Over the past fifty years the Economic and Political Weekly has provided a unique platform for intellectual engagement and the fertilisation of ideas. India’s growing world of letters needs not just its continuation, but the efflorescence of perhaps fifty more such journals.
In early 1966 more than 50 of India’s leading commentators, academics and senior government officials appealed for contributions of Rs 500 each to establish a trust that would publish a new journal of the social sciences.
Tomorrow (20 August) marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW).
EPW has become something of a global phenomenon over the past half century. Week after week it has presented informed commentary on the important issues of the day as well as research papers on a wide range of social science disciplines. Its authors have included everyone from political activists to Nobel Laureates, from lecturers in colleges in small towns to professors in the leading universities in the world, from members of non-government organisations to government officials.
EPW is actually now 67, and not 50. The Economic Weekly (EW), conceived and edited by Sachin Chaudhuri (an economist from what was then Dacca who had moved to Bombay), had begun publication in 1949 in the western metropolis. It quickly made a name for itself as a much sought after platform for publishing opinion and research about India’s development policies and the politics around it. But that weekly, financed by the Sekhsarias, a group of cotton merchants, closed at the end of 1965 after differences between the editor and the publishers. Within a few weeks some of India’s leading academics and thinkers made the appeal to launch a new journal that would be edited by Sachin Chaudhuri and build on the legacy of the very influential Economic Weekly.
The new weekly, with “Political” added to its moniker in acknowledgement of its widening intellectual mandate, was published by the new Sameeksha Trust. In this new, revitalised avatar the weekly blossomed.
Within a decade EPW had grown in the range of disciplines and themes it published. EPW’s pages hosted some of the most important debates, about economic strategies, change in village societies, foreign policy, political representation and ever expanding fields such as secularism and the politics of the Left. Then and later, some of India’s best gave their best work to EPW and EPW in turn helped launch many a career by publishing the first works of young writers.
What explains this success of the EPW when world over, independent “little magazines” rarely, if ever, manage to survive for a few years? One reason surely is the thriving intellectual climate in India of the first few decades after independence when everyone put their shoulder to “nation building”. Later, the cross-disciplinary open-ended nature of the journal helped it grow and prevent being painted into a corner.
The editor has always been crucial in making EPW what it is. Krishna Raj, who took over as editor a few years after Chaudhuri passed away (after a brief inter-regnum when RK Hazari was editor), opened the pages of the weekly to an even wider range of authors, gave it its trade-mark left wing flavour without closing it to other viewpoints. He went out of his way to encourage young scholars, got activists to write academically rigorous articles and got academics to sustain a public-political purpose to their work
By the 1970s, EPW became a journal which large number of people identified with, looked forward to reading each week and hoped to contribute to. Krishna Raj built up a team of EPW staff who worked to produce a veritable book size publication every week, and of ever widening circles of contributors and subscribers who felt a sense of fraternal bonding with the journal. Together, these circles of committed authors, readers and employees provided the support which sustained the EPW even when conditions were hard.
Perhaps Krishna Raj’s greatest contribution lay in building up and nurturing this world of the EPW where everyone felt ownership of the journal. The legal form in which it has been published may be of a trust but it has really worked like the best of the cooperatives; with everyone a trustee.
EPW has never been shy of publishing the new, unusual or off-beat argument. And, of course, its defining identity is its independent and critical stance on issues. EPW has always looked for new fields to cover. In the 1980s, EPW added gender to its pages and later health, education, the environment and much more were included in its portfolio. (Like much of academia, EPW “rediscovered” caste in the 1970s.)
Another remarkable feature is that EPW has been produced all these years without any commercial backing, depending entirely on its income from circulation and limited advertising. It has as a policy never taken any grants from abroad. At home, other than individual donations to its corpus, it has received only three substantial one-time grants from institutions/individuals, all in the first decade of the 21st century. Difficult as it has been, this way of functioning has helped EPW maintain its independence.
Fifty years after its launch, what lies ahead?
The world of publishing, the world of academia and the world of public debates have all changed dramatically over the last decade or so. EPW has ridden the waves of these changes and we feel a sense of satisfaction that at our time at the journal we managed to steer its course where today the number of article submissions and the circulation have both doubled over the past dozen years, the finances are better than they ever were in its history even when staff salaries are at their best and EPW is ready to meet the demands of digitisation and growing specialisation.
Yet, success brings forth new challenges.
EPW may be reaching the limits of its ability to cater to the needs and demands of India’s intellectual life. The widening range of commentary and research that EPW receives every week has already been testing the limits of editorial capabilities and the space available for articles. How can the massive numbers of new students, researchers and teachers who have come into the social sciences in India over the past few years be socialised into the old world charms of the EPW? How can the hundreds and thousands of commentators who are turned away from mainstream publications find a place in EPW? Can the digital world provide answers? How will EPW’s financial security be ensured when everything comes for free on the internet?
There are no set answers to these challenges, yet the only way to meet them is to strengthen the community which is the EPW. In these testing times, with the forums for debate under threat and intellectual activity frowned upon by the ruling elite, EPW is needed more than ever before. Fifty years after EPW started publication today the country perhaps needs fifty more such journals publishing from all parts of the country, from all viewpoints and in all forms.
EPW has survived and grown over the last half century on the backs of successive teams of dedicated staff and a close-knit community. Its very success has created conditions where future growth and survival may well depend on the growth and spread of an entire eco-system of independent publications hosting varied research, debates and readership.
[The authors were until earlier this year Executive Editor and Editor of EPW, respectively.]