If my memory serves well, it was Khushwant Singh who wrote, “The Hindu is the only readable newspaper in India”. Some may disagree with it but many eminent people and institutions consider this newspaper as one of the best top ten newspapers of the world. The image of The Hindu as a truth telling and fair newspaper has been meticulously built by S. Kasturiranga Iyengar and his descendants.
The present crisis, separation of ownership and management, professionalisation of editorial positions, may end up in far reaching changes in the structure and functions of The Hindu. This is not the first time it is facing a crisis and family feud. In 1989, N Ram, then Associate Editor, and Chitra Subramaniam, Foreign Correspondent of The Hindu, published a series of documents related to Bofors scandal, but the publication was abruptly and arbitrarily stopped by Editor G. Kasturi, uncle of N. Ram. Ram consequently became the editor of Frontline and Sportstar. In 1991, N. Ravi, youngest brother of Ram, took over as editor and Malini Parthasarathy, Ram’s cousin, as executive editor. During their stewardship, The Hindu became less conservative and more liberal with a Left of Centre approach.
Ram became Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu in 2003 and brought it under his full control. Ram almost made The Hindu as an unofficial Leftist newspaper, almost an Indian version of The Guardian based in London. Since 2003 The Hindu maintained leftist stand on every issue, except Sri Lankan Tamils’ issue.
This time, Ram seems to be in a stronger position than his brother Ravi and cousin Malini. Ram wants to break the 106-year old tradition of The Hindu by proposing appointing a professional journalist as editor at Board of Directors meeting on April 18, 2011, and got the support of seven member out of twelve. Whether it is a good idea or not, the timing and context made it more controversial. The professional he suggested for editorship was Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the most brilliant and competent journalists of India – but he joined The Hindu only in 2004, as Strategic Affairs Editor, and now is the chief of the paper’s National Bureau.
Ravi concurrently mailed all journalists of The Hindu on April 20, 2011, seeking their support; interestingly, the email also noted The Hindu’s “unmerited coverage of certain political favourites on specific directions; excessive coverage of the activities of the Left and some of its leaders; for reasons that are bound to emerge sooner than later, turning the newspaper into an apologist for A. Raja through the 2G scam coverage, remaining deafeningly silent on his resignation in the face of mounting evidence even when demanding the resignation of Suresh Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and Yeddyurappa in similar circumstances; pronounced pro-China tilt, blacking out or downplaying any news that is less than complimentary to the Chinese Communist regime.”
Never has there been a dearth of knowledge pool in The Hindu family in the last 100 years; and in this regards, no other media house is as gifted as The Hindu in this country (for example, Vidya Ram, Ram’s only daughter, was a gold medallist of the prestigious Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University). But the Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) held on 20 May passed a resolution that sought removal of family members as editors, with a comfortable majority of 60:41. Ravi, Murali and Malini faction filed a company petition before the Company Law Board (CLB), Chennai Division, that asked to set aside the board resolution of April 18, 2011 which sought to replace owner editors with professional editors. They also requested the convening of the EGM on 20 May to be set aside as oppressive, and asked for the appointment of an independent chairman in place of Ram. While the CLB granted interim relief to the minority faction of Ravi by staying the EGM’s resolution, it refused to stay the holding of the EGM. The CLB ordered that the resolution passed by the past EGM not be implemented until further orders and advised the next hearing to be in August. The respondents should file counter petitions within four weeks. Meanwhile, Ram has appealed against the interim relief in the High Court and the hearing is scheduled for June 14.
Though, Ram enjoys the confidence of the majority of shareholders, the protection that has been given to the minority shareholders under the Indian Company’s Act will make things tough for him. If the court feels the majority decision is detrimental to the company, this may not allow Ram’s faction to go ahead with the current plan, feels a company law expert based in Chennai. The battle may even reach the Supreme Court after the High Court’s verdict.
Clearly, this story is going to have many more angles that The Hindu, one of the most respected names in media journalism, could well have done without.