The sober, even reassuringly staid, national daily The Hindu has of late been making the news rather than reporting it. On October 21, its admired 48-year-old editor Siddharth Varadarajan dramatically announced his resignation on Twitter after the newspaperâs board decided to move him from the editor’s chair to the less central role of contributing editor and senior columnist. Varadarajan, the first editor in The Hinduâs 135-year history to be appointed from outside the family, took the hint and quit. “With The Hinduâs owners deciding to revert to being a family run and edited newspaper,” he tweeted, “I am resigning from The Hindu with immediate effect.” N Ram, chairman of The Hinduâs board, said Varadarajan and CEO Arun Anant defied the newspaperâs core values. Speaking to TEHELKA, Varadarajan categorically denied the charge and reflected upon a tenure cut ruthlessly and surprisingly short
How were you informed by The Hindu‘s owners of their decision to change your role to that of contributing editor and senior columnist?
The owners (board members) were split down the middle with six wanting me to continue and six wanting me to go. It was the first group who apologetically told me as soon as the Board meeting was over that the second group had prevailed because N Ram, who was in the chair and had voted for the change, had issued an additional casting vote as chair. As a result, they told me, family members would now be returning to top editorial positions.
Why did you choose to announce your resignation on Twitter?
I did not. I emailed my resignation fromÂ The HinduÂ as Editor to the HR department as soon as I was informed of what had transpired; a few seconds later, I sent out a tweet.
Did N Ram or anyone on The Hindu‘s board explain to you why you were being replaced? Did they mention your “defiance” of “core values” as the reason for the board’s decision?
No. Not once did the Kasturi & Sons Ltd (KSL) Board speak to me about these so-called violations. In fact, the Board has never asked me any questions on editorial content in the 20 months I was editor even though I submitted a report to them every two months. Of course, individual board members had queries about this or that story, about adverse coverage of this or that hospital or private university, why a certain op-ed writer or photograph was used, and so on, but it was all very collegial. The board members, including Mr Ram, have great experience of the newspaper business and often their queries or suggestions or bits of advice were very useful for me as Editor. Sometimes, though,Â we would agree to disagree. Certainly, no one made the kind of sweeping charge that is now being levelled.
In your time as editor, was it communicated to you that you were straying from long-held principles that The HinduÂ cherished?
No. And if there was truth in the charge, I should have been replaced with another professional editor.
Is it true, as your successor N Ravi is reported to have claimed, that the “news desk was given standing instructions not to take any stories on Narendra Modi on page 1″?
Mr Ravi must have been misinformed. My rule for Modi, Rahul, Sonia and so on was: front page in the local edition, elsewhere only if newsworthy. In a memo dated 27 September, I specifically instructed my editors not to carry any photo-op type or non-news photo of leading national politicians because prior to the 2014 elections the hundreds of speeches and photo-ops would all be part of their self-promotion. This applied to negative pictures as well. For example, I asked editors not to publish on Page 1 a picture of Advani turning aside while Modi tried to touch his feet. The big rallies by Modi or Rahul in the catchment areas of our editions were worthy of front page coverage only if the news mix warranted it. Modiâs Tiruchi speech, for instance, was an obvious front page story for the Tiruchi edition but an inside story for the rest of the state. Unless something fresh or unusual was said, I felt there was no need for these rally stories to be taken nationally. My note was crystal clear and presented, in my view, a very sensible guideline to ensure that the front page didn’t become boring and repetitive.
How do you feel The Hindu changed under your leadership, or more generally under the new, professional leadership the owners seemed so keen to install?
The Hindu became a much more open, dynamic and inclusive workplace for its 700-odd journalists, where the editor’s door was always open and talent and merit were given their due and the earlier sycophantic institutional culture was ended. We gave new responsibilities to journalists, putting younger people in charge of key editorial initiatives, made intelligent use of design and graphic elements, reached out to new writers for our op-ed pages instead of merely carrying reprints from theÂ The GuardianÂ andÂ The New York TimesÂ as used to happen before. We hired women photographers for the first time in The Hindu‘s history. We launched a new edition for schoolchildren. The paper became an exciting, talked about place for the first time in years! And that’s why there were so many people keen to jump ship from elsewhere and come on board.
