Several people have told me that they read my blog but I don’t seem to post anymore. You can thank two unrelated threads on facebook, both dealing with language, for this one. They relate to two news items: a Manipuri being beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada, and the Tamil Nadu Government mandating Tamil as a subject in schools.

But before I start, here is a link to an old (2009) post by my late colleague Rahul Basu on the hue and cry on Marathi name-boards in Mumbai, and the lack of uproar thereof on the equivalent in Chennai — because Tamil boards are in place already without being mandated.

Now, here are quotes from the original poster of the FB thread discussing the Bangalore case: “Well I have lived all my life in Karnataka and I can’t still speak the language fluently. Come beat me!!!” and “I find this stress that I should learn a language because I live here ridiculous.”

And here is my theory: A few people like that poster don’t matter. There are people in Delhi who don’t know Hindi, people in London and New York who don’t know English, people in Paris who don’t know French. Some of them have spent their lives there.

But when it becomes the majority of the population — worse, when it becomes an aggressive ideology that you don’t NEED to learn the local language (as is the case in Mumbai), it is offensive to the local people (you are telling them that their language is inferior); and you are encouraging the linguistic chauvinists, including the violent fringe.

Mumbai and Maharashtra have lived with the Shiv Sena for decades. Similar right-wing “state-pride” parties have not come to power in Karnataka, but the more Kannada gets disrespected by people who move in from elsewhere, the more such parties will get empowered. The Shiv Sena, too, started with the same sort of vigilantism meted to the Manipuri in Bangalore, long before they actually came to power in the state government or formed alliances with national parties.

I am embarrassed that I lived in Bangalore for 6 years and did not learn the language. I will not make that mistake again.

On the flip side, I can see how much more enjoyable it is to be able to speak a little French when living in France. And, more recently, I learned a smattering of Italian for a week-long visit there, and though my able to communicate would largely have been a failure if it hadn’t been for Google Translate (and for the fact that many of them speak some French and English). the mere fact of my trying clearly influenced their reactions.

Now to the second item, about mandating Tamil as a subject in schools in Chennai. I found the news article ambiguous, but

  • If it were restricted to state board schools and it could be either first or second language, I wouldn’t have a problem and would in fact be totally in favour.
  • If (as the article suggests) it includes central board schools (CBSE and ICSE) then it depends on what is required. Having it as a third language, with very basic skills taught, would be fine. But there is no third language in class 10, and imposing one beyond the other subjects would be an unnecessary load.
  • I am definitely against imposing Tamil as a second or first language at that level in non-state-board schools: it is a challenging language and people moving here from other states should not have to make their children suffer (and, indeed, it will discourage such movement and, eventually, affect the economy).

But this move, again, seems to be a reaction to recent moves (by the Modi government in particular, but also by its predecessor) pushing Hindi on all parts of India. And this is again an example of what I said above in the context of Bangalore and Mumbai: disrespecting the local language will cause a reaction. This is not to justify the reaction, only to point out that the original cause was unjustifiable.

It is disgraceful that a student was beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada. It is alarming that Tamil Nadu is possibly playing with the education of students from other states in this way. But this does not mean that the people who refuse to learn Kannada, or the people who sit in Delhi and impose Hindi on others, are correct to do so. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say; but equally, a wrong doesn’t make a previous wrong right.

Gluten and me

A small fraction of the population suffers from something called coeliac disease — a severe allergy to gluten, a key protein in wheat (the thing that gives bread its springiness and dough its stretchiness). A larger number of people may, it would seem, suffer from gluten intolerance — they don’t suffer an instant allergic reaction on eating wheat, but effects show up on a slower time scale. Exactly what constitutes gluten intolerance, how many people suffer from it, and even whether the problem is gluten or something else (eg, a carbohydrate in wheat) remain controversial questions. Nevertheless, the number of people opting to eat gluten-free, especially in developed countries, has skyrocketed in the past few years. More recently, there seems to be a bit of a backlash against gluten-free diets — see here and here for example.

What follows is strictly anecdotal, not a scientific study: make of it what you will.

