The Chindu: Comrade Ram stabs editor Ravi in the back – T.S.V. Hari

Comrade Ram & Editor Ravi of 'The Chindu'[We] learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy published on May 22, 2010 — that was referred to by the Prime Minister in his press conference — involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially [published the] same day in The Hindu. – N. Ravi

For yet another time, yet another tussle in The Hindu family – has come to the fore.

Mr N. Ravi, editor of The Hindu, has leveled serious charges against his brother Mr N Ram. When a friend called Parthasarathy – who was one of the brightest reporters I had ever seen in action, had suggested that I joined The Hindu some thirty odd years ago, I had turned down the suggestion.

“I would prefer not being found dead in the offices of The Hindu. That is one newspaper where journalists have no individuality or individual freedom,” I remember telling Parthasarathy or Paachu as all colleagues lovingly call him.

* * *

There were and still are many journalists who continue to share this view. The sad, but bitter truth now is that Mr N. Ravi, one of the former editors of the paper too seems to be partly sharing this view. While I have no intention of withdrawing the above comment made over 30 years ago, I need to reiterate that I still respect The Hindu as a newspaper as I did then.

I have several reasons. I am listing three of them…

One of my earliest run-ins was with Mr Kasturi – in more ways than one – whom I used to refer as the benign dictator editor of The Hindu.

In the eighties, I was travelling to New Delhi by a flight from Chennai – as usual in the economy class. Mr Kasturi too was on that flight. Though he knew who I was and vice versa, we did not wish each other while boarding despite eye contact.

A few minutes after takeoff, an air hostess accosted me. “Are you Mr Hari?” I was surprised… and nodded in assent. “Mr Kasturi, in the business class … requests your presence, sir,” she said carefully. I was beside him in a jiffy.

“I know you are a rowdy journalist, Hari. In seat 1A – there is an obnoxious AIADMK MP called Thangaraj. The fellow is miserably drunk and is misbehaving with the cabin crew. None would dare challenging an MP in mid-flight, drunk or not, except a crazy man like you. I am asking you to control that nauseating fellow.” Mr Kasturi was not requesting me.

Before the flight landed in Hyderabad, I not only had Thangaraj under control but also had forced him to apologise to the cabin crew in that Indian Airlines flight. Needless to add, my language and manners with Thangaraj were brutally brusque and blunt. When the flight landed in New Delhi, I followed and buttonholed Mr Kasturi who had smiled approvingly at my very minor achievement in controlling the drunken MP.

“Sir, I have done what you asked me. But, Thangaraj is an MP. He may forget what happened now because of his intoxication. But, in case he remembers and moves some motion in parliament and tries to get me into trouble, I have to worry about my job in Amrita Bazar Patrika … which is a Congress-owned paper. The party is in alliance with the AIADMK.”

“So you are not loaded with mindless bravado after all,” Mr Kasturi said as we waited for our luggage to arrive. Obviously he did not expect any reaction to that. “You can be rest assured, young man, that this drunken fellow will not be able to do anything against you. Where will you be staying?” I told him the name of the hotel. Mr Kasturi did not even acknowledge having heard me right and walked away.

When I checked in, there was a message waiting for me. “Mr P. Kolandaivelu, [the then] special permanent representative of the Tamil Nadu government in New Delhi had called, sir. He has requested that you call him back once in the room,” the receptionist said. I complied.

In short, quick sentences, Mr Kolandaivelu went out of his way to be respectful and assured me that an appropriate complaint had been sent to the then Chief Minister Mr M.G. Ramachandran about the ‘horrible’ behaviour of Thangaraj. “That cur Thangaraj will not bother you at all. I will take care of it,” Mr Kolandaivelu added.

I am no Sherlock Holmes. But I knew who must have asked Mr Kolandaivelu to do that. I have never seen Mr Kasturi again. Someone said he had passed away. I had been shocked. I now know from his son Mr K. Venugopal – now very senior in The Hindu – another personal friend in the paper with whom I rubbed shoulders during my cub reporting days – that he is alive and well.

