The EPW Debate is About the Ethics and Politics of Scholarship

EPW’s trustees are fully aware of the current attack on free speech and institutions, including the media and universities. It is bewildering, therefore, to see these concerns completely missing in their statement.

What lies at the end of the tunnel. Credit: Pixabay


The Sameeksha Trust statement clarifying its position on the circumstances leading to Economic and Political Weekly editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigning from his post is public. The trustees say that in hiring a lawyer to respond to a letter sent by the lawyers of the Adani Group without consulting them, Thakurta breached procedural norms. Though Thakurta apologised for this, the statement harps on this particular issue in a strongly worded indictment of the editor, calling his conduct, “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.”

Going by the statement, all that the trustees had a problem with seems to be the procedural lapse by the editor. But then they also asked for an article to be pulled down and for Thakurta not to write under his own byline in the journal he edits – demands that left him with no option but to resign.

While the statement says the Sameeksha Trust is committed to upholding EPW‘s scholarly reputation, there is complete silence on the political nature of the whole incident. A prominent business house accused the editor of making “reckless and highly defamatory” comments in his articles on them. Yet, the Trust’s statement seems to make the editor’s breach of protocol in drafting a reply as the beginning and the end of the problem. Is the editor acting unilaterally the only issue under contention? If yes, this means the Trust is not interested in the larger ethos of the journal it claims to maintain. The larger ethos includes the spirit of critical enquiry that cannot be understood without its political content. In other words, matters of scholarship can’t be (always) distinct from their political context. Why is the Trust completely silent on the legal threat? Does it not constitute a threat to the freedom of speech? Why are members of the Trust, who have defended free speech in other political contexts, shying away from responsibility this time? What   stops us from seeing their silence as a glaring case of hypocrisy?

In this case in particular, the political context also very much includes the nature of the article being asked to be taken down. Is there a question mark on the veracity of the claims made in this article? If the editor is willing to stand by it, on what ethical ground did the trustees demand the article be taken down? Is it not purely official highhandedness and an unethical use of privilege? Surely, the editor’s articles cannot be logically discredited for his ‘unilateral’ act of not consulting the trustees before replying to Adani’s letter?

The other argument floating around by scholars invested in the EPW is that there is a difference between a certain kind of (investigative) journalism and academic writing. EPW is being defined as primarily an academic journal. Despite being a peer reviewed journal, the EPW is not strictly academic like university journals. The novelty of EPW has been its ability to straddle different genres and get writers of diverse backgrounds to contribute. It is this sensibility, I believe, which made the Trust appoint a journalist and political commentator like Guha Thakurta as its editor in the first place. Which other academic journal includes political commentaries without footnotes, literary ‘postscripts’ and even poetry?

The history of EPW defies easy categorisation, and has fruitfully challenged the territorial and hierarchical mindset that academia suffers from. With a similar, long history, the famous French journal, Les Temps modernes, named after Charlie Chaplin’s film, had the reputation of being political, topical and deeply philosophical at the same time. Since its inception in 1945, the journal boasted of people like Sartre, Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, who were philosophers as well as public intellectuals. When writers like André Gide and André Breton accused Sartre of neglecting literature in the journal, he responded with the obfuscating retort, “The world can easily get along without literature. But it can get along even more easily without man.” EPW thankfully does not suffer from Sartrean biases. The French journal saw political rivalries and divisions between board members, but most importantly it never shied away from voicing its political opinions and taking sides in historical events like the Algerian war. EPW too has become more than a data-based, research journal it mostly was earlier. It has become livelier over the years, publishing perspectives on political issues of immediate concern. In today’s times, the EPW has to take sides, stand in solidarity with the larger struggle against censorship.

Coming to the only charge the Sameeksha Trust statement actually makes, it is obvious that the editor flouted the organisation’s bureaucratic norms on the presumption that he would have the support of the Trust. This suggests the editor was depending upon a shared spirit, or ethos, which clearly includes a common political sensibility. The editor thought he enjoyed the trust of the trustees on this   matter of common sensibility. Of course, trust within an institution cannot work on mere assumptions. Institutional rules need to be followed. But is ethics – for a scholarly journal whose primary task is to ask questions – merely based upon issues of functionality and protocol? Does the editor’s action amount to inducing a “breach of trust” in this larger aspect where shared political values are involved? If yes, there seems to be a pretty narrow meaning of ethics being drawn here.  The crucial question of the editor’s credibility and self-respect is being undermined. We hear, the editor’s self-respect has been violated as well. Should breaking with protocol lead to humiliation? In the case of EPW, which claims to uphold issues of ethical scholarship, such questions will be raised

For the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as much as for Gandhi, ethics  involves what he called, “a fine risk to be run”. The practice of ethics involves risk, as opposed to safety, which involves compromise or indifference. No (historic) political achievement has been possible without taking a risk. The editor was willing to take that risk. The Trust’s statement does not hold such a promise as far as the trustees are concerned. The encounter between members of the Trust and the editor seems to suggest the editor had all the explanations to make but the Trust had none. This amounts to the unethical use of power. The meaning of ethics, as Levinas argued, is primarily a demand the self makes on itself, in the face of the question posed by the other. Justice lies in responding to that question in the full measure of one’s responsibility. The one who waits for the answer or verdict is more vulnerable than the one who offers it. Was the editor’s vulnerability considered by the trustees? The reluctance of the Trust to take a risk and allow the editor to defend his own writing amounts to a refusal of trust in advance. Who has committed a breach of trust then? The question of risk or not taking a risk, in this case, concerns the future of EPW as a journal. And that future cannot be narrowly defined as safeguarding a hallowed academic space without paying heed to principles of public ethics.

It appears from the language of the statement that the Trust would have directed Guha Thakurta to take down the article even if he had followed protocol and sought the trustees’ approval in responding to the Adani letter. If a procedural lapse is so serious, what about the ethical blindness of the trustees? The Sameeksha Trust takes it upon itself to practice censorship as well as punish the editor. But there is another ethical relationship to worry of – with the reading public. In the eyes of many concerned individuals, the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the professional aspect of the case, as much as the political. Members of the Trust know about the current attack on free speech and institutions, including the media and universities, and have often voiced their intellectual concerns on this. It is bewildering, then, to see these concerns completely missing in their statement.

By giving precedence to a procedural misdemeanour over the threat of powerful corporate houses, the Sameeksha Trust sets a disturbing precedent. Ramnath Goenka, in carrying a blank editorial in the Indian Express, had exercised his editorial authority in the face of censorship and intimidation during the Emergency. Goenka’s gesture is not to be read in purely journalistic terms, but as a creative response to political censorship. Today even the editor’s autonomy is under threat. We are witnessing the alarming erasure of the editor’s voice in big national newspapers. The prerogative of the editor is under threat today. The logic of the market appears to be the determining factor in the gradual disappearance of the editor’s role. In such a scenario, it is more important than ever not to miss the political question behind institutional ethics. And to keep in mind that the question of ethics is more fundamentally a political question, rather than merely a procedural one.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.