Former Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan’s letter to Sonia Gandhi
Hon’ble Smt. Sonia Gandhi,
President, Indian National Congress
November 5, 2014
Madam, I write to you with a very heavy heart. Over the last 11 months, I have suffered the most excruciating mental agony, and have been continuously attacked, wrongly vilified and defamed in the media, and exposed to every possible humiliation in public life. As I write today, more than 30 years of my loyal, faithful, and dedicated service to our party stand destroyed and in shambles around me. My entire career is ruined, and above all, the sacred and venerable legacy of my family, which served our nation and party with immense distinction, and patriotism stands in danger of being tarnished. As you are aware, I am a fourth generation Congress worker.
Three generations before me, fought for the independence of our country from the British, and spent many long years in jail, along with other stalwarts of the freedom movement. After independence, my family served the country and the Congress party with great dedication, and my grandfather who was the last Congress Chief Minister of the State, my aunt who was a selfless social worker, have etched the name of my family in the annals of our history as patriots and nationalists.
I myself have served the Congress party from 1984, have been a four time MP, and a former Minister of State, without a single blemish on my reputation, in terms of integrity in public life, and my loyalty to my party and my country. Thirty years later, for no fault of mine, I find that my own small work, and the glorious legacy of my family stand ruined. I am still unable to understand what I have done wrong, or what crime I have committed to have been treated like this in the party I have faithfully served so long. I want to categorically state that I have always been a loyal, sincere dedicated party worker, implicitly obeying the orders of my leaders. I have always carried out any task assigned to me with sincerity and dedication, and have never been guilty of any wrongdoing of any kind, in my public and personal life.
In these circumstances, the disaster which happened to me on the December 20, 2013, was a thunderbolt, which hit me from the blue and destroyed my life. Until now, I have been unable to understand what was wrongdoing was committed by me to suddenly receive what was virtually a sentence of death.
I want to place on record, that from December 20, 2013, until now, I have still not been told by you, why I was asked to resign from the Council of Ministers, nor have I ever been asked or given an opportunity to explain, if indeed I had committed any wrongdoing. On the other hand, the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh wrote a letter to me, accepting my resignation, in which he praised the excellent work I had done as Minister, and what he termed my valuable contribution as Minister.
In these circumstances, it was clearly not the Prime Minister nor my work in Government, which led to my ouster as Minister. Thus it still baffles me, why I was humiliated so brutally.
To recall the sequence of events, I would like to record, that I was carrying out my duties as Minister of State (I/C) Environment and Forests in the routine course, when suddenly that day on December 20, 2013, the then PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh summoned me to his office. When I entered he stood up from his chair, looking tense and grim, and uttered these exact words. He said “Jayanthi, I have been told by Congress President, that your services are required for party work.” I was puzzled, and I said, “Yes Sir. So what should I do?” He replied, “She wants you to resign.” I was shocked and said, “Resign Sir? But when?” He replied “Today.” I once again asked him if this was what the Congress president wished. He answered in the affirmative. Unsuspecting, and trusting you totally, I did not utter a single word, but smiled at him and said I would comply with the wishes of the Congress President.
I was so guile free, that I honestly believed that you wanted me to work for the party, and that it was an honour to be so chosen. I did not for a second at that time, imagine the consequences of resigning just 100 days before the elections were due, and what would lie in store for me in the future. I trusted you with my life, and even more importantly, with my reputation, my career and the legacy of my family.
Thereafter, I asked for time to meet you. However, I was told that I could talk to you on the telephone. During our conversation I repeated what the Prime Minister told me, and you reiterated that I should resign and do Party work. Within half an hour of meeting the then Prime Minister, I sent in my letter of resignation, stating that I would like to resign from the office of Minister, due to my desire to devote myself to party work, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Singh immediately accepted my resignation, and in that letter profusely lauded my contribution to the government.
The next day my resignation was headlines in the media, and all the initial reports correctly reported that I had stepped down for party work. By the afternoon, to my shock, I received information that persons from the office of Shri Rahul Gandhi were calling the media and planting stories that my resignation was NOT for party work.
My sources were impeccable, and I felt unease. Thereafter, the media was flooded with negative stories about me. The same day, namely, the day after I resigned, Shri Rahul Gandhi addressed a FICCI meeting of industrialists, where he made uncomplimentary references to delays in environmental clearances, and the adverse effects upon the economy, and assured the corporate world, that the party and government would henceforth ensure that there would be no delays, and bottlenecks for industry. After being alerted by the media, I saw the entire speech on YouTube. It was then that some in the media questioned me if I had been asked to resign immediately, to enable Shri Rahul Gandhi to address FICCI and the corporate world with the news of my resignation in the background.
An assurance was sought to be given to the corporate world that they need no longer worry about environmental clearance delays and that bottlenecks would be removed, although throughout my very brief tenure, I strictly followed the laws and rules and tried to protect the environment, in keeping with the legacy of Smt. Indira Gandhi and Shri Rajiv Gandhi, who first brought in the Environment Protection Act. Since I had only followed this line of our party, I could not understand why I had been asked to resign within half an hour on the previous day, especially since I had never been told of any issues prior to December 20, 2013. Some analysts speculated that I might be projected as the focal point for the perceived failure of the economy at that time.
