Why Shekhar Gupta is right to be angry, but wrong to sue

My friend Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of Indian Express wants Rs 100 crore from another editor-in-chief, Outlook's Vinod Mehta.

Gupta claims he was defamed by Mehta, who said in an interview to Open magazine that an Express report published earlier this year was "the mother of all mistakes" and specifically written to damage India's army chief VK Singh. This is the background to Vinod Mehta's comments.

The report carried Gupta's own byline, which was unusual. It claimed the Indian government was "spooked" when it learnt on 16 January that certain army units were moving towards Delhi on the same night as the Supreme Court was hearing a petition by the army chief on his age.

The government had no prior information of this troop movement and was alarmed enough to take defensive measures.

One measure deployed was to get the police to slow down traffic entering the city, delaying the army trucks till the government could get a grip on what was going on (note to Pakistani PMs: Here's your solution to 111 Brigade). The defence secretary ran home from a visit to Malaysia, and ordered the army units to return, which they did. End of episode. The army chief, who is not reticent, called the report "absolutely stupid". Parliament took up the report and dismissed it.

Shekhar Gupta went hoarse shouting that he had reported the government's sense of alarm rather than speculate on the possibility of a coup.

But this was brushed off and the Indian Express was attacked as being irresponsible. I don't think that charge is true, and I rate the Express under Gupta as one of India's three best newspapers.

While Gupta's report was taken apart, another story a few months ago went unnoticed. It was by India's best writer on defence, Ajai Shukla of Business Standard, and I was struck by one particular line he had slipped in. His piece ('All the chief's men') was published on 14 January, only two days before the troop movement. Shukla's report was a long and complicated one on reservations in the army.

 Why Shekhar Gupta is right to be angry, but wrong to sue

The Indian Express story that Mehta called 'the mother of all mistakes.' Screengrab

It contained information that was not later denied so far as I know by the army.

Shukla, who has himself served in the army, wrote that Gen VK Singh has posted officers from his Rajput regiment "to practically every crucial appointment: the deputy chief of army staff, the director general of military operations, the adjutant general, the military secretary who posts and promotes officers, and the additional director general of administration and coordination."

And then this tantalising line, which made me sit up: "In addition, Rajput officers were placed at the head of key formations around Delhi: the Delhi Area which controls military installations around the capital, and the Meerut-based 22 Infantry Division."

The bureaucrats in the defence ministry will obviously have known all this and discussed it with the politicians. Given this background, is it easy to dismiss the idea that the government would be "spooked" by the troop movement? I don't accept that it can. It must be greatly frustrating for Shekhar Gupta to not be able to get people to see that.

What puzzles me is why he is also suing the magazine which carried Vinod Mehta's interview. There a reporter and editor did their job fairly and accurately. The reporter Hartosh Singh Bal doesn't egg Mehta on, he is balanced and questions whether it's fair to say what he does.

Also, quite funnily, Gupta sent his legal notice in the same week his newspaper lectured parliamentarians on being more tolerant about what was written and drawn about them.

I think Gupta was hurt by the collective accusation against him and his paper and reacted angrily to Mehta's comments, which I accept were unfair and extreme.

I hope Gupta takes no further action on the notice and does what he excels at: editing India's only reporter-run newspaper.

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Updated Date: May 20, 2012 12:37:44 IST