Aathira Konikkara and Nileema MS


“SUNDAY WAS A DARK DAY for India,” The Hindu’s editorial read on 7 December 1992. “The Hindu shares the nation’s sense of deep anguish at this painful moment.”

The previous day, a mob of Hindutva activists had razed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, convinced that the sixteenth-century mosque stood over the birthplace of the deity Ram. The editorial delivered searing judgment. It spoke of “religious fanaticism at its ugliest” and “a barbaric savagery reminiscent of the crude traditions of settling scores in medieval history.” It declared that the mosque’s destruction had “delivered a lethal blow to the image of a secular and democratic India.” As redress, it argued for the mosque to be rebuilt. The editorial was titled “Unforgivable.”

In November 2019, the Supreme Court pronounced a long-awaited verdict on the ownership of the disputed site. It ruled that the mosque had been demolished illegally, yet controversially awarded the land to a trust for the construction of a Ram temple. Muslim claimants were given an alternative site for the construction of a mosque. In an editorial titled “Peace and justice,” The Hindu declared, “There comes a time when the need for peace and closure is greater than the need for undoing an injustice.” It praised the court for upholding “the faith of millions of Hindus” and saw the verdict as a “great relief to all peace-loving people” because of “the bitter truth that the fear of a Hindu backlash if there was an adverse verdict was genuine.”

After almost three decades of the “unrelenting pursuit of communal polarisation,” The Hindu said, “the majoritarian, revanchist forces in the country have fatigued their secular adversaries into passive acquiescence.” It was hard to tell whether this was an explanation or an excuse.

IN THE HEART of Chennai, a centuries-old road winds up to St Thomas Mount, named after one of the apostles of Jesus. Long called Mount Road, the thoroughfare is today known as Anna Salai, after CN Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu. History seeps along the asphalt—note the venerable Higginbothams bookstore, the modernist LIC building, the ornamented headquarters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—before pooling at its base in Fort St George, the site of the city’s founding and now the seat of the state government.

The Kasturi Buildings, headquarters of The Hindu since 1883, stand a short drive from the Fort. Large red letters announce the newspaper’s name from atop the whitewashed façade of the main building—resembling, perhaps without intention, a front page with The Hindu’s masthead. The entrance, at the base, is where the anchor story would be.

Framed on a wall inside is a photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru reading The Hindu in 1960. Next to it, given pride of place, is a colourised portrait of S Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, who took control of the newspaper in 1905 and whose descendants still own it today.

We showed up early for an appointment with Malini Parthasarathy, the chairperson of the Hindu Group, and were put in the care of her secretary. It was September, in the wake of the second wave of COVID-19, and the building was nearly deserted. We walked through a maze of corridors to the secretary’s office, and from there to a canteen in an adjacent building, with an attendant to show us the way. There we paused until news came that Parthasarathy—“Malini amma” to our guide—had arrived.

From behind the desk in her spacious office, Parthasarathy faced a portrait of her late father, Srinivasan Parthasarathy—one of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar’s four grandsons, and the publisher of the paper from 1959 until his untimely death in 1961. She greeted us warmly and plunged right in.

“Why is Caravan doing an interview at all?” she asked in a tone of mild exasperation. “I don’t know why you are doing a cover story on The Hindu.”

In March 2020, just before a disastrously ill-planned countrywide lockdown to combat COVID-19, Narendra Modi had invited some twenty owners and editors of major media organisations to speak with him via video conference. An official press release later stated that the attendees agreed to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories.” Parthasarathy represented The Hindu and afterwards tweeted, “We were privileged to be part of PM @narendramodi’s interaction … He has strategic clarity on how to move forward. We are certainly in good hands!”

The Caravan published a report critical of the meeting and of The Hindu’s subsequent coverage, which broadly followed Modi’s brief. Parthasarathy had not taken this kindly, and had let it be known on social media. “I request you to be fair and balanced,” she told us now. “If it is biased, I will be disappointed.”

Malini Parthasarathy represented The Hindu at Narendra Modi’s videoconference with media owners and editors before the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. An official press release stated the attendees agreed to “publish inspiring and positive stories.” PIB

The video conference was neither Parthasarathy’s only encounter with Modi in recent times nor the only occasion for disapproval of what some perceive as her concessions to the ruling dispensation. She caused consternation when, in July 2019, she tweeted about a “warm and illuminating conversation” with the prime minister, thanking him for sharing “insights about his vision for the country going forward.” Nistula Hebbar, The Hindu’s political editor, attended the meeting too, and Parthasarathy posted a picture of the three of them posing cheerfully for the camera.

This July, Parthasarathy tweeted that she had “the privilege of calling on Prime Minister @narendramodi” for “an illuminating conversation in which he shared his perspective on issues of current public interest.” This came just days after it became public that Vijaita Singh, a reporter with The Hindu who had covered the security establishment, had been targeted by the Pegasus spyware, which its Israeli makers say is only sold to state actors.

Facing another storm of complaints, Parthasarathy wrote, “Our 142+ years of hard-earned reputation was built by reporting that was factual & not driven by political prejudice or bias. We @the_hindu are determined to restore the honesty & credibility of our reporting & commentary.” N Ram, Parthasarathy’s second cousin and predecessor as chairperson, felt compelled to tell the public that he had nothing to do with the meeting. He tweeted, “we will do our very best to prevent The Hindu’s ‘hard-earned’ reputation and legacy of 142+ years ‘being squandered away’.”

These meetings have focussed particular scrutiny on The Hindu, but they are far from the only causes of it. The newspaper is at a crossroads in more ways than one—in its journalism, in its business model and in terms of its hallowed position in the national consciousness. Much of that position owes to The Hindu’s identification as a bastion of liberal and secular thought, but recent indications are that the fortress is embattled both from outside and within.

Numerous former and current staff at The Hindu told us that the newspaper has lately become extremely careful when it comes to reporting on the Hindu Right, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Many also said that the opposition to Modi and the Sangh’s Hindutva ideology that permeated The Hindu’s work until not so long ago is increasingly at odds with the sympathies of its core readers, many of them Brahmins. Meanwhile, the paper continues to struggle to adapt to the digital transformation of the news business and to wean itself off a dependence on traditional print advertising, a large chunk of it from the government. By the accounts of The Hindu’s own leadership, the reliance on government ads was especially acute as private advertising dried up during the pandemic-induced lockdowns. Recent years have seen losses and shrinking revenues, and newsroom conflicts and downsizing have led to plenty of bitter departures.

This leaves many questions hanging over the future of a newspaper unlike any other. The Kasturi family has proven itself an unusual class of proprietors. Generations have been intimate with not just the business of publishing but also the work of journalism, unlike other clans in charge of India’s many family-owned publications. Parthasarathy and Ram both served in the newsroom before rising to the ranks of editor and chairperson, and many others have followed the family tradition of working on the paper. And, unlike the countless examples where proprietors muscling into editorial matters have degraded their publications, the Kasturi family’s editorial stewardship of The Hindu has sometimes produced commendable results. Through periods of its history, the paper’s journalism has been considered a cut above that of its major rivals, primarily the English-language dailies based out of Delhi and Mumbai. The Hindu is the second most circulated English-language newspaper in the country and the only paper from the south widely read in the national capital.

The family’s generational tenure also translates to an unusual distribution of control. The four main branches of the Kasturi clan, sprung from the grandsons of the original patriarch, each have roughly a quarter of the shares of Kasturi and Sons Limited, a holding company controlling all of the publishing house’s interests. The Hindu Group, a subsidiary, is governed by a board comprising 12 directors, all but one of them from the family. It controls The Hindu, the fortnightly news magazine Frontline, a business paper and assorted other publications. As is the way with ancestral property, each branch’s holdings have been subdivided across generations of heirs, many of them with political and personal differences. Where other newspapers are typically under more consolidated direction, here power is contested between shape-shifting family factions and alliances. Tensions between Parthasarathy and Ram, for instance, have repeatedly spilled into the open over the years, as have other boardroom conflicts. The newspaper’s editorial tenor is subject to the board’s prevailing politics at any given time. It has traced paths across a spectrum spanning everything from left-liberalism to Hindutva, though more often than not with fidelity to the shibboleths of Brahminism and national security.

