“Truth is Your Best Defense”: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta on His Resignation From the EPW, the Sameeksha Trust and the Adani Story

26 July 2017
On 18 July, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigned from his post as editor of the Economic and Political Weekly.
Priyanka Parashar/Mint/Getty Images

On 18 July, the senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigned from his post as editor of the journal, the Economic and Political Weekly. Guha Thakurta’s resignation followed a meeting with the board members of the Sameeksha Trust, which owns and runs the EPW. In the meeting, the members of the board asked Guha Thakurta to take down an article that was published in the journal in June, concerning Adani Power, a subsidiary of the Adani Group. The article, which Guha Thakurta had reported and written along with three others, examined whether the power conglomerate received an undue refund of nearly Rs 500 crore from the finance ministry under the Narendra Modi government. A lawyer representing the Adani group had sent a notice to the EPW, claiming that the article, along with another report published in the journal, was defamatory towards the group and its chairman, Gautam Adani. The letter further demanded that the June article be taken down. Guha Thakurta had employed a lawyer to respond to this notice on behalf of the EPW. Both the notice and the EPW’s response were then published on its website—along with the article, they were taken down following the board’s directive to Guha Thakurta.

News reports following Guha Thakurta’s resignation indicated that the members of the board were unhappy with his decision to engage a lawyer. Further, reports noted, the board members told Guha Thakurta that they were seeking to employ a co-editor, who would work in conjunction with him. On 20 July, the board of trustees released a statement in which they described Guha Thakurta’s decision to employ a lawyer without informing them a “grave impropriety.”

Guha Thakurta is the second editor to resign from the EPW in two years. His predecessor, C Rammanohar Reddy, held the position for over a decade, but resigned due to disagreements with the board. Both Reddy and Guha Thakurta’s resignations have seen a strong response from prominent academics as well as the EPW’s readers, who have expressed their concerns regarding the workings of the board.

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of The Caravan, met with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. The two discussed the circumstances surrounding the latter’s appointment, his interactions with the board during his tenure as editor, as well as the events preceding his resignation.

Hartosh Singh Bal: Could you discuss the events leading up to your appointment to the position of editor for the EPW? What was the hiring process like?

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: This was December of 2015. I got a phone call from Professor Deepak Nayyar [the chairman of the board of the Sameeksha Trust], and he says, “The post of the editor of the Economic and Political Weekly is falling vacant, and we'd like to interview you.” And he mentioned a specific day, and I sort of said I have a prior engagement on that day—I teach at IIM [Indian Institute of Management] Ahmedabad and there was a class fixed for me—but he was very insistent. He said he, Mr DN Ghosh and Professor Romila Thapar [Ghosh and Thapar are members of the board] were going to be available in Delhi on a particular day.

Interestingly, from the time I was told I should appear for the interview till the time the interview actually happened, the fight between the trustees and my predecessor, Dr C Rammanohar Reddy, had become public. There were 101 signatories to an open letter sent by well-wishers of the EPW, and various things had been said. Among the things that had been stated was that: the trust should respect the autonomy and the independence of the editor; that Dr Reddy should have a say in who his successor should be; that he should also be made a trustee of the Sameeksha Trust. There was a lot of disagreement, bitterness and acrimony over the manner in which the funds raised by Ram Reddy through the Tata trusts were to be spent on edited volumes. This is all for fiftieth anniversary of the EPW. Among other things, there was a plan—it’s still in operation—to print edited volumes, and also make a documentary film. There was a huge amount of disagreement [regarding the editions and the documentary], it was all out in the open, and Ram Reddy had given interviews. I naturally asked them [the board] to tell me about what happened. Their version was that Ram Reddy wanted to demit office because he wanted to spend more time with his family—he was based in Hyderabad. At the same time, he wanted control—the suggestion made was Ram Reddy wanted power, but no responsibility. It wasn’t said in so many words, but that was the suggestion that was made.

