Thompson must have been reading the Economic and Political Weekly, 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 diverse (and important) as the economy, caste politics, religious violence, and human rights, the EPW (as it is fondly known) 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 New Statesman? Or as a left-wing version of the American Weekly Standard? To this less-than-impartial reader the comparison is all to the EPW’s favour. For one thing, it has never allied itself (howsoever loosely) to a political party. For another, it does not have a sugar daddy. Run on less than a shoe-string budget, it is chiefly sustained by the goodwill of its subscribers. But perhaps the most vital difference lies in its intellectual weightiness. Within its pages have been published the first and sometimes the finest essays of India’s most eminent intellectuals: Jagdish Bhagwati, André Béteille, Amartya Sen, MN Srinivas and the like.
The EPW is a unique, three-fold mix of political prejudice, dispassionate reportage and 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. The journal’s back pages are filled each week with book reviews and two or three academic papers, soberly presented and massively footnoted.
To illustrate the range of themes, consider the first issue of 2004. This carried reports on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and a review of communal riots in India in 2003. The ‘special articles’ (i.e. research papers) section was given over to a forum on globalisation, with essays on its impact on labour, national identities, and transnational religious movements. Go back ten years, to find that the first issue of 1994 contained reports on an earthquake in Western India and on industrial conflicts, with special articles on the treatment of minorities in the Soviet Union and disease in colonial India. The first issue of 1984 featured reports on the impact of exchange rate fluctuations on Indian exports and on the Chinese claim to Hong Kong. Among the special articles were one on the ‘socio-economic roots’ of the insurgency in the Punjab, and another on fertility differentials between Indian states.
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 the way they are set in columns. A recent ‘redesign’ 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 are 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 Himalaya, 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 a 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) on Indian villages, which demonstrated the continuing influence of caste on social life.
In August 1966 the journal changed its name to the Economic and Political Weekly. By the end of the 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 of the 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 on the 13th of January this year.
I never met Sachin Chaudhuri. But I knew Krishna Raj well. Unlike his mentor he was a man of few words. But his devotion to the journal was ferocious. Between them the two editors 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. In its pages, and nowhere else, were to be found the best of India’s social scientists: across the disciplines, and across the political spectrum as well.
Getting the journal by post every week was excitement enough. But more thrilling by far was to get a letter from the editor. These were typed, and sent in a specially printed inland letter form, coloured pale green. In recent years Krishna Raj had so far forgotten himself to take to email; no doubt a gain on the side of efficiency, but a matter of some regret for his writers. The inland letter had printed on it the journal’s address: ‘Hitkari House, 284 Frere Road, Bombay 400038’. In time the names of the street and city and the pin code all changed: to Shahid Bhagatsingh Marg, Mumbai, and 400001 respectively. But inside, the editor stayed the same. Visiting the offices of the EPW was a secular pilgrimage. Hitkari House lay between Victoria Terminus and the Reserve Bank of India: in a part of Bombay dense with memory and history, and, above all, humanity. The two grand buildings were joined by a street chock-a-bloc with shops, the road overrun with cars and cycles and pedestrians.
It was with some relief that one turned away from the street into the building that housed the journal. A dingy lift took one upto 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 humble desk and still more humble chairs. There was, of course, no question of airconditioning; the only luxury was a window which on a good day allowed in 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 lowest paid employee. In 2002, after thirty years in the job, the editor was paid INR 12, 000 (roughly USD 250) 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 significance of the work, or the fact that he put in at least twice as many hours as did the most conscientious academic in India.
Over the years I must have made perhaps a dozen trips to the EPW office. Krishna Raj was a handsome, oval-faced, 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.
It was lucky, if no accident, that the editors of this remarkable journal came from Bengal and Kerala. 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 from the Left, by those who think that the road to revolution lies through armed struggle. And they have been opposed from the Right, by liberals and conservatives dismayed by their attacks 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, and 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, it was owed to the class character of Nehru’s Congress party, dominated by landlords 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’, said Chaudhuri, ‘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’.
Within a few years Nehru’s liberalism had been seriously challenged—by, as it happens, 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 among judges and civil servants. These developments culminated in the notorious Emergency of 1975-77.
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 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 in the journal and a return to the old catholicism. Her letter, printed in the EPW, brought forth howls of protest from the Left. 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 Indian Marxists to take heed of the winds of liberalism then blowing through Eastern Europe.
As ever, the EPW was happy to give over its pages to intellectuals abusing one another. The debate continued for months, but its ultimate effect was salutary. For Krishna Raj realized that it was not just Russia that had changed. So had China, and India. The 20th century had conclusively 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.
This diversity of views is a key reason for the journal’s astonishing longevity. Its life has been more-or-less coterminous with the life of India. Through these six decades, it has been a veritable salon of the Indian mind, the place one goes to eavesdrop on the most arresting and unusual conversations about this bafflingly complex land. No journal I know generates a comparable possessiveness among its readers and writers, to whom those three letters—‘E, P ,W’—denote sparkle and controversy, but also quality and relevance.
The fact that it has maintained its influence for so long decisively marks out the EPW from some of its global competitors. The heyday of the New Statesman ran from, roughly, the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. Ever since then it has been somewhat of a fringe publication. Or consider the French journal Le Temps Moderne, which was founded at the same time as the Economic Weekly. For its first decade this was at the cutting edge of French intellectual life, but as the credibility of its founders faded so did its own influence.
The EW, and later the EPW, has encouraged writers of all ages and all nationalities. The journal has always been international in its orientation, as well as in its cast of writers. In its early years the distinguished Cambridge economists Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor were contributors. More recently, veteran American leftists marginalized in their own milieu have found a haven in the EPW. Here, and nowhere else, do Indian and Western writers and scholars converse on an equal footing.
Another reason for the journal’s enduring influence is the TISNA factor – there is simply no alternative. Indian newspapers have become progressively more superficial. Focusing on food, fashion and films, they have little room for books and ideas. At the other end, there does not exist a dense enough mass of scholars to sustain specialist disciplinary journals (and where these do exist, they are, as elsewhere, coterie journals written in arcane academic prose). Thus the appeal, to both readers and writers, of the unique hybrid that is the EPW.
In recent years, the EPW has returned to being what Sachin Chaudhuri intended it to be: a broad church of intellectual opinion in India, from right-wing liberalism to left-wing Communism. 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, at least not now, when Hindu chauvinists are in power in New Delhi. But these chauvinists are not especially keen to have their say in the EPW either. In this they are much like their counterparts elsewhere. (Liberation will not commission an essay by Jean Marie Le Pen, but then Le Pen doesn’t want to write for Liberation.) 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 elite, English.
The little men who now rule India may think they can afford to disregard the Economic and Political Weekly. For the rest of us, however, it remains indispensable. Of course, it is also at times impossible. I have myself fought with the EPW twice, on account of its seeming bias towards the Marxists. Both times, I swore not to write for the journal again. Each time it was I who sued for peace. The EPW could comfortably live without me. But I cannot now live without the EPW.
Krishna Raj himself had to step into a pair of somewhat outsize shoes. His own successor will have no easy job of it, but she or he will have the support of a loyal staff, a devoted readership, and a stable of able and willing writers. Early signs are heartening. The day after the editor died I called the office, to be answered by a voice resolutely saying: ‘This is the EPW’. The next issue, I was told, had already gone to press. The subsequent one, with tributes to the departed editor, was being planned. The EPW will carry on, and so, after a fashion, will India.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)