Police raids. Defamation cases. Expulsions from Parliament. Arrest warrants. Police actions based on undisclosed complaints. Hostile takeovers of media companies. These are just some of the means by which critics of the Adani Group are persecuted in India. The aim appears to be to silence criticism of the Adani Group’s sprawling corporate empire with its businesses in coal, power stations, ports, airports, media, palm oil, green energy, real estate and defence industries. Collectively, these actions have contributed to India slumping to a dismal 161st in the World Press Freedom Index.
Two independent journalists in India have recently become targets of the police and courts in a telling example of the dangers faced in India by journalists who question the dealings of the Adani Group.
Ravi Nair and Anand Mangnale are the authors of an explosive report published in August 2023 by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Their story details how offshore companies linked to the Adani family possibly inflated share prices of listed Adani companies between 2013 and 2018, in an apparent violation of India’s stock-market rules. The story also unearthed documents that showed that the Modi government ignored the matter even after it was brought to its attention by India’s markets regulator.
While the OCCRP’s fresh evidence should have spurred an official probe into Adani companies, instead Nair and Mangnale are now being investigated by state police in Gujarat. (Some of the key documents associated with their story have been published by AdaniWatch)
In October, the duo received summons to appear before the Gujarat Police’s crime branch in Ahmedabad. The summons said the police had received a complaint from an Adani Group investor, who claimed that the OCCRP story’s ‘false’ and ‘malicious allegations’ caused a fall in the stock price and hence a loss to the investor, reported The Leaflet. The police said that even though no official case had been filed against the journalists, they would still be required to travel 950 kilometres from their homes in New Delhi to answer a ‘preliminary enquiry’. (In most civilized countries, a complaint like this would be dealt with in the civil courts; it would not be a matter for police.)
On 3 November 2023, in some short-term relief for Nair and Mangnale, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state police in the Adani Group’s home state of Gujarat not to take 'coercive steps’ against them.
Two India-based journalists for the Financial Times, which published the OCCRP findings, also received notices from the crime branch in Ahmedabad. On 9 November, the Supreme Court also granted them interim protection from ‘coercive action’. The court is expected to hear the cases in January 2024. The journalists’ ordeal is far from over; on 29 November, the crime branch sent a second set of notices to the four journalists, even as the Gujarat government has not filed its response to the journalists’ petition (on 13 December, the court granted an additional three weeks for this; the case is continuing in January 2024).
These police actions come as yet another reminder of the heightened perils of reporting on the Adani Group in India. The dangers coincide with the country’s declining record on democratic rights and free speech under the tenure of Prime Minister Modi. Since 2014, India has slipped 21 places on the World Press Freedom Index to a 2023 score of 161, which ranks it worse than, say, Russia (155) and Afghanistan (156).
On the one hand, the Adani Group is buying out prominent media outlets, including NDTV and BQPrime, formerly Bloomberg Quint. Reporters Sans Frontiers, which creates the Index, named Adani and said its takeover of NDTV ‘signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media’.
On the other hand, those who criticise Adani increasingly find themselves surveilled, raided, jailed or criminally charged on a variety of grounds ranging from defamation to terrorism. These include not just journalists but also lawyers and senior members of the Indian parliament such as Mohua Moitra and Rahul Gandhi. Environmental non-profits that have raised concerns about Adani’s activities have found their access to foreign funds cut off.
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Although the Adani Group has long been known to target critics with police complaints and libel cases, the attacks seem to have increased in number and intensity in recent years, leading to a chilling effect on scrutiny of the group even as its operations expand.
Indeed, the action against the OCCRP reporters comes close on the heels of police action against senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a long-time critic of the Adani Group and a contributor to AdaniWatch. Early in the morning on 3 October 2023, Guha Thakurta was whisked away from his home by the Delhi Police’s special branch, which investigates cases related to terrorism, narcotics and organised crime. Guha Thakurta’s incisive stories on Adani companies date back to at least 2015, and he has been on the receiving end of several criminal and civil litigations by the Group. But this was the first time he was detained by police. Among many questions the police asked that day in nearly 12 hours included his associations with AdaniWatch. (Read his account of the questioning here).
