“Truth is considered to be the best vindication against slander … yet, truth lacks the potency to restore the reputation that one loses in the eyes of a society which is always quick to judge.”
These were the forewords of the Delhi high court’s order pronounced on Friday in the 21-year-old defamation case filed by a former army officer – who was awarded “Severe Displeasure…unbecoming of an army officer”, following news magazine Tehelka’s investigative report, which painted him as corrupt.
Former major general MS Ahluwalia had lodged the case against Tehelka and its journalists Tarun Tejpal, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel in April 2002. The final order in the case decreed Tehelka and its journalists guilty of defamation and directed them to pay Rs 2 crore in damages to Ahluwalia.
The 2001 report published by Tehelka, which was at the core of the case, had reportedly uncovered corruption related to import deals of defence equipment, besides showing Ahluwalia as one of the accomplices in the corruption.
The report was part of a sting operation, named ‘Operation West End’, which had wide-ranging consequences. It yielded resignations from the then defence minister George Fernandes, BJP president Bangaru Laxman, and a handful of senior ministers and high-ranking members of the armed forces.
But Ahluwalia, who was featured in the story and the tapes, had stated that the video tapes and transcripts illustrated him as demanding Blue Label whiskey and Rs 10 lakh from the magazine’s reporter. Subsequently, he filed a defamation suit in the Delhi high court in April 2002. The complaint said that the allegations against him were false, motivated, mischievous, and deliberate, without ascertaining the true facts.
In its detailed order on Friday, the high court stated that Ahluwalia had been defamed as he had never demanded money from the journalists – but the reports in the news magazine suggested otherwise.
In the jugement, Justice Neena Bansal Krishna observed that Ahluwalia’s reputation had suffered as he had not only “faced lowering of estimation in the eyes of public” but his character had been maligned with serious allegations of corruption “which no subsequent refutation can redress or heal”.
The judge also observed that much time has passed and Ahluwalia has already lived with “ill fame” for more than 23 years, and hence, “considering the enormity of the nature of defamation, apology at this stage is not only inadequate but is meaningless”.
‘Operation West End’
This investigative reportage was no ordinary case. ‘Operation West End’ was Tehelka’s second sting operation, which soon became its claim to fame.
Despite spawning several political ramifications, the reportage itself was widely debated for its investigative methods. Some supported it, saying that the issues of ethics with the reportage paled in comparison to the corruption it exposed. But some criticised it, especially in light of reports that Tehelka journalists offered sex workers as kickbacks in the sting.
Tehelka reporters posed as representatives of a fictitious foreign arms company called “West End” in the sting operation, and purportedly offered to sell equipment.
The video tape and transcript of the sting, as Ahluwalia had alleged, portrayed him as demanding Blue Label whiskey and Rs 10 lakh from Tehelka reporter Mathew Samuel. In his complaint, Ahluwalia asserted that these allegations were widely commented on, sullying his reputation.
He had said that the video had been tampered with and doctored to manipulate the recording. Selective portions had been deleted and editorial comments had been added, which were not substantiated by facts, Ahluwalia had alleged.
‘Apology at this stage is not only inadequate, but is meaningless’
The court observed that the defendants had been unable to establish their “good faith” while making imputations against Ahluwalia, owing to their inability to prove the same.
Justice Krishna said that while the “objective may have been public good”, from the manner in which the report was published by Tehelka and its journalists, it was “abundantly clear that it was not a true reporting of the incident”.
Before the Army’s Court of Inquiry, Tehelka reporter Samuel had recorded a statement that Ahluwalia never demanded any money and had even refused to attend the dinner that was hosted at a five-star hotel.
The court observed that the assertions in the cross admission clarified that no demand was made by Ahluwalia and no money was paid to him by Tehelka. The judge considered Samuel’s admissions at the cross examination, which contended that an amount of Rs 50,000 was not accepted by Ahluwalia.
In the order, Justice Krishna noted, “It does not require any imagination to understand the wide ramifications of alleging corruption against a senior army officer and also the consequences thereto.”
She further remarked that there couldn’t be a “more blatant case of causing serious harm and injury” to the reputation of an army officer, “who despite all endeavours of the defendant, had refused to accept any bribe”.
The army inquiry had recommended Ahluwalia’s dismissal from service, but the chief of army staff had found that no misconduct had been proven and, in his discretion, he had awarded Ahluwalia with “Severe Displeasure” instead.
Under the Army Act, an officer who is awarded with “Severe Displeasure” is disqualified from getting promotion for three years.
The defendants argued that the fact that Ahluwalia was held guilty and awarded the punishment of Severe Displeasure corroborated the involvement of Ahluwalia in the case. But the court dismissed this, by saying that this argument was “specious” and a “desperate attempt” by the defendants to cover their follies.
The defamation suit had also named Zee Telefilm Limited, its former chairman Subhash Chandra Goenka, and its former CEO Sandeep Goyal, as transcripts of the video tapes were released on Zee News.
However, the court said that neither the tapes nor the recording of the telecast had been produced before the court, hence, it cannot be determined if it contained any defamatory material. It held that the act of defamation against Zee and its executives was not proven.