Freedom of Expression

Ashok Mitra to EPW Trustees: Protect Editor’s Independence, Face up to Legal Threats

Text of letter sent by the economist and former West Bengal finance minister to Deepak Nayyar and D.N. Ghosh of the Sameeksha Trust.

Ashok Mitra. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Ashok Mitra, the well-known scholar-economist, former finance minister of West Bengal, founding trustee of the Sameeksha Trust and long-time contributor to the Economic and Political Weekly, has joined the list of those dismayed by the recent turn of events at the journal in which an article on the Adani group was taken down and the editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who had also co-authored that article, resigned.

The Wire has obtained a copy of the letter Mitra has sent to Deepak Nayyar and D.N. Ghosh, head trustee and managing trustee respectively, of the Sameeksha Trust which publishes EPW.

Given the public interest issues at stake, we are publishing the text of Mitra’s letter below:

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Dear Deepak and Dhrubababu,

I wish I did not have to impose on you this letter which certainly does not make pleasant reading. I however see no alternative. You will perhaps appreciate the fact that I have scrupulously avoided taking a public stand on the controversies that have been going on around the Sameeksha Trust and the Economic and Political Weekly. But the latest development, which has gone to the length of the trustees insisting that the editor must abide by the views of a co-editor who will vet whatever he writes is against the very purpose of setting up the trust in 1966.

Please allow me to recount some bits of past history. Sachin Chaudhuri had founded a unique journal, the Economic Weekly in 1949. It was a unique experiment because alongside comments on contemporary issues, it also carried serious academic essays concerning the various aspects of different social sciences.

The Economic Weekly was financed by a family business group. Way back in 1966, Sachin Chaudhuri resented a remark made over the telephone by a representative of this family and chose to shut down the periodical. Friends immediately gathered around to raise adequate funds to sustain a journal of the nature of the Economic Weekly without having to seek funds from private entities.

This was how the Sameeksha Trust was born. The trustees are supposed to protect the sovereignty of editorial policies from interference from any quarters. It is ironical that the present trustees have decided to do precisely the reverse of the original purpose for establishing the trust. The role of the Sameeksha Trust was never to act as super editors who will oversee the editorial competence of the editor selected by them barely a year ago. If the editor had to be sacked because he wrote a piece questioning what he thought were shady practices indulged by a particular business group, it could then well be argued by a cynic that the trustees who selected the editor also deserved to be sacked.

In any event, it is important to ensure that EPW continues to play its role as an independent voice of academics, activists and journalists, many of whom have always been opposed to the policies of the ruling establishment and business oligarchy. I hope you will quickly find a new editor who can restore the credibility of the journal.

Let me add here something which I feel strongly about. I think the time has come for the trustees to reflect on the composition and functioning of the trust. Many of the members have been handpicked from a narrow academic circle largely centred in Delhi. I have a few suggestions that I hope you will consider without us having to engage in a public debate.

Firstly, I think the members of the trust should have a fixed tenure of say five or at most ten years and should make way for others at the end of his/her tenure. This will be an opportunity for instilling fresh ideas as well as strengthening the spirit to resist pressures. Many of you have served for decades, and it is time to invite younger economists and social scientists to gradually replace the current members over the course of the next year or so.

Secondly, the new members should be drawn from a wider regional and academic base, and should have made substantial contribution by writing in the EPW. 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.

Thirdly, the Sameeksha Trust must be prepared for more legal threats and coercion and work harder than before to protect editorial sovereignty and complete independence of the editor and editorial staff to pursue the mandate implicit in EPW’s progressive record and credentials.

I hope you will take this advice from an old man, who was involved in founding the trust and the journal and has spent a significant part of his life in helping to strengthen the EPW. My decision to invite the two of you to join the trust was based on my belief that you will do exactly that.

I look forward to a response and your reactions to my suggestions.

Ashok Mitra

PS: Somebody this morning told me about Romila [Thapar] and Dipankar [Gupta]’s letter in the Indian Express. It does not impress me, what the eminent professors say is not the final word. The final word lies with the judiciary. As Paranjoy [Guha Thakurta] says, till now he has a clean slate.

  • Anjan Basu

    An unequivocal message from a straight-talking man. As one of EPW’s oldest and most consistent contributors, Ashok Mitra carries a formidable reputation that few will find it easy to challenge. One of the several notable points that he makes here is about the journal’s original mission: ‘.. Alongside comments on contemporary issues, it ( EPW) also carried serious academic essays….”, he writes, thereby making it abundantly clear that ‘pure’ academics ( if there is indeed any such thing as that ) was never EPW’s sole — or even the most important — pre-occupation. Indeed, we, who have read and admired EPW for decades, also never looked upon the journal as only a specialists’ domain. ( Had that been so, many lay readers like myself would have been obliged to keep their distance from EPW). Ashok Mitra’s assertion gives the lie to some snide suggestions now circulating to the effect that the Trustees were dismayed — and legitimately so — by the journal’s recent departure from exacting academic standards. The Wire has done us a great service by bringing to everyone’s attention the opinion of one of EPW’s most authentic voices.