A little over a year ago, in April 2013, the three of us went gluten-free. There were several reasons, the primary one being that the kid seemed to have undiagnosed food allergies (he had problems with dairy when young; that seems to be over, but there were still issues). But also on my mind were several symptoms that I had been having — lethargy (caused by hypothyroidism), joint pain, and other things, and several articles on gluten that I had been reading such as this one about a young boy with excruciating joint pain who seemed to have been miraculously cured by going gluten-free. Why not give it a try?

This is not a small project — it means avoiding anything made of wheat (atta or maida), rye, barley, reading ingredients carefully on all packaged food, limiting one’s menu when eating out, and learning new ways to make chapatis or bread at home. More on that later. On the plus side, here in South India gluten-free food — both healthy and junk — is plentiful (wheat is not used in most traditional preparations).

A year down the line, the joint pains seem greatly reduced. The energy levels are higher, but the blood tests show no great improvement in thyroid function. These could well be placebo effects, but what is real was something I did not expect at all. My psoriasis cleared up.

I have written of my psoriasis before. It started developing in 2001, as a small patch on my right ankle. Within a year it was a large patch on my right foot. Over the next several years it spread to my left foot and my left hand. It was always raw and itchy, usually cracked and bleeding. There were days that I couldn’t walk without a limp, couldn’t type with my left hand. The area around the gear stick in my car was covered with flakes of dead skin. I wore socks all the time, partly for comfort, partly because otherwise I left a trail of dead skin wherever I went. I sought treatment three times, from three different doctors. Each time the prescription was a corticosteroid ointment (various betamethasone preparations); the first couple of times, it “cleared up” the psoriasis, but left the skin feeling thick and leathery, and after I stopped it rebounded worse than before. The third time — well, I describe that in my earlier post, but I did try the ointment and it had little effect, while the rebound was even worse.

So, as I say, after April 2013 the psoriasis just started clearing up. I didn’t even make the connection at first, but in May 2013 on a trip to Bangalore I had wheat products a couple of times, and my foot itched furiously. After cutting out wheat again, the improvement was steady — the psoriasis disappeared from the fingers and toes, and the patches that remained retained a dryish appearance but stopped itching, cracking or bleeding.

In December 2013, on a flight to Delhi, I had a bun since there was no gluten-free breakfast available. A couple of days later, the itching and flaking resumed and took 2 weeks to subside.

Since then I have been careful to avoid gluten in any form (even on a trip to Europe — Italy in particular was surprisingly gluten-free-friendly). In February 2014, I gave the corticosteroid another try (for three weeks) to clear the stubborn areas. The psoriasis disappeared entirely from my hand and has not returned. It has also disappeared from the ankle where it originally appeared. There was no rebound. There continued to be improvement in the five months after ceasing to use the ointment. As of today, only two dryish-looking patches remain on my upper feet, unnoticeable unless one is looking for them.

Looking at the literature, I found that there is some evidence of gluten being implicated in quite a few auto-immune conditions, including psoriasis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In my case, this is not all. In the mid-1990s I developed a seasonal cough that remained undiagnosed for years (even by highly-recommended chest specialists) until a modest general practitioner at an academic institute in Bangalore told me it was asthma. I had no shortness of breath, only a cough. A salbutamol inhaler fixed it. In the past year, it seems to me that this, too, has greatly improved: I hardly used the inhaler even during the peak of the usual “season”.

What of the others? My wife sees clear improvements in some other conditions (specifically, migraines — once very frequent, now very rare — and hyperacidity). With the kid it is less clear. But then I had no symptoms until I was in my twenties. I definitely increased gluten consumption — both during meals (I preferred chapatis to rice) and in terms of junk food like biscuits — after I moved from my parents’ home to a hostel. And as a postdoc in Paris, which is where the psoriasis first developed, I was eating gluten three meals a day (what to do, the bread was so awesome, and if it wasn’t bread it was pizza or pasta). It could be that in some people, gluten intolerance manifests itself only with an excess of gluten. Indeed, this seems to be the reason for the awareness in Italy: their traditional diet consisted almost wholly of gluten, and this gluten overdose could be responsible for increased occurrence of gluten-intolerance. The kid, therefore, sometimes eats gluten outside, though we are gluten-free at home.

