Education

Chronicle of an Act of Censorship Not Foretold

As the editors of a social science journal resign, Apoorvanand asks: ‘Why do powerful people tasked with furthering glorious intellectual legacies turn out to be gods with feet of clay?’

Council for Social Development. Credit: Twitter

Council for Social Development. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: Earlier this month, The Wire reported the resignation of the editors of scholarly journal Samajik Vimarsh in the face of attempts by the administration of the Council for Social Development (CSD) to interfere in the working of the editorial team and usurp its powers.

In separate letters to Muchkund Dubey, the president of the CSD, academics Apoorvanand and Dhruva Narayan detailed several attempts by Dubey as well as CSD director Ashok Pankaj to stall the launch of the journal – which was due to be launched this January – and to deliberately undermine their authority as editors.

The idea behind the peer-reviewed journal – to be published in collaboration with Sage Publications – was to address the lack of serious, rigorous social science scholarship in Hindi and to give space to diverse viewpoints.

“Apparently the contents of the journal were thought to be anti-government and also the reason for the governmental agencies not granting the registration number or delaying it. I was also told there was an impression that the contributors belonged to a particular line of thought and there was no diversity of viewpoints.”

In response to requests, we are publishing below the full text of the two resignation letters, along with a short introduction from Apoorvanand.


It was a difficult decision for us to withdraw from the struggle of bringing out Samajik Vimarsh. Let us admit that the invitation from the Council for Social Development to bring out a journal of social science in Hindi had come as a surprise to us. We were aware of the challenges that the journal was going to face. But the enthusiastic support from the scholarly community gave us strength.
Let us also say that the conduct of Sage as publishers was exemplary. They made all efforts to get the official ‘RNI number’ necessary for launching a journal. It was the bureaucratic lethargy of the government agencies which kept the journal on hold. Sage had merely communicated to us once that an official from the ministry had raised questions about a review mentioning JNU. But Sage never ever asked us to drop any article. To be fair to them, they respected editorial autonomy and tried other ways of getting the RNI number. This begs the questions, of course, of why a journal must go through the labyrinth of government departments to get a simple RNI number and why the government should insist on examining the content of a journal.
Ironically, it was the CSD which started getting apprehensive about the potential anti-government stance of the journal and its apparent Leftist bias. The fear was a result of its fantasy but the administration chose to drown the journal instead of defending the right to free academic enquiry.

The question that this and the Economic and Political Weekly episodes have raised is why some of the most powerful people who are entrusted with the task of carrying forward a glorious legacy turn out to be gods with feet of clay.

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Text of Apoorvanand’s resignation letter:

To
Professor Muchkund Dubey
President, Council For Social Development

Sub: Resignation from the post of Editor, Samajik Vimarsh

7 October 2017

Respected Sir,

This letter is to inform you of my decision to resign from the post of Editor, Samajik Vimarsh, the Hindi journal of the CSD, proposed to be published in collaboration with Sage Publications.

I had been contemplating doing so for the last six months after I noticed attempts by the CSD administration to interfere in the working of the editorial team of the journal and usurp its powers. Till now, going against my own instincts I had restrained myself from taking this step.

I tried to explain to you personally our editorial policy. I went out of my way to share with you and your team the content of the journal and the rationale behind the selection of the articles. I had expected the administration to see reason. Yesterday I realised that I was wrong.

The letter by the Director, CSD to Ms. Neetu Kalra of Sage Publications, asking her to withhold the publication of the journal’s inaugural issue, has convinced me that the administration is simply not interested in its publication and is trying to wriggle out of its commitment using various technicalities. The reason given in the mail by the Director is that a legal issue has arisen as the journal is being published without the approval of the Registrar of Newspapers and this needs to be resolved before the journal is published.

The letter in itself is improper as it bypasses not only the editors but also Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty, the Vice President of the CSD who is now the Head of the Research and Publications Committee. He has been supervising the functioning of the journal on behalf of the CSD administration and is in regular touch with both editors and the publisher. The letter was rushed to Sage without even informing the editors and the head, RPC, let alone consulting them. It breaks the chain of command and has for all practical purposes made the editorial team and the Head of the RPC redundant.

