Life cycle rituals are always moments of tension, because they involve the continued reproduction of society as a whole. Births, weddings, anniversaries and successions are keenly watched as they signal the direction any individual or institution will take.
At a time when the announcement of leaders in long established public universities or research institutions like the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is being awaited with trepidation, the imminent editorial transition at one of India’s most unique institutions is adding to the general atmosphere of intellectual anxiety. The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), which will turn 50 in 2016, is set to get a new editor in April 2016, after the current editor, C. Rammanohar Reddy retires at the end of an eleven-year term.
Ram Reddy, as he is called, is only the fourth editor of this weekly journal, which originated as the Economic Weekly in 1949, under Sachin Chaudhury. Except for a brief two-year spell under the editorship of the economist R.K. Hazari (1966-68), the journal was run from 1969 till 2004 by the legendary Krishna Raj.
A good editor is like the air one breathes – invisible but essential to one’s life – and the handsome, unassuming and dedicated Krishna Raj ensured that EPW became essential to the academic and public life of India. Ram Reddy has continued this admirably. Part academic journal, part current commentary, part the intellectual version of page 3 where every aspiring academic desires to be seen, EPW, as the historian Ramachandra Guha put it “commands an influence far out of proportion to its circulation. It has shaped intellectual discussion in India, and had a profound impact on policy debates.”
In selection committee interviews, where stern panelists demand a long list of peer reviewed papers, they make an exception for EPW, which has only recently under the editorship of Ram Reddy, started this practice. But such was the authority that Krishna Raj and following him, Ram Reddy, enjoyed, that the university community was confident of a certain standard if it had been published by the journal. Equally, if one needs to publicly debate with anyone at any depth, and not just through TV soundbites, there is only one place to turn to – EPW. Given the volume of submissions from all parts of the country, turning them into readable prose week after week, is a horrendously difficult task, especially on the kind of shoestring budget that it has.
The 50th anniversary celebration of such an amazing institution should be a moment of pride, not just for those intimately involved in its running, but for India as a whole. Unfortunately, differences over the manner of celebration between the outgoing editor and the board, and within the board, appear to be overshadowing the anniversary, and are raising questions about the functioning of the Sameeksha Trust itself, which owns EPW. Members of the trust, who are appointed for life, include the well known economist Deepak Nayyar who is chairman, historian Romila Thapar, sociologist Andre Beteille and others.
According to academics who have been closely associated with EPW, the trustees have not been supportive of Ram Reddy’s plans for the anniversary, which included three volumes show casing Indian history through the eyes of EPW, as well as a film on the journal.
Sameeksha Trust chairman Deepak Nayyar, however, told The Wire, that discussions were still on: “At the meeting of the trust in mid-November 2015, there was a discussion on the 50th anniversary celebrations. There were different opinions on what should and could be done but it was a constructive discussion that sought a way forward. It was decided to continue the discussion and we plan to come to our decision at the next meeting. This next meeting would also finalise the appointment of the new editor.”
Concerned academics, who are proposing to write to the board, say they are worried by the fact that the search committee set up to identify Ram Reddy’s successor, has not involved Reddy in its efforts, despite his being the most competent person to know what the journal needs. They want transparency in the selection process. Ideally, too, they say, Reddy should be asked to become a member of the board of trustees, even after he retires as editor, in the interests of the smooth functioning of the journal. Given that Ram Reddy’s retirement was purely voluntary – he had been commuting between his family in Hyderabad and Mumbai – and he stayed on for an extra year at the request of the trustees, this should not be difficult for the Board to accept, they feel.
As the economist, Jean Dreze, told The Wire: “I have never seen a birthday cause so much unhappiness. It is not too late to set things right, but this requires the board to hear the voice of the EPW community.”