“The problem is collective ownership,” a senior official of the Hindu Group told us. “There are diverse political affiliations.” The official described three broad ideological partitions within the family and the board: one stream hewed to the left, another has largely adopted liberal positions and a third is sympathetic to ring-wing causes. “There have been several disruptions in the company,” the official said, “not just due to ideological differences but also for power.”

In Parthasarathy’s telling, the anxieties over all these things are overblown. “Generally, my effort as chair is to really try to get the business model more modernised,” she told us. She admitted that 2020 was a hard year financially but said things were better now. “Ad revenue has really done well. Digital, we are doing very well in subscription. One part is that we want to improve our digital offering. But the larger part is that we are doing well.”

On the meetings with Modi, she insisted that she has nothing to hide. “I am just open,” she said. “That’s why I put it on Twitter, I put it everywhere. If I meet a politician, I put it on Twitter.” Journalists see lots of public figures, and “just because you go and meet a politician doesn’t mean you are close to them.” The trouble was a “prejudice that you can’t meet people on the right.”

If the meetings were journalistic work, they produced no direct fruit: neither Parthasarathy nor Hebbar published any interview or story based on their private conversation with Modi. When asked what she had discussed with the prime minister, Parthasarathy responded, “Nothing about The Hindu. Just asked him generally what his views are, generally just a lot of discussion and engaging him on why he thinks a particular way.” She said some people thought she had gone to ask for advertisements, but “not even once has The Hindu asked for a government favour.”

As for the dissention from Ram, whose ideological and editorial inclinations have always leaned left-wards, Parthasarathy thought it was “silly to read in some slant and say, ‘Oh, she meets Modi and she is trying to counterbalance Ram.’” She played down dissent within the family. “We may not be in daily touch,” she said, but “it’s not an all-consuming battle either. All of us fundamentally have the same affection for The Hindu.”

She had her complaints with the way the newspaper functioned earlier. “I think we have been too ideological, generally,” she said. “I think we need to be more inclusive of different stories.” She wanted the paper “to be in tune with our readers” and “to be more into story-telling … more about the craft of story-telling and less of the ideological-prescription kind of thing.”

But Parthasarathy drew two hard lines. First, she said, “We cannot be anti-Hindu culture. It’s not our tradition.” Second, “Anything that is against basic democratic values, The Hindu will never support.” She explained that the newspaper has to stand up for press freedom, for example, and that she had protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “It’s not as if we say it’s okay to expunge a Muslim or any minority,” Parthasarathy said. “None of us is saying that, nobody is.” At The Hindu, she added, “there is a basic liberal sheet from which we all operate. I told Modi also. He doesn’t mind.”


 THE HINDU’S CREST is embossed above the entrance to the Kasturi Buildings. It shows a map of India enclosing a conch shell, cradled in a lotus and flanked by an elephant and Kamdhenu—the mythical cow mother, part-human, part-avian and part-bovine. The component themes are unmistakable: Hinduism and the nation.

Started as a weekly in 1878, The Hindu was a direct response to a debate raging in Madras Presidency at the time. T Muthuswami Iyer had been appointed a judge of the Madras High Court, becoming the first Indian to hold the office. A Hundred Years of The Hindu, an official history published on the paper’s centenary, describes the founders as six young men associated with the Triplicane Literary Society, a forum “to discuss current topics.” They were spurred on by “the feeling that there was no Indian newspaper to represent Indian opinion,” a feeling that “became stronger when the Anglo-Indian (British-owned) newspapers in Madras criticised in unfair and unflattering terms the appointment of Mr (later Sir) T Muthuswami Aiyer as judge of the Madras High Court and they could not reply.”

The Hindu’s contemporary rivals were the British-owned Madras Times and Madras Mail. A Hundred Years presents the paper as their anti-colonial challenger and declares that “when The Hindu made its appearance it became the sole representative of Indian opinion.” The paper’s founders saw the defence of Iyer’s appointment as a nationalist objective, but there were others who viewed The Hindu’s birth through a different lens.

Iyer was a Brahmin, as were the six founders of The Hindu. Writing as “A Dravidian Correspondent”—a hint at a non-Brahmin identity—a columnist in the Madras Mail opposed Iyer’s elevation on the grounds that a Brahmin was “the least fitted of all castes to deal with the masses … since he considered himself as a god and all others Mlecchas,” or outcastes. As a judge, Iyer endorsed the marriage of Brahmin girls before puberty for “fear of social degradation” and prevented people of the oppressed castes from entering temples.

Four of The Hindu’s founders soon gave up the project in pursuit of other jobs, leaving the paper in the hands of G Subramania Iyer and M Veeraraghavachariar. By the time it moved to Mount Road, in 1883, The Hindu was publishing three times a week. A Hundred Years gives the impression that the original proprietors struggled to finance the paper, but makes clear they had the support of Madras’s Indian elites. “The National Press at Mount Road was equipped through borrowed capital,” the book says. “One of the chief benefactors of The Hindu was Mr (later Justice Sir) S Subramania Aiyer who had from 1884 taken a deep interest in The Hindu.” The book quotes Veeraraghavachariar: “The Hindu can never forget that it was to him more than to anybody else it owes the National Press.”

A Hundred Years shows G Subramania Iyer as a passionate advocate of social reform. While recounting the paper’s support for widow remarriage, it mentions that he arranged the remarriage of his daughter who was widowed at the age of thirteen. The book describes an 1893 advertisement in The Hindu that “spoke of two or three Brahmin young men of fair education and social position willing to marry virgin widows of the Brahmin caste.”

Iyer’s reformist views did not please Veeraraghavachariar. In 1898, Iyer abandoned the paper, leaving Veeraraghavachariar as the sole proprietor. One point of friction was a bill to raise the age of consent among girls from ten to 12, which passed into law in 1891. In columns in The Hindu, Iyer put forth the view that the government must intervene to promote social reform. A Hundred Years records that Veeraraghavachariar “did not go along with this extreme view and he feared that the circulation of the paper would be affected as a majority of the people were not ready for progressive social legislation.”

The two men’s bitterness outlived the separation. Iyer, after his exit, criticised articles published in The Hindu under Veeraraghavachariar’s watch. The latter’s sharp rebuttal attracted a defamation suit from Iyer. According to A Hundred Years, Veeraraghavachariar was “persuaded to print an apology in Hindu Nesan by Mr S Kasturiranga Iyengar, Legal Adviser to The Hindu, and the suit was withdrawn.”

Iyengar, one of the founders of the nationalist Madras Mahajana Sabha, was aligned with the Indian National Congress. Associating with The Hindu was an easy fit. One Hundred Years notes that when the Congress met in Madras for its third national session, in 1887, “leading Congressmen gathered in The Hindu office to discuss current topics of the day.” When the Congress met in the city again in the years that followed, Iyengar served as the secretary of the reception committee.

With an expanded attention to national issues, The Hindu became a daily in April 1889. Two years later, Veeraraghavachariar formed a limited company to control the paper and went looking for new shareholders. His hope, according to One Hundred Years, was that this would establish the paper’s permanence “unaffected by the fortunes or predilections of individual owners.” But the company’s shares did not find enough buyers. In 1905, the newspaper was purchased by two lawyers: Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, its erstwhile legal adviser, and C Sankaran Nair, an aristocratic Malayali rising rapidly up the legal profession under British rule. Iyengar assumed the post of editor.

G SUBRAMANIA IYER was once asked if the paper’s non-Hindu readers approved of its chosen name. He responded, “Why, they all considered it the best name because it expressed the national sentiment best.”

There is an obvious irony to a newspaper that claims the values of liberalism and secular nationalism in a country as diverse as India calling itself The Hindu. The irony is often lost on the newspaper’s readers, many of whom have long subscribed to a school of thought that sees no contradiction between the typically conservative, Brahminical dictates of Hinduism and the broader morals of liberal belief. This is partly because The Hindu’s most ardent readers have historically come from the top rather than bottom of Hinduism’s iniquitous social hierarchy. On the national level, it is also because this line of interpretation long dominated the field—since the days of the independence movement to the recent resurgence of Hindutva. In the context of south India, however, the inherent clash has always been much clearer to see.

