Controversy rages at prestigious Indian weekly

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On July 18, after just over a year on the job, the editor of India’s prestigious Economic and Political Weekly, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, suddenly and sensationally resigned. He had earlier been a celebrated journalist-crusader against crony capitalism. He was appointed editor of EPW in April 2016.

On July 18, at a meeting of the governing board of the Sameeksha Trust, which runs the EPW and includes eminent academics such as Deepak Nayyar, DN Ghosh, Romila Thapar, Dipankar Gupta, Rajeev Bhargava and Shyam Menon, Thakurta was asked to to take down from the journal’s website a controversial article published on June 14 by him and three others titled “Modi government’s Rs500 crore bonanza to the Adani Group?”

Adani Power, a subsidiary of the powerful Adani business group led by Gautam Adani, who is considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had issued a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP), threatening legal action against the authors of the article and the publishers of EPW, for allegedly making a defamatory charge of   evasion by the company of customs duty to the tune of about 5 billion rupees (US$78.5 million) in connivance with the the government of the day. It was alleged that not only had the company never paid the tax due, it had claimed a refund.

The Sameeksha Trust noted that Thakurta had unilaterally filed a legal response to the defamation suit by the Adani business group without first informing the Trust and getting its approval. He had claimed on the other hand that the response was being issued on the instructions of the Trust. He did apologize, however.

The Trust accused Thakurta of acting in a “grossly improper manner amounting to breach of trust.” The instruction to take down the controversial article from the website was an action that had never before been witnessed in the history of the journal.

Thakurta told the trustees that he could legally defend his article in court. However, they asked him not to publish anything in future under his byline, adding that they would appoint an associate editor. He felt humiliated and submitted his resignation forthwith.

It would seem that the trustees had already made up their minds ahead of the meeting to make it impossible for Thakurta to continue as editor.  It is not clear whether they were acting under political pressure.

A political commentator has noted that “given its collective wisdom and past reputation for transparency as an institution”, the Sameeksha Trust needed to explain why it chose to remove the controversial article from the EPW website. The editor had admitted to and apologized for his procedural lapse in not informing the Trust about the legal notice received from the Adani group and for replying to the notice on behalf of the Trust without its approval, had subsequently resigned.

But the main question asked by many, including senior EPW staff, remained  unanswered: What was the reason for the removal of the contested article from the EPW website?

The journal’s previous editor, C Rammanohar Reddy, also had to put in his papers in early 2016 after differences with the Trust on issues relating to the raising of funds for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the journal. Reddy suggest this might not be a coincidence.

The longest-serving editor, however, had been the legendary Krishna Raj, who had been with the journal from 1969 to the early 2000s.

Controversy has raged over the happenings in the EPW since Thakurta’s resignation. The editorial staff of the journal expressed concern over the unprecedented taking down of an article from the website, which had never happened since the journal came into existence in 1966.

In The Indian Express on July 24, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Professor Angus Deaton expressed concern over the treatment meted out to Thakurta by the Sameeksha Trust and the taking down from the EPW website of an “extensively researched” article on the powerful Adani Group.

They said: “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 to 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.

“In India today, where liberty and freedom of expression are severely under attack, courage with critical judgment must have a hugely important role.”

Professors Romila Thapar and Dipankar Gupta of the Sameeksha Trust responded in The Indian Express on July 27 that transparency was essential in investigative writing in order to clarify on what basis the charges were made. Arguments based on anonymous sources or sources that cannot be revealed hardly made for serious debate, they said.

More tellingly, Professor Ashok Mitra, a founder of the EPW, prolific contributor to the journal and former finance minister of West Bengal state, has stated that the Sameeksha Trustees, who selected the editor, should have stood by him and faced the challenge posed by Adani’s SLAPP.

Trustees are to protect the sovereignty of editorial policies from intrusion from any quarter, Mitra said, but precisely the reverse had happened in this case. Trustees are not super-editors. They should have fixed tenures; must infuse fresh ideas into the editorial team; and must strengthen the spirit to resist pressures.

“New members should be drawn from a wider regional and academic base, and should have made substantial contribution by writing in the EPW,” he said. “They should be able to stand up to coercive threats and pressures, both from the political establishment and from business groups and other powerful interests.”

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee wrote in The Wire on July 24 that the Sameeksha trustees seemed primarily concerned with the editor’s breach of procedural norms in hiring a lawyer without consulting them.

The trustees had asked Thakurta to pull down the disputed article from the journal’s website, and asked him not to write under his own byline in the journal he edits without their prior approval; they also said they would appoint an associate editor. Thakurta was thus left with no option but to resign, Bhattacharjee said.

The Trust said it was committed to upholding the EPW’s scholarly reputation but was completely silent on the political nature of the whole incident. The Trust seemed not to be serious about maintaining the larger ethos it claims to represent. Bhattacharjee asked: “Why is the Trust completely silent on the legal threat” posed by Adani’s defamation notice? Members of the Trust defend freedom of speech in other contexts. What stops them from seeing their silence as a glaring case of hypocrisy?

Other scholars felt the fact that a legal notice was sent to Thakurta and the publishers of EPW over an ongoing investigation on the tweaking of rules that had benefited the Adani Group was unsurprising. Legal notices had become the standard means used to intimidate and suppress investigative journalism. When they translate into court cases that can extend over years, they obviously add to costs and further harassment of honest journalists.

However, as long as all the published material can be adequately substantiated and verified, there was little reason to fear an adverse result from the judicial process. But publishers must stand behind and back the editor if the journal is to maintain its independence and credibility.

The scholars felt that reports of apparent capitulation by the  Sameeksha Trust by removing an offending article from the EPW website and of the imposition of humiliating terms on Thakurta alarmed readers. The EPW had a distinguished tradition of promoting independent and critical thinking vital to democracy.

The Sameeksha trustees need to be mindful of the legacy that they hold in trust on behalf of scholars, analysts and activists in India and abroad, who have contributed to EPW over the decades. They need to take immediate steps to restore the prestige and credibility of the EPW and the Sameeksha Trust.

‘The Sameeksha Trust, as a body accountable to the larger public, must create channels of communication between the Trust and the EPW community so as to strengthen the autonomy and integrity of the weekly.

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