How can a traditional food item like wheat be so bad for so many people, and is it the wheat or something else that is responsible? These are good questions. Out on the internet, there are several claims that the problem is not the wheat, but the modern industrial process of bread-making; or the high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat; or merely the fact that most junk food contains wheat, so by cutting out gluten, you eat healthier; or the carbohydrate hypothesis. The trouble with these explanations is that, in Paris where I first developed these symptoms, I ate high-quality traditional boulangerie bread, not the mass-produced sandwich stuff; it is impossible to ascertain what variety of wheat has been used in the batch of flour you buy or the restaurant you eat in; and, sad to say, we have not actually cut out junk food at all, merely replaced biscuits with “thattais” and “murukkus”. As for the carbohydrate hypothesis, even if it is true, the only solution is to cut out wheat, until they develop a variety without that carbohydrate. In any case, though not long ago I would have shuddered at the thought of cutting out bread, tandoori naan, croissants, and so on, my experience over the last year has destroyed any craving I have for these things, and the idea of doing a controlled experiment — consuming certain types of wheat, prepared in a certain way, and observing the effects — has no appeal either. I’d much rather cut the whole lot out.

Much of the above may strike the reader as speculation and unsourced, and it is — I have put in very few links, and while there is some academic literature, it is far from conclusive, while there is a huge amount of speculative stuff on the internet that I don’t want to endorse. This is my experience — it may or may not apply to anyone else. But here is the thing. If you suspect gluten is the problem for you and want to try going gluten free, it has to be all or nothing — reducing consumption may prevent effects down the line, but it will not cure any autoimmune (or other) condition that is already underway. You need to keep gluten out of your system entirely, for several weeks, to know whether it is the cause or not. And what I learned is it is not as hard as it looks, especially if you mostly eat home-made food. If you eat South Indian food, you can easily get by with rice, idli/dosa, and millet “upmas”. But even if you crave pancakes/chapatis/bread/pizza, it is not too hard.

Here is the current gluten-free mix I use:

  • 500 grams white urad dal (skinned black lentil) flour
  • 500 grams white rice flour
  • 1000 grams jowar (sorghum) flour
  • 500 grams corn starch

(The urad flour betrays my locale — an idli is surely the perfect example of a springy, spongy dumpling made with just two ingredients, rice and urad dal, without even added raising agents: it ferments naturally, at least if you live in south India. Urad dal is mucilaginous and thus contributes to binding and to trapping the bubbles from fermentation — the main problem with gluten-free flour being that the bubbles can escape, resulting in a flat product, and the result is generally crumbly).

For making pancakes with egg and milk, this works as a direct substitute for all-purpose wheat flour. For chapatis or pizza, mix in a teaspoon of guar gum or xanthan gum (necessary for binding, even with the urad flour included — unless you’re trying a traditional “akki-roti” style method), use milk or yogurt or warm water for kneading, don’t make the dough too dry, and let it sit a while before use (it’s even better after sitting overnight in a fridge, wrapped in clingfilm). For bread, use the gum, and either ferment with yeast and water or just mix with baking soda and yogurt (the latter is more reliable), add an egg (egg substitutes may work too), and mix well to make a wet, sticky batter. There are many gluten-free bread recipes on the internet, mostly with scary-looking instructions on using exact mixes of ingredients, exact oven temperatures, and so on; in reality it is not as bad as all that, and the flour mix I use varies a fair bit (eg, replace some of the jowar or rice with some millet flour, reduce the corn starch, etc). I may post my own recipes at some later point.

More nonsense about the neutrino observatory

Dianuke, with its useful idiots like VT Padmanabhan and its knowledgeable but completely unethical activists like — well, ok, I named one guy on the facebook version of this post, but am leaving out the name here — is spreading a rumour that the India-based Neutrino Observatory is going to be used as a nuclear waste storage site. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of science knows this is complete nonsense, but the Padmanabhans are free to spread their nonsense and their educated friends will let them do it as long as it suits their purposes (one of them said as much in a previous conversation on facebook — he sees it as free speech, or something). Meanwhile, for those who care, here is the INO’s press release on this issue.