The birth of The Hindu coincided with the gestation of the Non-Brahmin Movement. By the late nineteenth century, in Madras Presidency as elsewhere in India, growing native assertion in the face of colonial rule was yielding gradual concessions from the colonial authorities. T Muthuswami Iyer’s appointment to the Madras High Court was one famous example. But this assertion, embodied most clearly by the Congress, was very often spearheaded by Brahmins, who corralled many of the benefits. Numerically a small minority, they overwhelmingly dominated coveted posts in public service. Non-Brahmin professionals protested and organised, and took a critical stance on the Congress’s nationalism, fearing that it would remove British domination only to impose Brahmin domination instead. In 1916, the movement coalesced into the Justice Party. The Dravidian movement, with its Tamil sub-nationalism and more comprehensive programme of lower-caste assertion, would go on to build on its legacy.

The Hindu’s Brahminical base and alignment with the Congress placed it at odds with this alternative political stream. In a 1917 editorial, the newspaper noted, “We regret to have to say that the movement was made from its start to assume a sinister aspect and to adopt an attitude of active antagonism to the Brahmin community, to the nationalist movement in the country and to the aims and objects of the Congress.” The dislike cut both ways. The writer and intellectual SV Rajadurai told us that EV Ramasamy, the Dravidian icon widely known as Periyar, frequently described The Hindu and the Tamil weekly Swadesamitran, also founded by Subramania Iyer, as “fountains of poison.”

“From the very beginning, they have been Brahmins both in their outer skin and their inner skin and their inner soul,” Rajadurai said. Iyer, while relatively progressive compared to his fellow Tamil Brahmins, shared with them a belief about Brahmins’ rightful place in society. A piece published in Swadesamitran under his editorship stated, “As Brahmins occupy a very conspicuous place in all the different departments of the public service and are conspicuous for their intelligence and good behaviour, it is desirable that Government should encourage them by conferring on them high appointments calculated to promote the welfare of the country.”

The Dravidian stalwart K Veeramani told us that The Hindu was in constant opposition to the Justice Party. Veeramani worked closely with Periyar as a young man and now heads the Dravidar Kazhagam, which subsumed the Justice Party in 1944 under Periyar’s leadership. When the social reformer Muthulakshmi Reddy, backed by Dravidian forces, called for an end to the devadasi system, “that was directly and indirectly opposed by The Hindu,” Veeramani said. “They maintained the journalism in such a way that they will also report the news, without distorting the particular point. But in the editorial page and other areas, they will attack.”

Veeramani is also the editor of the Tamil daily Viduthalai, which has its own history with The Hindu. Decades ago, his predecessor in the post, Kuthoosi Gurusamy, described The Hindu as the “Mount Road Mahavishnu.” This played deftly on the Kasturi family’s standing as Vaishnavite Brahmins and skewered what Gurusamy saw as the newspaper’s inflated sense of self-importance. The label caught on, and The Hindu has never been able to shake it off.

The Government of India Act of 1919 set up Madras Presidency’s first elected legislature. The Justice Party took control of the legislative council and the chief minister’s chair in 1920 and held on to power until 1937, barring one interlude.

If The Hindu was not supportive of the Dravidian dream, it was not breathing fire either. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing his autobiography in prison in the mid 1930s, took the view that, of “the Indian-owned English newspapers, The Hindu of Madras is probably the best, so far as get-up and news service are concerned. It always reminds me of an old maiden lady, very prim and proper, who is shocked if a naughty word is used in her presence. It is eminently the paper of the bourgeois, comfortably settled in life. Not for it is the shady side of existence, the rough and tumble and conflict of life.”

As the anti-colonial struggle gained momentum, the Congress hit a streak of its own in Madras Presidency. Except for six years of governor’s rule during the Second World War, it held power for two decades. At the national level too, the party took charge as the British resigned themselves to an independent India. At home and in Delhi, The Hindu was now on the right side of the powers of the day.

Jawaharlal Nehru praised The Hindu as reminding him “of an old maiden lady, very prim and proper, who is shocked if a naughty word is used in her presence.” The newspaper backed Nehru and Gandhi in the struggle against colonial rule. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY

The newspaper was often reverential when writing about Mohandas Gandhi, appending the suffix “ji” behind his name and once describing him as a “pure and noble soul.” It went so far as to disagree with one of its own proprietors, C Sankaran Nair, who believed that Gandhi set unreasonable demands before the British government. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar stood firmly in Gandhi’s corner, and this was one reason he and Nair parted ways. In 1922, Iyengar became the sole owner of the newspaper. He remained the editor until his death the following year. In 1925, Gandhi was on hand to unveil Iyengar’s portrait at the Mount Road office.

The Hindu’s opinions aligned closely with those of the Congress during the years of British rule. When Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested in 1942 after they passed the Quit India resolution, resolving to struggle for full independence, The Hindu threw its weight behind them and described the arrests as a “colossal blunder.” According to A Hundred Years, the colonial government’s censors had briefly prevented copies of the newspaper from being sent to Britain in 1918, during the First World War, on the grounds that the Germans could use excerpts for propaganda purposes—although The Hindu objected, in 1919, that it was not true that every issue of the newspaper contained “a reference to Home Rule.” The government’s move came in the same year that Iyengar joined a delegation of editors invited by the Indian government to tour Britain and the European battlefields.

The Dravidian movement had hit a relative lull around Independence, but Periyar remained on the front lines. In 1956, he spoke at a public meeting in Trichinopoly in defence of the local district collector, a non-Brahmin who had settled a wage dispute between a wealthy landlord and local peasants in favour of the latter. When the matter had landed in the Madras High Court, the judges, both of them Iyengars, chastised the collector, stating that the government should seriously consider “whether an officer of such totalitarian views and disregard of law should continue to be entrusted with the duties of maintaining law and order in any locality in this state.” Periyar took exception, and earned himself a notice for contempt of court. In his response, he questioned whether the court had ever reprimanded a Brahmin in the same way. He also pointed to an editorial in The Hindu in support of the judges’ ruling: “That The Hindu, which usually never criticised the authorities for their wrongful acts should suddenly devote an editorial and harsh criticism to an unremarkable ruling concerning an administrative order, and that the editor is, of course, a Brahmin, makes one think that that they are in on the conspiracy too.” He described the paper as habitually promoting “Brahmin self-interest.”

The Hindu was wholly the possession of the Kasturi family by this time. After Kasturi Ranga Iyengar’s death, in 1923, the editorship was passed on to family members. For a quarter century beginning in 1934, it lay in the hands of Iyengar’s elder son, Kasturi Srinivasan.

Into the 1960s, the editor’s chair was occupied by S Parthasarathy, a cousin of Kasturi Srinivasan. Meanwhile, the Dravidian movement was seeing a resurgence. Periyar remained at the head of the Dravidar Kazhagam, but a new force had also emerged: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. This was led by CN Annadurai, earlier a follower of Periyar, who formed his own breakaway party in 1949 after a falling-out. Now, both outfits threw themselves into the anti-Hindi agitations gaining strength in what had by then become Madras State.

The question of language was extremely sensitive, with many Tamil speakers worried that the Congress meant to impose Hindi on them. In 1937, the first Congress chief minister of Madras Presidency, C Rajagopalachari, had mandated that schools in the province teach Hindi. Periyar and the Justice Party reacted furiously, and British authorities later rolled the policy back. At Independence, the Constituent Assembly contentiously agreed to make Hindi the country’s sole official language, with a 15-year stay to ease implementation. As the expiry of the stay approached, revolts broke out. The Congress was forced into concessions.

In the 1967 elections, the Congress lost Madras State to the DMK—part of a wave of legislative-assembly defeats that ended its post-Independence monopoly on power. Annadurai took over as chief minister of Madras State and saw it renamed Tamil Nadu—“Tamil country,” with the language at the centre of its identity. The state has never had a Congress government again.