The police raids were part of an unprecedented action against dozens of journalists and contributors associated with NewsClick, a left-leaning Indian news website. Now, the portal’s 74-year-old editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, has been jailed under India’s anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, under which the accused cannot seek bail. NewsClick has published some of the most extensive investigative reportage on the Adani Group among Indian news outlets (many authored by Guha Thakurta), including stories on Adani’s businesses in coal mining, airports, power projects and real estate. Since 2020, NewsClick has been subject to an unprecedented gag order from a court in Gujarat arising from a case filed by an Adani company against a story looking at the orders of a Supreme Court judge that were allegedly favourable to the group.
Guha Thakurta and Abir Dasgupta, the other author of the story, are subject to the same gag order. In 2022, they lost an appeal against the gag in the Gujarat state high court. Although the court directed the civil court to expedite the hearings and conclude the suit within six months, the case remains pending, Dasgupta informed AdaniWatch. The journalists also face a criminal case filed in 2020 in Rajasthan over a different story in NewsClick, which investigated how an Adani power plant in the state was overcharging electricity consumers. Guha Thakurta was also the subject of an arrest warrant issued against him in January 2021 for a story dating back to 2017, causing an international outcry. Guha Thakurta and Dasgupta face a combination of civil and criminal cases filed in 2017 and 2020 over stories they wrote critical of the group.
Ravi Nair, who is answering the crime branch enquiry over his OCCRP report, faces a criminal defamation case filed in 2021 in Gujarat. The case is based on a complaint against his posts on Twitter (now X) and also mentions his contributions to AdaniWatch. In 2022, the court issued an arrest warrant for Nair, a move criticised internationally. The Committee to Protect Journalists called it ‘a part of the conglomerate’s tactic of initiating strategic litigation against journalists’.
‘It is a strategy to tire us out,’ says one independent journalist, who is the target of litigation by the Adani Group, and did not wish to be named. ‘I end up spending a lot of time with lawyers discussing legal strategy and keeping track of the cases. This adds to the workload of the actual reporting and writing which is itself quite taxing.’
It is not just independent journalists and news outlets that are facing action. In 2021, two of India’s biggest business news publications also received criminal complaints from Adani companies.
In August 2021, the Adani Group filed a complaint against The Economic Times, India’s most-read business newspaper, over a report that India’s stock-market regulator had frozen the accounts of three offshore companies with investments in Adani companies over suspicions that these were owned by Adani family associates. The complaint named the editor-in-chief of the publication.
In September 2021, senior TV business journalist Latha Venkatesh and a colleague faced a similar criminal defamation case from the Adani Group over reports aired by their TV channel, CNBC TV-18, the most-watched business-news station in India. The report was on the same regulatory action referred to above. The case was filed in an obscure court in Gujarat and required the then 62-year-old Venkatesh to travel over 550 km from Mumbai during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October 2021, the Ahmedabad crime branch summoned journalists from a TV news station to answer complaints by three investors, according to a report by the news agency IANS. The report does not identify the media houses or investors. It cites the crime branch inspector saying that no formal complaint had been filed.
‘We are looking into the application and investigating whether a conspiracy was hatched by the TV media outlets with clear intentions and other concerns related to it. If the ACB [Ahmedabad Crime Branch] finds any merit to the claims made in the application, then we'll be filing a formal complaint against the media outlets,’ the inspector is quoted as saying.
Free-speech advocates in India have long sought the repeal of criminal-defamation provisions; a conviction can result in a prison sentence up to two years and a fine, or both. Accused persons can be arrested and hence need to apply for bail. Critics say it is an excessive restriction of free speech since civil suits demanding damages for defamation can also be filed.
The Adani Group, for its part, often files both criminal and civil defamation suits against journalists. Since criminal and civil cases are heard in separate courts and follow distinct procedures and case law, this means journalists need to keep track of, and pay lawyers for, two cases for the same story.
The result is a chilling effect on media coverage critical of the Adani Group, not just among the large mainstream media houses. Even independent publications, which a few years ago published scathing reports on the Group, have significantly reduced critical coverage of the company.
‘Publications are getting circumspect about stories that investigate Adani group in any way. It’s for good reason — many have been brave and then started facing lawsuits,’ says Abir Dasgupta, who as a freelance journalist is in touch with several publications to pitch his work. ‘As a freelancer dealing with independent media for a number of years, I can say that it is a trend.
‘Independent media are wary of reports that investigate or allege wrongdoing by the Adani Group. When they do publish, stories are put through extraordinary levels of legal check and fact-checking.
‘While this is not undesirable, stories tend to be watered down in such processes. I speak from experience that comparable stories on other subjects or companies don’t go through the same checks and don’t get watered down.’
Silencing of other critics
It’s not just journalists; senior politicians and prominent non-profit organisations that have been critical of the Adani Group have also found themselves under attack.
Rahul Gandhi, perhaps the most prominent opposition leader in India, was disqualified from parliament in March 2023 after he was convicted of criminally defaming Prime Minister Modi. The case was from a 2019 campaign speech that blamed Modi for how two businessmen accused of financial crimes, and who coincidentally share the same surname, fled the country. Gandhi was disqualified from parliament just one day after his conviction, even while his appeal against the conviction was pending. The disqualification occurred under a law that bars those convicted of a ‘crime’ (in this case, defamation) from holding elected positions.
The swift action came at a curious time. One month before his disqualification, on 7 February 2023, Gandhi delivered an unprecedented criticism of Adani Group in the Indian parliament, asking among other subjects how the Group won several airport and defence contracts, and how Gautam Adani climbed from being the 609th richest person in the world in 2014 to the third richest in 2022. He held up a well-known photograph of Gautam Adani and Narendra Modi travelling together in a private jet. Gandhi’s parliament membership was reinstated in August after India’s Supreme Court stayed his conviction.
Also facing the heat is Mahua Moitra, a member of parliament and former investment banker who has raised several questions in parliament and outside (notably on X, formerly Twitter) about allegations of financial irregularity by Adani companies. She has also criticised Indian financial regulators for allegedly being lax in investigating the Group. On 8 December 2023, the parliament, in which Modi’s BJP holds a controlling majority, voted to expel Moitra in a case involving her questions on the Adani group. An ethics committee, consisting mostly of BJP members, had found her guilty of violating parliamentary rules by allowing a prominent real-estate tycoon (whose firm competes with Adani’s real-estate arm in Mumbai) to use her parliament login credentials to pose written questions.
In a statement expressing solidarity with Moitra, over 100 citizens – many of them retired senior government officers and academics – said that her parliamentary questions had ‘brought to light many issues of importance that the people of this country would never have been privy to. Her threatened exit from the Parliament will certainly create a void in the continuing discourse on such issues.’
Moitra’s appeal against her expulsion, which she has challenged as being against parliamentary rules, is pending before the Supreme Court.
Other than opposition politicians, at least four non-profit organisations critical of the Adani Group’s activities have faced action from the Modi government.
In October 2023, the government cancelled tax exemptions of Oxfam India and Environics Trust, saying in written notices that their opposition to certain Adani Group activities were not as per the stated organisational objectives, according to a report in Newslaundry. Oxfam India, which is a member of the global Oxfam organisation, was told it was ‘involved in the activity of submission to UN Global Impact to delist Adani Ports’, which was claimed not to be one of the formal objects of Oxfam. Environics, an Indian organisation working on the environmental impact of mining, was told its exemption was revoked for ‘protesting against … Adani coal projects in Odisha’. In 2022, the organisation was also accused by the government of using foreign funds to ‘strengthen the anti-Adani movement’ in the Hasdeo forests, where the Group is engaged in its largest operational mines in India, as reported by the Washington Post. (In late December 2023, the founder of Environics, R. Sreedar, died suddenly)
The Center for Policy Research, perhaps the most well-regarded research organisation of its kind in the country, received notices from the government’s income-tax department in December 2022. The notice mentioned its ‘involvement in Hasdeo protests’, a reference to widespread opposition to the Adani Group’s coal projects in the Hasdeo forests of central India. In March 2023, the government suspended CPR’s licence to receive foreign contributions, cutting off a crucial source of funding.
The fourth major non-profit organisation affected is the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, which is the 2021 winner of the Right Livelihood Award, and among the few organisations tracking environmental regulation in India. LIFE’s co-founder Ritwick Dutta is a prominent lawyer who has taken up several landmark environmental cases in India’s national green tribunal and Supreme Court, including cases on behalf of people affected by Adani’s Hasdeo coal mines. In 2022, the government accused Dutta and LIFE of hurting the ‘activities of Adani’. In March 2023, the government suspended the foreign funding licence of LIFE. In April 2023, India’s central bureau of investigation filed a case against Dutta and LIFE. Citing an email in which Dutta mentions Adani’s Carmichael mine in Australia, it accuses them of targeting ‘Indian entities undertaking project outside India’. The CBI’s complaint accuses Dutta of ‘agitating farmers’ against an Adani project in Gujarat, while admitting he was only the lawyer for a local farmers organisation opposing the project.
These actions have nearly ended the important work of these organisations in holding a powerful corporate conglomerate to account. Dutta withdrew from a case representing the Hasdeo farmers, while LIFE has laid off six of eight employees, according to the Washington Post report. CPR has let go of nearly 75% of its staff and cut salaries of the rest, according to Newslaundry.
Meanwhile, the Adani Group continues to tighten its grip on public discourse by buying out prominent media outlets.
In 2023, it completed its hostile acquisition of NDTV (formerly New Delhi Television), one of the largest TV and digital media companies in India. As other major media outlets stopped criticising Prime Minister Modi’s government, NDTV had remained an exception. So much so, that ministers and spokespeople from Modi’s BJP had stopped giving interviews to the channel.
Now, under the Adani Group’s ownership, things have changed. The channel has increased favourable coverage of the prime minister, including a nine-part documentary on his government that appeared like an advertisement, reported media watchdog website Newslaundry. In September 2023, a senior journalist at the channel resigned, saying the channel’s management had asked him to disrupt a press conference by opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in Mumbai. Gandhi had called the press conference to discuss the OCCRP’s story on the Adani Group. Newslaundry has reported, quoting unnamed sources, that instructions to ‘create a ruckus’ and ‘change the narrative’ at the press conference were delivered by the channel’s editor-in-chief Sanjay Pugalia, who also heads the Adani Group’s media business. Meanwhile, the price of NDTV shares listed on the India’s stock exchanges has nearly halved since December 2022 when the takeover was first announced.
In November 2023, the group also completed its acquisition of the business news website BQPrime, which is subsequently renamed NDTV Profit (after a defunct business TV channel of NDTV). Formerly known as Bloomberg Quint, the website was co-founded in 2016 by the New York-headquartered Bloomberg along with Indian news company The Quint. The publication was expected to launch a TV business channel, but it did not receive the necessary licence from the Modi government. In 2020, the publication officially called off its plans to launch a channel, writing off INR 200 crore (roughly US $26 million at the time) and possibly laying off 100 staff. In March 2022, the Adani Group announced its intention to acquire a 49% stake in the company; the Quint announced the end of its joint venture with Bloomberg on the same day.
Since its acquisition by the Adani Group, some of BQPrime’s stories, such as ‘A Shy Gautam Adani Opens Up On Life And Business’ and ‘Gautam Adani Has Many Feathers To His Cap, But Regrets One Thing’, openly praise Gautam Adani without any critique. In December, the publication said it will now start broadcasting on television using NDTV Profit’s old licence.
Police actions devoid of accountability
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the case of the OCCRP and FT reports would provide useful insights into whether crime-branch notices can be sent to journalists for reports published by them. The crime branch, a special police unit of each district tasked with investigating serious crimes, has featured in many Adani-related cases. All follow a similar pattern: a complainant ostensibly unrelated to the Adani Group approaches the branch with a complaint. The branch launches an investigation without filing a formal complaint. One case, as we saw earlier, related to an October 2021 summons to a TV news station based on complaints by three investors. This is similar to the investor complaint that has led to summons being issued to the OCCRP and FT journalists. Nair and Mangnale asked for a copy of the complaint and the first information report (FIR) – an official registration of complaint in India’s criminal law. The police force responded that it had not yet filed the FIR. It also did not disclose the complaint on the basis of which it had issued the summons, saying a copy would be provided when they appeared in person. The branch said it was only conducting a 'preliminary inquiry’.
In 2017, a team of journalists from Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘4 Corners’ program found themselves being questioned by the crime branch for Bhuj district, in whose jurisdiction lies the coastal town of Mundra, where Adani operates its flagship port, special economic zone, and manufacturing facilities for edible oil and solar panels. The crime-branch team drove two hours to Mundra and questioned the ‘4 Corners’ team on and off for five hours. When the journalists asked for a copy of the complaint, the officers said there was none, since they were conducting a ‘preliminary enquiry’ based on a complaint received by phone at the crime-branch office. They did not identify the caller. Despite the off-record nature of the ‘enquiry’, officers compelled the journalists to reveal video footage and delete it – effectively without any formal police case or paperwork.
Nair and Mangnale have argued in the Supreme Court that since no FIR was registered, the summons by the Gujarat police against them is illegal and ‘lacks authority’ under India’s criminal-procedure law. A decision would certainly help journalists in the future, although it would be a small relief in an otherwise worsening situation for critical public discourse pertaining to the Adani Group.