(Why do I call VT Padmanabhan a useful idiot? For the useful part, see how he is being used, and for the idiot part, read his previous writings on INO and on nuclear power, eg on countercurrents. Eg, the INO doesn’t use natural neutrinos which are passing through you in the billions this very minute, but neutrinos generated in Fermilab which are dangerous! I refuse to link. But he is enabled by people on sites like dianuke and countercurrents who know better but don’t care as long as it suits their agenda.)

The Delhi University mess

Last year the St Stephen’s College physics department wrote a very clear-minded note on what was wrong with DU’s 4-year undergraduate programme as implemented (even assuming one agreed with the desirability of the programme in principle).  I reproduced that letter on this blog, together with my own impressions.   Many other highly respected people spoke up against the hasty imposition of the programme.   Not one reputable person defended it, as far as I can recall, other than the vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, himself.   Unfortunately Singh was convinced that no discussion or internal support was needed and his political support was enough.  Now his political support is gone, and he has antagonised almost the entire university.  And the future of tens of thousands of students is unclear.

I’m sure there is a moral in this somewhere.  Everything has a moral, if only one can find it.  Oh right, the moral is don’t politicise universities. 

As for the UGC, the less said the better.  Why did they not take this exact same stand against the programme last year?  What has changed?  We all know the answer. 

Watching the Modi show

Much has occurred since my last post. I expected that the NDA would win, but I did not anticipate the scale of the win, or that the BJP by itself would get a majority in the Lok Sabha. In retrospect, while various people named in my previous post can be blamed for Narendra Modi not being held accountable for what happened under his watch in 2002, that does not by itself explain the scale of his victory. And I emphatically disagree with those on the left (like Nirmalangshu Mukherji in Kafila) who are trying to somehow delegitimise his win by looking at vote share or localised thuggishness. If those arguments are to be made, they need to be made for every election since independence; and if there were strong-arm tactics for the BJP in UP, there were for the TMC in West Bengal too. And if, like Mukherji, one objects to the result in UP or Bihar, the fact remains that, even without the massive sweep in those two states, the BJP is still the largest party by far. For now, like it or not, Modi is here for at least five years.

So far the signs are mixed. I find it promising that among his first actions, even before being sworn in, was to reach out to our neighbours and invite them. Several news items have called it unprecedented; relatively few have pointed out that Nawaz Sharif invited Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony, but the latter declined. Modi handled it well by calling all SAARC heads and not singling out Pakistan (and not singling out Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa, despite the opprobrium with which he is held in Tamil Nadu). There seemed to be genuine warmth between Modi and Sharif in particular.

On the economic front, Modi has the mandate to bring in reforms and can hopefully over-ride the protectionist instincts of the RSS. At the same time, news items suggest that he will preserve and re-vamp the social programmes of the UPA government such as the MGNREGA. There is cause to be optimistic on some fronts. But how much socially progressive legislation will be enacted is unclear. And there is reason to worry about the environment.

I am also unenthusiastic about Modi’s silence on acts of vandalism that have occurred since his election, or the threats of arrest, and actual arrest. Still, he has only just been sworn in, and it will take time to know what he actually does about these things, and — most importantly, given his past — how he handles communal tensions.

One thing is clear — with this mandate Modi has no excuses like “coalition dharma” to fall back on: he needs to perform, and to provide a clean government. Any minister who attracts scandal needs to be thrown out immediately, not kept on as in the UPA because of the pressure of allies. If he does not perform, the sweep of 2014 (which, even now, did not include most of the south or the east) will not be repeated. But if he does, his party may make inroads into new states.

The reason Modi was elected was not just his own quality, but the quality of his opponents, and the topic of arrest naturally leads to Arvind Kejriwal, at the moment in jail in Delhi for refusing to pay bail in the offence of allegedly defaming Nitin Gadkari of the BJP. As usual, Kejriwal makes an important point: there are thousands of people awaiting trial in jail for petty offences, who have already served more time than their sentence is likely to carry, but are unable to pay bail. This system needs reform. But the AAP is the biggest disappointment of 2014. They came from nowhere in months, got enough seats to form a state government on Delhi, but then remained in protest mode (blocking the streets to demand, of all things, direct control of the Delhi police), and finally resigned on an issue hardly anybody understands (the merits of their preferred Jan Lokpal bill as opposed to the centre’s Lokpal bill). They could have provided a working government in Delhi and used that credibility to persuade voters in other parts of the country that they were a serious alternative. Instead, after reverting to street-fighter mode, they contested over 400 seats and lost nearly all of them.