It may be too soon to ask this question, but are you proud of what you were able to achieve in the time you did edit The Hindu, or is the taste left by the manner of your departure still a little too bitter for reflection?
The fact is that in the past 20 months, The HinduÂ became more feisty and readable than before, had better local coverage in the cities it publishes from than before, regularly broke major stories and investigations, fearlessly took on powerful corporate and political interests that the rest of the media chose to ignore, refused to mindlessly join media bandwagons whether on Modi or jingoism towards Pakistan or on dumbing down or ignoring world news. The paper ran powerful, trend-setting national and international reportage and had emerged as a major trendsetter in the public sphere.
Of course, there is a lot of unfinished work. On the day I quit I was editing a blockbuster of a story involving RIL, Mukesh Ambani and a private media company. I am not sure that story — and other hard-hitting investigative pieces, especially on corporate issues — will ever make it to print now. I hope I am wrong. I would be the happiest man if I were proved wrong.
So yes, there is a bitterness.Â The HinduÂ was on the cusp of something great, its journalism was rocking, it was finally beginning to expand its presence in Bangalore and Hyderabad, it had risen to a circulation of a lakh in Delhi city despite a cover price twice that of other papers, and another lakh across northern and eastern India. We had developed very ambitious, aggressive plans for the internet with video which were to roll out by January. I hope these remain priority areas.
Did you feel sometimes as if you were an unwitting pawn in a larger family chess game? Is the commitment to ‘professionalising’ the paper sincere?
Look, I took the job knowing there was Hindu Divided Family. As insurance, I tried to convince Mr. Ram that I come on a fixed term contract of three years with a severance clause in case they wanted me out before that. But I was assured there was no question of the Board doing a U-turn on its decision to professionalise the newspaper so the matter ended there. As Editor, of course, I had a decent run. There was — and I want to be categorical about this — absolutely no interference from any quarters and certainly not from Mr Ram or the other directors in my functioning as Editor. It could not have been easy but they were true to their word about ensuring the Editor had independence. The Hindu benefited from their decision to professionalise the paper, even if this only lasted 20 months.
Though it is no longer germane to you, is Subramanian Swamy’s PIL frivolous? Is it needlessly parochial to insist that an editor of a newspaper be not only resident in India but also an Indian citizen?
In the first few months of my editorship, Mr Swamy was exercised not by my citizenship but by my refusal to print news stories about every statement and speech he used to make! My view was that news must be reported on merits. If Swamy makes an interesting news point, we do a story. If he doesn’t — and it has to be conceded that he seldom does so — then it doesn’t get into the paper. So first he conveyed his annoyance, via someone who knows me well, that I had âblacklistedâ him. I explained what the position was and that there was no blacklist. Later, other barbs and warning shots followed. A member of the Board told me, “Swamy craves attention, why don’t you give him some?” When I refused to compromise on my editorial judgment, he filed his case. So much for public interest!
The law as it stands is very clear. The PRB Act only requires an editor to be resident in India, so that he or she can be answerable in court should a complaint arise. I have been permanently residing here since 1995. Â I have no other home anywhere else.
As for his petition, don’t you think technology is rendering the kind of paranoia he has been gripped with somewhat irrelevant? What law can hope to regulate news and views that is electronically disseminated? Will Mr Swamy say that only an Indian citizen can run a website? Will he ban access to a website edited in, say, Brisbane, that caters to Indian readers? And what about books? If it is dangerous to have a newspaper edited by a non-citizen, shouldn’t we ban journals and books written or edited by foreign scholars? Shouldn’t we ban the sale of foreign magazines like The Economist and Time and block their websites to protect the poor Indian reader?!
The fact is, his petition will compromise the right of an Indian citizen to choose to read and access information, news and views regardless of who has authored or edited it. What is presented as a petition against a foreign editor is actually an attack on the fundamental right of Indian citizens. This is the irony!
Finally, though the dust is yet to settle on your resignation, what do you think you might do next?
I am touched and overwhelmed by the support I have received from journalists and readers following my resignation as Editor of The Hindu and I am extremely grateful for the speed with which several interesting work proposals have come my way. Election season is upon us and like every other hack, there’s nothing one wants more than to be back on the frontlines, writing, editing, speaking.