D RAVIKUMAR gave us a copy of Dalits in Dravidian Land: Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu, 1995-2004. Released by the anti-caste imprint Navayana, which Ravikumar co-founded, the book compiles stories by the reporter S Viswanathan published in Frontline, the Hindu Group’s fortnightly. Ravikumar praised The Hindu and described Frontline as “the only magazine which supported Dalit castes.” He offered the book as proof. “You cannot make such a book from any other magazine,” he said.

Ravikumar, a writer-turned-politician who is now in the Lok Sabha, is a member of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi—formerly known as the Dalit Panthers of India. In 2019, the VCK honoured N Ram with its Ambedkar Sudar award for his efforts to publish stories on anti-Dalit violence in The Hindu and Frontline, which he also edited for many years.

“The news media rarely offers space to ‘stories about them’,” Ram writes in a foreword to Dalits in Dravidian Land. “To make matters worse, there are hardly any Dalit journalists in Indian newsrooms.” But Frontline, he argues, “can claim to be the exception that proves the rule: it has actively encouraged its best journalists, the most socially aware and sensitive contingent in contemporary Indian journalism, to look wide and deep into the Dalit condition in Tamil Nadu.”

Such recognition of The Hindu and Frontline’s work is itself an exception that proves another rule: by and large, the Kasturis’ publishing house has not been a beacon of anti-caste consciousness. There remain numerous strong criticisms of its approach to caste and Hinduism, whether on the printed page or in the newsroom.

Punitha Pandian, the editor of the Tamil magazine Dalit Murasu, told us that The Hindu and Frontline’s coverage of caste has largely been limited to atrocities. “They won’t attack the very thing that induces caste violence,” he said. “Atrocities don’t happen in isolation. They won’t attack Hinduism, they will be in praise of Hinduism.”

Pandian pointed out that The Hindu’s publishing arm has released numerous books glorifying Hindu culture. Days before Parthasarathy joined Modi’s pre-lockdown teleconference in 2020, The Hindu proudly reported that the prime minister had congratulated the publishing house on a new book on Vivekananda, the nineteenth-century revivalist celebrated by the Hindu Right. The Hindu’s publishing arm has also released what it describes “as a compilation of the newspaper’s substantial output” on Chandrashekarendra Saraswati, the late head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, a major Hindu monastery. The book is titled Embodiment of Truth. SV Rajadurai told us that The Hindu has always promoted Saraswati, whom he described as “a varna-dharmist, anti-Dalit, anti-OBC, most reactionary misogynist.”

For a while, around the turn of the millennium, The Hindu’s opinion pages regularly gave space to anti-caste intellectuals such as Gail Omvedt, MSS Pandian and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. Omvedt, for instance, wrote on topics including Hindu nationalism’s subordination of women and the need for caste-based reservations in employment and education. Shepherd, in a piece titled “Shrinking Space of Hinduism,” dissected the anxiety of Hindutva groups over Dalits choosing to convert to Buddhism. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a hard-line Hindu nationalist group, “boasts of spreading Hinduism across the world,” he wrote, but “it is shrinking in its own soil. It has no agenda to seriously reform Hinduism to take it out of the caste system.”

“Each of them wrote from a specific point of view,” V Geetha, a scholar of caste and gender, told us. “Ilaiah was witty and vitriolic. Pandian was acerbic. Gail was scholarly but tough.” This was perhaps the first time that The Hindu carried critiques of Brahminism, Geetha said. “Clearly, it realised that this is something that can’t be ignored.”

Geetha pointed out that these writers shared space in the same paper with a regular religious column glorifying Brahminical customs and traditions—“usually summaries of religious discourses,” or descriptions “of a temple or a pilgrimage.” Rajadurai also spoke of a column on Hindu religious texts having long been a part of The Hindu’s ethos. The column has taken on a new format of late and occasionally branched out to cover others faiths—with a piece on Good Friday, for instance—but the primary focus remains unchanged. A 2019 column on the Bhagwat Gita read: “Like the waters of the sacred Ganga that have the power to purify the sins of those who have a dip in it, study of the Gita has the sanctifying power to cleanse one of the dirt of samsara itself.”

The trio was published while the newspaper’s editor was N Ravi—brother to N Ram and current chairperson of Kasturi and Sons—and Malini Parthasarathy was the executive editor. Their ideas drew backlash from many of The Hindu’s readers. A letter to the editor in response to Shepherd’s piece described it as “an anti-Brahmin lecture” and complained that, “with the advent of Dravidian parties in the South, being a Brahmin is viewed as a blight.” The Hindu persisted with carrying these writers’ work until 2003, when Ravi and Parthasarathy were sidelined and N Ram arrived as its editor.

“For all the posturing that The Hindu has always done on its national and edit pages, its local bureaus across the country are full of Brahmin Sanghis,” Sudipto Mondal, a former reporter for the newspaper, said. Mondal worked at the paper from 2007 to 2014, and spent more than three years at its bureau in Mangaluru, on the Karnataka coast. He found that most of the Mangaluru bureau staff were politically centrist or leaned towards the right, and that many had been hired through family or caste connections.

Mondal told us he faced resistance when he attempted stories critical of caste practices. As an example, he described his efforts to cover the Karnataka coast’s traditional Kambala events—annual buffalo races sponsored by upper-caste landlords. The races involve Dalits running on the track before the buffaloes have their turn. In the olden days, Mondal said, this was because the landlords would try to sabotage each other’s racing animal, sometimes scattering sharp objects on the ground. People from oppressed castes were used to make sure the track was safe. Today, district administrations that organise the events continue to bring in Dalit runners to race barefoot before the buffaloes.

One year, local Dalit groups held a small protest. This was Mondal’s cue to pitch a story, he said, since criticism of the practice in the absence of a protest would be perceived as editorialising—something The Hindu’s reporters are strictly not supposed to do. The idea was accepted but watered down: Mondal was asked to file a story only on the protest. He recalled that a senior staffer asked, “Are they being forced to run on that? Are they being paid properly? Is it not their traditional occupation?” The staffer later asked him to be objective and reconsider his “extreme Dalit views.”

A reporter from a marginalised community recalled applying to work for The Hindu in the early 2000s. He asked for a position in Chennai or Delhi, “but they said no, we want you to be in Madurai,” he told us. “Within Tamil Nadu, Madurai is a caste-sensitive area. They wanted a reporter who could work there exclusively doing these kinds of stories.”

He accepted the brief and became a reporter in the Madurai bureau. Early on, the reporter said, he had considerable freedom to pursue the stories of his choice—the newspaper was paying more attention to caste violence at the time than any of its English-language competitors. But his stories on Dalit lives soon fanned discomfort in his own bureau. “People were commenting that why is it that The Hindu always reports on Dalit atrocities?” he recounted. “Why are they trying to bring a caste lens to all those things?”

Initially, it was fairly easy to get stories into the newspaper’s state pages. The reporter explained that this was important “because it draws the attention of the bureaucrats and also the politicians, because those in the top rung normally read The Hindu.” Some years into the job, the reporter noticed a pattern of the Chennai office ignoring the reports he filed.

When an important story was not carried by The Hindu, he sent it to Frontline and saw it published there instead. “If you get published in Frontline, it is a big thing for someone who is still working for The Hindu,” he said. Some of his stories also made it to the newspaper’s national pages. “None of my colleagues congratulated me, apart from my chief of bureau.” The reporter said that the casteism of others in the bureau, however subtle, was apparent to him.

The reporter eventually quit the job. “We have to fight on a daily basis to get adequate space,” he said. “That becomes problematic.” Another journalist who spent many years with The Hindu told us, “For the years that I was there, I could never do the stories that I really got into journalism to do as a Dalit.”

Numerous former employees of The Hindu told us that a large number of its staff are from the upper castes—a troubling pattern common to most of the Indian media. One former journalist who spent five years with the newspaper said, “In every single department, every single shot is called by somebody who is a Brahmin.” Parthasarathy did not reply to questions about the newspaper’s approach to caste.

The former journalist described a puja conducted in the Chennai office every Friday. An attendant would collect money from the staff to fund this and later distribute the prasad, but anyone who did not contribute would be refused a share. Others who have worked in the Chennai office also said the puja was a regular event and that many employees participated in it.

