Amit Shah Endorsing Defamation Lawsuits to Stifle Critical Press
Amit Shah finally broke his conspicuous silence on the issue of a sudden surge in the turnover of his son Jay Shah’s firm Temple Enterprise, which increased 16,000 times from Rs 50,000 to Rs 800m in just one year, coincidentally soon after Narendra Modi became the prime minister. Shah spoke briefly at a forum of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-friendly media organisation on the issue of Jay Shah’s defamation case and made some strange claims that sent cryptic signals about the Modi government’s efforts to wage a large-scale war against the remnants of free and critical press in Modi-fied India, where the majority of media outlets are functioning as the PR agency of the Modi government, which is considered sacrosanct and placed at the highest altar by the toady journalists, often rewarded for their loyalty and bootlicking.
On October 8th, an independent news website, The Wire, published the story written by Rohini Singh on this sudden increase in the turnover of Junior Shah’s firm. The firm earned this turnover soon after Modi assumed office and surprisingly, Temple Enterprise was wound up a year later, just before the onset of the demonetisation season. After the report on the company’s details filed with the Registrar of Companies (ROC) was published, Union minister and Modi’s Goebbels, Piyush Goyal, came out to defend a private citizen like Junior Shah, breaking all existing protocols and even not waiting for any sort of independent enquiry report on the allegations.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP initiated a vitriolic campaign against The Wire and Singh, while Jay Shah filed a ₹100 crore defamation case against the journalist and The Wire’s founding editors; the Modi government allowed the Additional Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, who played a crucial role during his tenure as the Additional Advocate General of Gujarat to get the cases against the 2002-genocide accused liquidated, to appear as a personal lawyer of Junior Shah in the court. Later, due to immense criticism, Mehta retreated and said he will only provide help to the lawyers of Jay Shah and not fight the case himself.
Amit Shah and his chief Modi remained silent on the issue and ordered the mainstream media to remain mute on the issue. Despite this voluntary radio silence strategy adopted by the toady Hindutva media, the section of the press that dared to defy the Modi government’s diktat, exposed that the ASG got permission to appear for Jay Shah in the defamation case on October 6th itself, the very evening when Junior Shah received a set of questions on his business from the journalist writing the report. Shah returned to New Delhi cutting short his campaigning in Kerala the same evening after he smelled trouble and met the prime minister to discuss something in length, which wasn’t disclosed to the media.
Like any political leader defending their kin from corruption charges, Shah reiterated the clichés about Jay Shah being an honest businessman and his business endeavours not benefitting from any government favours. However, the most surprising part of his maiden statement on the issue was not his attacks against the Congress party for its role in the big scams like Bofors, 2G, etc, but his assertion that the Congress party is corrupt because none of its scam-tainted leaders dared to file any defamation case against the journalists who exposed their misdeeds and no one in the Congress party raised the level of defamation claim up to Rs 1bn, which Jay Shah did.
According to Amit Shah, Jay Shah actually called for a fair investigation into the case by moving to the court with the defamation case and it’s his credit that he raised the level of defamation to that high. His claims may sound ridiculous to many, several people may call them an infantile blabbering by a clueless defender of a scam-tainted person, however, the issue is more complex, as Shah, or the entire RSS-led Hindutva fascist camp that he represents, is attempting to normalise the practice of using Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) to gag the remnants of free press in India. SLAPP is a strategy hitherto used globally by the big corporations, unscrupulous politicians and criminals to stop critical media investigation into their misdeeds.
By saying that the Congress party is corrupt as it did not adopt the policy of slapping defamation charges against the journalists who exposed the corruption cases the party’s leadership and their kin were involved in, Amit Shah is trying to drive the point that big business entities, corporations, politicians and bureaucrats in India must use the “defamation case” weapon to silence the critical media and its endless investigations from now on, following the footsteps of Gautam Adani and Jay Shah. Amit Shah hailed Jay Shah and said that his ward’s spontaneous filing of a defamation case against The Wire is a hallmark of his honesty and innocence. “They are saying the company’s turnover rose to Rs 80 crore (Rs 800m) from a mere Rs 50,000, but they are not showing that it incurred a loss of Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15m). This is a high-volume, low-profit business. Where is money laundering in it,” Shah asked while remaining mute on how the commodity trading on rice and millets by a firm that earned a turnover of Rs 50,000 a year ago with a profit of Rs 18,758 could suddenly earn a turnover of Rs 800m? He said that profit is less in the business, but the profit of the previous year was 37.51% of the turnover and it’s not what one would call “low” in terms of turnover to profit ratio. The loss of Rs 15m by the company even when its turnover suddenly increased 16,000 times is also extremely surprising, because, since its inception in 2004, Temple Enterprise never earned anything near to that amount.
