When I was attending the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004, I got the sad news of Krishna Raj’s passing away. He had been editor of the Economic and Political Weekly from 1969. As all of us who knew him reacted in shock and dismay, the EPW staff, who were also at the annual meeting of civil society organisations, immediately set up a stall and opened a condolence book for people to write their messages. I recall with wistfulness what someone had written:

He made the EPW the open university from which I learned so much”.

Even today that pithy statement best describes the status of the EPW and of its editor in our collective intellectual life. The EPW is, and has been for 50 years, the great open university of India with its editor giving it direction week after week, editing the magazine as one who has taken a deep personal pledge. It is this commitment that has made EPW the institution it has become.

The EPW is more than just an institution of ideas, a knowledge archive recording the struggle of building a democratic nation, a platform for the growth of the social sciences and humanities in India. In the whole world there is no such knowledge institution. This is what makes it so precious. Week after week it offers its dedicated audience some articles that are political commentary and a few that meet the highest protocols of scholarly analysis. The EPW is what is called a “public good” and therefore, what has happened there recently – its editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigned on July 18 after being humiliated by its trustees – is of concern for all of us, especially those who are part of the EPW community. We cannot allow such behaviour to pass without subjecting it to the strictest scrutiny.

I will focus on the most recent dispute between the trustees and the editor here. But before I do, let me mention another reason many of us must bestir ourselves. Since many among us have publicly expressed ourselves against the rising tide of intolerance, the growing practice of censorship, and the stifling of dissent in India, we carry the obligation to review what has happened at EPW by the same standards that we have used in judging other events of censorship. Just because those involved are our friends, and some of the most respected public intellectuals in India, does not make them immune from critical public scrutiny.

There are four major issues that need to be debated. These concern both procedure and substance and point to the working of all institutions, especially knowledge producing ones. The procedural issues are often overlooked and yet an institution is not a club but a body of rules. These must be followed.

Special emergency meeting

The first issue is the special (emergency) meeting that was called to discuss the legal notice sent by Adani Power Ltd to Sameeksha Trust – which owns EPW – and to the four authors, including the editor, who wrote two articles about the Adani group. The company asked that the articles be removed and unconditionally retracted since these were held to be defamatory and harmful to the company’s reputation. They threatened legal action if this was not done. The special meeting was called to discuss the response of the editor to this notice. It is surprising that the editor mentions in his interview that he thought the meeting was to discuss a planned film to celebrate 50 years of EPW!

It is important to note here that at a special EPW meeting, there is only a specific agenda, and routine issues cannot be discussed. Those who want to discuss routine issues have to wait for a regular meeting. If other issues were raised, they should have been ruled “out of order” by the chair. And so dissatisfaction with the working of the editor, or with the direction in which the EPW was being taken, or about the scholarly quality of the articles, were not issues that could be discussed at this special meeting. Similarly, at this juncture, I will not bring additional issues into the discussion and only discuss the Adani Power issue.

(Photo credit: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta/via Facebook.com).

Editor’s response

The second issue is the response of the editor. Both sides agree that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta responded to the notice, claiming that it was on behalf of the Trust, without informing the Trust, who were surprised to see the legal reply from EPW on the journal’s website. The editor has apologised to the board for this lapse in propriety on his part. There are three issues that must be examined here (a) the executive authority of the editor, (b) the apology, and (c) the interests of EPW.

When Krishna Raj was editor, we did not know who the trustees were. He was the editor who gave the journal its character and who led in both its administrative and intellectual working. In common practice, the editor is the chief executive officer of a journal. The board only decides on policy issues, and reviews the major decisions of the editor at its regular meetings. This is a kind of superintending function. For it to claim executive authority, and that “no permission was given to contact a lawyer and to send a reply” is to my mind a case of overreach by the board. Hypothetically, will the board have to give its permission when EPW receives a notice from an employee for non-payment of an increment, or from the civic authorities for parking fees and so on? Certainly not. So why is this legal notice so special that the board must give permission? Is it because of the entity that sent it, or from the nature of the threat and the quantum of the claim, or perhaps because of informal advice from some quarter? What is the basis of the board’s claim that permission was needed to be given. Was it the Memorandum of Association and rules of the Sameeksha Trust, or was it fear? Trustees cannot delegate authority by appointing an editor, and then want to exercise that authority themselves making the editor merely a “hollow man”. This is against the principles of delegation. It appears that some on the board were not even aware of the terms of appointment of the editor for them to determine the crucial issue of jurisdiction and overreach.

Further, the editor apologised for not informing the board about his response to the notice. I think we must distinguish between “seeking permission to respond” and “informing on grounds of propriety”. I believe the editor, as chief executive officer, did not need permission to respond but he erred in not informing the board and certainly the Chair on behalf of the board since this was a major issue. On receiving the apology, and expressing their displeasure, the matter should have ended there. But some members of the Trust sought to curtail the editor’s autonomy by suggesting that his articles should be vetted by a specially-appointed co-editor. This is outrageous. Even if it was not accepted, the fact that such a proposal was aired in the meeting is alarming for it seems that the growing culture of censorship is creeping into even the EPW board.

From their deliberations, as reported in the media, and as can be culled from the statements by both the trustees and the editor, the discussions in the special meeting did not seem to consider the interests of EPW. Does EPW have so little national and international standing that some threat from some company, however big, can cause it to quake? Companies also have to worry about “reputational risk” and defamation is not an easy case to establish in the Indian courts. Is not the first duty of the board to defend its editor that this board itself had chosen? Will not the impact of sacking the editor, or even accepting his resignation in this case, give the impression that the trustees have succumbed to fear and threat? Have not many of us, including members of the Trust, expended many column inches talking about intolerance, about stifling of dissent and about freedom of expression? Should we not then confront such questions in the case being discussed? Must those arguments and their response in this case not be in alignment?

Unanimity of the board

This brings me to the third major issue that needs to be debated, the unanimity in the board on the steps to be taken. There was not even one dissenting voice on whether it is right for the editor to seek the permission of the Trust to respond to the notice, on whether the editor should be reprimanded, on whether the offending articles should be taken down, on whether the resignation should be accepted.

Sadly and surprisingly, the leading public intellectuals who comprise members of the Trust showed complete unanimity. Such a degree of unanimity is never found among liberal scholars, especially since they are known to involve fine points of principle and complex readings of what these principles are, while making their decisions. Such unanimity can only emerge when either members submit to hierarchical authority, of the Left or of the Right, or when there has been no application of mind, or when they constitute a club. Did six autonomous intellectuals achieve such unanimity after thinking about strategy, tactics, the interests of EPW, and principles of free expression? Something is not right here.

Taking down articles

The fourth major issue is whether the articles should be taken down. From what has already been said it is clear that the trustees could have waited, could have dared Adani to proceed with the case, could have offered Adani the opportunity to present a rejoinder (as is often done), could have informally examined the facts presented, and could have, in fact, even initiated further investigations of the workings of the company. Its Non-Performing Assets, tax breaks, corporate governance, environmental challenges, invoicing could all be investigated. The EPW research community is a formidable group of people who will be able to investigate all aspects of a company’s working, from company law to Environmental Impact Assessment to human rights. No company would want to face the wrath of the EPW knowledge community especially in the age of social media. The reputational risk would be too great. But the trustees behaved as a company board of directors, or perhaps a politburo. Not as heirs to Krishna Raj.

Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.