The Congress can have hope for its future only when the dynasty and the sycophants accompanying it are history. Sonia Gandhi proved herself to be a good leader; her son is not. Party people recognise this but the response is to call for Priyanka to join politics. I do not see much hope for the future.

The main opposition to the BJP in the future is likely to be a coalition of non-BJP, non-Congress parties. The AIADMK, BJD, TMC won sweeping victories in their home states and, put together, are already a much more significant opposition than the Congress in the Lok Sabha. The 2019 elections will be of interest. vIn the meantime, we can only sit back and watch the Modi show.

[edit]There are a few eyebrow-raising ministerial appointments (though it is true that the BJP has very poor bench strength). On the plus side, B S Yeddyurappa — against whom there are corruption allegations — is excluded. On the minus side, Nitin Gadkari — against whom Kejriwal alleged corruption, resulting in jail for Kejriwal, though he was not the first to make these allegations — is rewarded with a jumbo ministry that combines surface transport, shipping and ports. Then there is Smriti Irani for human resource development: a relatively untested politician for a ministry of such importance is an interesting choice, to say the least, but maybe fresh faces are needed in such ministries. But, worst of all, there is Sanjeev Baliyan, riot-accused in Muzaffarnagar just months ago: rewarding him with a ministerial position so soon would tend to confirm the worst fears of minorities in India.


Now that the Indian general elections have come to a close, who’s to blame if a man who presided over a mass-murder in his state, took no action, victimised honest police officials and NGOs, and refuses to express any contrition over it, becomes the next prime minister of India?

There are plenty of people to blame. There is Atal Behari Vajpayee, PM at that time, who was saddened by the riots but not enough to actually take action. There are L K Advani and Jaswant Singh, who did not speak up then and are consumed now by the man that Jairam Ramesh called “Bhasmasura”. There are the corporates like Ratan Tata, Sunil Bharti Mittal and others, who took the man’s free gifts of land and resources and sang his praises in return. There is the media, which has been relentlessly bombarding us not just with the Messiah’s alleged inevitability but with how he would achieve Gujarat-level prosperity for India (never mind that indices suggest Gujarat is not doing much better these days than earlier, and is lagging other industrialised states on most social metrics — it’s the sensex that counts!). The Times of India here literally sold out its front page to the anointed one for weeks before the TN round of elections. Arnab Goswami showed that he can be a kitten when he wants to be one.

But most of all, I think, one has to blame R K Raghavan.

This man (a “family friend”, whom I have met a few times) chaired the Supreme-Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) which found no evidence of wrongdoing against our possible next prime minister. The spectacular shoddiness of his job is exposed in Manoj Mitta’s book “The fiction of fact-finding”. Excerpts here. Dilip D’Souza’s review here. Several other reviews on the net. I intended to write one myself (I bought the book a couple of months ago) but feel it would be redundant at this point.

But, basically, the SIT asked the man all the right questions, then swallowed all his answers even when they were contradicted by the public record, asked no followups, looked at no other evidence. And there is much else. Mitta persuasively argues that fact-finding commissions, SITs, etc, function — probably by design — to bury such cases, not to bring them to justice. (Mitta’s previous book, which I haven’t read, was about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. He cannot be accused of having an agenda.)

Mitta portrays Raghavan as incompetent in his previous investigation of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (to the extent of allowing a vital piece of evidence, Haribabu’s camera, to be removed from the scene without doing the paperwork or informing his colleagues — the investigators saw the crucial photos for the first time in The Hindu!) But what he did as SIT head seems worse than incompetence.

If Raghavan had done his job as a halfway-competent police officer, this man would not have been able to brush off his past as he has done and we would not be faced with the prospect of a fascist, supremacist prime minister who is comfortable with the mass massacre of thousands if they are of the “wrong” community.