In 2014, the newspaper’s human-resources department issued a notice to staff at the Chennai office. It said that several employees had complained about colleagues bringing meat to the canteen, which served only vegetarian food—typically a point of pride at upper-caste establishments. The notice stated, “All are aware non-veg food is not permitted in our canteen premises as it causes discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian.”

The resulting controversy spilled well beyond the confines of the organisation. In the Economic and Political Weekly, two critics, including a former reporter at the paper, wrote, “That The Hindu notice can remind employees not to consume non-vegetarian food on the premises as ‘all are aware’ of the discomfort it causes rather than—for example—having separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian areas, illustrates the pervasive influence of Brahmanical practices within the public sphere and the continued resistance to lower caste and non-Hindu assertion.”

Praveen Swami, an editor with the paper, took to Twitter to defend the policy. Swami wrote that it was his right “to eat what I want at home. It isn’t my right to carry beef into a temple, or pork into a mosque.” He added that The Hindu’s office “is private property, and those who own it, subject to law, can make rules for it.”


THE ADVENT OF DRAVIDIAN RULE coincided with a change of leadership at The Hindu. After the death of S Parthasarathy, in 1965, the editor’s post went to G Kasturi, a grandson of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar. Kasturi would remain in place for two and a half decades.

Annadurai died of a chronic illness weeks after changing the state’s name from Madras to Tamil Nadu, in 1969. With Periyar also nearing the end of his life, custody of the Dravidian project passed to M Karunanidhi.

A major focus of Karunanidhi’s term as chief minister was affirmative action for the state’s disadvantaged groups. This was something Periyar and the Dravidian movement had fought for since long before Independence, pressuring Congress governments to institute reservations in public education and employment for Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. To the bitter resentment of the entrenched elite, Karunanidhi expanded the quotas for all three groups to cover just under half of available positions.

Karunanidhi also pursued greater autonomy for Tamil Nadu within the republic’s federal framework. This put him on a collision course with the Congress government in Delhi, by then under the steadily more authoritarian control of Indira Gandhi. When Indira declared the Emergency, in 1975, the DMK was defiant. Karunanidhi’s government was forcibly dissolved.

Even with civil liberties suspended and censorship in force, a few publications dared to protest Indira’s despotism. The Hindu was not one of them. In the first days of the Emergency, Indira’s government reviewed the positions being taken by individual publications, meaning to starve uncooperative outlets of government advertising funds. The Hindu scored the top grade: A-plus, denoting “positively friendly” coverage. The Emergency government also merged four standalone news agencies into Samachar, a unified news agency under its control. G Kasturi was appointed its head.

With the return of democracy, in the 1977 election, the DMK was defeated by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The AIADMK had earlier broken away from the DMK after a clash between Karunanidhi and its leader, MG Ramachandran. MGR, as he was known, had ingratiated himself with the Congress, backing the Emergency wholeheartedly. He continued with a Dravidian programme, albeit of a less strident variety than that of the DMK. MGR served two stints as chief minister and died in office a decade later.

By all accounts, Kasturi steered the newspaper on a staid course through turbulent times. In Delhi, the Janata governments that took power after the Emergency, hostile to the Congress and those who had supported it, posed only a brief challenge. Their patch-work coalitions quickly unravelled, allowing Indira to recapture the prime minister’s office. The Hindu’s history with the Congress stood it in good stead.

After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, in 1984, national power passed to her son Rajiv. This heralded a change of guard in the Congress, with a set of young princelings in Rajiv’s inner circle given free reign. At The Hindu, too, a generational clash was gathering force.

In 1986, Rajiv’s government entered into a deal with a Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors AB, for the purchase of field guns for the Indian army. The following year, Swedish radio broke the story that Bofors had paid massive bribes as part of the deal. Rajiv denied everything. Uncharacteristically, going against its sleepy reputation at the time, The Hindu added fuel to the scandal, publishing a series of incriminating documents.

“We began our investigation in 1987 and by April 1988 our stringer in Geneva Chitra Subramaniam struck gold with a lead,” N Ram said in an interview years later. Ram, then the associate editor at The Hindu, led the effort. It took another year and a half before the paper published the first part of its investigation. An anticipated sequel almost failed to appear.

At a press conference in Delhi, an aggrieved Ram announced that just as the second part of the investigation was to be published, “Mr Kasturi insisted to me that no more material should be published in the columns of The Hindu.” Ram had protested, and Kasturi relented at the last minute. But, Ram emphasised, “Mr Kasturi, editor of The Hindu, has been a severe obstacle in the path of conducting this important journalistic investigation, and especially the business of publishing documents and articles in detail, on Bofors.”

Decades later, Chitra Subramaniam published a retrospective interview with the main source of the Bofors material, the Swedish police official Sten Lindstrom. “The Hindu’s role in all this was that of a medium of communication,” Lindstrom said. “I met them because you insisted. I was disappointed. They published the documents as and when they wanted without any respect for the risks other people were taking to get the facts out.”

Kasturi issued instructions stripping Ram of his editorial powers but later walked them back. Still, the battle was not over. In a court dispute over company affairs—G Kasturi and Another vs N Murali and Others—Ram and his brother N Murali, as well as their mother, accused Kasturi of overreach to the point of “assuming illegal, arbitrary and non-existent powers,” and of attempting to “systematically eliminate the petitioners from any participation in the management of the company.”

With the opposition making the most of the Bofors scandal, Rajiv’s government was voted out in 1989. The new prime minister, VP Singh of the Janata Dal, moved to implement the recommendations of the Mandal commission, set up by the Janata Party government of a decade ago. This proposed to guarantee for the Other Backward Classes—caste groups identified to be lagging in their social development—just over a quarter of jobs and educational opportunities in central-government institutions.

The commission had submitted its report at the end of 1980. The Hindu responded with an editorial expressing disapproval with its approach and suggestions. The newspaper agreed that “the traditional gap between the privileged and the underprivileged should be narrowed,” but felt the report “has not cared, as it should have done, to give due consideration to the economic criterion in determining who should constitute a backward class.”

The editorial added that “the poor among the higher castes or classes who are often more deprived than some among the backward ones certainly need to be helped out, and it must be strange logic that they cannot get it just because of the accident of birth in a particular class.” It warned, “When people with requisite merit are denied jobs, which is what the Mandal Commission’s proposals lead to, class conflicts and tensions are bound to escalate further.”

Singh’s announcement of the move cued a wave of vandalism and violence by anti-reservation protesters. The protests were backed somewhat discreetly by the Hindu Right and less discreetly by the Congress. When Singh faced a vote of no confidence, Rajiv, as the leader of the opposition, warned parliament of a “caste war” and appealed to the members of the house “not to remain idle, not to remain quiet and save this nation from the obstinacy of one person.” Singh lost the vote and resigned.

The Hindu had disparaged the Singh government for its “patently populist” decision to implement the report. It again argued for reservations based on economic rather than caste criteria and recommended that the government create more room for these “by scaling down what has been hastily carved out for the OBCs.” The newspaper also echoed its earlier editorial on another point: “Any regime of reservation presupposes and carries with it a certain dilution of merit.”

Over time, The Hindu would come to modulate this position. Gail Omvedt’s editorials championing caste-based reservations, for instance, offered a counterpoint roughly a decade later. V Krishna Ananth, a former reporter and editor with The Hindu, has written, “I did get a lot of space to argue that Mandal was not merely about a few thousand Government jobs but a tool for socioeconomic transformation, in the columns I ended up writing.” Ananth, who joined the paper in 1991, adds, “There was a lot of space open us to report and submit analytical write-ups arguing and attacking the undemocratic nature of upper caste domination in the political discourse.”

Singh’s successor, Chandra Shekhar, was in office when Kasturi finally stepped down as editor. By mid 1991, after Rajiv was assassinated by a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a depleted Congress was back in power at the head of a minority government, with PV Narasimha Rao as prime minister. At The Hindu, N Ravi was now the editor and Malini Parthasarathy was rising up the editorial ranks, with significant influence over the paper’s affairs. Ram was pushed out, but given charge of Frontline.