They did interview a number of people [for the position of editor]—I’m aware of at least two or three other people they interviewed. Finally, on the twenty-fourth [of January 2016] they called me up and said, “Are you going to take up this job?” I said, “Yes, I’ll take it up.” And I didn’t consult anybody, and my wife and my daughter were pretty upset with me (laughs) that I didn’t consult them.

As soon as they said they were going to appoint me, they issued a statement to the PTI [Press Trust of India], so everybody knew about it. [At the time of the appointment] I went through a very turbulent phase in my life. On 27 January, my mother passed away in Kolkata. Within a few hours of my mother passing away, somebody I’d known for over three and a half decades passed away. All this was happening—it was a whirl of activity. And finally, on 4 April 2016, I took over. The first few months were extremely difficult.

HSB: Why is that?

PGT: I was trying to settle down in a new city [Mumbai]. Within days of me joining, the person who was second in command, the executive editor, he put in his papers. The person who was next in line [after the executive editor], he put in his papers. So I was fighting fires and trying to ensure that things ran smoothly. It was, as they say, a baptism by fire—if I can use a Christian analogy as an atheist.

HSB: When they offered you the role, the board members were aware that you are primarily a journalist. Were there any conversations about the nature of your work and the stances you have taken, or about whether that would change once you accepted the position?

PGT: There was a wide-ranging discussion on what could be done to make the EPW more accessible to larger numbers of people. One of the ideas which they said they liked was to have articles published in the EPW translated into different languages—a scheme that is now operational. There were a lot of very general comments and observations—what could be done, how to reach out.

I presume that they knew my track record—they knew the kind of person they were hiring. They knew about my book on Ambanis [referring to Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, Guha Thakurta’s book that alleged that the Reliance Group purposely held up the production of natural gas in order to inflate the payments it could receive from the government.] I presume they would have done their homework before they decided (laughs) they should appoint me.

HSB: Were there no red flags, nor lines drawn, nor directions that indicated what you should or shouldn’t do?

PGT: There weren’t.

HSB: During your tenure, were there any discussions with the board that indicated that their feelings regarding this had changed, that they had begun to feel as if they bitten off more than they could chew?

PGT: There was nothing very specific—there were general discussions. There was one discussion where I said, “People are unhappy that I’m writing under my own byline.” And they said, “You don’t have to write everything under your byline—assign it to others.” But there was never anything specifically said that, “you can’twrite under your byline.”

I wrote under my byline—or under a joint byline—for articles that appeared in April, May, June and July [of 2016]. Thereafter, I didn’t write anything under my byline until November—and that was the article on the Birla-Sahara papers, in collaboration with The Caravan [referring to an article jointly carried by this publication and the EPW, in which Guha Thakurta examined documents that alleged that, during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had accepted nearly Rs 55 crore in bribes from the Sahara group].

It was important for me to write under my byline because [the article] involved the prime minister; two chief ministers, Shivraj Chouhan [of Madhya Pradesh] and Raman Singh [of Chhattisgarh]; former [Delhi] chief minister Sheila Dikshit; and Shaina NC, the treasurer of the BJP in Maharashtra. So, because there were these high-profile individuals, because I’dwritten to the PM and I’d written to all these guys, I said, “Okay, I have to let my byline [appear].” It was not just the fact that I obtained the papers [cited in the article]. After that, I wrote one short commentary and two more articles. So in the 15-month period, these are the articles that appeared.

Of course, I assigned articles for others to write—all put together, there must have been about two-dozen-odd articles of an investigative nature which appeared on the [EPW] website. In fact, the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, which is financially supporting the EPW—there is one little section in [the grant sanction] which talked about corporate investigations.

Let me put it this way: I was never told explicitly that these kinds of stories should not be carried.

HSB: By your account, the board had ample opportunity to do so if they wished.

PGT: Yes. They knew as well as everybody else that I’ve essentially been a reporter and much of my writing has been of this nature.

HSB: Would it be correct to say, then, that when you did the story on Adani Power, you had no indication that there should be any reason to shy away from a story such as this?

PGT: Not at all.

