During all the past months, since the unceremonious resignation of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, I had reluctantly abstained from going public and joining the debate that is going on. Instead, I appealed in private correspondence to the Sameeksha Trust chairman Deepak Nayyar, as well as other members, to engage in self-introspection, review their relationship with the editors and staff of the EPW, and correct any imbalances that might have occurred. I expected the trust members to be sober enough to take corrective steps, instead of re-iterating a stubborn confrontationist position.
Till now, I have not received a satisfactory reply from the chairman or any other trustee. I therefore feel compelled to reveal some of the contents of the correspondence that I had with the chairman, as well as some information that was conveyed to me by a trustee (whose name I am not disclosing).
To start with, soon after the Sameeksha Trust’s first statement of July 20, 2017, announcing the circumstances leading to Guha Thakurta’s resignation from the editorship of EPW, I wrote a letter (dated July 21) to Nayyar, requesting him to circulate it among other trustees.
In that letter, I raised two questions. My first question related to the two articles that Guha Thakurta and his co-authors wrote raising questions about dealings between the Adani business group and the present government which were the subject of a legal notice from the firm.
I noted that the articles appeared in January and June. The board of trustees must have read them and apparently did not have any problem till July 5, when the Adani group sent a legal notice to the Sameeksha Trust, the EPW and the authors, following which Guha Thakurta appointed a Supreme Court lawyer, Chandrachur Bhattacharya, to send a reply to the Adanis, stating that the articles were truthful and could be corroborated by documentary evidence. His mistake, which he admitted, was that he did not seek the prior consent of the trustees before engaging the services of a lawyer – an act of ‘grave impropriety’ according to the board of trustees. But what is surprising is why, at the board’s meeting on July 18, the members asked Guha Thakurta to take down the June 17 article from the website – which, until a few days ago, seemed to be unobjectionable to the trustees?
My second question, following from this, which I addressed to Nayar, was why the board was in such a hurry to withdraw the article, without waiting for Adanis’ reply to Guha Thakurta’s letter to them through his lawyer, stating that the said articles were truthful and could be corroborated by documentary evidence.
Besides, no court of law had been moved at that point and thus there was no criminal case till then. One cannot escape the feeling that a sense of panic gripped the board. They were reported by The Hindu to have told Guha Thakurta that he had ‘put them to great professional, personal and financial risk’.
I then asked Nayyar whether the trustees could clarify what risk it is that they are afraid of. A court case? The expenses involved in such a long drawn out case? But Guha Thakurta’s lawyer had agreed to fight it for free. Besides, given the fame and prestige of EPW, funds could be raised from all over the world to fight a case which would be a cause célèbre.
I concluded by telling Nayyar that the trust, in its first statement, had said that there was ‘no question’ of its ‘bowing down to external pressures.’ “I earnestly hope that the board of trustees lives up to this assurance, and ensures editorial independence of EPW,” I wrote.
In response to my letter, Nayyar sent a very polite reply (dated August 2) saying:
…I simply want to say to you that there is a lot of rumour and misinformation going on around on this matter.
He then added:
Let me assure you the question of Sameeksha Trust bowing down to external pressure of any kind simple (sic.) does not arise… We hope to issue a second statement soon.
The second statement (dated August 3) just re-iterated the views expressed in the first statement of July 2 – without addressing the two main queries I had raised in my first letter.
Since then, there have been a lot of letters addressed to the Sameeksha Trust by leading intellectuals (e.g. a former trustee Ashok Mitra’s letter dated July 31), and from the EPW editorial staff (dated July 25), as well as public statements of protests against the trust’s behaviour by eminent academics like Partha Chatterjee and Ram Guha. Incidentally, this is not the first time that the present board of the Sameeksha Trust is facing a barrage of protests from the academic community.
In January 2016, following the resignation of the then editor C. Rammanohar Reddy (again brought about by pressures on him by the trust), a hundred odd academics from India and abroad sent a letter to the trustees, expressing their misgivings about the methods adopted by the trust in solving disputes with the editor. As far as I know, neither the chairman, nor any other member of the trust (to whom all these letters have been addressed), responded to the concerns expressed by those correspondents. Nor have they responded through the media to the public statements made by Chatterjee, Guha and others.
The lingering suspicion that I expressed in my first letter to Nayyar, that the trust must be buckling down under pressure from Adani, has now been confirmed by Romi Khosla’s article in The Wire on August 22. He ends it with the sentence: “I did not feel any opaqueness during my dealings with the trustees when I sought their clarifications to write this piece.” In fact, he should have prefaced his article with that statement, before announcing: “Adani is no ordinary mortal, and is amongst the ten richest billionaires in India. It’s not a good idea to shoot at him from some one else’s shoulder…”
He then advises: “…in the present circumstances, it is worth considering sheathing daggers, containing the venom and understanding the sacrosanct boundaries of the legal frameworks…” In other words, we, the EPW contributors, should henceforth not write anything that offends the ‘richest billionaires’ – advice which apparently has the approval of the Sameeksha Trust, going by the ‘clarifications’ that Khosla claims to have received from it. Will Nayyar please confirm his claim?
To conclude, a member of the trust, in a recent confidential letter, told me that he, along with another trustee (both reputed academics), had submitted their resignation letters to the chairman sometime ago. But the chairman is refusing to accept them. Can Nayyar please confirm this and also clarify the reasons for his refusal?
Further, can I request him and his colleagues on the board to directly address the misgivings voiced by the EPW community, which spans a wide Indian and international spectrum of eminent academics, brilliant young researchers, courageous social activists, as well as independent minded representatives from the banking and corporate sectors? They have raised questions in public about some actions of the trust in the last two years. After its abject surrender to Adani’s threats, its present members should acknowledge their failure to live up to the ethics of the courageous opposition to the establishment and the professional norms of dissident journalism, which were laid down by Sachin Chaudhury and his friends when they started the Sameeksha Trust. Now that they have betrayed that trust placed upon them by the EPW community, they should – if they have any iota of self-respect – resign from the trust and make way for new members who have more guts than them to resist the aggression of corporate billionaires on EPW.
Sumanta Banerjee is a senior journalist and author.