Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the journalist who found prominent mention in the Hindenburg Research report that triggered turmoil in the share prices of the Adani Group and cast international glare on Indian probity in corporate governance, breaks his silence two-and-a-half years after a court in Ahmedabad issued a gag order asking him not to speak or write anything that may go against the interests of the Adani Group.
Guha Thakurta said he was not willing to hazard a guess on the future of the Adani conglomerate. He said his response to the questions posed by The Telegraph only stated facts.
“I do not want to commit contempt of court. I have only given you facts,” Guha Thakurta told this newspaper on Sunday. Excerpts from the conversation follow:
Q: What piqued your interest in the Adani conglomerate?
Guha Thakurta: I started writing about the Adani Group because I write about the corporate sector, the economy — my area of interest as a journalist is political economy…. I have been a journalist for 45 years and I am now 67 years old.
The rise of the Adani Group has been truly spectacular. Very few people had heard about the Adani Group even 20 years ago. Until 10 days ago, he was the world’s third richest man, Asia’s richest man. Now, he’s fallen off from that perch after the shares of his listed companies crashed. So, if the rise of the Adani Group has been spectacular, the fall has been even more spectacular. Very few of us, including myself, could ever have imagined, before the Hindenburg Research report came out on January 24, that the Adani Group would not continue to rise.
Q: What sets the Adani Group apart from many other Indian corporates?
Guha Thakurta: What is truly out of the ordinary is the manner in which the Adani Group exercises dominance over so many sectors and segments of the Indian economy. It is the largest commercial port operator in India. It operates a dozen ports along the west and east coast of India. Internationally, it has the Haifa Port in Israel, and Abbot Point in Australia.
Adani is one of the largest private sector airport operators, the second-largest operator of coal mines after CIL (Coal India Ltd); it has mines in Indonesia and in Australia. It is the single biggest importer of coal to India, the second-largest generator of electricity from coal after NTPC.... The Adani Group also used to be the biggest aggregator of cut and polished diamonds 15 years ago — it divested this interest to others, including Winsome Diamonds of Jatin Mehta, who is the father-in–law of Vinod Adani’s daughter (Vinod is Gautam Adani’s brother). Jatin Mehta is currently outside the country. Winsome Diamonds happens to be one of the largest non-performing assets.
Q: When did you first write about the Adani Group?
Guha Thakurta: My article in 2015 was by and large a compilation of materials that were already in the public domain. The first article that one may call exclusive appeared in April 2016 by when I was the editor of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW).
I wrote several articles in the EPW, including on allegations of misuse of benefits by the cut-and-polished diamond business of the group, about the pricing of power. The last article I wrote for the EPW in June 2017 pertained to the changes in the rules concerning power projects in SEZs (special economic zones)....
It also talked about how the government — the ministry of finance and the ministry of commerce -- were processing an application for a refund of customs duties in excess of Rs 500 crore without first checking whether the duty had been paid. The matter reached Parliament.
Q: You stepped down from the EPW shortly after this?
Guha Thakurta: As you know, I resigned in July 2017 after the board of trustees of the EPW said I should not be writing articles in my name because that’s what my predecessors had done. I was told they were thinking of appointing a co-editor; that I had destroyed the ethos of a prestigious publication which is like an institution. I was told that I had done an act of grave impropriety by engaging the service of a lawyer pro bono to respond to a legal notice that was served to the publisher, printer, writer and the editor of the article. And finally, I was told to take the article down and not to leave the room until the article was pulled down. I called a colleague of mine, pulled down the article, got hold of a piece of paper and wrote out my resignation.
Q: But you continued to write on the Adani Group?
Guha Thakurta: The article taken down by the EPW was published by The Wire (the news portal). Several people came out in my support, including Professor Amartya Sen and renowned scholar Noam Chomsky. Afterwards, my articles on the Adani Group by and large appeared in other publications, notably NewsClick. I became a consultant with NewsClick in May 2018.
