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How India paid the price for 'EPW types'

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
September 30, 2016 12:34 IST
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Had it not been for the intellectual dominance and political legitimacy of the Leftist philosophy since 1970, would EPW have become what it did? After all, there were other more established journals around then, says T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

How do ideology, politics, patronage and intellect interact? The Economic and Political Weekly, which is celebrating 50 years of existence, provides a textbook example. It was born in 1966 from the Economic Weekly, which had been founded in 1949 by Sachin Chaudhuri.

1966 was important not only because it ensured the longevity of the Economic Weekly but also because “political” was inserted in its title. This later became the pursuit of a political agenda, defined first, by the broad Left, and then, the narrow one.

In 1966 it was still not clear what would become of that agenda. The newly born EPW wielded no clout then, no intellectual heft which its admirers would later claim.

In 1969, prime minister Indira Gandhi made common cause with the Communist Party of India. Over the next five years, Left-oriented ideas became enormously respectable. The time for EPW to emerge as a leading “intellectual” journal had arrived as by now it was being run by a trust that broadly agreed with the Left notions of how state policy should be run.

Over the 1970s, it emerged as an important vehicle for the Left but not liberal point of view. It did not, by the way, cease publication during the Emergency. It did, however, publish opaque and oblique criticisms, the most notable of which was the Eighteenth Brumaire article by K N Raj on intermediate regimes.

In the 1980s it even acquired the right to certify budding academics as being acceptable to the HighChurch, comprising Marxists and assorted Leftists who now dominated central universities.

This little background is necessary because most commentators have paid handsome compliments to the magazine and said that it is an invaluable repository of great intellectual debates. Others, including me, would beg to differ.

Debates, yes, aplenty; intellectual, possibly; but great? Easy does it.

My problem is this: The label of great is usually attached only if there is political sanction and legitimacy to an underlying idea. But sadly, all too often the “greatness” is acquired by promoting a certain framework of analysis to the exclusion of all others.

It is therefore necessary to ask: Had it not been for the intellectual dominance and political legitimacy of the Leftist philosophy since 1970, would EPW have become what it did? After all, there were other more established journals around then.

For example, Indian Finance and Eastern Economist were far more influential until 1972. They maintained a steady intellectual following throughout the 1970s.

But ironically, by the 1980s, when Indira Gandhi was turning somewhat to the right, they became the pariahs of economic intellect.

The Left dominance happened because after 1971, Nurul Hasan, Mrs Gandhi’s education minister, systematically installed “friends” in the central universities, mostly in the social sciences. This turned many of these universities into a stranglehold of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, against which Dharma Kumar, the feisty liberal professor of economic history at the Delhi School of Economics, protested against in 1991.

She was soon singled out by the Left as an agent of Western imperialism and finance capital. Ramchandra Guha, her nephew, has this to say: “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.”

How could a journal that called itself the pre-eminent forum for intellect, represent just one broad point of view? How did an intolerance of other views become a virtue?

Not just that. As was recently pointed out by 101 of its major supporters -- supporters, mind you -- the magazine was financially supported by government institutions such as the University Grants Commission, the Reserve Bank of India and the Indian Council of Social Science Research.  Can you imagine any other publication which is funded by government agencies gaining this sort of influence?

EPW did a lot of good but it has also done a lot of harm. It legitimised the propagation of ignorance by endorsing a method of public engagement that has morphed into activism.

There was, to give just one example, the debate in the mid-1980s over the import of milk powder from the European Union. Those against it were objecting to the origin of the milk, not the fact of the import itself. The same thing happened in the case of World Trade Organization. Joining a Soviet-led trade block had been ok, however.

Ditto on human rights, rural poverty, gender issues etc in China. It was one rule for India and another for China. Why, one well-known Left economist even wrote that there had been no starvation deaths in China during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. 

A whole generation has grown up to sally forth and proselytise. They are now derisively called the “EPW types”. Their passionate, biased and ignorant voices dominated the National Advisory Council during 2004-14.

India paid the price.

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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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