Mr Kasturi had headed the paper from 1965 to 1991. In more ways than one, it is still remembered as the Golden Era of The Hindu, Mr Kasturi’s ‘benign dictatorship’ notwithstanding. Mr Venugopal had come for the inauguration of the IANS office in Chennai despite my having invited him only through phone. I still am thankful for that.

I have known Mr N. Ram for over 30 years. In more ways than one, he was one of my earliest and perhaps is still the best contact in The Hindu. While I have no reason to disbelieve Mr N. Ravi who is opposing him on the basis of what he thinks is right, I would like to read Mr Ram’s defence whenever he goes public with it.

When I had been briefly contracted by Doordarshan and India Today to control the production of general election news at the end of the last century, Mr Ram had turned up at the Madras University within 10 minutes’ notice, at his cost despite his busy schedule, upon a mere telephonic request from me. In spite of the irritating single headphone that always forced one to hear echoes of one’s own speech impeding his reactions, Mr Ram looked pleasant while answering the meaningless questions of New Delhi’s north-centric anchors with incisive intelligence.

Later, a few years ago, as the Tamil Nadu Bureau Chief of IANS, I had the good fortune of signing the contract for The Hindu’s subscription for the agency’s output – something that had been attempted before my taking over for over a decade in vain. The negotiations conducted by me on behalf of IANS and those by all the main The Hindu family members including Ms. Malini Parthasarathy were mere formalities. Mr Venugopal and Mr Jayant – the latter an Associate Editor now and also a personal friend had obviously whispered their recommendations. The signing was done in a facile jiffy by none other than Mr Ravi from The Hindu’s side and by me on the other. That achievement had made entire Tamil Nadu sit up and take notice of a national news agency called IANS. That, of course, is water under the bridge.

To be fair, Mr Ravi, Mr Murali and Mr Ram so far, have indeed treated me like a prodigal son, despite my never having worked for the paper and in spite of my notoriety of being an unpredictable maverick since I began my innings in what had been Madras way back in 1979. Hence, I respect all the family members of The Hindu equally.

Mr Ram’s left leanings have always been well known. As a youngster, Mr Ram’s anger against the Cauvery Delta Region rice bowl noveau riche sadistic bosses in Keezhvenmani singed my conscience upon reading his account of the cold-blooded murders of poor landless farm labourers by electrocution simply because they had the courage to ask for “a little more” like modern day Oliver Twists.

So pronounced was Mr Ram’s affinity to communism that as a member of the party he is said to have once allowed the workers’ representatives to access confidential The Hindu management’s confidential MIS documents that could have adversely affected their negotiations while collective bargaining sessions with union leaders that were underway during a strike long before I became a journalist.

If those tidings are true, in my opinion, notwithstanding what Mr Ravi has written, those employed in The Hindu – journalists and others who sweat for The Hindu have an unenviable task of choosing their side, if ever. In more ways than one, in my opinion, since the freedom struggle, The Hindu till now has had a reasonably rightful claim to be termed India’s National Newspaper, as its masthead proclaims. But, if even 5% of the allegations made by Mr Ravi are true, one can only sigh in extreme sadness.

Many of us – Chennai based journalists – still prefer to refer to all The Hindu journalist shareholder siblings as respected colleagues. In my opinion, no journalist in his/her right mind would prefer to openly take any side in this imbroglio as non-shareholders have no locus standi in this issue.

At best, we can collectively appeal to all the siblings to sort the matters amicably – preferably beyond the precincts of courts – as Mr Ravi’s statement has made it evidently clear that the legal option can only prove to be counter-productive.

Excerpts from Mr Ravi’s letter to the employees of The Hindu dated April 20, 2011:

– In a shocking display of bad faith that has left me deeply anguished, N. Ram and some of the directors at the meeting of the Board on April 18, 2011 have sought to remove me and appoint as editor Siddharth Varadarajan who joined The Hindu in 2004.

– I joined the newspaper as a reporter in 1972.