WHILE RAJIV GANDHI was in power and toying with the Babri dispute, The Hindu did not take a critical line against his government for it. Hindutva groups had had designs on the mosque site for decades, but it was Rajiv who allowed them to perform a consecration there, in 1989, in defiance of a court order. This was a calculated move to appease Hindu sentiment, a balm for the anger over his concessions to conservative Muslim demands as he tried to mobilise disparate communal interests behind him.

VP Singh had refused to cede any ground on the issue during his tenure as prime minister. He stood in the way of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s inflammatory Rath Yatra in support of a Ram temple, even if it cost him the BJP’s support in parliament and contributed to his government’s collapse. Narasimha Rao, an old Congress hand, was far less adamant, and it was on his watch that the mosque was brought down, in 1992.

The editorial denouncing the demolition, declaring that it marked “a dark day for India,” seemed to announce a sharper voice for The Hindu under its new editorial leadership. It said that the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya lies, had forfeited its right to rule, and also criticised Rao for not doing enough to stop the mob. The editorial announced that the BJP and its “militant allies”—it named the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal—“stand exposed as having brought on this horrific denouement even as the essentially destructive and fascist nature of its strategy and tactics cannot be in doubt any more.” In The Hindu’s eyes, “The BJP’s claim to be a defender of the national interest lies in shreds today.”

The end of Rao’s term brought with it a time of churn, with several coalition governments falling in succession. Through this, the dominant political theme was the rise of the BJP, culminating in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s six-year rule from 1998 to 2004. The period also saw Narendra Modi’s first appearance on the national stage as the BJP chose to make him the chief minister of Gujarat, in October 2001. Within months, Modi had secured his infamy.

In February 2002, dozens of Hindu volunteers returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya died in a train fire. The cause of the fire was never definitively established, but rumours blamed in on a Muslim mob. Anti-Muslim pogroms swept the state, and Modi was accused of deliberately doing nothing during the bloodiest days of the violence. After months of resisting demands that he step down, he gambled by calling an early election, convinced that the carnage had endeared him to Hindu voters. His campaign unapologetically exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment.

A few weeks after the pogroms began, The Hindu ran an editorial titled “Ban the VHP and Bajrang Dal.” It said that the VHP “went on an unchecked minority-specific killing spree in Gujarat under the pretext of ‘retaliation’ for the Godhra carnage.” As the state prepared to vote, Parthasarathy herself urged Gujaratis to “reject the poisoned chalice.” She wrote, “Never before in the history of independent India has a State Government been so unapologetic about its deep-rooted communal bias, adopting as it has an explicit Hindu majoritarian platform and never before has an administration been as unabashed about its tendentious and bruising approach to Muslim minority citizens, driving them to the very edge by questioning their nationalist credentials.” It made no difference; Modi won.

Krishna Ananth told us the newspaper’s editorial stand at this time was “a very calibrated, rational adversarial position.” Parthasarathy, looking back, saw it in a softer light. “If you look at the content, it was very neutral,” she said in her office. “For twelve years, The Hindu did well.” This applied to the newspaper’s finances as well, especially as the economy was buoyed by Rao’s efforts at liberalisation. “Revenues went up.”

Ravi, years later, would write that this period saw an “unprecedented expansion in the reach and coverage of The Hindu.” While he was editor, “the primacy of the editorial side was firmly established, fair coverage and diversity of opinions were ensured and the newspaper stood up to the pressures from governments as well.” There was even “less boardroom politicking” as “a fair degree of harmony was established among family members in 2000 which, however, lasted only until 2003”—the year that Ram took over.

But others disagreed. N Murali, for one, would later say in an interview to Forbes that there was “too much autonomy” before 2003. India Today reported that The Hindu had “transformed itself from being anti-communal to anti-Hindutva, much to the chagrin of some of the members of the family and its traditional readers.”

There was trouble with the state government as well. After MGR’s death, Tamil Nadu settled into a habit of alternating between the DMK and the AIADMK at every election. It was the AIADMK’s turn in 2001, with MGR’s successor, J Jayalalithaa, at the head of the party. With a burgeoning reputation as an autocrat and a bully of the press, Jayalalithaa began to find some of The Hindu’s coverage objectionable, and the paper was hit by a series of defamation cases after the AIADMK took power. Parthasarathy, by then the executive editor, was a particular target of her ire.

And then there were financial issues. After a dip in circulation at the start of the new millennium, the paper was still working to shore up revenues.

By mid 2003, G Kasturi resumed an active role in editorial affairs. With that, Ananth told us, “things began to change.” Among The Hindu’s editorials after the carnage in Gujarat was one titled “Mr Modi Must Go,” which accused Modi of “grave dereliction of Constitutional duties” and argued that Gujarat’s “administration as also the political establishment in office have turned into instruments of terror and persecution.” This, Ananth said, was one of the pieces that Kasturi found “not in The Hindu’s mould—in other words, it was too sharp and forthright.”

That June, at a contentious meeting that reportedly saw several family members walk out, the board installed Ram in the newly created position of editor-in-chief, superseding Ravi as the editor. The board stated that this was to “promote quality and objectivity” in the newspaper’s journalism. Some reports would describe the move as a boardroom “coup.”

A few months later, The Hindu held celebrations to mark 125 years since its founding. The prime minister, Vajpayee, came down to Chennai, and Ram received him as the chief guest. A Frontline report described Vajpayee’s address to the gathering. “While he was sure that the Indian media would take care of its responsibilities and professional ethics,” it read, “he insisted that ‘the media should draw its own lakshman rekha’”—a line that must not be crossed. “Then, turning towards N Ram, he asked, ‘Or should I say Ram rekha?’ The audience enjoyed it.”

Later, Kasturi asked to meet Ananth. He “conveyed to me, in as many words, that my views were not in tune with his own,” Ananth writes in his book Between Freedom and Unfreedom. For Kasturi, Ananth told us, it was not a question of being pro-Congress or pro-BJP—“he was going to be friendly with whoever was ruling.”

Ananth, a senior editor by this point, decided to quit. “There was one thing that I was very clear on when I came into journalism,” he told us. “I may or may not succeed, at any point, in stopping fascism in this country, but I will not be part of any kind of process that will facilitate its rise. I wasn’t going to compromise on these core principles.”

RAVI OFFICIALLY RETAINED the post of editor and Parthasarathy that of executive editor, but both retreated from the newspaper. Parthasarathy admitted to India Today that the turn of events had taken her aback. “The allegation that we have turned from anti-communal to anti-Hindutva is as baseless as the charge that I was taking on Chief Minister Jayalalithaa with a personal motive,” she said.

Before Ram’s resurrection, The Hindu had published some reports and a follow-up editorial critical of Jayalalithaa’s government, titled “Rising Intolerance.” In November 2003, the state assembly resolved that the editorial had breached legislative privilege, and police raided The Hindu’s offices. Orders were put out to arrest numerous editorial staff, including Ravi and Parthasarathy. They laid low until the Supreme Court issued a stay.

By Parthasarathy’s account, she and Jayalalithaa had earlier been close. “When I was a young reporter, she was just emerging from MGR’s shadow,” she told us. “Then I took the trouble and became friends. That’s why she became very upset when we became critical. She used to call me and say, ‘How dare you write this editorial?’ I said friendship is different, journalism is different.” The raids briefly turned The Hindu into a cause célèbre for press freedom, and the two women’s friendship collapsed.

Jayalalithaa was not the only political VIP that Parthasarathy had befriended. “I went to Delhi very early on as a reporter,” she said. “I did a lot of stories on the Congress and the Janata Party then. That’s how I know all of them.”

Parthasarathy, one of three sisters, lost her father at a young age—a particular blow in a society and a family where patriarchy is the historical norm. She got a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School in New York City and joined The Hindu as a reporter by the mid 1980s. She spent the latter years of the decade in the national capital, where her work brought her into contact with the political elite. As late as in 2017, she described the Congress leader Sonia Gandhi on Twitter as a friend.

Parthasarathy’s exit from the paper did not soften her take on Modi. In a 2005 article for Seminar, she wrote of “the Modi regime’s genocidal binge.” Her criticism continued even as Modi made his pitch for prime minister in the approach to the 2014 national election. When he offered to help restore the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand after devastating floods in 2013, Parthasarathy asked on Twitter, “Why does Modi, who wants to lead all India, want to rebuild the Kedarnath temple and not the Babri Masjid?” On the day the BJP announced Modi as its prime-ministerial candidate, Parthasarathy tweeted, “Like it or not, there’s no denying Modi after 2002 is seen as a deeply divisive figure and India cannot digest such a leader.”

