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Mainstream, VOL LV No 38 New Delhi September 9, 2017

Why are People being Denied the Right to Read a Well-Researched Book on Baba Ramdev?

Saturday 9 September 2017, by Bharat Dogra

Baba Ramdev is one of the most well-known and colourful personalities of contemporary India—a celebrity of a different kind—and so when word spread that a well-researched book about him had just been released, many people were looking forward to reading this book. Just then, however, a district court’s injunction deprived them of their right to buy and read this book. This has raised serious questions about the freedom of expression as well as the right to information.

The reference here of course is to the book titled, Godman to Tycoon—The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, written by Priyanka Pathak-Narain. This 237-page book has been published by Juggernaut Books.

The court’s injunction restraining the sale and distribution of this book has already attracted adverse opinion from various sources. Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer writing in The Hindu (article titled ‘The Architecture of Censorship’ published on August 17), commented: “The most noteworthy thing about the Karkardooma civil judge’s injunction to Godman to Tycoon is that it was granted without hearing the writer or the publisher.”

What is the normal legal practice in such matters? Answering this question Gautam Bhatia writes: “Under English common law—which is the basis of the Indian law of defamation—it is recognised that injunctions, which effectively amount to a judicial ban on books, have a serious impact upon the freedom of speech, and are almost never to be granted.” There may be one exception, the lawyer-writer adds: “The only situation in which a court ought to grant an injunction is if, after hearing both sides in a preliminary inquiry, it is virtually clear that there could be no possible defence advanced by the author or publisher.”

 In the present case, however, the author and publisher were just not heard before an injunction was given. So it is good to hear the spirited response of the publishers: “We stand by our book, will defend the case and will move the court to vacate the injunction.”

Meanwhile the book continues to get favourable comments and reviews. In one recent review titled ‘A Yogi and a Businessman’, Manjula Narayan has written in the Hindustan Times (August 19): “A quick read, this newest book on Ramdev has so enraged the yoga guru that he has got a Delhi court to issue an injunction restraining its sale. Unsurprisingly, anonymous champions of free speech have uploaded the book online, where it can be read for free. For the average reader, all this has only made the book more attractive.”

In the middle of all this controversy, some important aspects of this book have been less noticed. One such aspect is that on some issues the writer Priyanka Pathak-Narain has given a lot of credit to Baba Ramdev. For example, on page 12 she writes: “Baba Ramdev kindled the resurgence of yoga in the country at the turn of the millennium when he would appear on television every morning to teach yoga in his homely and practical way.” Again on page 202 the author writes: “Ramdev took yoga and Ayurveda out of the restrictive realm of religion and made it an accessible practice of preventive health care for millions of Indians.” This is very far away from defamation, isn’t it? Considering that even these aspects have been questioned by some other learned persons, the author can even be said to have been generous to the Baba in some respects!

Even when the author raises some very disturbing questions and issues, most of those readers who have closely followed the life and career of the Baba will acknowledge that almost all these controversial and disturbing issues have already been discussed in great detail and even more serious allegations have been made by several persons from time to time. The style which the author has chosen while discussing these issues and events is that she mostly quotes people who were closely involved with these issues and events. She also quotes journalists who were covering this for news-papers at that time and were present in press conferences or in investigating the events at that time. She also quotes from material already published, including the material written by writers who have the approval of the Baba. In this way the story unfolds for the reader to judge, without the author of the book herself saying anything defamatory.

This is by and large true of the coverage of most of the big controversies in the book—the controversy relating to one murder and another suspected murder, the controversy relating to the disappearance of the Baba’s guru, the controversy about some very violent incidents, the controversy about the ingredients of various products or their quality control and the reality of claims about very high quality, the controversy about exploitation of workers, violation of labor and other laws etc. What the author has done is to make available the versions of various close observers and this is very useful for understanding these various controversies in a better way.

Last but not the least, this is a good read for students of investigative journalism from a professional perspective.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with various social movements and initiatives.

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