You were aware that Sage took a decision to go ahead with the publication of the journal, while pursuing its request for the RNI number ten days ago. Accordingly it had informed the editorial team that it would like to bring out the inaugural number in 2017 itself. It had waited for more than a year for the RNI number and believed that after securing the title ‘Samajik Vimarsh’ it could go ahead with its publication. Sage is an international publisher and brings out numerous journals in collaboration with institutions across countries. It is inconceivable that it would even think of committing any illegality for the sake of one

journal. It must have consulted its legal team before going ahead with the publication of the journal, while the registration process was underway.

We, as part of the editorial team, have been waiting patiently for the last one year for clearance from Sage. The journal should have been launched in January, 2017 itself. The first edition of the journal was ready and papers and articles for the next two also had been finalised so that the schedule could be strictly followed. But the title was not secured and it was impossible to publish the journal with a proposed or tentative title. So, the publishers decided to work with the governmental agencies to expedite the process.

We were informed two months ago that finally the title had been cleared by the concerned agency. Ten days ago we were told by the publishers that they have decided to print the first issue while pursuing for the registration number. They asked us to immediately submit the manuscript of the first edition of the journal.

We decided to drop one article as it had become slightly dated and the author could not have revised it at such a short notice. We brought an article from the second number to meet the deadline and submitted the manuscript.

Subsequently, I wrote to you for your message to the contributors and readers of the journal as the Head of the CSD. Next morning I called you to remind you that we were expecting your message. Then I found you reluctant. You said that apparently the publishers were bringing out only the web edition of the journal and this was not acceptable to you. I told you that this was not the case and the publishers were committed to bring out the journal both in print and online. You did not sound convinced and said that the intent and decision of the CSD was to have a printed journal in Hindi like its English counterpart and it would be very difficult for the CSD to invest its resources only to have a virtual journal. This issue had never come up earlier before us.

As a result, I asked Sage to put it on record that the journal would be brought out both in print and online. With their assurance in this regard I went to you again requesting you to write your message as the journal edition was being closed. Then you raised the issue of the journal’s registration number. I shared with you the letter by Ms. Neetu Kalra in which she had informed us that the journal could be published as the title had been secured and they would keep working with the concerned government department to obtain the registration number. After having seen their letter you promised me to give your message the following day.

When I went to you yesterday for the message you told me that you had decided to withhold the publication as you were not sure whether the content of the journal complied with the guidelines of the editorial advisory body and also if the publication of the journal without the registration number would be legal or not. You told me that you would consult with the head of the RPC and also the general body members available in the town on Monday to take a final decision regarding the publication of the journal. This was a completely new situation which was disturbing for me.

Barely five minutes after my meeting with you I found an email in my inbox from the Director informing the publishers about your decision to put on hold the publication of the journal. The letter was copied to me and the managing editor Shri Dhruva Narayan along with you and Prof. Mohanty.

This letter convinced me that the administration had little regard for the process of discussion and consultation. Unilateral decisions were being taken bypassing the concerned people. The promise of a discussion after the decision has been taken makes the whole thing a farce.

It need not be said that public-ness of an institution can only be ensured by respecting institutional processes and having regard for the autonomy of individual units constituting the institution.

This apart, I have reason to believe that the administration has real discomfort with the journal and the editorial team.

On more than one occasion I was told that the ideological leanings of the editorial team were responsible for the delay in the registration of the journal. Apparently the contents of the journal were thought to be anti-government and also the reason for the governmental agencies not granting the registration number or delaying it. I was also told there was an impression that the contributors belonged to a particular line of thought and there was no diversity of viewpoints.

To be fair to you, you quite frankly told me that you would not like to put CSD in trouble by inviting the wrath of the government by publishing matter critical to it at this stage when it had adopted a vindictive stance vis-a-vis its critics. You as head of the institution had a larger responsibility to ensure its survival and you could not be expected to preside over its liquidation for the sake of a journal.