Parthasarathy returned to The Hindu after Modi secured national power, and served an 11-month stint as editor beginning in early 2015. After Modi imposed demonetisation in November 2016, annulling a vast share of the country’s cash and decimating the informal sector, she lauded it on Twitter as a salutary step that “will help unearth stashes of ill-gotten wealth.”

In 2018, in the approach to the next year’s national election, she wrote an opinion piece in The Hindu titled “India’s shrinking democratic space.” She wrote that it was time “for those of us invested in keeping India’s democratic imagination vibrant and expansive” to resist the BJP’s “exclusivist political vision.” It was soon after Modi won that election that she met the prime minister and thanked him on Twitter for sharing “insights about his vision for the country.”

Parthasarathy’s 2018 piece had expressed concern over the increased questioning of Kashmir’s special status under the Constitution. In August 2019, the Modi government announced that this status would be revoked and the Kashmir Valley was put under a blanket lockdown and communications blackout to pre-empt resistance. Amid outrage at home and internationally, Modi met with Donald Trump, the US president. Parthasarathy tweeted that Modi “is winning the perception war on Kashmir internationally” and that it was now “time to build internal consensus in India on the paradigm shift on Kashmir!”

At the start of the pandemic, Modi called for a show of solidarity with frontline workers towards the end of a day-long curfew that served as a rehearsal for the national lockdown. At 5 pm on 22 March 2020, as per instructions, Parthasarathy appeared at the gates of her villa with five of her household staff, clapping enthusiastically while a couple of them beat thalis. She posted a video to Twitter, where it was widely ridiculed. Many accused her of toeing the government’s line.

“Everyone applauded health and sanitation workers,” Parthasarathy told us. “Everybody was supposed to come out. I thought it was not a big deal. How is it pro-Modi?”

A journalist who has worked extensively with Parthasarathy described her as “very impressionistic” and “always caught up with leaders” through her career.

 “I am a centrist, really,” Parthasarathy said. “I have been very leftist myself in the beginning,” she added, looking back on when she was young. “Do I look like a right-winger?”


“I WAS RADICALISED by the tremendous upsurge of protests against the Vietnam War, the US imperialism and the national liberation war in South Vietnam and other parts,” N Ram said in a 2019 interview with Student Struggle, the journal of the Students’ Federation of India—an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “And there was the Black Liberation Movement in the US.”

Ram was speaking of his time in the United States in the 1960s, when he was a graduate student at Columbia University. He briefly joined The Hindu on his return but left “due to some differences.” Towards the end of the decade, he began working with the CPI(M) and then also the SFI.

Ram started a journal, Radical Review, with a set of other young firebrands—Mythili Sivaraman, P Chidambaram and Prakash Karat. Sivaraman went on to a career as a CPI(M) leader and activist for women’s rights. Chidambaram, an old friend from Ram’s schooldays, quickly left the journal over ideological differences. He went on to join the Congress and serve as a minister in multiple governments, starting under Rajiv Gandhi. Karat led the CPI(M) as its general secretary between 2005 and 2015.

Ram re-joined the family newspaper in 1975, to cover a cricket series. In the early 1980s, he was posted as a correspondent to Washington DC. Back in India in the Rajiv years, he soon got his teeth into the Bofors story.

That was not the only major story he covered at the time. Under Indira Gandhi, the Indian government had begun providing covert support to Tamil insurgents seeking an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka. This followed anti-Tamil pogroms on the island that triggered outrage in India and especially in Tamil Nadu, where Sri Lankan Tamil groups had forged political connections. As the conflict escalated and became a full-blown civil war, Ram secured privileged access to the head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran. In 1986, he interviewed Prabhakaran for The Hindu, allowing the LTTE leader to put across his view of the situation in Sri Lanka.

As the Sri Lankan government intensified its campaign against the insurgency, with rising Tamil civilian casualties, pressure mounted on the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to pre-empt a worse crisis. In 1987, Rajiv and the Sri Lankan president, JR Jayewardene, signed a peace accord designed to end the war. This promised greater autonomy to rebel provinces in return for the insurgents agreeing to surrender arms, with an Indian peace-keeping force sent in to watch over the deal. The diplomat JN Dixit, who was privy to the proceedings, writes in his book Assignment Colombo that Ram was an intermediary in bringing Prabhakaran to the negotiating table, even as the rest of the media was kept in the dark.

(Parthasarathy also played a brief role in India’s dealings with the LTTE. The Indian Express later reported how a commission of enquiry into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination uncovered that, months before his death, Rajiv “met LTTE activist Kasi Anandan at his residence in Delhi. The meeting on March 5, 1991 was arranged through the good offices of Malini Parthasarathy of The Hindu.”)

The Tigers soon reneged on the deal and the peace-keeping force began battling against them, until VP Singh pulled out after he took power in 1989. Indian forces were accused of widespread human-rights violations, as were Sri Lankan forces as they campaigned to stamp out the insurgency over the next two decades. The Hindu and Ram came to be accused of supporting the Sri Lankan government in their coverage and turning on the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

In 2005, Ram received the Sri Lanka Rathna, the country’s highest official honour for foreigners. He forged close ties to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who became the president of Sri Lanka that year. In 2019, while Ram was chairman of The Hindu Group, Rajapaksa was invited to the Hindu Huddle, an event organised by the publishing group in Bengaluru, where the two had a genial public chat.

Rajapaksa oversaw the military operations that finally ended the civil war in 2009. After Prabhakaran was killed in the final offensive, Ram published a piece in The Guardian comparing the LTTE leader with Pol Pot, the infamous revolutionary who instituted the Cambodian genocide. As reports poured out of massive civilian casualties and giant internment camps where survivors were being held in terrible conditions, Ram went on a tour of the conflict zone courtesy the Rajapaksa government. After a visit to a camp for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, he wrote that conditions were much better than reported by the Western media, which was working with second-hand information—never mind that the Sri Lankan government was strictly controlling access to the area. Ram’s report was titled, “Visiting the Vavuniya IDP camps: an uplifting experience.”

Thirumurugan Gandhi, the founder of a movement in support of victims of the conflict, told us that the newspaper had consistently vilified the LTTE and whitewashed the actions of the Sri Lankan government. “Nobody knows what The Hindu was doing,” he said. “I was running like mad in Delhi at the time of war, went to every media house saying that a genocide is happening, do something.” The Hindu’s coverage was widely taken as authoritative, Gandhi explained, and was a big hurdle. “Nobody responded. They always referred to The Hindu.”

As the editor of Frontline, after he was shunted there from The Hindu, Ram had room to express his politics. The academic Venkatesh Athreya, who got to know Ram soon after his return from the Unites States, became a regular contributor, and the two shared some bylines—as on a 1991 interview of Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) chief minister of West Bengal. The magazine carried perspectives of various hues but “the editorial position of Frontline has been left, quite clearly,” Athreya told us. “N Ram had a great deal to do with that.”

Frontline remained under Ram’s control when he was appointed editor-in-chief in 2003. Less than a year after he hosted Vajpayee at The Hindu’s landmark jubilee, the BJP-led government in Delhi was voted out. The Congress took charge again at the head of a coalition government, with Manmohan Singh as the new prime minister.

Singh, as the finance minister under Narasimha Rao, had played a major part in the liberal economic reforms of the early 1990s. Frontline had been critical of the push towards privatisation and deregulation, but Ram largely steered The Hindu away from such strident analysis and encouraged the sort of critical coverage of communal politics that had seemingly contributed to the exit of his predecessor, Ravi. V Krishna Ananth told us that this had to be seen in context: “After 2004, there was no problem for The Hindu to be ‘secular,’ even if G Kasturi continued to wield a lot of influence, because the establishment was ‘secular’ as well.”