– After 1991 when I took over as editor, our team transformed The Hindu from a Chennai-centred daily with just one page of local news to a well recognized national newspaper.

– We sought to uphold editorial integrity, seeking accountability from institutions and public officials without fear or favour.

– Between January 1991 and June 2003, the circulation of The Hindu increased from 4,52,918 copies (July-December 1990) to 9,33,458 copies (January-June 2003) or by 4,80,540 copies or 106.1%.

– In the more recent period, The Hindu has been losing market share, and from being level with the Hindustan Times, it has now fallen far behind that newspaper.

– Findings from the most recent market survey present a depressing picture of reader perception of unappealing content and a pronounced bias towards the left.

– It is a matter of public record that N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, was to retire on May 4, 2010 on turning 65 and I was to take over as Editor-in-Chief under the arrangement agreed upon. However, in a shocking display of bad faith, Ram went on to renege on his commitment.

– Ram and a group of directors on the Board removed the powers and responsibilities of N. Murali, Managing Director in a vindictive move that was overturned by the Company Law Board, Chennai Bench that also came out with a severe indictment that their action was lacking in probity, good faith and fairness.

– Barely four months after the indictment, Ram and his group of directors have turned on me with the same lack of probity, good faith and fairness and have sought to remove me and impose a plan of editorial succession that is totally at variance with the longstanding directions of the Company Law Board.

– Under the specious plea of separating ownership from management, along with my removal as editor, Nirmala Lakshman is to be forced to “step down” as joint editor and Ma lini Parthasarathy as executive editor.

– Since 2003 … Ram as… Editor-in-Chief … [gave] unmerited coverage of certain political favourites … excessive coverage of the activities of the left and some of its leaders … for reasons that are bound to emerge sooner rather than later, turning the newspaper into an apologist for A. Raja through the 2G scam coverage… blacking out or downplaying any news that is less than complimentary to the Chinese Communist regime and indulges in an unceasing self-glorification campaign.

– Very recently, [we] learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy published on May 22, 2010—that was referred to by the Prime Minister in his press conference–involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially [published the] same day in The Hindu.

– I feel strongly that when a distorted picture has emerged based on selective leaks, information on the happenings cannot be restricted to the confines of the boardroom and all the journalists as stakeholders need to be taken into confidence.

N. Ravi

Post Script 1:

A brief history of The Hindu:

– The paper’s first issue appeared at the newsstands on September 20, 1878 as a weekly and became a daily in 1889.

– A group of six persons viz. G. Subramania Aiyer, M. Veeraraghavachariar [both school teachers] and four law students T.T. Rangachariar, P.V. Rangachariar, D. Kesava Rao Pantulu and N. Subba Rao Pantulu began the paper by borrowing one and three fourths of a British Rupee [it had sixteen annas of 12 paise each then – and therefore – with a capital of a mere 336 paise] to counter the British opposition to the appointment of T. Muthuswami Iyer to the Bench of the Madras High Court.

– In the paper’s first editorial, Aiyer wrote:

“[The] Press does not only give expression to public opinion, but also modifies and moulds it.”

– The British dubbed the owners – The Triplicane Six.

– The pro-British ‘intelligentsia’ derisively termed the paper ‘Mount-Road-Maha Vishnu’ to belittle its nationalistic outlook and its very name denoting the religion that should aptly be referred to as Sanaatana Dharma.

Post Script 2:

– The Indian Readership Survey [IRS] 2010 says that The Hindu is the third most-widely read English newspaper published in India. According to the IRS, the paper has some 21.59 lakh readers. The first is The Times of India. And the second is Hindustan Times.

Post Script 3:

– The British – to oppose whom The Hindu had been started – have left India.

– Thangaraj was an MP from Perambalur – the same constituency from where Raja was elected MP in 2009.

– While Thangaraj is into oblivion or dead, Raja is in prison in the 2G scam.

– Mr Kasturi is alive and said to be sprightly. May he live long!

– And ironically, The Hindu … is in the dock!

T.S.V. Hari is a senior journalist and former editor of Kamakoti.