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Sunday, 03 September 2017 11:57

Adani Would Have Bankrupted EPW, and the Trustees Themselves - Romi Khosal

We are reproducing below an article by Romi Khosal from The Wire on what happened in Sameeksha Trust leading to the resignation of its editor, on which there is lot of interest among the different left circles. Whatever may be the internal fight among the left and intellectual groups, it is a fact that the corporate houses are bent on weakening and crushing all of them, the fact which many of them still do not recognize. It is in this context this article from one of those familiar with these developments is republished so that Red Star readers also can undersatand and participate in this debate — Red Star

THE Indian Trust Act specifically forbids delegation of trustee responsibilities. Therefore, attacking the trustees for taking fright or capitulating may perhaps be a little inaccurate. Sameeksha Trust members are Deepak Nayyar, Romila Thapar, Dipankar Gupta, Rajeev Bhargava.

To many of us it would seem that the sense of tragedy within the scattered Indian Left is being re-enacted in the unprecedented attack on members of the Sameeksha Trust in the wake of the recent resignation of the Economic and Political Weekly’s (EPW) editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. I am sure that when the dust eventually settles, the skirmish would be seen as a proxy to family quarrels within the Left by social scientists who study such things. Preying on each other within the walls of a dilapidated family haveli seems to be inappropriate for the otherwise trustworthy and renowned authors who have mistakenly written with so much conviction, in The Wire, about the misdemeanours of the Sameeksha trustees.

Our progressive movements, once reasonably cohesive, have now begun slowly to drift into multiple hubs, each out to choose from a variety of active as well as passive modes of resistance. Today, it has become difficult to find any semblance of a consensus amongst our progressives. In the absence of charismatic leaders, it is only natural that each polycentre has its own take on how to re-boot the country’s political systems, institutions and social classes. It comes as no surprise then for some to imagine that even changing trustees might help EPW’s cause.

I must confess, before I go any further, that I do not have the status of all those who have articulated their strong objections to the conduct of the Sameeksha trustees in their letters and articles. Regrettably, EPW has not played a major role in my life, nor have I become a successful academic and a writer because of it. Nor have I been in such a position of trust to be invited to edit a volume on independent India as seen through the pages of EPW over the past 50 years. I confess my handicap and disadvantage at the outset. Apart from some minor pieces, I have so far only contributed one special article to EPW and have now been waiting since April for its sequel to be cleared by the editors. I may be quite mistaken in interpreting this long wait as a validation of the thorough vetting that the entire editorial staff exercises to safeguard the extremely high quality of information that comes to us week after week regardless of this or that editor sitting in the chair.

Like many, I have enjoyed reading what has appeared in The Wire with great interest. With them, I have shared all the serious arguments of the authors as well as all their stories about the wonderful things that used to happen in the good old days including how an outstanding historian is said to have commented that the trustees treat the editor as a “glorified bell boy”.

Although we know that these angry pieces have been written by those who deeply love the EPW it makes it doubly confusing to understand the reasons for their attacks. Its as if a child is pulling her mother’s hair to regain her attention. I cannot understand what would make them utter oracular predictions about the journal’s imminent death, forgetting that authors, hearing the prediction, would consider it futile to wait to be published. It’s the bitterness that is so unexpected.

On the other hand, Partha Chatterjee’s and Ramachandra Guha’s recalling of the good old days of Krishna Raj has been fascinating to read. Their pieces have sketched for us the broad settings of the current tragedy. This is not to discount the signatories to a statement that appeared soon after Guha-Thakurta’s resignation but one needs to remain at a safe distance just to discuss the entire matter in an informed and dispassionate way. That hurriedly cobbled together reaction is best left as that since some signed and withdrew while others first signed and then inquired about the matter. Nevertheless, I am intrigued, as an outsider, by the number of prescriptions that quarrelsome writers have laid down for the managers of EPW. They may make for a good read in the absence of fuller facts.

Unfortunately these prescriptions leave one with an aftertaste of presumptuousness which reinforces the pointlessness of the prescriptions. For instance, H.L. Mencken, who was born in 1880, has been written into one such prescription. It is not at all clear why Mencken’s advice is being lauded as a model for replication in a left weekly: “....a magazine is a despotism or it is nothing. One man and one man alone must be responsible for its essential contents”. Nor am I sure whether such a Custer style editorial stand of days gone by is appropriate for today’s journals. Its been a while since Custer attitudes amongst editors perished and such editorial despotism could be somewhat out of synchrony with today’s times.

For now it would seem more relevant to refer to the Sameeksha Trust Deed, para 3 (e) which lays down the powers of the trustees:

“To appoint or terminate the service of, or to determine the terms and conditions of service of the members of the staff of the Trust and the institutions established by or aided by the Trust and all persons employed by or doing the work of the Trust”.

Hardly the circumstances for an editor to leaf through the sayings of Mencken and circle the wagons to defend himself from his employers and Gautam Adani. Of course, I quite agree that editors should not be humiliated if they make that last stand, but then I have no reason to think that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is saying what he is while bandaging the wounds of humiliation inflicted by the trustees.

