Adani Would Have Bankrupted EPW, and the Trustees Themselves

The Indian Trust Act specifically forbids delegation of trustee responsibilities. Therefore, attacking the trustees for taking fright or capitulating may perhaps be a little inaccurate.

From left to right: Sameeksha Trust members Deepak Nayyar, Romila Thapar, Dipankar Gupta, Rajeev Bhargava

To many of us it would seem that the sense of tragedy within the scattered Indian Left is being re-enacted in the unprecedented attack on members of the Sameeksha Trust in the wake of the recent resignation of the Economic and Political Weekly’s editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. I am sure that when the dust eventually settles, the skirmish would be seen as a proxy  to family quarrels within the Left by social scientists who study such things. Preying on each other within the walls of a dilapidated family haveli seems to be inappropriate for the otherwise trustworthy and renowned authors who have mistakenly written with so much conviction, in The Wire, about the misdemeanours of the Sameeksha trustees.

Our progressive movements, once reasonably cohesive, have now begun slowly to drift into multiple hubs, each out to choose from a variety of  active as well as passive modes of resistance. Today, it has become difficult to find any semblance of a consensus amongst our progressives. In the absence of charismatic leaders, it is only natural that each polycentre has its own take on how to re-boot the country’s political systems, institutions and social classes. It comes as no surprise then for some to imagine that even changing trustees might help EPW’s cause.

I must confess, before I go any further, that I do not have the status of  all those who have articulated their strong objections to the conduct of the Sameeksha trustees in their letters and articles. Regrettably, EPW has not played a major role in my life, nor have I become a successful academic and a writer because of it. Nor have I been in such a position of trust to be invited to edit a volume on independent India as seen through the pages of EPW over the past 50 years. I confess my handicap and disadvantage at the outset. Apart from some minor pieces, I have so far only contributed one special article to EPW and have now been waiting since April for its sequel to be cleared by the editors. I may be quite mistaken in interpreting this long wait as a validation of the thorough vetting that the entire editorial staff exercises to  safeguard the extremely high quality of information that comes to us week after week  regardless of this or that editor sitting in the chair.

Like many, I have enjoyed reading what has appeared in The Wire with great interest. With them, I have shared all the serious arguments of  the authors as well as all their stories about the wonderful things that used to happen in the good old days including how an outstanding historian is said to have commented that the trustees treat the editor as a “glorified bell boy”.

Although we know that these angry pieces have been written by those who deeply love the EPW it makes it doubly confusing to understand the reasons for their attacks. Its as if a child is pulling her mother’s hair to regain her attention. I cannot understand what would make them utter oracular predictions about the journal’s imminent death, forgetting that authors, hearing the prediction, would consider it futile to wait to be published. It’s the bitterness that is so unexpected.

On the other hand, Partha Chatterjee’s  and Ramachandra Guha’s recalling of the good old days of Krishna Raj has been fascinating to read. Their pieces have sketched for us the broad settings of the current  tragedy. This is not to discount the signatories to a statement that appeared soon after Guha-Thakurta’s resignation but one needs to remain at  a safe distance just to discuss the entire matter in an informed and dispassionate way. That hurriedly cobbled together reaction is best left as that since some signed and withdrew while others first signed and then inquired about  the matter. Nevertheless, I am intrigued, as an outsider, by the number of prescriptions that quarrelsome writers have laid down for the managers of EPW. They may make for a good read in the absence of fuller facts.

Unfortunately these prescriptions leave one with an aftertaste of presumptuousness which reinforces the pointlessness of the prescriptions. For instance, H.L. Mencken, who was  born in 1880,  has been written into one such prescription.  It is not at all clear why Mencken’s advice is being lauded as a model for replication in a left weekly: “….a magazine is a despotism or it is nothing. One man and one man alone must be responsible for its essential contents”. Nor am I sure whether such a Custer style editorial stand of days gone by is appropriate for today’s journals. Its been a while since Custer attitudes amongst editors perished and such editorial despotism could be somewhat out of synchrony with today’s times.