The Wire or Singh didn’t write the story using fabricated information but used the details from the ROC and now, even Shah, through his nod, accepted that the figures shown in the story of The Wire are correct. He didn’t explain why the company called Kusum Finserve, owned by Jay Shah got a project of building 2.1 MW renewable electric power plant in Ratlam of Madhya Pradesh, a BJP-ruled state? He didn’t say anything about how the firm got a loan of Rs 103.5m from Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), which, according to the National Herald, can only fund 70% of the project cost for a maximum of 1 MW project? How an inexperienced firm like Kusum Finserve managed to secure a loan for a project even when it was going to produce higher output than the threshold of IREDA financing? Shah didn’t say these things, but he expressed his surprise over why the Congress party is lagging behind in joining the league of Adani and Junior Shah.
The Congress party had ruled the country in an utmost tyrannical manner. It definitely looted the nation for more than six decades and the issue of slapping defamation cases against journalists, also jailing, killing and torturing them for being critical of the regime, happened several times during its reign, especially during the emergency, when Indira Gandhi established her fascist rule. Despite its dirty record and history of tyranny, the Congress party didn’t show the audacity of openly denouncing the democratic space that the Constitution guaranteed to the people during non-emergency period and it didn’t dare to attack the free press directly like the Modi regime did in the last three years.
While many big corporate media houses and their celebrity news presenter-cum-gadflies obliged the government, a small section of the free media is still showing valour by critically analysing the deeds and words of the Modi government. The defiance of these media outlets and free journalists is bothering Shah and the entire Hindutva camp so much that they are now inviting their arch-rival Congress party to even adopt the policy of silencing the free press by using the SLAPP route.
Despite the Congress party’s top leaders and ministers like P Chidambaram, a lackey of big corporations and a mastermind of the Operation Green Hunt, an anti-tribal war waged by the Indian government on behalf of big global mining corporations in the tribal heartland, accused the critical writers and intellectuals of sedition, they never used SLAPP as an official weapon to threaten and gag critical media. Shah is simply trying to make sure that SLAPP is used as a common weapon by all politicians, corporations, bureaucrats and other elites, whenever the free press tries to investigate their misdeeds. No wonder, Shah is helping Jay Shah to use this tool with the help of the entire state machinery, after being impressed with the tactic of SLAPP adopted by one of the chief sponsors of the BJP, Adani, whose lawyer’s letter to the Economic and Political Weekly, threatening it with a defamation case, got its former editor Paranjoy Guhathakurta fired from his job.
As the matter is sub-judice, we will let the court decide whether Junior Shah’s defamation case and claim of Rs 1bn holds any weight to standout in the long run, but the subtle way Shah invited the Congress party and the big corporations to use SLAPP against their critics is a serious threat to the democratic fervour and the rights of the press enshrined in the Constitution. It’s no wonder that following the Jay Shah embroil, especially before the onset of the Gujarat Assembly Election, the Modi government will try to regulate the free press by bringing draconian regulations and by attempting to gag media houses critical to the BJP and the Hindutva camp by enabling Sangh-inspired people and corporation to economically drain them with hefty lawsuits.
However, as the media fraternity, which came together in a great show of strength after the gruesome murder of the firebrand journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru last month, remains indifferent towards the plight of the small and struggling outlets like The Wire, which run on donations received from their visitors, it becomes very troublesome to erect a strong barrier of resistance against the fascist onslaught of the Hindutva fascist Modi government.
All those who are angry at the government-sponsored media bullying drive of Jay Shah, supported by the Modi government (exemplified by Goyal and the BJP’s IT Cell), must take a stand to protest against the practice of SLAPP and unite with other anti-establishment and pro-people media outlets and journalist bodies to wage a strong struggle against the fascist onslaught on the idea of free and critical press.
It’s time to realise that the free press is neither omnipotent nor an immortal thing, and may succumb if attacked viciously by the big corporations and their lackey politicians. The free press is an idea that exists in its own due to the presence of its antithesis, ie, the toady media, the government’s PR body that is keen to portray the opposition in the poorest shades even when no one else is supporting the regime. But unlike toady journalism, the free press has fewer supporters and more enemies in power and they will be targeted, time again, for their coverages and exposes. It’s important that the fervour of sane journalism and the professional journalistic ethics, now at its dismal low in years, is protected along with the zeal to protect the independence of each journalist and the media outlets that challenge the hegemony of big capital in the movement for truth.
This can only be achieved when a massive democratic struggle starts for a complete political overhaul of India and to purge the filth of Hindutva fascism living in its veins and arteries. Such a struggle can only become successful if the journalists, those who still believe in the concept of a free press and dare to challenge the powerful, can shed their inhibitions to unite with the common people in their fight for democracy, secularism, justice and equality. For such a unity will hasten the doom of the fascist kingdom under construction and will help free press live forever.
An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker