A callow prime minister, a global
superstar, shadowy international arms dealers, crafty middlemen
and nosy journalists were the dramatis personae of a real life
political thriller that played out in New Delhi, Stockholm, London
and New York over a quarter century ago.
Of all the names crowding India's biggest and most notorious arms
purchase scandal at that time, the most incongruous ones were
those of actor Amitabh Bachchan and his younger brother Ajitabh.
Through a series of complicated innuendoes and stage whispers it
was let known to obliging journalists that the Bachchans,
particularly Ajitabh, were among the recipients of the Rs.640
million (about $53 million at the mid-1980s exchange rate of Rs.
12 to a dollar) Bofors gun bribery payoff. The actor himself,
stung stiff by the sheer absurdity of the campaign against him and
his brother, reacted with ferocious contempt and went to
remarkable lengths to clear his and his family's name.
On Jan 31, 1990, the Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish daily newspaper,
reported that Swiss authorities had frozen an account belonging to
Ajitabh Bachchan into which Bofors commissions were transferred
from a coded account. That story was vigorously denied and
challenged by the Bachchans, eventually compelling the paper to
retract, apologise and settle saying they had been misled by
Indian government sources.
With former police chief of Sweden, Sten Lindstrom, asserting in
an interview with the media watchdog website The Hoot that the
Bachchans' names were "planted" by Indian investigators, a can of
worms has been reopened on how the actor and his family were
victimised in a vicious political game. Despite Lindstrom's
revelations, India is none the wiser about the real motivations
behind dragging the actor's name into it. At the time the most
educated guess, which endures until today, was that prime minister
Rajiv Gandhi was being attacked politically via the soft target of
The Bachchans' efforts to clear their name included a libel
lawsuit against the former avatar of this wire service, India
Abroad News Service, and its New York-based parent India Abroad
The suit by the Bachchans was filed and won in a British high
court, enforcing its award on the New York-based India Abroad
Publications and its owner, the late Gopal Raju. It became one of
America's most cited cases of the freedom of speech and the press
under the First Amendment of the US constitution, widely written
about and supported in the Supreme Court of New York by mainstream
American media as amici curiae that included the New York Times,
Associated Press, Time Warner, CBS, Association of American
Publishers, Reader's Digest, etc.
The cause of the libel suit against the publication and the wire
service was the fact that the latter picked up and distributed the
story originally appearing in the Dagens Nyheter, claiming that
the Bachchans were the custodians of some of the bribe money.
Although the Swedish newspaper settled the claim, India Abroad
chose not to settle. It did report the Dagens Nyheter apology and
However, Raju, a gutsy Indian American publisher, decided to fight
the case on the basic contention that publications and wire
services do routinely pick up and transmit news stories in good
faith and cannot, by the virtue of just that action, be held
liable on the ground of malice.
While the British court granted the Bachchans a victory in the
libel suit and awarded them 40,000 pounds in damages, Raju cited
the newspaper company's New York location to invoke the First
Amendment protection against the enforcement of a British judgment
on an America publication. A New York court ruled in favour of
Raju and in the process set up a frequently cited legal precedent
At the heart of the Bachchans versus India Abroad Publications
case was the difference in the way libel is legally viewed and
enforced in Britain, where the burden of proof is on those seen to
be causing it, and America, where the burden of proof is on the
party claiming to be aggrieved.
India Abroad's victory in New York was not so much about the
Bachchans' inability to collect the damages as about the principle
of the freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment in
America and how its interpretation varies fundamentally from
Britain. It is regarded as a landmark judgment.
There was a perception in America's legal community at the time of
the lawsuit being an instance of "libel tourism" where those with
means file libel lawsuits in countries where the libel laws are
weighed against the media. Equally, there were those who thought
that the Bachchans were justified in making an example of India
Abroad and the wire service, IANS.
This writer, who interviewed Bachchan in the aftermath of the
controversy, was witness to his profound chagrin at having been
dragged into the sordid affair simply because he and Rajiv Gandhi
were childhood friends and their families had longstanding ties.
While the Bachchans have emerged unscathed, albeit after such a
long time, for Gandhi's family Lindstrom's comments are equivocal.
"There was no evidence that he (Gandhi) had received any bribe.
But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did
nothing," he has been quoted as saying.
Of course, Lindstrom's disclosures are not seen as particularly
remarkable because a lot of what he says has been claimed in some
form or the other over the years, including that Gandhi himself
did not benefit. For the Bachchans, its importance comes from the
fact that for the first time there is an authoritative face other
than their own behind the assertion of their innocence. It may
have been too long in coming but it does offer them a
Mayank Chhaya is US-based journalist, writer and
commentator. He has worked with IANS. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org