Trustees Kept EPW Going Financially

The articles that have targeted the trustees also have plenty of interesting bits of information. Some relate to stories about how C. Rammanohar Reddy was able to save the EPW from certain death a decade ago. We read how he had, in a life-saving move, beseeched the Nilekani’s and Tata Trusts to donate money to enable continuing the work of EPW. The story narrates how the trustees were unwilling or unable to shoulder the responsibilities for the journal’s financial viability. On reading about the ex- editor’s fund raising skills, I asked the Sameeksha trustees for clarification. I should perhaps explain the reason for my confusion. I happen to have some awareness about fundraising by a trust. I too had been a trustee for ten years of a similar public trust and that trust too had successfully obtained funds from the Tata Trusts. Almost the first question asked by the donor is “...and who are the other trustees?”.

The funding for survival story seems to be exaggerated or even perhaps imaginary. It transpires, on inquiry, that more than a decade before Reddy became editor, in the early 1990s, the same trustees had mobilised resources to create a corpus which had never existed till then. At that time, the Tata Trusts had made a donation. Later, during Reddy’s tenure, it was the Sameeksha trustees who had first approached not only the Nilekanis but the Tata Trust as well. With the earlier donations, the trustees were able to embody the corpus into a house for the editor and an office space for the EPW Research Foundation in Mumbai. They have also been able to periodically raise the salaries of the EPW staff , who seem to work there with unrivalled commitment.

It is not my intention to place narratives and counter narratives here for the sake of gossip. The harsh reality is that it is the trust deed which clarifies all these responsibilities for fund raising:

“The Trustees have the power from time to time to accept grants, donations, bequests and contributions comprising of cash or other property... for the purposes of the Trust... and to work in collaboration and association or affiliation with any other individual, association, corporation, body or authority which would, in the opinion of the Trustees, further the purpose of the Trust”.

For the same reasons, I find it difficult to believe the riveting story about how the trustees of Sameeksha capitulated after taking fright from Adani’s legal notice. In trying to piece together what could have provoked such a serious charge, I relied on my common sense which tells me that Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta must have unilaterally assumed upon himself the responsibilities of a trustee. Otherwise how could he appoint his own counsel by proxy, ignore the trust deed and then go about his business concealing a legal notice that had been addressed to the trustees?

The Indian Trust Act specifically forbids delegation of trustee responsibilities. Therefore, attacking the trustees for taking fright or capitulating may perhaps be a little inaccurate. At the risk of being boring, I will quote, once again, from the trust deed. It is the responsibility of the trustees:

“To file and defend suits and appeals in any court in the Union of India and to sign and declare and verify all plaints, written statements, appeals... and to make all necessary petitions, affidavits... and to accept all summons, notices.....to do all such ministerial acts ...deemed proper by the Trustees without being responsible for loss or any exercise of such discretionary powers...”

Clearly, contrary to what is being implied, the trust has gradually secured its corpus, as trusts are wont to do, helped and aided by the generosity of donors. Sameeksha, being a public charitable trust, began with a corpus of Rs 1000/- and got registered in 1966 under the Bombay Public Trusts Act 1950. Since then, under the management of various trustees, it has grown. There seems little to show that it has ever been mismanaged over the last 50 years, as far as the growth of the weekly and corpus are concerned.

Adani Could Have Bankrupted EPW and Its Trustees

A corpus is a source of stability for any trust and is not to be bartered away in litigation. Personally, therefore, I regard the taking down of a potentially litigious article as an extremely wise decision that has safeguarded the long term survival and objectives of the trust. Letting the editor, high on Menckenisms, loose into the corporate world would almost certainly have been suicidal.

Adani is no ordinary mortal being and is amongst the ten richest billionaires in India. It’s not a good idea to shoot at him from someone else’s shoulders. The fact is that he sent the first legal notice to the Sameeksha Trust and followed it up with a separate legal notice that named each of the trustees as individuals. It reveals his intentions to take down all that is the EPW – buildings, editor’s house, the corpus, the trustees and their personal assets – in a long drawn-out suit. The EPW has an iconic value for all social scientists as well as for the larger left community as well. That is why, in the present environment, it is worth considering sheathing daggers, containing the venom and understanding the sacrosanct boundaries of the legal frameworks that regulate trustee responsibilities while considering alternate views about the propriety of taking down the article.

There is the Bombay Trust Act revised in 1950 and the larger central Indian Trusts Act of 1882 as well as a trust deed. All three clarify that a trustee cannot delegate his or her responsibilities. The law seems clear enough about the responsibilities of trustees. On the question of the personal liabilities of a trustee, Indian case law may still be ambiguous but it has been clearly established by case law abroad that a trustee could personally be liable for trust debts and that a trustee’s liabilities cannot be delegated.

I did not face any opaqueness during my dealings with the trustees when I sought their clarifications to write this piece and I am a little surprised as to why none of the attackers made any serious effort to meet any of the trustees before drawing their daggers. They are family. I do not believe for a moment that any useful purpose has been served by Partha Chatterjee’s warning that he will “hold the Trust responsible for the debacle”. A needless dire warning which the trustees should well ignore. They have enough responsibilities which they are discharging under the directives of the deed and the other two Acts and so there seems no reason for them to be responsible for a death foretold.

Romi Khosla is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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