What followed was a hysterical vicious false and motivated campaign against me, in the media, orchestrated entirely by particular chosen individuals in the party. There was not a single word of truth in what was said, nor was there a single concrete fact.
I was never a bottleneck, nor was I ever responsible for unwarranted delays in major projects, and I can prove this at any time. I was shattered by the attack upon me, and bewildered. I wrote a passionate message to Shri Rahul Gandhi, about my removal as Minister, and his speech, at FICCI, and asked him what wrongdoing I had committed to warrant this treatment. I said, that I should have been asked for an explanation, IF I had done anything wrong, as even a murderer has his say in court, and here I don’t even know what, if any wrong doing was committed by me. I told him that my family legacy and my name would be forever ruined, and all I had done was my duty. I asked him to tell me, what wrong I had committed. I asked for time to meet him. He replied that he was “running a little busy” at that time, but that he would meet me a little later.
Despite several requests, that day never came. Not till this minute. I took a break of 10 days, and went to my sister’s home to recover.
When I returned, in the first week of January 2014, I was given an appointment to meet you. During our meeting, I explained my agony to you, over the attack which had been unleashed upon me and asked what I had done wrong. You replied that the elections were coming up and I was required for party work. I told you that the media was keen I should speak to them in view of the huge speculation over my resignation, but you specifically told me not to meet the media. From that day until now, I have honoured that word. But from that day until now, I have neither been given party work, nor have I been given an opportunity to meet you, despite several requests.
In fact, later in January, I was again shocked and distressed to receive a telephone call from Ajay Maken, Head of Congress Media cell. He informed me, that my name was being removed from the list of party spokespersons, that the decision was taken “at the highest level” and other work would be assigned to me. I have served as party spokesperson for over 10 long years during very difficult times. I have defended the party day and night, 24 hours a day despite huge domestic problems, including my mother suffering from a brain tumour, and ultimately dying after suffering for 3 long years, during which I not only served as her principal caregiver, but also constantly travelled to Delhi to serve as party spokesperson, without even being a MP.
My sacrifices, more importantly the sacrifices made by my family, my parents, and husband, were all for the cause of the Congress party. I was given an opportunity to serve as Minister for just over two years, but served the party day and night, for the last 30 odd years. Throughout, there has never been a blemish upon my reputation.
In fact apart from hundreds of others, Dr. Manmohan Singh and you have several times praised me for my work as spokesperson for the party. I only mentioned this to point out my track record was perfect, and in ten long years I have not made even one mistake as spokesperson. It was therefore clearly a deliberate decision to remove me from the list of spokespersons, and for reasons which are still unknown to me.
I also feel that I have been pressurised and used to lead issues which I considered wrong. An instance: While I was still a Minister, an important matter which has caused me great agitation is the fact that I was called upon to attack the present Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi on what is referred to in the media as ‘Snoopgate.’
Despite the fact that I initially refused, because I thought that the party should attack Shri Modi on policy and governance and not drag an unknown woman into a controversy, Shri Ajay Maken telephoned me on November 16, 2013, while I was on tour and asked me to come to Delhi immediately to address a press conference on the issue. I expressed my disinclination to do this, and refused the assignment, mentioning that I was a Minister at that time, and this should not be taken as the point of view of Government. I suggested perhaps an Official Spokesperson should do the Press Conference, if so desired. Shri Maken told me once again, that this was a decision taken at “the highest level” and that I had no choice in the matter. After the press conference throughout the controversy which followed I was told by Shri Maken to fiercely attack Shri Modi, on TV channels and during debates, although I was otherwise never fielded in the media after appointment as Minister.
During my tenure as Minister, it was the clear and specific policy of the party, to take all steps to protect the environment, and carry forward the legacy of Smt. Indira Gandhi and Shri Rajiv Gandhi, to preserve the environment, and keep a balance between environment and industry. As Chairperson NAC, you have written several letters to me regarding projects in the Environment Ministry, and protection of tribal rights, and I have always kept you briefed that due care was being taken by me to protect the environment. I received specific requests [which used to be directives for us] from Shri Rahul Gandhi and his office forwarding environmental concerns in some important areas and I took care to honour those “requests.” Shri Rahul Gandhi went in person to Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, and publicly declared to the Dongria Kondh tribals that he would be their “sipahi” and would not allow their interests to suffer at the hands of mining giant Vedanta. His views in the matter were conveyed to me by his office, and I took great care to ensure that the interests of the tribals were protected and rejected environmental clearance to Vendanta despite tremendous pressure from my colleagues in cabinet, and huge criticism from industry for what was described as “stalling” a Rs. 30,000 crore investment from Vedanta.