Q: Isn’t there a gag order against you?
Guha Thakurta: I am the only citizen of India against whom lawyers representing companies headed by Gautam Adani have instituted six defamation cases that are currently pending in the courts of law.
Two of the cases are before the first class judicial magistrate at Mundra in Gujarat, two in courts of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, one in Baran district in Rajasthan, and one in Delhi.
In September 2020, the courts in Ahmedabad issued a gag order on me, my co-author Abir Dasgupta and NewsClick headed by Prabir Purakayastha, that we cannot speak, say or write anything that goes against the interests of Gautam Adani and his conglomerate.
There was an article which was considered to be defamatory — the contents of the article were not challenged. The headline was deemed to be defamatory.... It was the last of the series of three articles.
The allegation against me, my colleagues and NewsClick was that we have lowered the esteem of the judiciary in the eyes of the public. The case is currently pending and I cannot say anything more on this.
Recently in the Rajasthan case, several of us appeared before the magistrate at the Grameen Nayalay in Baran district to provide bail bonds and sureties for the bail bonds.
The article which was pulled down by the EPW was challenged by the Adani Group, saying it was defamatory. Cases were moved against the entities that run The Wire, my co-authors and myself. It went to a civil court in Bhuj and to a criminal court in Mundra. But now both are in Mundra.
Q: Was there any attempt to arrest you, as mentioned in the Hindenburg report? Were you jailed?
Guha Thakurta: In January 2021, while the pandemic was on, a non-bailable warrant of arrest was issued against me by a first-class judicial magistrate in Mundra. My lawyer argued that this non-bailable warrant was bad in law. He referred to the judgments of the Supreme Court where it was written that if a person fails to appear in court, you can issue a bailable warrant. If that person still does not appear, the court can issue a non-bailable warrant. This case relates to the article pulled down from the EPW and published by The Wire later.
In May 2019, before the results of the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the Adani Group withdrew the cases against everybody — The Wire, my three co-authors but I am the only person against whom the case continues. To answer your question, I was never arrested.
Q: Did you collaborate with Hindenburg Research?
Guha Thakurta: I never heard of it before the report came out. However, the report, which consists of 32,000 words, if printed as a book, can run into 150 pages. It makes several references to the work done by me and independent journalists like Abir Dasgupta who I collaborated with. But they must have accessed the materials which are in the public domain.
Q: Do you feel vindicated today after the Hindenburg Research report came out?
Guha Thakurta: Yes, I do.
Q: Have you met Gautam Adani?
Guha Thakurta: I met Gautam Adani on two occasions — May 2017 in Mumbai, and then in February 2021.
I had a long telephone conversation with him very recently.
But on each of these occasions, I met him on conditions that it would be off the record. I did not record those conversations. During each of the conversations, except for the telephone call, there were people with me.
A former colleague was with me in 2017 and in 2021, there were five of us in the room, including Gautam Adani and my wife. The first meeting lasted for about an hour while the second one lasted one hour and 55 minutes, to be precise.
The phone call lasted about 15 minutes.
Q: Did you initiate the interaction?
Guha Thakurta: The first meeting took place at my behest. The second one was by my lawyer Anand Yagnik who arranged it with the expectation that an out-of-court settlement could be arrived at. But that did not happen. The last phone call was a request from me to withdraw the cases.
Q: What was his response?
Guha Thakurta: He was non-committal. The cases are still pending as we speak.
Q: Since you have written a number of articles against top companies and conglomerates, have you faced court cases before?
Guha Thakurta: Many corporates have sent legal notices but nobody has actually taken me to court. Legal notices were sent by lawyers representing corporate entities headed by both the Ambani brothers. Subrata Roy of Sahara never took me to court either.
Q: These cases must have taken a toll on you?
Guha Thakurta: Yes, these cases do have an impact on me and my life. Takes up time and involves expenditure. But if you ask me if I would have done anything differently, I would say ‘no’.