Not only did the Sameeksha Trust give in to corporate bullying, but the fact that two editors left on bad terms indicates that the Board has not made an effort to connect with the editor or staff.
This is the first article in a two-part series on recent events at EPW and where to go from here.
That Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) enjoys a global reputation and punches well above its weight bears testimony to the quality and vibrancy of Indian intellectual life, but also to the dedicated labour of love of a string of editors who have successfully mined these rich seams of scholarship. It has functioned as an open interrogative space for informed public debate, advocacy and activism, a wide spectrum of rigorous academic research and for a critical engagement with public policy issues of the day. It has resisted becoming a loyal mouthpiece for institutionalised politics of any one banner-waving or card-carrying band. And above all, it has maintained high quality and impeccable probity. It is inevitable that EPW, its tent and pennant pitched at the volatile crosscurrents of intellectual and political life, would be periodically buffeted by squabbles and squalls.
However, the recent brace of instances involving the peremptory sacking of the last two editors has been extraordinary in that it has spotlighted the involvement of the board of trustees of the Sameeksha Trust (which publishes EPW), whether through acts of omission – lack of mindful proactive oversight – or of commission – its proclivity for wielding a wild axe as a problem solver. The present episode constitutes nothing short of an existential crisis for the journal. Even if it was going to be drawn into a prolonged battle, EPW had to stand its ground in the face of corporate bullying. Instead, the Board scuttled the editor and ducked for cover with remarkable alacrity at the first “boo” – EPW values were jettisoned, its good name priced and bartered down the river. Perhaps there are good answers to all such queries, but nothing in the public domain thus far allays these anxieties.
Be that as it may, these upheavals also have a useful cathartic function and provide a chance to put the Sameeksha house in better order. It is distasteful to view all sorts of laundry up on the line, none of it spotlessly clean, but this visibility does draw attention to some deeper problems. These crises could well have been preempted by more functionally viable structures for institutional governance and editorial decision making. Not just the Board, but also other parts of the EPW operational architecture appear to be somewhat dysfunctional. It would be a missed opportunity if structural issues were left unaddressed at this point of inflexion. Business a usual, carrying on with the same modus operandi with just another new editor, would only be counter-productive and self-destructive in the (not so) long run.
The two contrasting editor-sacking episodes are tantamount to achieving low grades in two different subject areas – not a good report card to take home – so it is fortunate for the Board that it acts free of any parental oversight. Taken together, the two crises suggest a deficit in any effective, healthy operational understanding and a breakdown or absence of regular channels of communication between the Board and the editor. Since the Board ultimately lays down the rules, it must also then carry the can for such lapses. Formally laid down rules are generally devised to avert undesirable situations; but for good practice it is necessary to go beyond this, and a happy and productive shop is based on a proactive, friendly informality and sustained interaction between editorial and oversight levels on matters of significance. In contrast, it seems there was very little contact between the Board and the back room of the journal and, going by the dismissed editor’s account, the trustees’ boardroom manner would not qualify as being particularly collegial either.
The response of the Board to a procedural misunderstanding has been graceless. Instead of standing up to bullying corporate threats, it has disingenuously made a scapegoat of an editor it had itself appointed just the other day, extolling his well-earned and respected credentials as an uncompromising watchdog for democratic governance. This, in an era where Indian institutions and politics appear to be sliding with alarming speed into forms of plutocracy hallmarked by the bear-hug between corporates and successive governments (whether secularly or communally oriented) in power. The outgoing editor’s exposé on the Adani group’s interface with the government was entirely in character and could hardly have come as a surprise, since that is the genre of work for which he is known and respected.
To a lay member of the EPW community, several disturbing thoughts come to mind.
