Family Feud Fells Newspaper Editor in India

a | A

In India, "Hindu" signifies a vast religious universe, "The Hindu" the vast journalistic one -- 1.5 million copies sold every day -- of one of the nation's oldest and best English newspapers. In a time of widespread journalistic dilettantism, the Hindu is renowned for its commitment to public-spirited journalism and editorial integrity, merits that compensate for the tepidity of its presentation, the fustiness of its prose style and the rigidity of its left-wing orientation.

Two years ago, the family-run newspaper made a sharp break with tradition when it appointed someone outside the family as editor for the first time in almost five decades: the widely respected journalist Siddharth Varadarajan. Varadarajan was asked "to professionalise and contemporise the daily" to meet the expectations of a new generation of readers and advance the paper's plan to reach out beyond the Indian south, where it has long been the market leader. Varadarajan swiftly made many visible changes to the paper's design, brought a greater diversity to its editorial pages and a new sharpness to its investigative work.

Perhaps he moved too fast in an environment that is so conservative at heart -- or more likely he was handed a poisoned chalice. Last week, India rippled with reactions to the news that Varadarajan had resigned after suddenly being demoted to "senior columnist" by the management -- a group of 12 cousins who have a long history of internecine feuds.

With the boardroom split down the middle, the man whose casting vote decisively pulled the plug on Varadarajan was none other than N. Ram, the previous editor of the paper and current chairman of the board of directors. Two years ago, Ram had himself chosen Varadarajan as his successor.

The man chosen to succeed Varadarajan was N. Ravi, Ram's cousin, and editor of the paper from 1991 to 2003. Shortly after stepping down on Oct. 21, Varadarajan posted a widely circulated and discussed Twitter post:

"With The Hindu's owners deciding to revert to being a family run and edited newspaper, I am resigning from The Hindu with immediate effect."

Ram was quick to respond, apprising readers of the new developments in the next day's edition, and claiming that:

"The decision to make deep-going changes was made chiefly on the ground that there were recurrent violations and defiance of the framework of the institution’s longstanding values on the business side, and recurrent violations and defiance of ‘Living Our Values’, the mandatory Code of Editorial Values applicable to The Hindu. The whole effort is to restore employee morale, good industrial relations, and the trust of this newspaper’s more than two million readers."

These were serious allegations, and the departed editor defended himself in an interview:

"If indeed policies or editorial values were flouted, the solution would have been to get another professional editor. The fact that the owners have come back into editorial itself provides the answer to this question. ...

"Of course, there were occasional instances of editorialising that slipped in, just as they did when Mr Ram or Mr Ravi edited The Hindu earlier. Whenever our news editors slipped up, we would point this out. But I fear this is merely an excuse to reverse the earlier decision to professionalise the newspaper."

Meanwhile, in an effort to convince all concerned that the reversal was necessary and urgent, the newspaper published a series of photographs showing the dramatic effect of the decision on employee morale. The accompanying text said: "Members of the Union gathered at The Hindu’s main office, burst crackers and shouted slogans in support of the changes at the helm of the institution."

Meanwhile, the new editors reversed the new design of the newspaper instituted by Varadarajan, and went back to its old look -- analyzed here by the excellent Indian news media blog Sans Serif.

Those seeking to fashion a more detached explanation for the abrupt change of guard at the Hindu might draw on the hard facts of numbers and the laws of family and history. The decision to install Varadarajan two years ago was a narrow one (7-5 in favor), and prompted a slew of resignations from editorial positions at the newspaper by miffed members of the family; the decision to replace him was even more contested (6-6).

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the charge of violations of editorial responsibility. If anything, the lesson from this unsavory story is that it's unwise for individuals -- except perhaps lawyers -- to get involved in the games of power, ambition and entitlement played by families as deeply invested in an institution as the cousins who run the Hindu. Varadarajan will head off to his next assignment wiser in the knowledge that he was, both in his appointment and in his dismissal, ultimately nothing more than a pawn in a long-running family feud, practically the journalistic equivalent of the great war between cousins in the Indian epic the Mahabharata.

On Oct. 26, Varadarajan tried to draw a line under the whole episode, tweeting: "Thanks for the support. Sadly, lot of damage has been done to The Hindu this past week. Time to move on. This is my last Tweet on the subject."

Meanwhile, Ram was still fighting off opponents in the boardroom, ending a long letter to the six dissenting members with the warning, “Needless to state, despite this very cordial approach I am taking to bring each one of us together, if you still embark on any unwarranted precipitate action, we will spare no effort to repel the same.”

Varadarajan's two years at the Hindu were, it is now clear, not the dawn of a new age for the paper. It's probably safe to surmise that the boardroom of The Hindu won't be looking any time soon to bring in someone from outside the family to reinvent the paper.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

Chandrahas Choudhury at

Max Berley at