The Gentle Colossus

Krishna Raj and the Economic and Political Weekly

Krishna Raj with trustees of the Sameeksha Trust, publishers of EPW, at the journal’s Hitkari House office. COURTESY EPW
01 December, 2012

A magazine is a despotism or it is nothing. One man and one man alone must be responsibile for all its essential contents - HL Mencken

THE BRITISH HISTORIAN EP THOMPSON once remarked that “India is not an important country, but perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. Here is a country that merits no one’s condescension. All the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East which is not active in some Indian mind.”

Thompson may have been reading the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), the Bombay journal where these thoughts and influences converge and meet. Rich in information and glowing with polemic, its pages are an index to the life of India. On subjects as varied (and important) as the economy, caste politics, religious violence, and human rights, the EPW has consistently provided the most authoritative, insightful, and widely cited reports and analyses. Among the journal’s contributors are scholars and journalists, but also activists and civil servants—and even some politicians.

Like other such journals around the world, the EPW 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. Can one see it, then, as an Indian version of the esteemed New York weekly The Nation? There are some telling similarities. For one thing, both are appallingly bad looking. The well-loved columnist Calvin Trillin said of the Nation that it was “probably the only magazine in the country [that] if you make a Xerox of it, the Xerox looks a lot better than the original”. More substantively, they have a similar philosophy or credo—this, in the words of the former Nation editor Victor Navasky, being “to question the conventional wisdom, to be suspicious of all orthodoxies, to provide a home for dissent and dissenters, and to be corny about it, to hold forth a vision of a better world”.

Newsmagazines are mostly written by a staff of experienced, full-time reporters. On the other hand, opinion journals draw much more on freelance contributors and university scholars. As the historian Christopher Lasch pointed out, with the onset of television and the dumbing down of the mass media, these journals had become “the only surviving media in which scholars can talk to each other. They give the intellectual community what little unity and coherence it retains.” That is true of The Nation; and even more so, one thinks, of the EPW.

There is another way in which the profitable glossy is to be distinguished from the poorly circulated journal of opinion. In the words of the critic Dwight Macdonald, “a ‘little magazine’ is often more intensively read (and circulated) than the big commercial magazines, being a more individual expression and so appealing with a special force to individuals of like minds”. These journals are to be judged not by the bottom-line, but by their (often considerable) impact on shaping public policy and public debate and, beyond that even, by the love and loyalty of their readers.

BUT WHILE THE EPW may be superficially compared to The Nation of New York or the New Statesman of London, if one thinks deeper, these comparisons are all to the EPW’s favour. For one thing, it has never allied itself (however loosely) to a political party. (The Nation is for Americans who vote Democrat; the New Statesman for Britons who vote Labour.) For another, it does not have a sugar daddy. Run on less than a shoe-string budget, it has been chiefly sustained by the goodwill of its subscribers. But perhaps the most vital difference lies in its intellectual weightiness. It was the EPW that published the first and sometimes the finest essays of India’s most eminent intellectuals: Jagdish Bhagwati, Krishna Bharadwaj, André Béteille, Amartya Sen, MN Srinivas and the like. Moreover, the quality (and influence) has been sustained now for more than half a century.

The EPW is a unique, three-fold mix of political prejudice, dispassionate reportage, and solid scholarly analysis. The weekly begins with a few pages of unsigned commentary, arch reflections on the events of the past few days. The second part of the journal is taken up with signed reports from around the country. Here we find the “news behind the news”, so to say: stories of conflict between landlords and labourers in Bihar or of ethnic and secessionist movements in north-east India. These reports are generally longer than what a newspaper would allow, and (but not for that reason alone) also more informative. The journal’s back pages are filled each week with book reviews and two or three academic papers, soberly presented and massively footnoted.

The EPW represents an emphatic triumph of content over form. For no journal I know is more depressing to look at. The cover has black type upon a white background, with a red band on the top left hand corner representing a pathetic attempt at colour. The text inside is printed in nine point size, with 60 lines to the page—these made less readable still by being set in columns. A “redesign” carried out roughly a decade ago has left the EPW looking much the same as before. The type remains small, the paper is still faded, the covers still wearyingly similar; but the articles as astonishingly diverse and unpredictable as ever.

