In 1996, more than 20 years ago, I was appointed a non-executive director in Rediff.Com. This was India’s Yahoo, in other words, it was what was known as a portal. These were the early days of the internet. Looking back, how much times have changed in the last 20 years. We still had fax machines; our mobile phones did not even have SMS. A smartphone, which is all the rage today and is in the hand of every adolescent, was not even a figment of an inventor’s imagination. Things were so backward that Google did not even exist. Google started in 1998!
In late 1999 Rediff, being the pioneer, had licensed a software from an American Company called Inktomi to permit its users to search the web. As I said, in 1999 Google was insignificant and Inktomi was the 800 pound Gorilla in search. Imagine, to promote this revolutionary tool – search – Rediff had an advertising campaign. Today, Inktomi does not exist, it was bought by Yahoo and subsumed. Google is now that not 800 but more like 8000 pound Gorilla.
In early 2000 a student in Pune used Rediff to search and typed “sex” and other similar words. Naturally, the search led him to pornographic sites. I am sure you must know that porn is the most searched subject on the Internet even today. Being suitably horrified by the results, the student filed a criminal complaint in Pune claiming that Rediff was disseminating pornography and therefore, Rediff and its directors should be punished. The Indian Penal Code stipulates imprisonment for 2 years for obscenity.
Today, in retrospect, this charge is laughable. But at that time 17 years ago, this was actually terrifying to all us directors. Remember that the Internet was just starting. No one quite knew how it worked. Finding a Judge who even knew or used the Internet was a huge challenge. Also remember in 2000 most of us still had dial up connections and a desktop computer with a huge boxy monitor. Laptops and leased lines were expensive. Very few people had them, just a few privileged South Bombay brats who imagined they were living in the USA. How were we to prove our case to a judge in Pune who in all likelihood did not understand how the internet and search worked? And that too, a Judge in a small criminal court in Pune. I know this sounds like ancient history, but it was a reality a short 16 years ago.
So a Writ was filed in the Bombay High Court by me. The other directors were made parties and by the Writ we asked the High Court to (i) stay the Criminal Proceedings in Pune meaning that the Magistrate in Pune should not continue hearing the complaint and decide on it, and (ii) to quash the proceedings meaning to cancel the compliant that was filed. The Bombay High Court did stay the proceedings, which was a huge relief. So (i) was done, we had to wait for (ii).
And we waited, and waited and waited. Finally in the dying days of 2016 almost 17 years from the time the Writ was filed the Writ was finally heard by the Bombay High Court. Of course, the High Court granted (ii) and quashed the Criminal complaint. So, in effect we won. I cannot complain about the conclusion, however, the Judgment is so poor and sets down no law. The language is shoddy and the logic and flow pathetic.
So, at the end of the day I have been facing a criminal complaint for the past 16 years. I have been an accused for 16 years. Now, put me in the position that you have seen on TV. I stand for elections and in my declarations I state that I am facing criminal charges for obscenity! Obscenity is a serious offence. Can you imagine the field day that your favourite television anchors – Barkha, Arnab, Rahul and Bhupen would have? “The candidates are facing serious criminal charges” they would shout, and you would immediately equate me with Pappu Yadav!
Take this argument further, I win the elections and am voted in to the Lok Sabha. You would have discussions on how the percentage of MP’s facing serious criminal charges is increasing. All correct at first blush, but when you dig deeper, you realize how incorrect it is to generalize. I had to wait 16 years for no fault of mine. Just delays. I was not avoiding the hearing, I was not manipulating the system, and I had not bribed the Government Pleader to seek adjournments. I did nothing. My case was simply not heard. Whose fault is this? You would say professional hazard of being a non-executive director, but should it stretch on for so long.
For 16 years I was accused of pornography. Ridiculous is it not?
When will our legal system ever reform? When will our police and investigative systems ever reform? I look for “Acche Din”.
Very very sad.