I did not agree with you but could appreciate your dilemma. You were kind enough to invite me to edit the journal and also accept my suggestion of having Shri Dhruva Narayan as its managing editor. You knew me, my ideological and intellectual position very well before reposing your faith in me. You were also aware of the ideological stance of Shri Dhruva Narayan as he had published your book earlier. Knowing us fully well you took the risk of giving us the editorial responsibility of the journal in an atmosphere in which the government was brazenly targeting organisations and individuals it was suspicious of.

The CSD does not have a corpus large enough to sustain itself without grants from the state agencies. It has to tread with care. I shared this concern. I explained to you that the journal was never intended to be an anti-government platform. It was not a forum for people to express their political opinion. The idea behind the journal was to address the lack of serious, rigorous social science scholarship in Hindi. It was a peer reviewed journal and committed to give space not only to diverse viewpoints but also to expose young scholars to different methods. The government of the day cannot be the sole reference point for ideation and scholarly pursuit. We are against regimentation of thought, be it from left or right or even from those who claim to be liberals but are intolerant to views which are different from theirs.

Let me say that I found it slightly strange that an impression that the articles were anti-government was even entertained. How could such an opinion be formed without even knowing the contents of the articles is beyond me. But when it persisted I decided again to clear the air by sharing with you the abstracts of the papers, the names of the reviewers, which I should not have disclosed to anybody.

I am a person of compromises. I prefer to go extra mile to keep people with me. So, in this case, leaving editorial pride aside, I discussed all the articles with you. Even after this meeting, the administration continued to be suspicious. The RPC was told that matter going into the journal needed to be vetted.

Our editorial advisory team is itself comprised of scholars of repute, belonging to different disciplines and impeccable scholarly credentials. We drew our editorial policy in consultation with them and with your approval we gave it the final shape. Keeping the aims and scope of the journal in mind, we commissioned papers and articles from young and established scholars of differing shades. The peer review process was strictly followed. Authors accepted and revised their papers after the feedback and we as editors exercised our discretion when necessary.

It is not a practice anywhere in the world for editors to get the articles of their journal vetted and cleared by the editorial advisory body. Otherwise the body turns into a censor board and the editors lose their authority and autonomy. They are reduced to being clerks of the advisory body.

The office of the editor cannot be diminished in this manner. Let me recall the meeting of the editorial team of the Social Change, the CSD administration and the representatives of Sage held in July, 2017. In that meeting the Director had proposed that the contents of journal should be run past the Advisory body. This proposal was rejected forthright saying that the authority and autonomy of the editor cannot be compromised.

I fail to understand why the principle, which is accepted for the conduct of the journal in English is not good for another journal published in Hindi by the same institution. Is it because Hindi requires paternalistic supervision as it is thought to be generally excitable?

Let me also put on record that we had initiated some activities to support the journal, which involved no extra costs. They included monthly discussions with young scholars, a Samajik colloquium, etc. But all this was discouraged and stalled.

As I have said before I understand the constraints that the present political situation has put on all academic institutions. It is perfectly understandable that they choose not to confront the government and decide to survive for better days. It is not for me, nor do I have any authority to suggest to CSD how it should function. But recalling your trust and affection you have given me, I would like to request you to not to let administrative suspicions fetter the workers you choose.

It is sad to see however that institutions give way even without a blow. The recent case of buckling down of the EPW Trust in anticipation of a legal threat and removal of its Editor is still fresh in our memory.

I would only say this very humbly that courage should not be reserved only for extraordinary occasions. We need to practise every moment, has to be made an everyday thing, a routine. It is not enough for the government to be asked to follow democratic norms. When we ourselves start self -censorship, we allow corrosion of democracy. Struggle for democracy is not without a cost either. In situations like this I am reminded of a line by the poet Dhumil: कांख भी ढंकी रहे और मुट्ठी भी तनी रहे

Since we had been interacting with the authors and the wider academic community on behalf of the journal, we will need to put our decision to disassociate with the journal in public domain.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to you for having thought of me and putting your faith in me by inviting me to edit the journal. I hope that this single incident would not deprive me of your affection which you have bestowed on me so generously.