THE EPW BEGAN LIFE IN 1949 as the Economic Weekly. Its founder was Sachin Chaudhuri, a Bengali grandee from a talented family. One brother was a successful film-maker; another, a celebrated sculptor. Sachin himself was by turns a nationalist volunteer, an ascetic in the Himalayas, a PhD student in economics, and a market researcher. He was even, for a time, general manager of the pioneering film company Bombay Talkies.

This experience came in handy when Chaudhuri decided to start his journal. His timing was exquisite, for India had just become independent. The Economic Weekly quickly emerged as the focal point of intellectual arguments about the shape of the new nation. As befitting the times, much of the debate was about economic planning and development. But from the beginning, the journal was about more than the dismal science. Thus in its first few years it ran a series of essays (later collected in a book, India’s Villages, edited by MN Srinivas) demonstrating the continuing influence of caste on political life in India.

In August 1966 the journal changed its name to the Economic and Political Weekly. By the end of that year, Chaudhuri was dead. He was succeeded by the economist RK Hazari, but within a couple of years Hazari left for the Reserve Bank of India. The job was now handed over to one fof the journal’s assistant editors, Krishna Raj. A Malayali from Kerala, schooled at the Delhi School of Economics, he had worked with Chaudhuri since 1960. His tenure as editor was even longer than the founder’s, extending from 1969 until his death in 2004.

I was first properly introduced to the EPW by my friend Bernard D’Mello. I had seen the journal as a student in Delhi University, but never opened it. In 1980, however, I joined the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, for a doctorate in sociology. The same year, Bernard joined the IIM for a doctorate in economics. But for some years past he had been an attentive reader of the EPW. His copy of the weekly, like so many others, was recycled. It was first read by Bernard’s father in Bombay, then passed on to him and, in turn, to me.

When I went home to Dehra Dun for the summer, I missed the EPW terribly. After some days of searching I found a newsagent who stocked it. He was sited deep in Paltan Bazaar, a dense and particularly unattractive part of town, and at the other end from where I lived. To get there I had to walk a mile-and-a-half in the sun, wait for a bus, sit 20 minutes in it when it did come, get off at the terminus and then trudge into the middle of the bazaar. Not that I minded. For I was just discovering ideas, and discovering India. And where else would I find the most richly contentious ideas about India? On the way to Paltan Bazaar I was driven by the anticipation of acquiring the new copy of the EPW, and on the way back by the enchantment of reading it.

When I returned to the IIM after the holidays, I took out my own subscription. Now there were times when Bernard borrowed my copy. For his own copy, diverted via his father in Bombay, arrived three or four days after mine, and often there was an essay or polemic of particular interest to him. At any rate, for both of us the EPW was the item in the post we most looked forward to. This was an experience that we had in common with a majority of the journal’s subscribers.

Some two years after I joined the IIM, I was walking past the office of Nirmal Chandra, a professor of economics known for his command of several European languages (Russian among them) and of the complete oeuvre of Lenin. His door was open, and he was sitting reading a book, a half-burnt cigarette in his left hand. He happened to look up as I passed and, to my surprise, called me in. (At that stage we had not exchanged more than half a dozen words.) As I entered his room, Professor Chandra searched for a piece of paper on his table, and handed it over, saying: “Here, this must be for you.” I took it and walked out. The paper was coloured pale green; on closer inspection it turned out to be an inland letter. The typed contents ran roughly as follows:

Dear Nirmal,

Jim Boyce was in the office recently, and told me of his meeting with a young scholar doing research on the history of forestry in India. They were working on adjoining desks in the National Library. Jim has forgotten his name, but thinks that he might be a student at your Institute. Can you locate him and see if he has something suitable for the EPW?

many thanks, and with regards,

Krishna Raj

After reading the letter, I walked back into Professor Chandra’s office. “Sir, what do I do about this?” I enquired nervously. “Write back to him yourself, and tell him about your work,” was the answer. I did as instructed, and received in reply a green letter, which said that the editor of the EPW was coming to Calcutta next month, and would be happy to meet me.

