The Economic and Political Weekly has only 12,000 subscribers, but every issue of the social sciences journal is read by more than 1 lakh people. Just like its deceptive readership numbers, EPW's influence comes as a surprise to those unfamiliar with its unassuming look. And suddenly, this prestigious journal – unique in offering contemporary analysis as well as academic papers weekly – has become the centrepiece of an unexpected battle involving stalwarts of India's academic and scholarly circles.
News emerged this week that C Rammanohar Reddy, who has been editor of journal for more than a decade, would be stepping down from the post by March 31. Reddy's departure will not be smooth, however.
Even though Reddy had himself asked for a chance to leave the journal after a decade at the helm, a meeting last year with the Sameeksha Trust, which owns EPW, turned sour after board-members questioned Reddy's ambitious plans for the journal's 50th anniversary, due in September.
That process ended with Reddy asking to leave the journal altogether, despite plans earlier for him to mentor a successor and even become editor-in-chief, and has now led to uproar within the academic community.
More than 100 social scientists have written a letter to the Sameeksha Trust expressing concern over Reddy's resignation and calling on the board to reconsider its decisions as well as persuade the outgoing editor to play a part in the transition, "preferably as a Trustee." Eminent scholar Jean Dreze, who was on the board of trustees alongside top academics like historian Romila Thapar and economist Deepak Nayyar, announced that he had resigned from the Sameeksha Trust board over this issue.
Reddy spoke to Scroll about the events of the last few months and what it means for the Economic and Political Weekly.
What triggered the dispute between you and the board?
A year ago I told the Trust that I wanted to leave, because I had been commuting between Mumbai and Hyderabad [where his family lives] and because I was not able to give EPW the initiative that I had over the 10 years, and so the board agreed and a date was set for April 2016. But they also convinced me to stay on afterwards and be involved with the journal in some capacity. There was talk of one year, two years, and I said I would stay.
Then side by side I was working on this anniversary event, and I felt we had to do something interesting. I was fascinated by the idea of telling the history of India through the eyes of EPW, with the whole thing directed towards attracting a younger scholarship. I also got the idea, from a Martin Scorsese film on the New York Review of Books, to commission a film about the journal. So we went to the Tata Trust, gave a grant proposal for that, and it was approved.
As per convention, I went to inform the board, that we have the anniversary coming up and these were the plans. All these years, I have had enormous respect for them, because not once have they interfered editorially. But suddenly this time I was questioned like I have never been questioned before. I was floored by the questioning.
What was the problem?
At a small place like this, the editor functions as a Chief Executive Officer. All these years, I have mobilised money from the Tata Trust, from Rohini Nilekani, from the University Grants Commission, and have informed the board afterwards. So it came as a complete surprise when I was suddenly told by the board that I shouldn't have gone and got these funds, that I shouldn't have done it without their approval.
I was told that I would have to come back with a plan. The words were that "several iterations would have to be gone through" and the board would want to see the rushes of the film before they decided whether they would even allow it. I didn't know what was going on.
So I went back and expressed my anger and unhappiness, and said this is completely out of sync with the previous 10 years. I said, let me suggest an alternative, where we carry out these plans. I keep you in the loop, but the final responsibility would be mine.
How did they respond?
They didn't respond. Complete silence. I sent correspondence to all the trustees, and other than one, there has been no acknowledgment. There was one reply from the managing trustee talking of broadly why I was turning a retirement into a resignation, without going into the details, but that was it.
So I decided I was not going to take up any post with the journal. Earlier, when times were good, I had said I was willing to work beyond April 1 because they wanted to have me around in an editorial capacity. But once this happened I realised I couldn't work with the board, and so I decided that all of that was off.
I could have walked out, but this is a small place that I hold dear, and convention is three month's notice, so I decided I will stay until the end of March.
What do you think went wrong?
It's something I have been asking myself. I don't know where their unhappiness came from. But one one thing I was clear, I felt that, once the autonomy of the editor is breached, what comes around the corner? You can’t do this. That is the issue.
The issue is more about the autonomy of the editor’s office, not just to do with the journal, which they have respected, but of all of the other activities that come with the office, because an editor at EPW is also a CEO.
Had there been any discussion about a successor? Were there indications of this?
After that meeting last April, when I said I wanted to leave, they set up a search committee to look for the next editor. They were supposed to do that process. But even when times were good, they didn’t involve me in this.
That was the first sign that something was wrong. Here I am leaving, I know how things function, I have all this experience, the board doesn't know, none of them has worked in the media, so it was a natural thing that I should have been involved. It was odd, but at the time I let it go.
Is the dispute really about bringing money from outside?
I don't think so. I got more money from the same Tata Trust in 2006. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the board themselves sought money from outside. In 2006-7, if it wasn't for Rohini Nilekani, we would have been in deep trouble. I approached them for Rs 25 lakh, and they gave us Rs 3 crore with a matching grant of Rs 2 and a half crore. Then the board didn't have any problem with money from the outside.
The issue is autonomy of the office of the editor, and this is the first time in 11 years that this is happening. There were so many other initiatives, but under the broad rubric of the way the journal worked, I have been doing things first and then informing them.
Like other owner-editor disputes, could ideology have something to do with it?
I was there for 10 years. If it was ideology, I should have lost my job within the first six months. In fact, they were the ones, who, after I asked to resign, told me to stay on, and even suggested I become an editor-in-chief and mentor whoever takes over.Could you see yourself being involved with the journal now, after you leave?
I think there has been a loss of faith on both sides, and if you have to work together, then you have to work at restoring that. I hope that maybe at some point, if the next editor would like to consult me informally, that that can happen. But there were clear differences especially about the autonomy of the editor, and I needed to establish a certain principle, which I think I have established.
What does this now mean for EPW?
Things have erupted in the last few days. We will have to see. This journal, truly, I feel nobody owns. The trustees don't own it, the editor doesn't own it in any sense, and the larger audience of readers, the pool of writers, everybody feels it is theirs. It doesn't operate commercially, it manages to say strong things, and it is a remarkable experiment that has been successful. I don't think there is anything like this anywhere in the world. So there is a pride attached to it.
And that community of people is concerned. Very much. Some are unhappy, some are apprehensive of what comes next. People were very apprehensive after Krishna Raj [the previous editor, who was at the helm for three decades]. I’ve shown that it’s an institution, that goes beyond an individual.
Such a large group has a stake in it that an individual can't hurt it unless you go out to wreck it. That’s why it was important to say that the office of the editor cannot be questioned.
This letter by 100 odd academicians asks for various things, it is for the board to respond. They have raised issues about a small board, which are important. I think this structure was okay when it was a small organisation, but it’s become so much more important, I think it’s time that EPW community looks at a way to go forward.
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