THE Delhi High Court Friday directed Associated Journals Ltd (AJL), publisher of Congress mouthpiece National Herald, to vacate its premises in Herald House in the national Capital within two weeks. Dismissing AJL’s plea
challenging the Centre’s order to vacate its premises, Justice Sunil Gaur said “the dominant purpose” for which Herald House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Central Delhi was leased out to AJL “no longer exists.”
The court observed that a major portion of the “subject premises” has been rented out and petitioners’ newspaper, which was to be housed originally in the basement and ground floor, has now been shifted to the top floor with hardly any “press activity”.
During arguments, the Centre had contended that the transfer of 98 per cent stake in AJL to Young Indian (YI) when the latter bought the former’s Rs 90-crore debt for a consideration of Rs 50 lakh, led to a “virtual” sale of the Herald building.
Referring to the acquisition of AJL by Young Indian owned by Congress president Rahul Gandhi and leader Sonia Gandhi, Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes, the court observed that although the beneficial interest of AJL is “not technically transferred by way of sale/mortgage/gift”, AJL has been taken over by Young Indian for all practical purposes.
The court said that the manner in which such acquisition was done is questionable. “This court is conscious of the fact that Young Indian is a charitable company but modus operandi to acquire 99% of AJL’s shares speaks volumes. The manner in which it has been done is also questionable”, the court said.
The court rejected AJL’s request to stay the operation of the order and said that if they do not vacate the premises in two weeks, authorities can initiate proceedings under the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act (PP Act) against Herald House.
“There is no impediment in the way of respondent to invoke the provisions of the PP Act to seek eviction of petitioners, in case petitioners do not voluntarily vacate the subject premises and hand over its vacant possession to respondent — Land and Development Officer, within a period of two weeks from today,” the court said.
The AJL had challenged the “legality, validity, and reasonableness” of a notice passed by the Land and Development Officer (L&DO), Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on October 30, 2018, directing it to vacate Herald House by November 15.
Challenging the notice, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi had contended that that it had been issued without any application of mind and is arbitrary, malafide, motivated and issued with ulterior political motives.
And that the order is a clear affront to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution and a deliberate attempt to suppress and destroy the legacy of the first Prime Minister of the country.
The court, however, dismissed the allegations of malafide and bias raised by the AJL: “No instances have been provided by petitioners in the writ petition in support of the serious allegations of malafide levelled against the ruling dispensation. It is not spelt out as to what is the oblique motive in passing of the impugned order. One fails to understand as to how the ruling dispensation has in any way erased, effaced or defamed Pt. Nehru (Jawaharlal Nehru).
“To say the least, the allegations of malafide are preposterous and no note of these allegations is required to be taken. In the instant case, the allegations of mala fide levelled by petitioners are bald and unspecific and so, no notice of these allegations is taken.”
The order also stated that though the publication of a newspaper may be outsourced to Noida or elsewhere, the essential “press activity” of the editorial team was not discernible when the inspection of the “subject premises” was done in the presence of the Chairman of AJL, Motilal Vohra.
“It is easier to assert that inspection of the ‘subject premises’ was done at the back of petitioners, but the substance of the inspection report is not effectively refuted by petitioners. Strangely, petitioners have not cared to disclose as to what is the volume of publication of their newspaper. What has been disclosed is that National Herald is a weekly newspaper and as regards the online publication of petitioners’ Newspaper, no data is forthcoming.
“Petitioners are silent as to what is the extent of circulation of petitioners’ newspaper, both in print and online, across the country. It is not the case of petitioners that any leading articles are published in their newspaper nor is there anything on record to indicate as to what are the editorial policies,” it observed.
As per the Perpetual Lease Deed of January 10, 1967 executed by AJL, the subject premises was to be used by them for construction of building for the bonafide use of their press and for no other purpose.
According to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, the printing activity of AJL is taking place in Noida since 2017-18 and the presence of petitioners’ newspaper in the country is insignificant. He argued that transfer of 99% shares of AJL to another company Young Indian violates Clause III(13) of the Lease Deed, which justifies cancellation of allotment and resumption of “subject premises.”