My first meeting with Krishna Raj took place in an unlikely location—the Great Eastern Hotel. (He was staying there as a guest of the West Bengal Government, who were hosting the seminar he had come to attend.) What struck me most forcibly was his reserve. His manner, his tone, his speech, all denoted a man of the utmost shyness. Was this the same person who wrote those sharp and pungent editorials, the same person who ran a journal known for the abrasive directness of so many of its articles?

These first impressions were to persist, even when I later met Krishna Raj in his own office in Bombay, where the austerity of the surroundings matched the asceticism of his own personality. Here he spoke somewhat more. But he still spoke softly. So softly, indeed, that one began sometimes to wonder: did he ever lose his temper at his wife, his children, or his staff?

The answers, most likely, were No, No, and No. But the gentleness could be misleading. It was manifestly true, so far as his personal manner went. But it did not preclude decisiveness in his professional duties. To run a journal of this significance, of this diversity in contributors and contributions, and to do so week after week, required an authority, and authoritativeness, of a very special kind.

The green inland letters that, for many years, were Krishna Raj’s chosen mode of correspondence had printed on them the journal’s address: “Hitkari House, 284 Frere Road, Bombay 400038”. In time the street, city and pin code all changed: to Shahid Bhagatsingh Marg, Mumbai, and 400001 respectively. Inside, the editor stayed the same. Visiting him in his office was a kind of secular pilgrimage. Hitkari House lay between Victoria Terminus and the head office of the Reserve Bank of India, in a part of Bombay dense with memory and history, and, above all, humanity. VT and the RBI were joined by a street chock-a-bloc with shops, the road overrun with cars and cycles and pedestrians.

Raj with staff at EPW’s Hitkari House office. COURTESY MAITHREYI KRISHNARAJ

It was with some relief that one turned away from the street into the building that housed the journal. An unlit lift took one up to the sixth floor. It opened out into the EPW office, a mass of cubicles linked by a narrow passage. Right at the end lay the cubicle of the editor. It was like any other: six feet by four feet, with a single small desk and two or three chairs. There was, of course, no question of air-conditioning; the only luxury was a window, which on a good day allowed in the elements of a breeze.

The austerity went beyond mere appearances. For Krishna Raj insisted that his own salary must not be more than five times that of the journal’s lowest paid employee. In 2002, after 30 years in the job, the editor was paid R12,000 a month. In that year the trustees of the journal doubled his salary, to match that of a university professor’s. It was still shockingly inadequate, when one considers the importance of the work, or the fact that he put in at least twice as many hours as did the most hardworking academic in India.

Like most of his other writers, I knew Krishna Raj best through correspondence. As a subscriber, it was exciting enough to get the copy of the journal each week; as a contributor, it was even more thrilling to find one of those green inlands from the editor in the mail box. Unusually for a man of his generation, Krishna Raj took quickly and expertly to electronic communication. This was probably a relief to his foreign writers; but I speak for most of the desi ones when I say I missed those inland letters, distinctively coloured and still more distinctively worded. For his signed correspondence, like his unsigned editorials, displayed a masterly economy of expression, one altogether rare among Indians who write in that still foreign tongue, English.

In the two decades that I knew Krishna Raj we must have met on perhaps eight or nine occasions. The first time, as I have recalled, was in Calcutta; the last time, in Bangalore a few months before he died (he was in the city to visit his daughter, who lived there). All other times we met in Bombay, in his office. The editor was an oval-faced, handsome, white-haired man, with inquiring eyes peering out from behind his spectacles. On his desk there was a pile of papers two or three feet high: submissions to be considered or rejected. On a shelf was a row of books, one or two of which would be offered to the visitor for review.

