Senior NDTV journalist Sreenivasan Jain and his brother Gopal Jain have sent a legal notice to Rajeev Mantri over a tweet by him in which he called their father, the late diplomat LC Jain, a “certifiable traitor”. The notice alleges that Mantri (an investor who writes actively) committed defamation and therefore asks that Mantri delete the tweets and apologise.
On 30 December 2017, Mantri commented on the decision of the Palestinian Authority to recall its ambassador to Pakistan for sharing a stage with Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind behind the 26/11 attacks. Mantri noted that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had also recalled an Indian ambassador in the aftermath of the Pokhran nuclear tests, after the ambassador had disgraced himself. Mantri also used the tweet to take a swipe at Sreenivasan Jain, who, he claimed, “propagandizes at a TV channel for the “secular” forces.”
Mantri went on to post an extract from an article in the Telegraph by KP Nayar in which Nayar mentioned that National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra’s mission to South Africa after the Pokhran tests was made more difficult by the fact that he didn’t know where LC Jain, then High Commissioner to South Africa, stood. Nayar noted in his piece that Jain, a Gandhian, was opposed to the nuclear tests.
On this basis, Mantri wrote that Jain was supporting South Africa’s plan to oppose India at the next NAM summit, and branded him a “certifiable traitor”.
Why Has the Case Been Filed?
After receiving the defamation notice, Mantri took to Twitter to argue that he had sourced his facts accurately, and that what he had said was based on the article by Nayar which was a part of public record. He therefore expressed shock that he was being threatened with legal consequences for “expressing an opinion”.
Speaking to The Quint, Sreenivasan Jain countered this narrative, saying that the reason he and his brother have sent the notice are the specific words used by Mantri:
It’s that particular language that we had a problem with. If he was simply just tweeting articles about my father’s role in the Indian position on the nuclear tests at that time, if he’d expressed his difference of opinion in a different way, that would be okay. But when you call someone, particularly when they’re not alive, a “certifiable traitor” and don’t have a shred of proof to back it up, then that’s certainly something which you can’t let pass.
Jain is conscious that filing a defamation case seems a strange move for a journalist who champions free speech, but the use of a term which indicates it is provable/proven that their father was a traitor, was unacceptable. Also key to their decision to send the notice was also Mantri’s profile:
We looked at this guy – if he’d been some sort of garden-variety troll we may not have chosen to act. He claims to be working for a big VC firm, he has a lot of followers, including the Prime Minister. He’s somebody who’s not just an ordinary Twitter user, those comments have got retweeted and all kinds of others have jumped in.
Jain also notes that they decided to send the notice several months after the tweets were shared recently by certain public figures and mediapersons, including R Jagannathan, Editorial Director of Swarajya.
Mantri for his part has stuck to his guns, and is taking legal advice.
The notice has been sent alleging criminal defamation under the IPC. According to Section 499 of the IPC, a person commits criminal defamation if they publish any imputation about another person, knowing that this will harm or is likely to harm their reputation.
Mantri has defended his statements on the basis of truth – which is a defence to a claim of criminal defamation as long as there is some public good to be achieved from making such a statement. However, since the KP Nayar article he relies on for this makes no mention of the term traitor (certifiable or otherwise), it is unclear how his statement that LC Jain was a “certifiable traitor” is covered by this defence.
There is also an exception under the law for expressing opinions in good faith about the conduct of a public servant in the discharge of his public functions, or the conduct of any person touching a public question. Mantri could seek to defend his statements on this basis as well since they relate to a former High Commissioner and India’s nuclear programme.
The legal question which would determine the case would then be whether usage of the specific phrase “certifiable traitor” amounts to an opinion, or an assertion of fact.
Defamation or Censorship?
Predictably, the public response to this situation has been divided. Several public figures, including lawyers and journalists, have supported the Jains’ position.
Mantri was defended by some who argued that the notice ran contrary to the right to freedom of speech.
Other right wing public figures ignored the legalities and used this as an opportunity to start trending a hashtag saying Sreenivasan Jain’s father is a traitor.
Do Mantri’s tweets amount to defamation?
On the basis of the law under Section 499 of the IPC, the Jains appear to have a prima facie case, since an imputation of treachery can always be said to damage one’s reputation, and the fact that Mantri used the word “certifiable” indicates official recognition of the claim, or some sort of legal basis which goes beyond opinion.
Since no charges were ever brought against LC Jain, let alone any conviction obtained, there is little to defend such a bald assertion. Mantri’s tweets go further than what the Nayar article (which was uncontested by LC Jain and his family at the time) says, by not only saying that LC Jain was a traitor, but also that he supported South Africa’s opposition to India. Unless Mantri has any additional proof of his claim, it would be difficult to establish that his claims are either true or opinions in good faith.
Senior advocate Siddarth Luthra, an expert on criminal law, believes that the Jains in fact have a strong case, telling The Quint:
It is unfortunate that the reputation of an honourable man is sought to be sullied. The family of the deceased Mr Jain who are eminent professionals are well advised to take action for defamation, civil or criminal. The comments being made, apart from being defamatory are also in poor taste.
Can a deceased person be defamed?
Another possible legal argument that could potentially be raised against such a defamation suit is that the person defamed – LC Jain – is not alive. However, Explanation 1 to Section 499 expressly says that a statement about a deceased person can amount to defamation if:
- the imputation would have harmed the reputation of the person if they were still alive; AND
- it is intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives.
The latter condition also appears to be fulfilled in this case, according to Luthra. In addition, Mantri names Sreenivasan Jain in two of the tweets, referencing his work at NDTV as ‘propaganda’ after saying his father disgraced himself – which would help substantiate a claim of hurt to the family.
Was LC Jain Actually Opposed to India’s Nuclear Programme?
It is true that LC Jain, who had been appointed by the IK Gujral government, was in fact recalled by the PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1998. National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra was reportedly of the opinion that Jain had not effectively defended India’s decision to conduct the Pokhran II tests, with reporters like KP Nayar arguing that Jain was against the idea and had communicated this to the South African government.
Jain’s memoirs, however, tell a different story. According to him, he had not expressed any opposition to the tests to the South Africans, and this perception arose mistakenly after an appearance by him on South African TV network just after the news broke.
After the Pakistani High Commissioner claimed the tests were a major threat to Pakistan, Jain was asked how he, as a Gandhian (he had fought in the freedom struggle and had espoused Gandhian ideals during his subsequent work as well, winning the Magsaysay Award in 1989), reacted to the tests.
Jain replied that Gandhian or not, “nobody in the world can be comfortable with a nuclear device.” According to him, it was this statement that earned the ire of Mishra, who felt he shouldn’t have said this and so asked for him to be recalled. This took place even though Jain went on to argue in the same interview why it was necessary for India to have nuclear weapons – to give Indian citizens confidence that the government could keep them safe.
LC Jain, Civil Disobedience: Two Freedom Struggles, One Life (2010)
LC Jain, Civil Disobedience: Two Freedom Struggles, One Life (2010)
Jain also claimed that contrary to the view that he had worked against India’s interests over the nuclear tests, he had actually received a letter from Lalit Mansingh, one of the Secretaries in the Foreign Ministry, which said that the Ministry had seen the responses of all the Indian Missions abroad and that the South African Mission’s “performance had been adjudged as excellent.”
However, with the recall process initiated, Jain asked the Ministry of External Affairs to fix his date of departure after the NAM summit in Durban.