For now it would seem more relevant to refer to the Sameeksha Trust Deed, para 3 (e) which lays down the powers of the trustees:

“To appoint or terminate the service of, or to determine the terms and conditions of service of the members of the staff of the Trust and the institutions established by or aided by the Trust and all persons employed by or doing the  work of the Trust”.

Hardly the circumstances for an editor to leaf through the sayings of Mencken and circle the wagons to defend himself from his employers and Gautam Adani. Of course, I quite agree that  editors should not be humiliated  if they make that last stand, but then I have no reason to think that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is saying what he is while bandaging the wounds of humiliation inflicted by the trustees.

Trustees kept EPW going financially

The articles that have targeted the trustees also have plenty of interesting bits of information. Some relate to stories about how C. Rammanohar Reddy was able to save the EPW from certain death a decade ago. We read how he had, in a life-saving move, beseeched the Nilekani’s and Tata Trusts to donate money to enable continuing the work of EPW. The story narrates how the trustees were unwilling or unable to shoulder the responsibilities for the journal’s financial viability. On reading about the ex- editor’s fund raising skills,  I asked the Sameeksha trustees for clarification. I should perhaps explain the  reason for my confusion. I happen to have some awareness about fundraising by a trust. I too had been a trustee for ten years of a similar public trust  and that trust too had successfully obtained funds from the Tata Trusts. Almost the first question asked by the donor is “…and who are the other trustees?”.

The funding for survival story seems to be exaggerated or even perhaps imaginary. It transpires, on inquiry,  that more than a decade before Reddy became editor, in the early 1990s, the same trustees had mobilised resources to create a corpus which had never existed till then. At that time, the Tata Trusts had made a donation. Later, during Reddy’s tenure, it was the Sameeksha trustees who had first approached not only the Nilekanis but the Tata Trust  as well. With the earlier donations, the trustees were able to embody the corpus into a house for the editor and an office space for the EPW Research Foundation  in Mumbai. They have also been able to periodically raise the salaries of the EPW staff , who seem to work there with unrivalled commitment.

It is not my intention to place narratives and counter narratives here for the sake of gossip. The harsh reality is that it is the trust deed which clarifies all these responsibilities for fund raising:

“The Trustees have the power from time to time to accept grants, donations, bequests and contributions comprising of cash or other property… for the purposes of the Trust… and to work in collaboration and association or affiliation with any other individual, association, corporation, body or authority which would, in the opinion of the Trustees, further the purpose of the Trust”.

For the same reasons, I find it difficult to believe the riveting story about  how the trustees of Sameeksha capitulated after taking fright from Adani’s legal notice. In trying to piece together what could have provoked such a serious charge, I relied on my common sense which tells me that Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta must have unilaterally assumed upon himself  the responsibilities of a trustee. Otherwise how could he  appoint his own counsel by proxy, ignore the trust deed and then go about his business concealing a legal notice that had been addressed to the trustees?

The Indian Trust Act specifically forbids delegation of trustee responsibilities. Therefore, attacking the trustees for taking fright or capitulating may perhaps be a little inaccurate. At the risk of being boring, I will quote, once again, from the trust deed. It is the responsibility of the trustees:

“To file and defend suits and appeals in any court in the Union of India and to sign and declare and verify all plaints, written statements, appeals… and to make all necessary petitions, affidavits… and to accept all summons, notices… do all such ministerial acts …deemed proper by the Trustees  without being responsible for loss or any exercise of such discretionary powers…”

Clearly, contrary to what is being implied, the trust  has gradually secured its corpus, as trusts are wont to do, helped and aided by the generosity of donors. Sameeksha, being a public charitable trust,  began with a corpus of Rs 1000/-  and got registered in 1966 under the Bombay Public Trusts Act 1950.  Since then, under the management  of various trustees, it has grown. There seems little to show that it has ever been mismanaged over the last 50 years, as far as the growth of the weekly and corpus are concerned.