On my last visit, as on my first, I could not get over the sense of wonder as I entered the lift at Hitkari House. Who would have ever thought, when I used to go to Paltan Bazaar to get my cherished copy of the EPW, that I would one day go into the journal’s office, there to parley on more or less equal terms with its editor?

As I grew older, the EPW gave me a promotion I esteemed highly. From “contributor” I now became “contributor and talent spotter”. Much as I was once introduced to the journal via the economists James K (Jim) Boyce and Nirmal Chandra, it now became my duty to pass on names of bright young things to the EPW. There were many others who were similarly elevated in the course of their own careers, and doubtless they were all as tickled as I was. But this device of Krishna Raj’s was no mere flattery; it was very good business. Indeed, this is precisely how he maintained the quality of the EPW over the long run. For one of his very special gifts (which he shared with his mentor, Sachin Chaudhuri) was the ability to bring to the journal the best of the emerging talent in the social sciences.

I have called Krishna Raj a “gentle colossus”. The appellation is, I think, apposite in itself. But I also consciously evoke here the title of a book on Jawaharlal Nehru by the communist Hiren Mukherjee. Mukherjee disagreed, sometimes profoundly, with Nehru’s politics. But he saluted the man’s personal decency and integrity, and the fundamental role he played in nurturing the democratic traditions of independent India. Likewise, among the friends of the EPW I was not alone in being at times exasperated with the journal’s obsession with intra-Marxist debate. Yet we all admired the editor for his charm and gentleness of manner and, more so, for producing, in such inhospitable circumstances, a journal that has almost single-handedly sustained an intellectual culture in India.

Between them, Sachin Chaudhuri and Krishna Raj helped construct a community of the thinking Indian. It was through their weekly that one kept in touch with the work of one’s friends, as well as one’s enemies. It was lucky, if no accident, that the editors of this remarkable journal came from Bengal and Kerala respectively. For these are, in an intellectual sense, the most vigorously active states in India—and also the most disputatious. In both states the Communists have enjoyed long spells in government, placed there by the ballot box. They have been bitterly opposed by the extreme Left, by those who think that the road to revolution lies through armed struggle. And they have been opposed from the other side, too, by liberals and conservatives dismayed by the attacks by Communists (of all kinds) on liberty, property, and tradition. The polemical nature of these debates in Kerala and West Bengal has spilled over into the rest of the country. A prime vehicle for this spread has been the EPW. Had its editors been from other parts of India, perhaps the journal would have been more genteel, but scarcely more readable.

When the Economic Weekly began, India was ruled by Jawaharlal Nehru, a man who was socialist in his economic beliefs but liberal in his political outlook. Most times, his commitment to the procedures of democracy outweighed his commitment to the ideals of socialism. This was not to the liking of the younger Indian intellectuals. The EW inevitably became the vehicle for their views. If industry was still under monopoly control, they argued, or if the progress of land reforms was slow, this was to be blamed on the class character of Nehru’s Congress party, a party dominated by rich peasants and funded by the bourgeoisie.

As I have said, the journal has never been allied to a single party. But its orientation has always been politically charged. Under Sachin Chaudhuri’s editorship, the contributors divided themselves almost equally into two camps: the liberals and the leftists. Chaudhuri’s own credo may be summed up as: “We Admire Nehru, But Do Not Necessarily Follow Him.” Revealing here is an editorial he wrote in August 1966, in the inaugural issue of what was now the Economic and Political Weekly. Nehru was dead, but his aura lingered on. “Many underdeveloped countries in the post-War period,” Chaudhuri wrote, “have had a brief spell of elation or whatever we may call it, induced by the charisma of a leader and a concatenation of circumstances but how many have maintained their pace, and how many fallen by the way? Circumstances may throw up such leaders but it is thinking men and women who aspire and do not acquiesce who alone can mould a people into a nation and keep them going.”

The contents page of EPW’s inaugural issue. COURTESY EPW

Within a few years Nehru’s liberalism had been seriously challenged by his own daughter. As Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi crushed dissent within and outside her own party, expanded the role of the state in the economy, and promoted partisanship in judges and civil servants. These developments culminated in the notorious Emergency of 1975-7.