Fortunately, my decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. The same happened in the case of the Adani projects, where I faced tremendous criticism from within the cabinet and outside, for stalling investment at a time when the country was going through a difficult time in terms of the economy. The complaints of the local fisherfolk and NGOs of environmental violations in the Adani case were forwarded to me by Shri Rahul Gandhi’s office, and I was told to liaise with Shri Dipak Babaria in the matter. Occasionally, I apprised Shri Rahul Gandhi of steps I had taken, and he responded positively. In fact you have yourself conveyed your concern in this regard in letters written to me. In several cases including the stalled GVK power project regarding the Dhari Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh, the Lavasa project in Maharashtra, the Nirma cement plant in Gujarat and in several other cases I was given specific input, to make my decision. Apart from this Shri Pulok Chatterji, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister was in constant touch with me, and officers of the Ministry in guiding the decisions to be taken by the Ministry at that time.
So in my decision making I have factored in the party line despite all criticisms against me and therefore several decisions of mine were expressly overruled by the Prime Minister.
My object in pointing out the above to you is to bring to your notice that, in several cases the party high command had very strong views regarding environmental violations. This was the reason that I repeatedly challenged my colleagues in cabinet, thus bringing down upon my own head the anger and wrath of the entire cabinet, and also the entire corporate world. Still, I soldiered on doing my duty. This is the reason why I am so stunned and shocked that in the end, I was removed as Minister just 100 days before elections although I had committed no wrong doing, and none was pointed out to me, in fact the then Prime Minister praised my work, while accepting my resignation. Thereafter, although I repeatedly sought clarification, as to what wrong doing I was guilty of to have been so brutally humiliated, and further humiliated by being removed as Spokesperson, no answer was given to me. Despite my repeated attempts to meet Shri Rahul Gandhi and you, no appointment was given to me. Dr. Manmohan Singh, and you, both assured me at the time of making me resign that my services were required for party work. No other explanation has been given to me till date.
After my removal as Minister, there was widespread news coverage in the Kerala media that my removal was because I had notified the order on protection of the Western Ghats, the Kasturirangan Committee report, on December 19, 2013, (just one day before my removal) which had been bitterly opposed some sections of society in Kerala, who felt that this order would adversely affect their economic interests, and had expressed their opposition to the Prime Minister and to you. Nevertheless, in the interest of protecting the environment, and pursuant to orders of court, I took that important decision.
My successor Shri Moily, put my orders on hold. A few days before I was removed as Minister, I needed to review the Adani file for some legal issues. When I sent for the file, I was told that it was “missing.” After considerable search, my officials “found” it, apparently in the washroom of the computer section, the very day on which I had been asking to resign. Clearly some officials in my then Ministry did not want to send that file back to me, for unknown reasons.
Surely you were aware that removing a Minister just one hundred days before Lok Sabha elections without any wrongdoing being even alleged against her, and on the contrary, the Prime Minister lauding my work in writing, would have devastating effects upon me, my career, everything I have worked for over 30 years, and above all the patriotic legacy of my family?
Yet this was done to me. I am a mere cog in the wheel, a helpless loyal Congress worker. Just as could be predicted, my reputation, my career and my life now lie in shreds around me. And I have committed no wrong.
Significantly, if indeed I had been guilty of wrongdoing, I would have been happy to have been given a chance to defend myself, and I would have emerged pure and transparent and victorious.
This opportunity was not given to me, I was simply told I was required for party work, but not used for it also making me feel that that was a euphemism to get me to resign.
Over the last 11 months I have undergone untold mental and physical agony, as a result of this incident. I have major health issues due to my tension and humiliation over the treatment meted out to me, and my future looks bleak. More importantly, I need to save the legacy of my family or children and my future generations will not forgive me.
You may wonder why I write to you now, which I have decided to do after 4 months of prayer and contemplation. I wish to record that I tried several times to meet Shri Rahul Gandhi and you, but was not given an appointment. During our last meeting, and only meeting after my resignation, you instructed me to avoid the media. Until today I have followed your instructions. Just two days ago, Shri Vasan left the Congress and formed his own party. It was only on the day before Shri Vasan left, that I received my first ever communication from AICC in the form of a telephone call from Shri Motilal Vora, who wanted to know what my stand was regarding Shri Vasan, and what my future course of action would be.
Until Shri Vasan left, nobody even spoke to me. This was the reason that people began to speculate that I had become a scapegoat for the economic problems of the UPA government. However, whatever is said now, the damage to my reputation has been complete and devastating. And future generations of my family will not forgive me if I do not set the record straight. I have therefore chosen this time to write to you. I am doing it after four months of prayers and contemplation and coming to the conclusion that I need to write to you the truth which you know as much as I do.
While there is considerable churning going on in the party now, my own problems however are far deeper, and are both in relation to the party in general, and how I have been treated.
Madam, most respectfully, I request you to kindly let me know at least now, what wrongdoing I am alleged to have committed to be subject to such repeated humiliation. If indeed I am alleged to have done anything wrong, I do not understand the reason why this was not placed before me, and why I was not given an opportunity to defend myself for 11 long months. I am sure you will understand how important it is for me to protect my reputation and that of my family. Without a single word being said I have been humiliated for 11 months. I would be grateful if you would be so gracious as to at least understand my anguish.
– Jayanthi Natarajan