We will know in a few days who our next prime minister will be. As Arun Jaitley remarked, it will be either NDA or an unstable coalition. If the former, well, those who expect development will be disappointed. Those who argued that a history of overseeing the worst riots of the 21st century (with credible evidence of having, at least, condoned the riots) doesn’t matter because we need “development” will have to live with their consciences. And then there are those who actually subscribe to this man’s ideology. I think and hope that they are a minority.

For any women out there planning to buy a new car…

Be aware that Volkswagen
(a) considers you a threat to road safety
(b) considers you dumb.

Just saying.

Deputy consul case: Be afraid of Preet Bharara

After India’s deputy consul general in New York was arrested for allegedly falsifying visa papers to underpay her domestic maid, the government, and the media, arrested in outrage. The consul was handcuffed! In front of her children! She was strip-searched! She was kept in jail with drug offenders! The Indian government swiftly took retaliatory action against US diplomats in India. The maid was smeared freely in the press, declared an absconder, and the US government accused of some nefarious business, especially when it turned out that the maid’s husband and child had been brought to the US.

Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York and the man behind the charges, discusses these allegations and, despite being constrained by his position on the things he is allowed to say, rebuts most of them very nicely here.

Preet Bharara’s name is now familiar to many Indians for his role in this story. But in the US, he is much better known for other things: if you search Google News for current stories, you will find examples like this. Basically, he has successfully targeted many Wall Street executives for insider trading, the latest being SAC Capital’s Michael Steinberg. He has not lost a case yet in prosecuting insider trading, convicting 77 of 77 defendants with ten pending cases. This is clearly a man who does his homework. But because one of those 77 defendants was Rajat Gupta, apparently Bharara is being accused by some in South Block of targeting Indians!

There is no doubt that, in his statement on the consul case, Bharara is saying much less than he knows. The Indian government has behaved in this matter with unbelievable stupidity and arrogance without ascertaining the facts — to the extent of moving the diplomat to the UN office and retrospectively claiming diplomatic immunity (which will be received only if the US State Department accredits her). Now one wonders whether the US values its relations with India sufficiently to go along with this ploy. But the more interesting question, to me, is what else Bharara has up his sleeve (this is after all the third recent case involving just the NY consulate…)

At the end of the day, the way we in India treat domestic help is a scandal, and, increasingly, an international one. The government and the media are right to be angry but have the wrong target.

What to do when the Supreme Court issues a contemptible judgement?

I, like many others, was not paying much attention to the impending Supreme Court verdict in the appeal of the Delhi High Court’s verdict quashing the criminalization of gay sex in Section 377. The Delhi HC’s arguments seemed so common-sensical, and international opinion so strong, that it seemed inconceivable that the Supreme Court would not uphold the verdict. The inconceivable occurred yesterday.

A bench of two judges declared the following in reinstating the ban on gay sex:

  • In its “anxiety” to protect the “so-called rights” of LGBT people, the HC “extensively relied upon the judgments of other jurisdictions”.
  • “The High Court is not at all right in observing that Section 377 IPC obstructs personality development of homosexuals or affects their self-esteem because that observation is solely based on the reports prepared by the academicians.”
  • And most shocking: The HC “overlooked that a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC.”

Since when did it become OK to discriminate against a group because their numbers are small? Why is a discriminatory law OK if prosecutions under that law are rare? Why “so-called rights” — do LGBT people not have rights? Don’t all courts, all over the world, rely upon judgments in other jurisdictions? And should academicians stop giving advice to courts now?

They conclude that it is the legislature’s job to change the law, if required. This is the same court that just ruled against red beacons on cars for all but a small category of officials (which includes Supreme Court judges!), last year banned sun-film on car windows (nowhere outlawed in the motor vehicle act, which only prescribes the minimum transparency of the windows), mandated CNG fuel in Delhi public transport, banned street food in Delhi… It is not the court’s job to legislate on those things. It is, however, the court’s job to strike down discriminatory legislation.

This judgment will not be looked on kindly by history, nor will its authors Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyaya.