HSB: Could you discuss the receipt of the legal notice from the Adani Group, and the events that followed? When did the board step in?

PGT: After [the notice arrived], I treated it as a regular legal notice, which some of us have become accustomed to. These legal notices, in the standard format, tend to be addressed to everybody—publisher, printer, editor, writers. So, the Sameeksha Trust entered the picture—[since it] is the owner of the EPW and the publisher.

I engaged the services of a lawyer called Chandrachur Bhattacharyya to reply to the legal notice sent by the lawyer acting on behalf of Adani Power. And the legal notice from Adani Power’s lawyer, and Chandrachur Bhattacharyya, were simultaneously put up on the web. It was only thereafter that the trustees were informed.

In the 18 July meeting, they [the trustees] took great umbrage as to how I had arrogated to myself the authority to engage the services of a lawyer to represent the trust without the prior consent and the prior approval of the trust. They made it out, and subsequently, they reinforced it in their statement, that this was an act of “great and grave impropriety,” and a “breach of trust,” and “breach of ethics.” To me, it was a procedural lapse. I didn’t think it was even a major procedural lapse, but I said, “I apologise for this procedural lapse. I should have informed you before I engaged the services of the lawyer.”

Regretfully, very little was discussed about the article itself. They [the trustees] kept [referring to the notice as] a defamatory case. I said, “There’s a difference between a case in a court of law, and a letter sent by a lawyer which is akin to a legal notice.” They said, “Look, you know that defamation is a criminal offense.” And I said, “Yes, I know—it’s a cognisable offence under the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedural Code.” There was a recent judgement of the Supreme Court by Justice Dipak Misra which kind of put on par, more or less, the right of a person to his or her reputation and the right to free speech. Be that as it may, I tried to tell them that, whether it’s a criminal case or a civil case, the truth is your best defense. But in that 45-minute meeting, they gave me very little time to explain my position.

The issue about the documentary film got over in a few minutes—as I mentioned earlier, the Tata trusts have funded various projects which are to be implemented on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the EPW. One project is to bring out three edited volumes. The other one was to make a documentary film. An acclaimed documentary filmmaker from Mumbai, Rafeeq Ellias, had been engaged—after following a due process of consultation—to make the film. The first version of the film was shown to the trustees on 5 May, but they felt that this version needed changes.

I was under the mistaken impression that this meeting of the board of Sameeksha Trust was convened largely to discuss this issue. The first few minutes of the meeting did discuss the film—including the fact that the agreement with the filmmaker was such that he was not entitled to a third instalment [of payment]. Nevertheless, I took full responsibility for the fact that he had been paid the third instalment, for working on the second version. This [payment] happened much before the trust meeting, in fact much before the Adani Power article appeared. I said [to the trust], “Look, should the EPW incur any financial loss, or the film is incomplete on account of this decision I took, I agree to reimburse, personally, this entire amount of money.” This was put on record and minuted, I presume.

Thereafter, the issue of the defamation came up. After that, they said they’d lost their faith and trust in me, that this was a reputed scholarly journal and I had changed its character and ethos. I said, “That’s not correct, I’ve tried to addto it.” But they said, “You don’t talk now, let us finish, and then you talk.”

They said they were seriously planning to appoint a co-editor. Then, they said they were planning to codify a set of guidelines that would define the relations of the editor with that of the trust. Then, they said I was to immediately pull down that Adani Power article, and that I should not leave that place until the article was pulled down. So I called up my colleague, asked her to pull it down—Professor Nayyar, who was the chairman, wanted to ensure that the article was pulled down before I left the room.

Finally, they said, “You can’t write any more articles under your byline—unless you get the prior approval and consent of the trust.” So I asked for a piece of paper and I wrote out my resignation, and I requested them to accept it with immediate effect. All the members of the [board of] trustees that were present on that occasion—the chairman, Professor Deepak Nayyar; the managing trustee, Mr DN Ghosh; Professor Romila Thapar; Professor Dipankar Gupta; Professor Rajeev Bhargava; and Professor Shyam Menon—they were all in agreement. They were all on the same page.

