Forcing Editor To Quit

An Open Letter to EPW’s Trustees

Partha Chatterjee

[In an open letter to Sameekha Trust, the renowned social scientist Partha Chatterjee has questioned the Trust's position on recent events at EPW and their decision to take down an article on the Adani Group, which finally led to the forced resignation of editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta]

Like most readers of and contributors to the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), I have been both concerned and saddened by the turn of events precipitated by the resignation of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta as editor. It is clear that following the widespread outrage in the EPW community, there is an effort now underway to offer a variety of justifications for the actions of the Sameeksha Trust. Instead of resolving the crisis that now afflicts EPW, this effort is only likely to lead to mutual recrimination, a hardening of positions and an outcome that will satisfy no one but embitter many.

1. As a reader of the EPW for some 50 years, let me set out my thoughts briefly for what they are worth. I believe that if proper practices of freedom of the press are to be sustained, it is obligatory for the publisher to give unconditional public support to the editor in all matters of editorial content. In the present case, the Sameeksha Trust did not do so. It could have publicly stood by the articles as well as the lawyer's response to the Adani lawyer's letter, and then settled any differences with the editor internally. There were several options available to the Trust. The obvious one was to offer the Adani group the opportunity of a rejoinder to the two articles it had raised objections about. Legally, there were several steps that could have been taken to engage the Adani firm in testing the veracity of the claims made in the articles. Indeed, one did not have to rule out the possibility of a retraction of the one article the Adanis wanted removed at a subsequent stage. Instead, the Trust had the article taken down and obtained the resignation of the editor as its initial response to the Adani letter, without exploring any other editorial or legal options. This only confirms the suspicion that it was indeed the content of the articles that the Trust had become concerned about following the Adani letter (since the first article had been published in January and the second in June without, as far as I know, the Trust pointing out that anything was amiss). This to me is capitulation to a perceived threat.

2. In the trustees' responses so far, there is a repeated claim that the EPW is an academic journal. To me, this is a preposterous claim. EPW would not have acquired its enormous reputation and goodwill as a publication that is quite unique anywhere in the world had it merely been a weekly version of contributions to Indian Sociology or Indian Economic and Social History Review (there's no comparable Indian economics journal I can think of). The reason why EPW is unique is because it has, principally under the stewardship of the late Krishna Raj, managed to develop an unprecedented mix of current affairs commentary, reporting (including serious investigative reporting) and academic articles from every field of social sciences and the humanities. As members of the Trust may be aware, while carrying out an assignment given to me by the Trust to produce a volume of selections of EPW Articles, I have in the last few months read every article published in the EPW from 1966 to 1991. I was surprised to find that it is not the academic articles that readers today will find of interest, since the important ones (and there were many) have already passed into textbooks and reading lists and become part of the disciplinary common sense. It is the news commentary and reports that are the most valuable material in the EPW as a chronological and critical record of an Indian history of the present. I have no hesitation in saying that the most important contributors who made EPW what it is were not academics but journalists—Rarnesh Thapar, Balraj Puri, Sumanta Banerjee, Arun Sinha, Mohan Ram, Kalyan Chaudhuri, G P Deshpande, M S Prabhakar, Ashok Mitra (I'll include him in this list) etc etc. Many wrote under their initials or pseudonyms (not allowed in academic journals). Investigative reports were the most important feature of the EPW, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. There were reports on police atrocities, encounter deaths, prison revolts, communal riots, army operations in the Northeast, the situation in Kashmir, the coal mafia, the politician-business nexus in mining, the Maoist insurgencies ... I could go on and on. These reports were written by courageous journalists who wrote in the EPW the stories the mainstream press would not publish. It is my impression as a long-time reader of the EPW that this component of the journal declined in importance since the 1990s, but I may be wrong since I haven't lately given the post-1991 run the same degree of attention as I have to the earlier period.

The EPW Debate is About the Ethics and Politics of Scholarship
3. There is an attempt now to circulate in the media a critical analysis of the weak factual and logical foundations on which the disputed articles were allegedly based, suggesting that they could not have been defended in a court of law. Did the Trust carry out this analysis before it decided to pull down the one article? Obviously, the charges levelled against the article (voicing, one may add, the Adani side of the case in an adversarial contest) will now be responded to on behalf of the authors. This means that a legitimate debate that could have been conducted on the pages of the EPW will now be carried out in other media outlets. All this, let us remember, while the article in dispute remains in public circulation in The Wire which has not taken it down. Where does that leave the EPW as a journal that has always defended the freedom of the press? I am reminded here of the years of the Emergency when Krishna Raj, operating within the censorship rules, printed full extracts of a judgment by a Bombay high court judge in defence of the freedom of the press, daring the censors to redact a court judgment. Today's EPW has, I am afraid, simply washed its hands of a potentially troublesome case, leaving it to others to fight the battle.

4. There has also emerged another angle to the story of the resignation of the editor—that the editorial staff of EPW had various complaints against Guha Thakurta. Obviously, I do not have the ability to judge the merits of these complaints. But if they amounted, in the opinion of the Trust, to a decision to change the editor of the journal, the manner and timing of that decision, in the wake of the Adani letter, would have been an act of monumental lack of wisdom. That is not what happened; the organisational problems in the EPW office are now being offered as additional material to bolster the Trust's case. What transpired at the fateful meeting of the- Trust with the editor had only to do with the Adani lawyer's letter; everything else is irrelevant.

5. I feel that one of the key structural difficulties in the present EPW organisation is the absence in the board of trustees (as far as I know) of anyone with significant working experience in journalism. I was shocked to read in the letter in the Indian Express by Dipankar Gupta and Romila Thapar the ad hominem advice on how to do research. JNU students are not taught how to do research into events that happened last week or last month. But there do exist such methods which are taught in journalism school. I feel the present composition of the Board, packed with senior academics, is a major reason for its timid and weak-kneed response to the Adani threat.

6. I am sure the trustees are aware of the enormous backlash the Trust's actions have produced among EPW contributors and readers. Many have called for dialogue between the Trust and the EPW community. I don't know where that will lead, given the attitude of the Trust, at least to the extent that they have revealed it. Speaking for myself, I am not hopeful that EPW will survive this shock. I will hold the Trust responsible for the debacle, unless it is able to radically change its present position.

[Courtesy : The Wire, July 30, 2017]

Vol. 50, No.8, Aug 27 - Sep 2, 2017