Within hours (perhaps minutes) of hearing the news that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta had resigned as editor of the journal Economic and Political Weekly on June 18, purportedly in connection with an investigative piece on the Adani group that he had co-authored, social media and other commentators had come to a fairly firm conclusion: that members of the Board of Trustees of Sameeksha Trust that oversees the journal had caved into corporate pressure.
Not only had they, in effect, got rid of the editor, but had also removed his piece from the journal’s website. A group of well-known scholars and public figures suddenly went from being fearless defenders of free speech and critical thinking to cowardly and spineless figures to be despised. The ex-editor – though he did not himself present himself as such and was restrained in his comments – became a heroic figure, speaking truth to corporate power as well his showing up his own board’s pusillanimity.
The dominance of social and political conservatism has created an environment of competitive liberalism. This event, still unfolding, should make us think about the ways in which the modalities of political engagement – because of the desire for instantaneity – run the risk of damaging the causes they seek to defend.
Media reports that outlined the sequence of events appear to be have played the most significant role in shaping the immediate and definitive opinions on the actions of the Economic and Political Weekly board and, more remarkably, the motives of members of the Sameeksha Trust.
The question is not whether the Adani group sought to intimidate the journal or whether the ex-editor followed the correct procedure in responding to Adani (the Trust that publishes the journal notes that Guha Thakurta started a legal proceeding on its behalf without informing it). The former is not an unusual aspect of the exercise of corporate power (remember how the Ambanis buried the book The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubai Ambani?) and the latter will continue to be debated.
Rather, the key issue is the extraordinarily quick attribution of ethical and moral cowardice to a group that counts among its members many who, until now, had established reputations for liberal opinion on a range of issues. And, at least one of them, historian Romila Thapar, can hardly be accused of being someone who gives in to intimidation. Another member of the board of trustees, DN Ghosh, stood up to the Ambanis during his chairmanship of Larsen & Toubro (ironically, Guha Thakurta had also reported on this).
Given the significance of Economic and Political Weekly to Indian intellectual life and the reputations of those who now stand accused of endangering free speech (and worse), might it have been better to exercise some amount of circumspection in our reactions? One of the problems of our times – created, no doubt by the broader political climate – is the felt need to immediately identify threats to liberal values. This sometimes runs the risk of becoming a competitive sport, with the process becoming an end in itself.
Given the seriousness of the issue at hand – the body-blow to a remarkable institution of Indian intellectual life – perhaps we might have begun with the following question: did the members of the Sameeksha Trust not have their own reputations to think of if they were to come across (as they have) of caving into corporate bullying? And, does it not make it worse for them if this, additionally, is perceived as corporate bullying that is linked to and supports the ideological bent of the ruling party, given that Gautam Adani is known to be close to the prime minister? Is this really how the trustees would like to be perceived?
It is because this is the exact impression provided by the sequence of events that it should have given us cause for reflection. It is precisely because the editor’s resignation paints several board members as acquiescing to everything their public reputation has told us they would not, that we might have agreed to exercise caution in our judgements. The caution is also something that would have prevented damage to the journal itself. Perhaps the lack of caution is also linked to the changing nature of time in our times: the tweet and the Facebook response have normalised the idea of speed as the essence of an argument.
With open minds
It may be suggested that this is an open and shut case. Someone writes an investigative piece against a powerful corporation, the latter threatens to sue, the journal’s management buckles under pressure, forces the journal’s editor to resign and removes the offending article from the journal’s website. Our freedoms are imperilled. This would make sense, to make the earlier point in a different way, if we were able to say: “This is exactly what we could have expected from these individuals.” Are we able to say that under the present circumstance? And if not, what does the manner of questioning of their character say about the future of the journal itself?
Would it have made sense to wait for more information on why the board members would agree to a decision that would, in effect, present them in a completely different light than that which has so far characterised their long-standing public reputation? A consequence of the current political environment is the perceived necessity of immediate responses to attacks on freedoms and rights, lest we are seen to not recognise erosion of all that we cherish. The problem with quick-fire responses – over-ruling circumspection – is that they do not allow time to consider how others with long-term interests in opposing threats to human freedoms might also be giving the topic serious thought.
The least we can do is wait to see if there might still be grounds for including the Board members within the ethical and moral spaces we seek to occupy. The Board sought to address public concern through its response to the imbroglio, released on July 20. But the response has not set aside any doubts and carries too much of the lawyer’s imprimatur. We need a more expansive explanation from the Board.
As is common in these episodes, a variety of rumours are doing the rounds. They are grist to the social media mill, but may have serious consequences for the journal itself. A more elaborate explanation than that provided thus far is the least the Board owes the journal, if only to convince many of its readers that it is the alacrity of their condemnations – rather than the Board’s actions – that require reflection. Some media reports have quoted Guha Thakurta as saying that the Board is not giving us the complete story. If so, let us also hear his version.