Guest post by SATYA SAGAR
The shocking spectacle of Siddharth Varadarajan, the Editor of The Hindu, being forced out of his post by a cabal of its owners is a brutal reminder to journalists all over the country that however fine a professional you may be you will always remain at the mercy of media proprietors.
Just around two years ago when N. Ram, the then Editor of The Hindu, passed on the mantle to Varadarajan, a highly respected and independent journalist, he had touted the move as a radical shift away from being a family run outfit to one headed by professionals.
Ram’s motives were neither clear nor very noble, engaged as he was in a bitter struggle with his siblings over control of the newspaper. Still, for the newspaper to move away from its long tradition of tight family control was a welcome, positive departure in a land where dynasties run everything from politics and religion to cricket and cinema.
Unfortunately, this flowering of corporate democracy was not to last too long. Ultimately the family managed to strike back with a vengeance, ganging up in a Board of Director’s meeting to demote Siddharth from the post of Editor to ‘Contributing Editor and Senior Columnist’ prompting his immediate resignation.
In a statement published in The Hindu Ram justified the move as being due to ‘recurrent violations and defiance” of both the institution’s business and editorial values, without explaining what this really meant. It was also not clear at all whether Siddharth was ever given a chance to defend himself before the Board acted against him.
The key vote against Siddharth at the meeting incidentally came from N.Ram himself, for whom his former protégé’s independence may have been a bit too much to bear. Ram’s own tenure for years as Editor of The Hindu had seen the newspaper go from being a conservative but balanced newspaper to one full of glaring biases.
The Hindu’s whitewash under N.Ram, of the atrocities of the CPM government in Nandigram or the Mahinda Rajapakse regime’s genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils in Mullaivaikal, will forever go down as among the sorriest episodes in journalism anywhere. Ram’s refusal to give even a millimeter of space to anything that went against his political or business prejudices bordered on the maniacal, though one truly unsavory characters to get regular and ample coverage then was Subramaniam Swamy- with whom he apparently shared a common ‘love’ for China.
In sharp contrast Siddharth brought refreshing change to The Hindu, with some of the finest editorials on a wide range of themes to be ever written anywhere in recent times appearing on its pages in the last two years. Very courageously, he also opened it up to varying viewpoints and people – from Dalit intellectuals to anti-nuclear activists- who normally never get a say in much of the Indian media.
Thanks to Siddharth, for the first time ever, the ‘Mahavishnu of Mount Road’ got off His pedestal and became accessible to ordinary mortals. Under professional leadership.The Hindu actually became what it has always pretended to be earlier – but never was – engaging, democratic and progressive.
Within The Hindu today there are stories doing the rounds that the Board’s action was a‘pre-emptive one’ and motivated by a case filed by Ram’s friend Swamy challenging Siddharth’s eligibility to be editor of an Indian newspaper as he was a ‘foreigner’. Siddharth is supposed to be a US citizen but this was obviously known when he was appointed and besides, in a country run by people with Indian passports and hearts in Washington, does it really matter?
Another story being spread is that The Hindu in the last couple of years took too hard a line against Narendra Modi and there was no distinction between ‘editorial’ and ‘news’ anymore. The Hindu’s coverage of anti-nuclear protests, particularly the Koodankulam issue in southern Tamil Nadu, is also supposed to have spelt his doom.
N Power, N Modi or N Ram- we will never know which one of them was really the cause of Siddharth’s ouster. The fact however, remains what The Hindu has done to its former Editor is the public humiliation of a professional that should not just be condemned but challenged by journalists everywhere.
To let it go unchallenged would spell the end of the slenderest possibility that remains of the Indian media being an instrument of telling any truths and offering space to anyone of courage and integrity. The petty assertion of dynastical privileges in The Hindu goes to the heart of everything that is wrong with Indian democracy today and should be resolutely resisted by all who value its survival.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker based in Santiniketan, West Bengal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org