Delhi High Court orders Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal to pay Rs. 2 crore compensation to a Major General in a defamation suit

delhi high court

Delhi High Court: A suit was filed by an army officer with a record of impeccable integrity for 36 years, challenging claims made in a media blitz launched that a bribe of Rs. 50,000/- was paid to the plaintiff by defendant 4. Neena Bansal Krishna, J., awarded damages in the sum of Rs. 2,00,00,000/- (Rupees Two Crores) to the plaintiff to be paid by defendants 1 to 4 for having caused defamation, along with the costs of the suit as the plaintiff not only faced a lowering of estimation in the eyes of public but his character also got maligned with serious allegations of corruption which no subsequent refutation can redress or heal. However, the Court dismissed the suit against defendants 5 to 7 as the plaintiff has not been able to prove any act of defamation on the part of defendants 5 to 7.

The plaintiff was working as Addl. Director General, Ordnance Services (Technical Stores) in Army Head Quarters and was responsible for overseeing the functioning of Central Depots for Technical Stores, ammunition and procurement of indigenous equipment primarily for ex-Directorate General Ordnance Factory and Public Sector Undertakings. The plaintiff has claimed that he was involved in the processing of cases for import of main equipment or the selection which is neither handled by the Additional Director General, Weapons and Equipment (ADG WE) nor has he got any specialized knowledge or any role in the introduction and import of new equipment.

Defendant 2, the proprietor of defendant 1 portal Tehelka.Com was responsible for managing the release of news items/ articles on the website of Tehelka.Com. A media blitz was launched on 13-03-2001 carrying a story about the alleged corruption in the defence deals relating to the import of new defence equipment. The story was done and recorded by two Reporters namely Defendants 3 and 4, allegedly working undercover by representing themselves on behalf of a fictitious defence equipment Firm based in London keen to introduce new defence equipment in the Indian Army. Defendant 7, which is a news and entertainment channel available through Cable TV networks, allegedly telecasted selective video pictures of the Army officers, other civilian officers working in the Ministry of Defence and politicians allegedly involved in corruption in defence deals relating to the import of defence equipment along with selective transcript showing that all the persons referred had taken money to do the work for the fictitious firm based in West End, London, which subsequently featured in various newspapers as well.

The conversations and the transcript of the conversations had been released selectively to highlight that the officers and politicians involved in the import of defence equipment and purchases were amenable to inducement, bribe, and corruption to help the so-called fictitious Firm to obtain the purchase orders and introduce them in the Indian Army. One of the interstitial transcripts recorded that a bribe of Rs. 50,000/- was paid to the plaintiff by defendant No.4 in the presence of Lt. Col. Sayal.

“Our next meeting with Gen Ahluwalia takes place 10-days later. Here he accepts a token bribe of Rs. 50,000/- which is never delivered to him.” And it was further stated: “Sayal goes near Ahluwalia and tried to hand Rs. 50,000/- which he accepts later.”

On the aspect whether the plaintiff has been defamed as a consequent of the actions of the defendants, the Court stated that the plaintiff has claimed defamation by two sets of defendants; namely, defendants 1 to 4 who had conducted the Operation West End and recorded the interview of the plaintiff and other Army Officers, and the other set of defendants is Defendant 5 to 7 to whom the Telecast rights were sold by defendant 1to 4, who telecasted them on their news channels.

The Court noted that from the admissions in the cross-examination, it is evident that there was neither any demand made by the plaintiff nor any money was paid despite which the transcript contains the comments to this effect from defendant 3 which are proved to be not authentic and genuine, but a figment of imagination/ impression of defendant 3. The plaintiff was a man holding the position of Major General in the Army and was a man of repute. There cannot be worse defamation and disrepute to a person of integrity and honour than a false imputation of him having demanded and then accepted bribe of Rs. 50,000. There was wide publicity of this transcript which was admittedly put on the website of, Defendant 1. and it continued to remain on their website

Thus, based on the evidence on record and the admissions made on behalf of defendants 1 to 4, establishes a case of defamation against the plaintiff, entitling him to damages.

On the aspect of the quantum of damages payable to the plaintiff, the Court observed that no action lies for mere vulgar abuse, or for words that have inflicted no substantial injury as espoused in the maxim, de minimnis non curat lex. Whenever words are per se defamatory and on an invasion of a right (as of reputation) on their face, no inquiry is allowed into the character of actual harm suffered and no further proof of damages is required. This class of defamation is actionable per se; i.e. they invade a simple or absolute right. On proof of publication of such words and in the absence of any defence, the plaintiff must recover at least nominal damages for the injury to his reputation caused by the defendant, whether such injury was malicious or accidental, although malice may be shown to entitle him to increased damages.

Considering that much time has passed and the plaintiff has already lived with ill fame for more than 23 years along with the enormity of the nature of defamation, an apology is not only inadequate but is meaningless. Thus, the Court awarded Rs. 1,00,00,000/- (one crore) as damages payable by the defendant 1 to 4, as the rights to the Tapes had been assigned to defendants 5 to 7 for Rs. 50 lakhs by defendants 1 to 4 in the year 2000.

[Major General MS Ahluwalia v., 2023 SCC OnLine Del 4275, decided on 21-07-2023]

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr. Chetan Anand and Mr. Akash Srivastava, Advocates for the Plaintiff;

Mr. Meet Malhotra, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Vivesh B. Saharya, Mr. Akshat Agarwal, Ms. Palak, advocates for D-1 to D-4 Mr. Jayant Mehta, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Petal Chandhok, Ms. Mimansi Sethi, Advocates for the D-5 to D-7.

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