Adani could have bankrupted EPW and its trustees

A corpus is a source of stability for any trust and is not to be bartered away in litigation. Personally, therefore, I regard the taking down of a potentially litigious article as an extremely wise decision that has safeguarded the long term survival and objectives of the trust. Letting the editor, high on Menckenisms, loose into the corporate world would almost certainly have been suicidal.

Adani is no ordinary mortal being and is amongst the ten richest billionaires in India. It’s not a good idea to shoot at him from someone else’s shoulders. The fact is that he sent the first legal notice to the Sameeksha Trust and  followed it up with a separate legal notice that named each of the trustees as individuals. It reveals his intentions to take down all that is the EPW – buildings, editor’s house, the corpus, the trustees and their personal assets – in a long drawn-out suit. The EPW has an iconic value for all social scientists as well as for the larger left community as well. That is why, in the present environment, it is worth considering sheathing daggers, containing the venom and understanding the sacrosanct boundaries of the legal frameworks that regulate trustee responsibilities while considering alternate views about the propriety of taking down the article.

There is  the Bombay Trust Act revised in 1950 and  the larger central Indian Trusts Act of 1882 as well as a trust deed. All three clarify that a trustee cannot delegate his or her responsibilities. The law seems clear enough about the responsibilities of trustees. On the question of the personal liabilities of a trustee,  Indian case law may still be ambiguous but it has been clearly established by case law abroad that a trustee could personally be liable for trust debts and that a trustee’s liabilities cannot be delegated.

I did not face any opaqueness during my dealings with the trustees when I sought their clarifications to write this piece and I am a little surprised as to why none of the attackers made any serious effort to meet any of the trustees before drawing their daggers. They are family. I do not believe for a moment that any useful purpose has been served by Partha Chatterjee’s warning that he will “hold the Trust responsible for the debacle”. A needless dire warning  which the trustees should well ignore. They have enough responsibilities which they are discharging  under the directives of the deed and the other two Acts and so there seems no reason for them to be responsible for a death foretold.

Romi Khosla is a Delhi-based architect and writer

C.Rammanohar Reddy responds:

I am a bit player in Romi Khosla’s grand soliloquy, so I will restrict myself to “a bit” intervention.

I refuse to dignify, with a point by point rebuttal, Khosla’s allegation of “an imaginary role” that he says I played in improving the finances of EPW. All the facts are in the records of EPW and with the trustees of Sameeksha Trust (who Khosla explicitly says are the source of his innuendos, er, facts).

So instead of speaking anonymously through the elegant pen of Khosla, may be the trustee(s) who wish to bring out my “true” role in EPW and their own “true” roles should stop hiding behind him. They should step forward, speak openly and not anonymously. They should then lay out all the correspondence and minutes of trust meetings of that time.

I am curious about two things and aghast about one thing in Khosla’s recital of the “facts”.

I am curious first that 16 months after I left EPW and a decade after the events that Khosla thinks he is describing happened, one or more of the trustees are purveying information to Khosla (and purveying is the word to use) in order to run me down. I never claimed anything, so why this character assassination?

My second curiosity is if this is about the trustees wanting to deny me what they feel is an exaggerated role in securing EPW’s finances, as Khosla says I claim to have had. Or is it actually about the trustee(s) considering it very important to want to claim an (exaggerated) role for themselves?

I am aghast at the fact that one or more of the trustee(s) who have been in office since the early 1990s – Khosla recounts events from the early 1990s, so obviously his source(s) is a senior trustee of the Sameeksha Trust – can stoop to such levels as to want to assault an editor who served the organisation for more than a decade.

Does all this say something about the trustees of Sameeksha Trust or me?

Most important what does such behaviour say about their suitability to hold office and shepherd an important institution like EPW?

– C. Rammanohar Reddy

Editor’s Note:

The Adani article taken down by the Sameeksha Trust was published in The Wire as well.

The Wire, which is published by the not-for-profit Foundation for Independent Journalism, received an identical letter from lawyers representing the Adani group demanding that the article be taken down.