I am deeply grateful to Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty for patiently guiding us and negotiating with Sage on our behalf whenever it was needed.

I thank the administrative and academic staff of the CSD for their support during my time as Editor of the Hindi journal.

Thanking you again,
With sincere regards,

Apoorvanand

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Text of Dhruva Narayan’s resignation letter:

7 October 2017

To
Prof. Muchkund Dubey
President
Council for Social Development
New Delhi

Subject: Resignation from the post of Managing Editor, Samajik Vimarsh.

Dear Prof. Dubey,

I would like to convey my decision to withdraw myself from the responsibilities of Managing Editor of Samajik Vimarsh, our important initiative conceived as a meaningful intervention in the process of knowledge creation in Indian languages.

The letter from the Director, Dr. Ashok Pankaj dated 6 October 2017 to Ms. Neetu Kalra of Sage asking her to withhold the process of publication of the journal without obtaining registration number from RNI came as an extreme surprise to us. The CSD is well within its right to seek a legal opinion and arrive at a decision when to publish its journal. What pained us was the way it was rushed to her bypassing all normal channels of communication with Sage regarding publication of Samajik Vimarsh throwing aside the established democratic norms of functioning. The matter could have been discussed with the editorial team of Samajik and with Prof Mohanty who has been in constant touch with Sage in this regard. Of course, we always kept the administration of CSD in loop marking all the correspondence with Sage in this regard to the Director and discussing new developments in person from time to time. In this case, instead of rushing a letter to Sage the CSD administration could have called us and discussed the issue and asked us to communicate the decision to withhold the publication to Sage. Instead, while we were in final stages of closing the inaugural 2017 issue of the journal this unilateral letter was sent to Sage and a copy was marked to editor and managing editor of the journal.

I do not think there was any emergency situation where such rash action was required as any publication has its own process which takes time. As an accomplished author you are well aware that there is a time gap between submission of a manuscript and actual production. Hence the manner in which this letter was rushed to Sage was totally uncalled for.

But this is not the first time that the CSD administration has formed an opinion and acted in haste violating all decency and democratic norms. It seems the personnel manning the administration are not fully convinced of utility of bringing out a Hindi journal from CSD. I am listing some incidents where the administration particularly the Director tried to stall the publication process.

  1. After taking over as Director of the CSD, Dr. Ashok Pankaj first raised the issue that being an FCRA holder we are not allowed to publish a newspaper (according to him journals are also issued license as a newspaper by RNI as there is no such category as journal in the Act). That time too the Director violated the normal channels of communication with Sage by calling a meeting with its representatives bypassing the Vice-President who has been in-charge of communication and negotiations with Sage. Anyway, the situation was clarified to him that academic journals are a separate category and there is no legal provision prohibiting CSD from bringing out an academic journal.
  1. Then, doubts were raised that maybe due to editorial team’s political views the government was delaying the registration. We tried to clarify to you and to the Director that this is a normal procedural delay which requires approval of more than eight ministries and departments of the government. Since publication of a journal is not on the priority list of the concerned ministries, the delay could be a result of the normal bureaucratic lethargy our government departments suffer from
  1. Since the registration process got stuck with delayed approvals from various ministries and departments, Sage decided to explore other ways of expediting the process and applied to RNI through licensing branch of Delhi Police. This accelerated the process. But again there were attempts on part of the CSD administration to scuttle the process by not supplying the required documents for submission in time. On one occasion, the attempt was allowed to time out and Sage had to start over the whole process once again. This time fortunately a title was secured by the Sage team for our journal. We all were very enthused and were waiting for registration number to be allotted after the verification process is over.
  1. Meanwhile, I received a letter from Ms. Pallavipushpa Sinha of Sage on 28 September 2017 requesting us to submit the final contents list of the first issue by 30 September 2017 and all the material by 5 October 2017 as they wished to ready the journal for publication by November end. I thought that they just wanted to keep everything ready so that when the registration number came there was no further delay in publication of the journal. Later, Ms. Neetu Kalra clarified that they intend to go ahead with its publication while continuing to pursue the process of obtaining the registration number. Accordingly, we started working overtime in consultation with Prof. Mohanty to complete the process in time and shared with them all the material. We were waiting for your message to readers, as promised by you to Prof. Apoorvanand.
  1. Giving the journal a sound footing involved creating an ecosystem to support and encourage scholarship in Indian languages. Towards this we proposed a series of activities like monthly discussion forums, inviting young scholars to share their research findings, organising writers’ workshops, etc. In fact, the Director himself proposed a series of lectures on pluralism which we incorporated in our proposed activities and roped in Shri Ashok Vajpeyi to deliver the first lecture. The Director without discussing with us stopped the AO from booking a space at IIC. He even did not show the decency to call us for a discussion over the issue, instead chose to instruct the AO not to entertain our request. This compromised not only our standing but the whole organisation’s prestige. We still kept quiet in order to maintain the decorum and dignity of the institution and its management.

