Of Love And Libel

Once good friends, Maneka Gandhi and Khushwant Singh now prepare to slug it out in court
Of Love And Libel

MEMOIRS have always been a battleground of conflicting interpretation. Whether it was the very Gallic drama created by De Gaulle's controversial memoirs, or even the debates surrounding British royal 'peeping tomes', telling a 'true' story is often subject to definition. Manya Wodehousian escapade has centred on the inveterate memoir-writer Sir Galahad Threepwood where fellow members of the Drones Club have even risked death to stop the moving finger from writing. Maneka Gandhi's defamation suit against KhushwantSingh's autobiography is an example of a once close friendship further estranged because of the spilling, she would have us believe, of some defamatory beans.

Gandhi has secured an injunction against the book,which by high court order cannot be released until March next year, when the case will once again come up for hearing. Singh says he will contest the court order.

True or not, Singh has told of events that are not entirely unknown. In the extracts from the book, Truth, Love and a Little Malice published in India Today , Singh describes the relationship between Maneka and her mother-in-law as well as other members of the Gandhi family. Details are recounted from a period of his life when Singh was a close associate of the Gandhis and the Anands (Maneka's family), before he fell out of favour. The authoralso describes the dramatic events that led to the departure of Maneka from 1, Safdarjung Road. Although many may not agree with his version of the event, Singh says that by the time Maneka left her mother-in-law's house, relations between the two families had become very acrimonious.

When contacted, Singh said that he was quite taken aback to hear the news of the defamation suit and the stay order issued by the Delhi High Court. "Yes, I must say I am very surprised. I haven't been in touch with her for many years." However, Singh said he would rather not comment on the issue since it is sub-judice, but he says that intends to contest the court judgement.

The publisher of the autobiography, Ravi Dayal, was as surprised as Singh to hear of the suit. Says he: "We had earlier consulted a lawyer and he did not seem to think there would be any problem." Dayal is of the opinion that the autobiography is a literary work, and a very good book of which Maneka is only a small part. "It is a self-probing, self-revelatory book which contains somemoving chapters. Singh deals rather deftly with Partition in a short, very moving chapter. There are also chapters on the construction of Delhi and of his years in Parliament. It really is an enduring work."

At a time when Indian autobiographies are written in a rather smug manner about an endless list of promotions, awards and meetings with important figures, Dayal says Singh's book compares with Rousseau's confessional tone. "There are so many government servants who write autobiographies on the ills of the government. They appear entirely full of themselves, but this mightjust be one of India's great autobiographies."

The book charts Singh's evolution as a writer and reflects a life of great range. "It is a sustained piece of writing, not a collection of political scoops." Does sex play a large part, given Singh's inimitable style? "Well, there is some of that, but it is not salacious," Dayal says. The book, 425r pages long, the book took about eight to nine years to finish. "In fact, there was a great deal of effort put in to ensure that it was not just a quickie."

Dayal points out that Singh has a lot to say on Pakistan and indeed on a number of live political issues of the day. "Indira Gandhi crops up periodically but that’s about all. Instead, there is some philosophical writing, about Khushwant’s thoughts on God and the universe, about how he was not too good at his studies, how he came to write his novels, short stories and the books on history." The book is also, in vintage Singh-speak, rather severe on humbug. "But it is very nicely written. Good enough for some sections to be published in Civil Lines," a literary journal which Dayal publishes. Why does the octogenarian individualist at a time of life when his contemporaries lives may have fallen into the serenity of sanyas ashram, still attract controversy? "I suppose because he tends to speak his mind and sometimes is not too cautious in his writing," Dayal muses.

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When contacted, Maneka gandhi refused to comment on the issue. But Raj Panjwani, counsel for Maneka Gandhi, says defamation is now defined as any statement that lowers the esteem of the subject in the eyes of all right thinking people in society and causes pain and anguish to the subject. "After the Auto Shankar case, the court recognised the ‘right to privacy’ of every public figure." says Panj-wani. "The question really is, does the press have a right to probe the private life of a public figure? The court has said no, it does not."

However, there are three exceptions to the new right to privacy. A public figure can now be written about only if his actions fall within the domain of his public duties, if the facts are based on government records, such as an FIR, or examination certificates or birth and death certificates. Or if the public fig-ure volitionally thrusts his private life into the public domain. Lawyer Rajeev Dhawan says that Maneka has clearly taken recourse to the right to privacy clause, now recog-nised by courts as an "independent cause of action" after the Auto Shankar case, in order to file her defamation suit.

"Earlier," says Dhavan, "the right to privacy was contained in a bundle of rights, such as the right of copyright or the right not to tresspass. But now the right to privacy has been recognised as implicit in the right to life and liberty, and whether truthful or otherwise, private lives can only be reported on if they are brought into the public sphere by the person concerned." Otherwise, the consent of the subject is absolutely necessary before publication. So the new right to privacy, or the right to be let alone, could put paid to gossip magazines or indeed any press report that uses hearsay to make allegations against a public figures.

 The case against Khushwant Singh’s autobiography could be a milestone in defining the limits of a ‘true’ story. The dilemma is, where should the line be drawn between the public’s right to information and the privacy of a well-known person? 

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