How Bofors Impacted U.S. Frist Amendment Rights
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 infamous arms purchase scandal – the Bofors gun deal -- the most incongruous ones were those of actor Amitabh Bachchan and his younger brother, Ajitabh.
Through a series of complicated innuendos and stage whispers, obliging journalists were told that the Bachchans, particularly Ajitabh, were among the recipients of the Rs. 640 million (about $53 million in the mid-1980s) payoff surrounding the deal. The actor, stung by the sheer absurdity of the campaign, 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, it claimed, Bofors kickbacks had been transferred from a coded account. The Bachchans challenged the story, eventually compelling the paper to retract, apologize and settle, saying it had been misled by Indian government sources.
Sten Lindstrom, the former police chief of Sweden, revealed in an interview published April 24 on the media watchdog website The Hoot that the Bachchans’ names were “planted” by Indian investigators. Despite Lindstrom’s revelations, which come on the 25th anniversary of the Bofors scam, 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 then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was being attacked politically via the soft target of the Bachchans.
The Bachchans’ efforts to clear their name included a libel lawsuit against India Abroad News Service and its New York-based parent, India Abroad Publications. The suit originated from the fact that the wire service had picked up and distributed the Dagens Nyheter story claiming that the Bachchans had received bribe money.
The libel lawsuit was filed and won in a British court, enforcing its 40,000 pounds award on India Abroad and its owner, the late Gopal Raju, who decided to challenge the verdict in New York. Raju cited the newspaper company's New York location to invoke First Amendment protection against the enforcement of a British judgment on an American publication. A New York court ruled in Raju’s favor and, in the process, set up a frequently cited legal precedent in America.
The case has become one of America’s most cited about the freedom of speech and the press under the First Amendment, widely written about and supported in the Supreme Court of New York (as amici curiae) by mainstream American media, including The New York Times, The Associated Press, Time Warner, CBS, the Association of American Publishers, Reader’s Digest, etc.
At the heart of the New York lawsuit 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 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.
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.
This writer, who interviewed Amitabh 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,” Lindstrom 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 a much-deserved closure.