography of Auto Shankar insofar as it appears from the public records, even without his consent or authorization. But if they go beyond that and publish his life story, they may be invading his right to privacy and will be liable for the consequences in accordance with law.”

An equally celebrated case was Khushwant Singh vs Maneka Gandhi where the latter, a Union minister now, had filed a suit for injunction and damages against the celebrated editor, Khushwant Singh. Gandhi claimed that she was aggrieved by the contents of a chapter in the book titled Truth, Love and a Little Malice, which were purportedly defamatory.

The apex court held that “in case of an article/publication of an allegedly offending and defamatory nature, a pre-publication injunction of restraint should not be granted in case the defendant who supports the publication cites truth as a defence and pleads justification. In such a case damages are appropriate remedy”.

Experts say that with more defamation cases now piling up in courts, it is necessary to strike a balance between the right to privacy under Article 21 and the right to freedom of press under Article 19 of the Constitution so that either right is not trampled upon.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The article was quite insightful. Justice Anu Malhotra’s observation that “the right to reputation under Article 21 of the Constitution cannot be sacrificed at the altar of the right to freedom of speech and expression” puts forth an important point of debate. It could be argued both ways. I would request your team to write on what about a celebrity is “Public” and what is “private”. Public figures like Baba Ramdev’s life as a Yoga Guru and a Businessman, as a brother , as a son are all in public domain. His rise and fall in public life and his personal life are a matter of public domain. I have seen doctors giving media bulletins on Amitabh Bachchan or for that matter Jayalalitha’s recovery in the hospital. Aren’t medical matters a matter of privacy, then why are they disseminated in public domain as medical bulletins…

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