Among Mrs Gandhi’s critics were old-fashioned liberal democrats and right-wing Hindu conservatives. Under Krishna Raj, the EPW threw in its lot with a third class of dissenters: the Marxists. The editor himself was deeply impressed by the idealism of the young Naxalites, who, inspired by China, were challenging the parliamentary orientation of the established Communist parties. Among the gains of the journal’s left-ward turn were the detailed reports on human rights excesses by the state. Among the losses was the excessive space that began to be devoted to doctrinal dispute: to exegeses of what Marx or Lenin or Mao really said or meant.

When I first came to read it, in the early 1980s, the EPW gave space equally to the Old and New Lefts. Soon it was profiling the work of the Newer Left, as contained in the environmental and feminist movements. All this put off some previously loyal supporters. In 1991, the historian Dharma Kumar, who had been a friend of Sachin Chaudhuri, called for an end to Marxist hegemony and a return to the old catholicism. Her letter, printed in the EPW, brought forth a host of angry responses. Particularly noteworthy was a letter signed by about two dozen Western academics, the product of some frenetic trans-Atlantic phone-calls, which suggested that Professor Kumar’s protest was part of the larger IMF-World Bank conspiracy to destabilise India. But there were also some letters of support. These asked the Indian Left to take heed of the winds of liberalism then blowing through Eastern Europe.

As ever, the EPW was happy to give over its letters and discussion pages to inter-academic abuse. The debate continued for months, but its ultimate effect was salutary. For Krishna Raj realised that it was not just Russia that had changed. So had China, and India. The 20th century had demonstrated that, compared to the State, the market was a more efficient agent of economic change. Liberal economists once more began to find their voice in the EPW. At the same time, the journal also reached out to younger historians and sociologists, who unlike their teachers were unburdened by Party dogma. But the EPW was careful not to go to the other extreme. Advocates of globalisation had their say, but so too did its critics.

The EPW remains a broad church of intellectual opinion in India. The contributors to its pages range from free-market liberals on one side to Naxalite sympathisers on the other. However, there is one kind of perspective that the journal has consistently excluded: that of religious extremism. In this sense it is not wholly representative of the political spectrum, since in contemporary India, Hindutva forces exercise much influence. But then religious radicals are not especially keen to have their say in the EPW either. In this they are much like their counterparts elsewhere. (The Nation will not commission an essay by Rush Limbaugh, but then Rick Santorum doesn’t want to write for The Nation either.) In any case, in spreading their word Hindu chauvinists would much rather use the medium of oral gossip and innuendo than a journal printed in the language of the élite, English.

After Krishna Raj died, the trustees appointed as his replacement the economist Rammanohar Reddy. The son of a socialist who had been jailed in the Emergency, Reddy himself studied in Chennai, Kolkata and Trivandrum. Under his stewardship, the EPW has maintained its standards and its catholicism. The new editor has introduced some important innovations, two of which honour his predecessors. One is a column that excerpts an article or editorial from the archives of the Economic Weekly; the second, a paragraph that appears every week under the masthead and reads: “Ever since the first issue in 1966, EPW has been India’s premier journal for comment on current affairs and research in the social sciences. It succeeded Economic Weekly (1949-1965) which was launched and shepherded by SACHIN CHAUDHURI, who was also the founder-editor of EPW. As editor for thirty-five years (1969-2004), KRISHNA Raj gave EPW the reputation it now enjoys.”

Krishna Raj edited the Economic and Political Weekly from 1969 to 2004. MS PRABHAKAR / THE HINDU IMAGES

To me, Krishna Raj was both friend and mentor; but in the two decades (and more) of our association, there were two extended periods when we were not in communication. For in 1991, and again in 1999, I fought with the journal on matters which I thought were of high principle but others would think were of mere ideology. Much later, Krishna Raj was kind enough to write to me that “the fights, as you called them, were very good for the EPW”. But it is noteworthy that each time it was I who sued for peace. The EPW could do without me; I could not do without the EPW.