HSB: Several issues appear to have been brought up against you. The first is the nature and ethos of the EPW. Was there any prior indication that the trustees felt that the nature of the journal had changed?

PGT: This was the first time that this was stated to me in such strong, vehement, unambiguous terms. Other discussions were at a very general level, and they weren’t dealing with anything in particular.

The EPW’s uniqueness is the fact that it publishes academic, scholarly articles which are research-oriented, and often of a timeless nature, with articles that are very contemporary, very topical, which are commentaries or reports. At no point of time did I think I’d been doing anything to, in any way, change the ethos or the character of the publication.

HSB: Did they elaborate what, according to them, had changed about the ethos?

PGT: At one point of time, they said, “You’ve published scurrilous articles.” So I said, “Which scurrilous article are you talking about?” One example was given to me by Professor Dipankar Gupta was an article that was published more than a year ago, written by a sociologist called Vivek Kumar, wherein he had been very critical of Indian sociologists for not adequately highlighting caste issues. This article had been approved for publication even before I had joined, but that is immaterial because it was published when I was very much the editor. It did create a bit of a stir, but at no point of time did anybody ever claim that that article was scurrilous. That was the first time I’d heard that word [in reference to the work published during his tenure]. My understanding of that word is [that it means] libellous and defamatory. Other than that example, no other example was given.

HSB: Did the trust or any of the members explicitly state the basis for its decision to take the article regarding Adani down?

PGT: No. If I [were being] polite to them, I’d say they directed and instructed me to do so. It was like an order. I was told, “Do it, now. Immediately.” There was little or no discussionon whether the article was accurate or not, whether the facts would be verified or not. I volunteered that information to justify my position that the trustees should not fear the law. No reasons were given [to me], and so I was left really with no choice but to put in my papers.

HSB: Did you get the sense the trustees were familiar with the contents of the notice and the reply? Do you think they had gone through it?

PGT: I presume they had, but I can’t vouch for it. One of the trustees said he had not read the article. So I believe this person, and I presume the others would have, because it was put in the public domain. The issue was not who read it or who didn’t read it: the issue was the so-called “grave impropriety” or the “breach of trust” on my part.

HSB: Did they elaborate what in this was so grave? If it had been done differently, what would have been the outcome, as far as they were concerned?

PGT: I wish they had, but they did not elaborate. In fact, there was almost nothing about the article that was discussed except my assertion: that I stood by every line, every sentence, every word, every comma, every full stop; and that the facts had been double-checked, had been triple-checked; and that this article was not suggesting that Adani Power had broken the law, but was critical of government policies. [The article questioned] why the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce had apparently tweaked the rules—the rules were being tweaked all through the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] regime, but there was another tweak that happened in August 2016, which enabled Adani Power to apply for a refund of customs duties to the tune of Rs 506 crores, which had been upheld by the Gujarat High Court and subsequently by the Supreme Court. The point I raised was that this duty had never been paid. So, where is the question of a refund unless that duty is paid? These are the facts of the case.

It has been more than a month since that article has been in print. All the important officers of the ministry of finance, starting with the finance minister, Mr [Arun] Jaitley; the revenue secretary, Dr [Hasmukh] Adhia; the minister of state for commerce and industry, Nirmala Sitharaman; and the commerce secretary, Rita Teaotia—all of them we wrote to, sent questionnaires, sent them a regular mail, sent them an e-mail. I’m aware that the questionnaire reached them, because we got a letter from a junior official acknowledging that it had been received. But this has not been denied. The second issue was that this decision to tweak the rules appeared to favour one company—the Adani group. What is not being denied is that an application for refund of customs duties to the tune of Rs 506 crores had been processed by the government without the duty having been paid.

HSB: A resident editor at the Economic Times made the argument that the government had tweaked the rules keeping with a 2010 Gujarat High Court judgement, which said that levying a customs duty on both raw materials and energy transfer would amount to double taxation. What do you think of this?