This is just to list a few instances where we felt our authority as editors of the journal, personal integrity and public standing is being undermined deliberately.

Sir, let me clarify here that we never tried to conceal our political views. In fact, you were well aware of our political views before inviting us to join you in bringing out this journal. It would be a gross misinterpretation of facts to say that we ever intended to use this journal as a platform to propagate one type of view. We are firm believer in plurality of views based on a sound system of academic rigour. Hence we invited authors and chose articles which represent this plurality of methodology and understanding. We were always willing to go extra mile to accommodate differing opinions.

I would like to mention that Sage requested us to withdraw one particular review of Praful Bidwai’s book on left movements in India as it mentioned JNU disturbances last year. The Sage representative suggested dropping this piece from the first issue on the basis of their informal chat with a clerk at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Against my conscience I agreed to accede to their request despite the fact that the review in question was highly critical of left politics pointing out its failings and mistakes.

There was another instance of an article analysing the Una incident and the dalit upsurge in its aftermath. Again this article was pointing out the failings of the dalit movement and left politics in general. The Director even without looking at the abstract of the article formed an opinion on the basis of its title and insisted on dropping it. Since we had already decided to defer its publication as it had become somewhat dated in the light of results of UP elections and developments since then, we preferred not enter into any argument with him.

Sir, I am a Marxist but being a Marxist is no crime or stigma. Marxism is a philosophical and methodological category used by scholars all over the world to understand social realities and give direction to processes of social change. Yes, it is true that Marxist traditions in India and elsewhere have lacked inner democracy, and persons in power have misused it to foster an ideological uniformity. But this is equally true of other methodological and ideological persuasions as well, be it rightist or liberal. The lack of democratic values and norms is a much deeper question and the scholars and activists all over the world are grappling to understand it and devise ways to counter such tendencies. There is no dearth of people coming from within Marxist traditions raising the issue of democratic deficit in the established left movements. I too belong to the category of people who repose their faith in pluralist and dialogic traditions.

When I was told that the direction of most of the articles was anti-government, I was surprised. As editors all we were concerned with was whether the articles we were selecting were sound in their method and represented rigorous scholarship.

I have a great respect for you as a scholar and a public personality. I joined the CSD thinking that I may be able to contribute meaningfully to the Indian scholarship under your and CSD’s distinguished faculty’s guidance. But it seems that CSD too suffers from same kind of mediocrity and absence of democratic spirit afflicting other institutions in India.

Since the process of publication of the journal has been stopped unilaterally and our standing as editors has been challenged and compromised systematically I do not think there is any point in my continuing at CSD. This letter should be considered a notice to terminate my current contract ending on 20 January 2018 with immediate effect.

I must take this opportunity to express my gratitude to academic colleagues and staff who made me feel at home at CSD and extended all the help and guidance in my work as managing editor and communication advisor of the CSD.

With warm regards,

Dhruva Narayan