The Wire‘s lawyers have responded to the letter. The article in question has not been taken down and may be read on our site here.

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  • Judy Whitehead

    Strange that The Guardian ran numerous critical articles of the Adani Carmichael Mine Project in Australia. One opinion piece even referred to the Adani Group as ‘cartoon CEO villains’ for their alleged previous disregard of environmental/social legislation both in India and abroad. Are the Adanis threatening to sue the Guardian? If they have, what is the Guardian’s response? And why did Guha-Thakurta’s piece, an all-too common example of crony capitalism worldwide, raise such a furor in India? And what might this say about the decreasing spaces of free speech in India? The trustees should have, at least, supported the editor’s right to write such an article in principle, I think, and tried to work out a mutually beneficial way of dealing with the issue.

    • Anjan Basu


    • Amitabha Basu

      Extremely well put !

  • Avijit Pathak

    One understands the pragmatic and survival reasons for explaining what the trustees have done. Yes, finance is important; the EPW needs revenue for survival; and a war with Mr. Adani might have severely affected the possibility of revenue generation through government ads. However, the trustees are celebrity intellectuals; they cannot say this simple stuff. Hence, they argue that the controversial article is not ‘research based’. This is a clever argument; and only university educated intellectuals can give it. However, this is ridiculous; through the logic of ‘research’ you are essentially hiding the fact that you became afraid; you thought of a strategy to save the EPW from the possible financial/political crisis. Had they accepted it, and confessed it, they could have moved a step forward towards truth. And we are ready to accept it because there are moments when you do not necessarily declare war, and choose a middle path. Possibly these leading intellectuals ought to be humble, and realize that we too as ordinary mortals have the ability to filter, and distinguish truth from falsehood. Yes, we want the EPW to survive and bloom. But then, it needs to be democratized; it needs to save itself from the monopoly of select metropolitan intellectuals/trustees. The academic world is not innocent; there are diverse practices–gross as well as subtle–of exclusion. Friends give awards to each other; branded publishers with celebrity editors choose their own brigade for an edited volume. The irony is that even the ‘leftists’ have been engaging in this politics of exclusion. When do we realize that scholarship alone is not sufficient, if our practices are not filled with wisdom?

  • Anjan Basu

    It is not easy to read through this long, rambling defence of the Sameeksha Trust mounted by Romi Khosla. The defence is disappointing at best, for it fails to address the absolutely central issue: why didn’t the venerable Trust members think of the obvious option of getting back to the Adanis’ lawyer to find out what the Adanis’objections to the article consist of? ( The purely procedural ‘lapse’ on the editor’s part in not seeking the Trust’s concurrence before responding to the lawyer’s letter is just that– a minor procedural error with no impact anywhere except on the Trustees’ hurt ego.) C Rammanohar Reddy’s riposte to Romi Khosla’s rather awkwardly self-congratulatory piece is an adequate response, as is The Wire’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Editor’s Note’ at the foot of Khosla’s sermon.

  • Amitabha Basu

    A more ridiculous justification of the trustees’ decision to take down the article against Adani, and impose unacceptable restrictions on the editor, would be hard to find. Why is it that the trustees, most of whom have been widely respected and followed public intellectuals, seem to be using an unknown (at least relatively) Romi Khosla to present a weak defence of their actions ?

  • This atrocious assault upon free-speech by comprador Neo-Liberal gangsters is the only issue which can unite Progressive forces not just in India but across the world. This is because Progressive forces don’t care about poor people or, indeed, anything alt all which actually matters to ordinary people. They remain stalwart in their resistance to the Hegemonic power of something or the other.

    Jonathan Swift- a notorious neo-liberal who demanded that Irish babies be butchered for their meat so as to satisfy the jaded palates of rich Capitalists – once wrote ‘Behold! a proof of Irish sense! / Here Irish wit is seen! / When nothing’s left, that’s worth defence/ We build a magazine.’

