Paranjoy Guha Thakurta quitting as EPW editor signals how cronyism dictates Modi’s India

The articles against Adani Group dodging taxes and the government bending SEZ rules to benefit the company too have been taken down.

 |  Angiography  |  5-minute read |   19-07-2017
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Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a veteran journalist who has the reputation of being a “true muckraker”, fiercely independent and completely non-partisan, has stepped down as the editor of the illustrious Economic and Political Weekly, reportedly over two articles on the alleged nexus between the Adani Group and Modi government. 

The said articles have been removed from the EPW website (but have been archived, and also the republished versions continue to exist in The Wire.in), and Guha Thakurta has ended his 15-month stint with the five-decade-old research and scholarly journal that has for long been an important contributor to debates, discussions and detailed reportage, on "personal grounds".

Guha Thakurta had co-authored the articles with editorial assistant Abir Dasgupta, and researchers Advait Rao Palepu and Shinzani Jain. One of the articles titled “Modi Government’s Rs 500-crore Bonanza to the Adani Group” dealt with how the Centre had in August 2016, tweaked rules pertaining to Special Economic Zones to benefit the Adani Group, whose promoter Gautam Adani is perceived to be close to the prime minister.

guha_071917041519.jpgImage: Twitter

The other piece, titled, “Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1,000 Crore in Taxes?”, details how despite the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) reports on a handful of companies under the Adani Group allegedly dodged taxes and laundered money while trading in diamonds and gold jewellery, the Centre is reluctant to pursue the matter, and hasn’t filed a review petition in the Supreme Court looking into the matter.

The two matters require urgent investigation, but instead of the government bodies following them up, what we have witnessed is obstruction of justice by dangling defamation suits worth several crores in order to scare the trustees of the EPW. Guha Thakurta had earlier tweeted about the notice that the Adani Group’s lawyer had sent him, as well as Sameeksha Trust, the publishers of EPW.

The EPW management has reacted to the mere threat of a criminal defamation suit in a legal notice from the Adani Group. This goes on to show how strategic litigations are being used by big corporates to curb free speech and discourage high-quality investigative journalism.

According to media grapevine, the Sameeksha Trust board told Guha Thakurta that a) it was improper of him to engage the services of a lawyer to respond to the Adani legal notice without consulting the EPW board; b) that he had changed the tone and character of the journal during his short tenure, making it nearly unidentifiable from its sober past; c) that he should write fewer articles under his byline and edit more.

This is highly unwarranted as EPW has been doing stellar work under the editorial guidance of Guha Thakurta, focussing as much on polemics and debate as on meticulously researched investigative pieces that took on the biggest corporate behemoths, notably Adani Group and the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Industries Limited. 

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims that there’s not a single stain of corruption on his three-year tenure in the Centre, we see a barrage of attacks on media, creeping self-censorship and a belligerent government clamping down on those trying to do their job well and ask critical, uncomfortable questions about the state of the political economy.

Not just the EPW, even The Wire.in had to remove two articles on the NDA head of Kerala and Rajya Sabha MP, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, sitting atop a mountain of conflict of interest, as he, despite owning companies with defence interests, is part of the parliamentary standing committee on defence. 

In addition, his part ownership of Republic TV has also come under the scanner and Chandrasekhar promptly used the litigation route to get the articles taken down from the website. (Again, archived content can be found by anyone willing to dig deep.)

This is not the first time that Guha Thakurta has invited the wrath of big corporate behemoths. His book, Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, had to fight a legal notice from Reliance Industries, and RIL wanted “all existing copies – hard copy and online versions – of the book to be destroyed and any further publication, distribution or circulation to be stopped”.

Once again, criminal defamation was used as a strategy, but fortunately, the book has survived and has become once again available with online retailers.  

With 58 per cent of India’s wealth owned by the top one per cent of population, crony capitalism is thriving and how under this government's regime. Despite PM Modi’s hard talk against corruption and claims of ending it altogether, all we see is a concerted attempt to delete every mention of such collusions.

The "collusions" that had hitherto only been hinted at, were investigated into with gusto by Guha Thakurta, especially the alleged Modi-Adani nexus, whether in terms of bending of rules pertaining to special economic zones as to benefit the Adani Group per se, or helping the businessman deal with black money, give him undue loans from public sector banks on overseas projects that had run into troubles with local authorities there.

Whether it was SBI trying to extend a line of credit worth $ one billion to Adani Group for the Carmichael coal mining project in Australia, or helping the billionaire from Gujarat engage in "riskless capitalism" - a phrase coined by former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan - by tweaking SEZ rules, laying waste to India's environment, or saving Adani from green penalties, the collusion has been happening right before our eyes. 

Of course, Gautam Adani too had reportedly poured money into Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha election campaign in 2013-14, making it the costliest ever in the history of India. The Gujarat-based businessman's proximity to the prime minister was flaunted in the politician flying all over India in Adani's private planes and choppers.

In turn, the allegations that Modi, as prime minister, has turned a blind eye to Adani's black money case have surfaced. In A Feast of Vultures, senior journalist Josy Joseph recounts how despite his anti-black money bluster, one of the biggest black money cases before the retired Supreme Court judge-led Special Investigation Team - a decision taken by PM Modi himself in the initial days of him taking office - has been that of the Adani Group of Industries. According to Joseph, the Adani Group allegedly took out over Rs 5,000 crore to tax havens abroad, using inflated bills for the import of power equipment from South Korea and China, and the SIT on black money was told by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED)."

What has happened to that investigation? We have no clue, and even as publications such as EPW under the steerage of Guha Thakurta tried digging into those and related allegations, we all can see what followed - brutal clampdown on any mention of the alleged Modi-Adani nexus, strangling free press by using what in legal jargon has come to be known as a "SLAPP", or strategic litigation to avoid public participation.  

Guha Thakurta is clearly not alone in being targeted, but the very fact that he had to resign from his crucial position as editor of the EPW as a form of protest against the censorship, is a signal of bigger and more ominous worries in times ahead. His resignation is a beginning of a long struggle towards press freedom, in which India ranks at a dismal number 138.

[Editor's Note: This article was updated on July 19, 2017, to include the observations of the Sameeksha Trust board.]

Also read: How young Indians are growing up censored and silenced

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Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Opinionator at DailyO. Because criticism is the opium of the classes.

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