Stoppage of ‘Margin Speak’ of Anand Teltumbde in EPW: ‘Nation’s Conscience’ on Deathbed?

The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), which was launched in 1949 and shepherded by Sachin Chaudhuri, is today owned by the Sameesksha Trust. It has been known to be a journal with ‘social conscience’. IIM Ahmedabad had once termed it the only institution in India for public policy analysis. Indeed, it has been a prestigious institution known to be vocal about issues having deep social impact and providing an alternate way of looking at them, backed by strong research. In its long history, it has been regularly read by activists, academics, non-academics, policy makers, etc. to understand events and phenomena that affect society. It has been largely fearless in critiquing state policies and governments in the course of its journey since birth – initially under the name Economic Weekly and then under the current name since 1966. However, all this seems to be changing – for the worse. Though a cursory glance at developments in the recent past may look like routine administrative changes within the organization, a deeper look reveals a plausible rot in the administration which might destroy the moral and ethical integrity of this organization that had been carefully built over these years.

“Margin Speak” was a column of Anand Teltumbde that appeared in EPW consistently for almost a decade. A brainchild of C. Rammanohar Reddy, the then editor of EPW, and shaped by Anand, it had soon become a popular read transcending the intellectual barriers of EPW. It was considered by many as a wonderful contribution, coming as it did from a noted activist-scholar with impeccable intellectual integrity, to the perspectives on contemporary issues concerning people living on ‘margins’. This fact was widely acknowledged by innumerable readers of the column, and also by previous editors of the Weekly. In its journey, Margin Speak has been unafraid in its criticism of governments and their policies irrespective of which party has been in power. Many like us have felt that Margin Speak has been the best thing that had happened to EPW. The articles in Margin Speak got translated to almost all major Indian languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, etc. The translations were printed and circulated among multiple activist groups and organs throughout the country. Clearly, the popularity and outreach of Margin Speak among readers easily exceeded any other column at EPW. The last column under Margin Speak by Anand appeared in the issue dated 20 October, 2018. The readers wondered whether Anand was unable to write it because of his harassment by the state. But slowly, the facts began trickling down that shockingly exposed the rot that set in this prestigious institution called EPW.

The changes began happening with the new editor Gopal Guru taking over. It is learnt that EPW proposed through a member of the editorial team that Margin Speak would be made available to other writers and Anand would be informed about when his piece would be required. This was obviously a ploy to kill the column as it was well-known that Margin Speak had acquired a distinct personality of its own over a decade which was integral with Anand Teltumbde. If there was no backdrop to this development, it perhaps would be taken as misconceived proposition. However, it was not so. Since the new editor took over EPW, the editorial comments on Anand’s submission had a distinct message that criticism of the government or the prime minister would not be accepted. Never in the past was his write-up returned. The editorial team did make changes here and there and they were mutually appreciated. But this time it was returned twice so as to provoke Anand to voice his apprehension of the editorial policy in writing. The uncanny pattern of editorial correction for the parts, which were critical of Modi or the ruling government, raised serious questions on the intention of the editor. This happened with his last column ‘Modi Scare to Modicare’ ultimately published with the title ‘Dissecting Modicare’ but only after substantially diluting the tone of the critique of the Ayushman Bharat or the National Health Protection Mission (AB-NHPM), euphemistically termed Modicare and deleting entire part of the terror Modi unleashed among the populace. This was a clear case of some prompt from the top to curtail voices which are critical of the current regime and the kind of policies they are pursuing aggressively, and of course, of people crawling when they are asked to bend.

This development must not be looked in isolation; rather the series of events that have been unravelling, especially post 2014, must be seen together. Rammanohar Reddy, who took over EPW in 2004 after legendary Krishna Raj, had taken the journal to a new high during his stewardship. However, he had to step down due to differences with the Sameeksha Trust in 2016. Longstanding readers and contributors of the journal globally had then expressed concern over the ‘unhappy and ungracious parting of the ways’. The next editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta also was eased out for having crossed the Adani. The current editor, without any editorial or management experience, was perhaps brought in to sanitize EPW of the elements critical of the current dispensation. He got rid of the entire consulting team for special issues on women comprising persons like Kalpana Sharma and the long time deputy editor Bernard D’Mello from EPW. The stoppage of Anand’s Margin Speak was perhaps the culmination of it.

This kind of ethical, moral and ideological degradation of the organization is unprecedented in the history of EPW. The state machinery and government has been unpleased with Anand’s unsparing critique is now public by the manner in which he has been falsely implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case under the dreaded UAPA. This is understandable as his writings and activism has consistently exposed the nature of the anti-people Indian state and been the voice of the oppressed people for decades. Why has EPW to follow in the footsteps of the rulers? Interestingly, while most journals and papers in the country have shown concern over the manner in which the state has fabricated the Bhima-Koregaon case and implicated noted scholars and activists as ‘Urban Maoists’, EPW has maintained its silence. Do we take that EPW has given up to be an institution of public policy analysis? Do we assume that it has reduced itself to be an organ of sterile intellectualization? Historian Ramachandra Guha, a contributor and reader of EPW, had rightly commented, “If EPW goes, the nation’s conscience goes”. Has the time then arrived?

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