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Mainstream, VOL LV No 32 New Delhi July 29, 2017

EPW confronting Crisis of Identity

Saturday 29 July 2017

by Sankar Ray

The spectre of Sachin Chaudhuri, thefounder of Economic Weekly, which was rechristened as Economic and Political Weekly in the mid-1960s, haunts the corridors of EPW at Lower Parel in Mumbai today. The eerie situation appeared somewhat traumatically with the unceremonious exit of its editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. The resignation from the editorship of India’s internationally prestigious publication was unprecedentedly dramatic as his act questioned the powers of the managing body, Sameeksha Trust (ST), that made it difficult for an upright journalist to carry on with dignity.

His entry into EPW as its editorial head 15 months ago was also unique, as the post was reserved for an economist. PGT did his Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics but was never a practising economist. Instead, he opted for the profession of a journalist. Arguably, he proved his mettle as the most brilliant investigative journalist in at least the last four decades. This writer saw his exacting method of investigative journalism in the mid-1980s when Debashis Basu, PGT and yours truly did an investigative report on a notoriously corrupt official of the Bokaro Steel City branch of the United Bank of India for the now-defunct fortnightly, Update. The incriminating documents were scooped out by myself, but the act of fine-tuning was essentially PGT’s.

The trustees of the ST picked up PGT knowing full well that he was basically a journalist, not an academic, his academic mindset notwithstanding. Grapevine has it that a majority of the Trustees—Deepak Nayyar (economist), Chairman, D.N. Ghosh (ex-Chairman, State Bank of India), Managing Trustee, Romila Thapar (historian), Dipankar Gupta (sociologist), Shyam Mohan (Ambedkar University Vice-Chancellor), Rajiv Bhargava (Director, CSDS), Deepak Parekh (ex-CMD, HDFC) and Jean Dreze (sociologist), all Trustees, had a delayed realisation that EPW was adrift from its emphasis on publishing academic works and papers. But PGT cannot be blamed. However, this is not stated as the reason for the exit of PGT.

The melee, now well-known, was around a story, written by PGT, Abir Dasgupta, EPW’s editorial assistant, and two independent journalists, Advait Rao Palepu and Shinzani Jain, accusing the present NDA Government of extending benefits of about Rs 500 crores to the Adani Power Limited out of the way through what was coined by thewire.in founding editor M.K. Venu as a “duty refund scam” in the introduction to an interview with PGT. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_fHBvngbr) “We believe,” the three writers with PGT as the lead author stated, “the customs authorities are granting a Rs 500 crore refund to the APL although, at the same time, they have not collected duty worth Rs 1,000 crore from the company. A senior officer working in a Gujarat SEZ said, ‘there is no doubt about the fact that the raw materials and consumables are not eligible for any duty exemptions and this is evident from section 6 (c) of the SEZ Act 2005 read with Rules 27 (3) and 53 of the SEZ Rules, irrespective of any other obligations of the infrastructure developer.’” Refuting this, the APL lawyer slapped a legal notice alleging defamation against the company. On the instruction of PGT, a lawyer, C. Bhattacharyya, sent a reply defending every word of the story. This enraged the ST, which had a pre-scheduled meeting on July 18 to discuss a documentary film prjoject coinciding with the golden jubilee of EPW with PGT, and it was converted into a meeting of trial for the editor who was accused of travelling beyond the canons of ‘propriety and faith’. He was informed that a co-editor, and PGT affirmed this in the interview, was even instructed to get every article he would write approved a priori by the ST. Furthermore, the ST directed that the aforementioned article be pulled down (PGT revealed on July 20) and even asked him not to leave the meeting that lasted for 45 minutes until it was done. Only after that he put in his papers in a handwritten sheet.

The mauled editor wanted that the delibe-rations at the meeting be kept undisclosed, evident from his statement to The Hindu on July 18 while confirming his decision to quit, “I have decided to spend more time in Delhi with my family. I was honoured and privileged to be its Editor for 15 months and a little longer.” But the very next day the ST issued a statement in a humilating tone: “"The legal reply (sent on the instruction of Mr GuhaThakurta) falsely began with a statement that it was at the instruction of the Sameeksha Trust. This reply and the legal notice were placed on the EPW website, even before the Chairman and Managing Trustee were informed, so that the Trustees were completely unaware of these developments. On hearing about the matter, a special meeting of the Sameeksha Trust was convened on July 18, 2017 to discuss the issues arising. After discussion, it was conveyed to Mr GuhaThakurta that he had committed a grave impropriety amounting to a breach of trust, in taking a unilateral decision on a matter where any decision could be taken only by the Sameeksha Trust as the governing board. Thereupon, Mr GuhaThakurta submitted his resignation. It was accepted by the Trustees after due deliberation.”

This left PGT with no option other than embarking on a firm defence. “The board and I did not get along any longer. The board lost trust in me,” he disclosed while admitting that there was doubtless ‘a prodedural lapse’ on his behalf. But he also asserted: “To set the record in context, I wish to state the interaction between the trustees and me went beyond what I consider a procedural lapse on my part in failing to seek the prior consent and approval of the Trust before engaging the services of a lawyer to respond to a notice that were served upon me and my co-authors.”

But several questions remained. The ST statement boastfully claimed: “There is no question of the Sameeksha Trust, an independent non-partisan institution, bowing to external pressures of any kind. It never has. It is guided solely by the objectives of maintaining the ethos, quality and standards of EPW, while ensuring spotless propriety and ethics in the working of its staff.” Was the decision to take off the article from the EPW website an endorsement of not “bowing to external pressures of any kind”, when it is public that the APL lawyer demanded so?

The trustees, who attended the ‘special meeting’ (Parekh and Dreze were absentees), seemed to have forgotten that the ST was registered under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950 which covers, among other things, trusts set up for charitable purposes including education. It is answerable to the public, having no private prerogative.

The ST, which is dominated by progressives and persons of proven integrity, leave alone academic excellence, faces a chargesheet from 150-plus academics, civil rights functionaries and social activists including globally admired ones such as Noam Chomsky, Meyer Brown-stone, Akeel Bilgrami, M.V. Ramana, Matt Myer, Kunibert Raffer, Pranab Bardhan and Yilmaz Akyüz. On the decision of taking off the article from the website, they criticised the ST of “offending and trying to impose humiliating terms on the editor”. The ST was reminded of EPW’s “long and distinguished tradition of promoting independent and critical thinking that is vital in a democracy”.

Last, but not the least, Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton, Nobel Laureates in economic science, snapped fingers at the ST, taking up cudgels for the editor: “The editor, who wanted to provide more resistance, even without taking the permission of the trustees, has been forced to resign. The pursuit of truth is crucial in public discussion, but it is not secured by acting in panic. It is important to give authors of investigative articles a fair chance to respond before deciding how to deal with a threat of legal action.”

Strangely enough, acerbic Dr Ashok Mitra whose association with EPW began before its birth during the years of Sachin Chaudhuri, whom Jawaharlal Nehru used to admire, is silent over the issues. Nehru used to eagerly await the EPW copy, even though Chaudhuri was often critical of Nehru and his policies. Silent too is Sumanta Banerjee, a Naxalite intellectual and EPW commentator.

The author, a senior journalist based in Kolkata, specialises in Left politics and history.

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