Highlighting cases tantamount to extra-constitutional corporate capture of national and public resources, the exercise of undue influence of heavy corporates over government policy and so on – isn’t this squarely part of what EPW is all about? The Board has instead tried to position its eminent collective body mass behind the fig leaf of its allegation of procedural impropriety by the editor, in having initiated legal steps without getting prior clearance from the Board. But perhaps the editor, exercising his autonomy and in good faith, imagined that to be the right way to go about it, using what he regarded as indirect delegated authority to execute the business of the journal and presuming all along that the Board would stand in support. Remember that this is a matter ultimately concerning content, and the editor is supposed to enjoy complete editorial independence. Even if one goes along with the Board taking umbrage at such a procedural lapse on the part of the editor, was this not a matter to sort out between themselves, and in so doing also develop a better understanding of their mutual roles? Why immediately make a sacrificial lamb of the editor?
What does such procedural impropriety have to do with the decision to take the article down from EPW’s website? The editor apparently confirmed the factual accuracy of the material used. Methods of validation and triangulation perhaps differ between serious investigative journalism and traditional academic research. But surely, when appointing the editor, the Board should have known of his predilections and the likely reorientation of EPW content and associated methodologies. Even after receiving “the letter”, the article in question could have been vetted internally by EPW for legality instead of leaping to such precipitate action. If found wanting, corrections and/or an apology could have been issued for specific problematic contentions. Or if they withstood the internal test, the Adani group could have been asked to specify factual or other errors as perceived by them; they could have been given the right of reply and debate – and this could have set up a robust precedent for negotiating any other such corporate bullying encounters. In not doing so, and given the editor’s assurance that there is nothing substantively incorrect in the articles, the onus is on the Board to place its objections, other than the procedural, on the table.
Anyway, why panic about a pushy letter, not even a formal legal challenge, on behalf of Adani? Why not upscale the issue – let it travel to the courts and into the wider public domain? Instead, the Board instantly threw in the towel, followed by a mystifying corrosive silence in the face of the wave of disbelief and dismay from the EPW community. Possibly the Board really has nothing more credible to add beyond the unconvincing statements put out after inordinate delay, still leaving key questions unresolved.
One unhappy academic has raised a separate concern about the unanimity of the Board in making its remarkable decision, suggesting that such unanimity reflects perhaps the force of internal authority. I think personally that such a deduction is not justified – the announcement of a collective decision does not imply that there might have been no disagreements within the Board, but simply that they followed the principle of collective responsibility for Board decisions – and that indeed is as it should have been. The problem really is not in the declaration of formal unanimity per se but in the actual content of the unanimous decision, or what the unanimity was about.
It is right, though, to point to the very considerable knowledge, institutional and media resources that EPW could marshal from its own vast network of supporters in calling the bluff of the Adani challenge. Of course, it is possible to overestimate the extent, resilience and stamina of such support. It is easy for a major corporate to keep filing lawsuits in this or that court to seriously harass and disrupt the work and lives of its opponents. Also, it appears that corporate houses could themselves have organised support of trolls on social media; some of those attacking EPW at present (using as ammunition the allegations against the editor in the letter written by EPW staff to the Board) could be the same identities that had earlier trolled environmental activists opposing Adani mining investments in Australia. Clearly the corporate world is up to speed and media savvy. But all this notwithstanding, some have argued that, faced with the prospect of counteractions and resistance via social media channels, the Adani camp might have baulked at acting in ways that could have multiplied reputational damage to its brand.
Also of note is the worrying content of the letter of EPW staff to the Board pertaining to the editorial practices and personal conduct of the editor – but sent, significantly, only after the editor had resigned. The timing and nature of this sideshow reflect poorly on the quality of communication and interaction between the various levels of EPW. The letter also pointedly observes that barring occasional visits from one trustee, none of the others had ever set a single big boot into the EPW engine room.
Perhaps it is time to draw a line under this disturbing episode and move on from a catalogue of recriminations to a template for reforms at governance and editorial levels.
Ashwani Saith is professor emeritus at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and former chair and director of the Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics. He is editor and current chair of the editorial collective of Development and Change, and was a street seller of past issues of Economic Weekly and subscriptions to Economic and Political Weekly during its 1960s crisis.