PGT: That’s factually incorrect. Secondly, and the most important question which I replied [with] to this string of tweets by Mr Sriram Ramakrishnan of the Economic Times, and to which I haven’t received a reply, is: if indeed the applications for refund of customs duty to the tune of over Rs 500 crores by Adani Power has been processed by the government of India, namely the ministry of finance, in consultation with the ministry of commerce and industry, why has the duty not been paid? If the application [for refund] has been processed, why has the money not been paid [by Adani Power]? I have gotten no answer to that question. And this is my response to everybody: why has the money not been paid?

HSB: To confirm, you are saying that this duty was not paid in the first place.

PGT: That’s correct. The Gujarat High Court was wrong to not verify this fact—whether or not the duty had been paid—before allowing refund applications for customs duty.

HSB: Could you discuss the proposal for the position of a co-editor? What details did the trust provide regarding that?

PGT: It was as precise as that. That, “we are contemplating, thinking of appointing, a co-editor.” It took me by surprise, but that’s it.

HSB: Did you see it as a pretext for essentially taking away authority from you?

PGT: Yes indeed, I did.

HSB: The board put out a brief statement after your resignation, effectively citing the procedural lapse as the reason behind your resignation. What is your response to that?

PGT: I think that it doesn’t tell you the full story. The fact that they were informed about this legal notice only after it was made public on our website—this, to them, was the grave impropriety, the breach of trust, that I had committed, which, in my opinion, was making a mountain out of a molehill.

At the end of the day, Hartosh, you are sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable. As I said earlier, these legal notices have a whole list of names, which includes the publisher, the editor, the printer, the writers. I took it as something that was almost routine, or something that should not deter anybody excessively. But clearly, I was wrong.

HSB: As journalists, we are well aware that big firms send legal notices almost routinely. Often, we do not even respond to them. Do you think the board members, as academics, were simply unaware of this?

PGT: Could very well be. I could’ve chosen not to [respond]—to ignore it altogether, saying, “Let’s see what happens; if they take you to court, then you engage the services of a lawyer.” Chandrachur Bhattacharyya, the advocate, is the son of a friend of mine. He agreed to prepare a reply to this legal notice, and he said, “Look, I’ll work for you for nothing—for free.” So there was no additional financial liability through the EPW. And the reply to the legal notice was quite categorical—that the legal notice merely alleged that I’d defamed the head of the Adani Group, Mr Gautam Adani, but not a single fact contained in the article concerned, had been denied, or refuted, or challenged.

HSB: Do you think that the notice served as a pretext for a board that may already have been uncomfortable with the shape the magazine was taking, or was it the notice itself that became the reason for them acting in the manner they did?

PGT: [This is a] difficult question to answer, because I can’t speculate on what motivated the trustees. I’m not sure whether they had in mind that they didn’t want me around. I have still no idea as to whether the legal notice was just a trigger.

HSB: The members of the board include some of the foremost academic intellectuals in the country, and who have spoken publicly against the decline of freedoms of institutions. Did you see any indication that they understood what the role of an editor is?

PGT: Hartosh, you know, I thought such individuals would understand. I presumed that these eminent scholars would have some idea. You are entitled to your opinion as to whether you think they were aware of, or appreciated, or were conversant with the role and responsibilities of the editor, her or his obligations, what it means to have editorial autonomy and independence. I presume they knew what it was all about.

HSB: In a span of less than two years, the board of the trust has intervened in two cases, both of which were to do with editorial matters. What does this mean for the EPW?

PGT: The EPW is an institution which, in its present form, is a half-century old. If you include what it was in its earlier avatar, it's almost as old as the country. It’s a very robust institution. By its very nature, [it is] an institution that has a certain strength, certain character, certain robustness that transcends and goes beyond individuals—whether that individual be me, or my predecessor Dr Rammanohar Reddy, or the members of the trust. I’m hopeful that the institution of the EPW will become stronger in the time to come.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: media journalism EPW Economic and Political Weekly Sameeksha Trust Adani Group Adani Power C Rammohan Reddy