The Hindu relapses: or, why N Ram should keep his mouth shut

The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management has collapsed acrimoniously: editor Siddharth Varadarajan announced his resignation on twitter, the Hindu swiftly came up with its own version, and the Hindu’s supremo N Ram has been freely criticising both Varadarajan and fired CEO Arun Anant in the pages of other newspapers.

Disclosure: as readers of this blog know, I wrote a few opinion articles for The Hindu during Siddharth Varadarajan’s tenure as editor. I don’t know him, or any other senior figure in the Hindu. It happened this way: I had something that I felt was worth saying in a wider medium than this blog; I found Varadarajan’s email address on his own blog; I emailed him directly; and he replied, and after a minimum of correspondence, ran the piece. But I have never met him or corresponded with him on any other matter, and know nothing about the internals of this affair.

I was already an admirer of Varadarajan’s writing in The Hindu and, earlier, the Times of India. And, in my personal opinion, the Hindu’s readability improved immensely under his editorship. There was great diversity of articles (both news and opinion), a significant amount of “breaking news”, and a very sensible editorial line in all cases. And, in particular, he allowed plenty of space for dissent, both in the letters section and in “debate”-style rejoinder sections to previously published opinion pieces.

A bit of history: The Hindu has been the “newspaper of record” of south India for decades, arguably for most of its existence (well over 100 years), and is influential in other parts of India too. Like that other “newspaper of record”, the New York Times, the Hindu is family-owned; but unlike the NYT, it has mostly been family-run and family-edited too. The retirement of G. Kasturi, its longest serving editor, in 1991 prompted some ugly squabbling. Kasturi’s nephew N Ravi took over as editor in 1991, he was displaced by his brother N Ram amidst some acrimony in 2003, and when Ram brought in Siddharth Varadarajan in 2011, Ravi and their cousin Malini Parthasarathy resigned from editorial positions loudly protesting their being sidelined in favour of the “junior” Varadarajan. Now both are back.

The two allegations are mismanagement of the business resulting in falling circulation, employee dissatisfaction etc (which may be more an allegation against Anant), and, in Ram’s words, “editorialisation in the guise of news and manipulation of news coverage” under Varadarajan (while declining to give specific instances). Coming from Ram, this claim is comical.

Ram’s almost decade-long tenure saw the Hindu become almost an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Check out this piece, published on October 2, 2009 (Gandhi Jayanti) on the front page above the fold: written as a news report by Ram himself from Beijing, it waxes poetic about China’s rise, “showcased” by Tiananmen Square (which the world remembers, even today, for other reasons). After breathless and entirely unquestioning coverage of Premier Hu Jintao’s speech, the military review, parade and floats, Ram ends on a romantic note: “As I write, the evening is quite young at Tian’anmen Square.” So, Mr Ram, was this editorialisation in the guise of news, or news in the guise of editorialisation, or both? Who paid for your trip to Beijing to cover this parade? Where were you seated, and at whose invitation?

This is hardly the only example under Ram’s tenure. He consistently praised China to the detriment of, for example, the Tibet cause (take a look at this news item, published in The Hindu, which quotes N Ram, editor of The Hindu, rejecting Tibetan “propaganda”!). He unfailingly toed the line of Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa on the Tamil issue (see this fawning interview). And he almost never published dissenting letters to any of this (see this letters page in response to the Rajapaksa interview). None of which is surprising given his history as a card-carrying Communist and admirer of authoritarian figures. Nor is it surprising that, during Ram’s tenure as editor, the Hindu carried his photograph on more occasions than it had carried photographs of all previous editors during its entire history.

[EDIT Oct 23, 2013: I forgot to mention this supreme example of N Ram's editorial impartiality.]

So whether or not Siddharth Varadarajan can be accused of editorialising in news selection, Ram is the very last person in the world who can make that accusation with a straight face. And by doing so, rather than merely parting ways with Varadarajan in mutual silence, Ram has merely demeaned himself and his newspaper.

So ends The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management. Pity. For two years it was actually quite a good newspaper. One bright spot is that Ram is not returning as chief editor — instead, brother Ravi, a relatively colourless figure, returns to the job. I expect that The Hindu will become, if not the red rag that it was in Ram’s time, the bland inoffensive paper that it used to be earlier.


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