    The EPW magazine was established almost 70 years ago. Its contributors were great academics and intellectuals whose marvellous insights completely put an end to Poverty, Ignorance, Communalism, Capitalism, Corruption, Crime and Casteism. Well, I’m sure they would have done so if they hadn’t been so busy showing that good Indian Communists were silly and naive creatures who prefered writing worthless high falutin articles, as though they were posh White Sahibs, rather than acknowledging they were simple subalterns who knew very well what was going on but were too polite to speak up.

    The Adani’s lawyers targeted both the Sameeksha Trust and The Wire for an article for which both have a defence in law, The Sameeksha Trust had to sack its Editor because of an impropriety he committed. It would have been reckless not to withdraw his article because clearly the Editor was no stickler for the law. The Wire was in a different position. They may have had a good faith belief that the Editor had been delegated authority by some express act known to the Sameeksha Trustees but subsequently denied by them. In any case, they may have independently verified the truth of the article.

    Once the Sameeksha Trustees became aware that the editor they employed broke the law they could not let him publish anything on his own because that would be a reckless course of action and thus a breach of fiduciary duty. Contrary to what is suggested by Khosla, the Trustees could have delegated power in this matter to the Editor. Clearly, they hadn’t done so and both parties have stipulated to this.

    It is indeed heartening that this simple matter can provoke such controversy. Concerned academics have weighed in with wholly irrelevant bromides. Why? The answer is because ‘India is living through a dark period’. The obscurity of the savants is the darkness of the age. Not our age- theirs. I take it these guys are all in their Seventies or Eighties.

  • The Wire

    This comment has been received from Gautam Navlakha and is being posted on his behalf:

    My four decade long association with EPW as a reader, employee and contributor compels me to respond to Romi Khosla’s piece on EPW. I waited 24 hours before penning my thoughts, waiting to see if any Trustee would respond to the apparently flattering piece that is, in actual fact, an expose of the Trustee/s.

    Any publisher knows that legal notices come dime a dozen. Corporate shenanigans have proliferated in India and many exposes are going to surface. Recently, the Guardian newspaper exposed another scam in which the Adani group is implicated.Therefore, to panic at a mere legal notice from the Adani Group, instead of standing by what appeared in EPW, and the Editor the Trustees had themselves selected (keeping even the former Editor Ram Manohar Reddy out of the process), is actually living proof that the present Trustees undercut their own role as custodians of a weekly journal respected for academic research, news analysis, sharp editorials and its intellectual expanse. This conduct of theirs runs contrary to the ethos represented by EPW.

    The rest of Romi Khosla’s defence of the Trustees fares no better.

    Khosla is chary about sharing the name of the Trustee he interacted with so we do not know how many he talked to or was it just one of them. In any case, none of the Trustees, including those who were accessible to Khosla, have answered any of the queries addressed to them, including by their own former colleagues in the Trust. What do they have to hide? Or is it that they fear that their explanation would expose them?

    Yet aspersions are cast by RK on many, including the former editor, Ram Manohar Reddy, after the briefing by a Trustee, and he becomes a willing proxy to settle scores. Such pettiness and spitefulness, if anything, confirms our worst fears that the Trustee concerned appears to represent the thinking of the Trust that they owe no one any explanation and are above accountablility. Such an attitude ought to be alien for the custodians of EPW. But this seems to be the Rule.

    It is sad that the Trustees of the EPW continue to remain in denial and display a closed mind. They appear more keen to protect their own turf and fragile egos. But worse, this write up adds weight to the fear that the Trustees are determined to take EPW down.
    -Gautam Navlakha, New Delhi.

    • Anjan Basu

      Coming from an insider who has worn several EPW hats in his time, this intervention gives the lie to Romi Khosla’s sanctimonious sermon to all and sundry — save and except the Trustees, of course — to ‘behave’. The proxy war that some trustees seem to be fighting through Mr Khosla is distasteful enough in itself. When the spearhead in that war happens to be the somewhat unctuous presentation that Mr Khosla penned here, that ‘war’ also becomes laughable. It is best that the celebrated names on the Sameeksha Trust keep their own counsel rather than ‘hiring’ unprofessional help.