But the newspaper’s positions did not always match the government’s needs. In 2007, the Indian and US governments concluded the terms an agreement, under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, that recognised India as a nuclear power and ended decades of restrictions on its ability to trade in nuclear materials and technology. But Manmohan Singh faced domestic opposition to the deal, including from the Left Front parties supporting his coalition government, which felt that it was not in the national interest. The future of what became known as the US–India Civil Nuclear Agreement was only secured after Singh narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, with the Left parties voting against him.

The journalist Sanjaya Baru later chronicled the drama in The Accidental Prime Minister, his account of his time working as Singh’s media advisor. Baru recorded how Ram was supportive of the agreement at first and published an editorial in The Hindu titled “A Sound and Honourable 123.” He was invited to meet the prime minister the next day. “For more than an hour over breakfast,” Baru noted, “Ram waxed eloquent on the deal, calling it a great achievement for India and a great political coup for the PM.” The CPI(M) was the prime power in the Left Front. “Ram was a close friend of Prakash Karat, and himself a long-standing member of the CPI(M). Dr Singh took Ram’s endorsement as a signal from the Left that it would not attack the deal.”

Ram met Karat after the breakfast and came back to Baru with bad news. “You have to tell the PM that he should put the deal on hold,” Baru quoted him as saying. “Karat will be making a statement asking the government not to operationalise the deal.”

After that, Baru wrote, “The hypocrisy of the Left was exposed by the somersault Ram had to perform on the editorial pages of The Hindu. After proclaiming the 123 Agreement ‘sound and honourable’, he followed up with an editorial a few days later, toeing Karat’s line and advising the government to put the deal on hold.”

Ram took some other peculiar positions around this time as well. The Tibetan writer Tenzing Sonam pointed to one example. Sonam noted in 2007, “It is widely held that since Ram took over as editor-in-chief of The Hindu in June 2003, his aggressively pro-China sympathies have compromised the objectivity” of the newspaper. “After a week’s guided tour of Tibet as an official guest of China earlier this summer, Ram confidently proclaimed: ‘A quarter century from now, possibly earlier, Tibet will reach the status of a developed society.’ He then went on to try and prove this contention in two long opinion pieces in The Hindu, and a detailed article in the paper’s sister publication, Frontline.”

Besides his own observations on the tour, “Ram’s only sources for such rosy prognostication were a litany of official Chinese statistics, the accuracy of which are debatable at best,” Sonam added. “The only Tibetan Ram seemed to have interviewed just happens to be the vice-chairman of the government in Tibet.”

Ram had observed in one piece, “A surprise is how easily you can connect to the outside world … While browsing the Internet for news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live.” Sonam pointed out, “Obviously he must not have tried to search for ‘Tiananmen’ or ‘Dalai Lama’, or any of the countless other words and phrases that have been deemed subversive by the Chinese authorities.” Ram had also written that China’s constitution “guarantees religious freedom to all citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in extensive parts of a giant country.” Sonam punctured this too: “Surely a journalist of Ram’s stature is aware of the ongoing repression of religious freedom, not only in Tibet but throughout China.”

Sonam wrote,

By consigning Tibet’s fate so unambiguously to the implied benevolence of its Chinese overlords, Ram forgets that India, too, has a stake in this matter. … the truth is that, until the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, India and China had never shared a common border. What is Ram’s response to Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi’s blithe assertion last November that “the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory”? Surely the editor of The Hindu knows that, had Tibet not been forcibly deprived of its sovereignty, such imperious statements from his Chinese friends would not have been forthcoming?

This seemed particularly out of character given the newspaper’s approach to other matters deemed to involve national security. Since at least the turn of the millennium, The Hindu and Frontline had faced objections over their coverage of security issues, especially their readiness to propagate the often unverified accounts put out by official sources. After Ram took over at the newspaper, such criticism only intensified.

In March 2000, dozens of Sikh residents of Chittisinghpora, in Kashmir, were shot dead by attackers in military fatigues. Within days, the army and the Kashmir police killed five people they identified as foreign militants behind the attack, acting on information obtained from a man named Mohammad Yakub Magray. In Frontline, under Ram, the reporter Praveen Swami described Magray as “a Hizbul Mujahideen operative active on the organisation’s wireless network with the code name Zamrood” and praised “the best interrogators from the ruthlessly efficient Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group.” Swami also reported minute details of Magray’s role in the attack.

It was later revealed that the five supposed attackers had been innocent villagers abducted and killed by the army and the Special Operations Group. The Central Bureau of Investigation, after conducting a probe, stated in a charge sheet that army personnel “hatched a criminal conspiracy to pick up some innocent persons and stage-manage an encounter to create an impression that the militants responsible for the Chittisinghpora killings had been neutralised.”

After the fidayeen attack on parliament in 2001, the Special Cell of Delhi Police named SAR Geelani, a professor at Delhi University, as one of the accused. Geelani was widely vilified before being tried and sentenced to death, only to be acquitted by the Supreme Court after spending almost two years in jail. In 2002, Amnesty International issued an open letter to the law minister highlighting ways in which the accused’s right to present a full and fair defence had been compromised. It noted that media coverage “during the pre-trial period has been extremely prejudicial to his case.” Among the examples was a report in The Hindu titled “Professor who guided Fidayeen,” which quoted unnamed officers of the Special Cell saying that Geelani had been indoctrinating students.

In 2008, in what came to be known as the Batla House encounter, the police killed two students of Jamia Millia Islamia, a historic university in Delhi. The Special Cell claimed that the two were terrorists. The Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, formed after the incident, challenged the Special Cell’s version, pointing out multiple inconsistencies and lapses. The JTSA also documented how media coverage had unquestioningly followed the official narrative. The work of Praveen Swami in The Hindu figured prominently in its efforts. “Each time the security establishment wishes to push a certain angle to this bomb blast or that, Swami’s articles appear magically, faithfully reflecting the Intelligence reports,” a JTSA report said. Swami’s articles, it added, were an “infallible indicator of what the top Indian Intelligence agencies are thinking or cooking up.”

In a response to criticism of his Batla House coverage, published in The Hindu, Swami quoted from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Several journalists who worked at The Hindu told us Swami was favoured by Ram—one person described him as Ram’s “blue-eyed boy.” Swami acknowledged his debt to Ram in a 2007 book on Kashmir: “He entrusted a young and untested reporter with covering India’s most sensitive conflict, and stood by me during difficulties with both the establishment and non-state actors.”

One veteran of The Hindu said the newspaper had a position on coverage of national security and the intelligence agencies. “They would prefer to go along with whatever was the official narrative than actually question these,” this person explained. Ram did not respond to requests for an interview or emailed questions.

In 2014, the JTSA published a study of 24 cases from between 1991 and 2008 where the Special Cell had arrested people with alleged links to terror organisations, accusing them of crimes with severe penalties that included the death penalty. Except for one case where these were partially upheld, the courts eventually overturned the convictions in all the cases, but only after the accused had spent years in prison. The study, which cited numerous examples from The Hindu, argued, “Almost without exception, the media has acted as ‘faithful stenographers’ of the police; not only presuming the guilty to be innocent but also failing to follow cases where innocence is established.”

Swami’s reports on controversial extrajudicial killings in Gujarat under Modi’s rule, such as the case of Ishrat Jahan, were equally problematic—as were his reports about bomb attacks in 2006 and 2008 initially attributed to Islamists but later linked to a Hindu nationalist group.

In November 2010, the magazine Open began publishing the Radia tapes—leaked recordings of the lobbyist Niira Radia in conversation with a range of politicians and journalists to push the interests of her clients, which included high-profile politicians and corporations. This was a huge embarrassment for Indian journalism, and many mainstream news channels and newspapers blacked out the story. Sevanti Ninan, a veteran media commentator for The Hindu at the time, told us that she “wrote a column on it which they dumped.” She published it on her own watchdog website instead. “Every editor who counts in the English media, pink or white or electronic, pops up in the transcripts,” the article said.

Ninan also described a second column that The Hindu refused to carry. In late 2011, there were reports of the billionaire Mukesh Ambani purchasing a stake in the media group Network18, “and I wrote a column about the buzz around the issue,” she recalled. “Mr Ram said, ‘I am not using this.’” Ninan stopped writing for The Hindu in protest.

She told us that this had “nothing to do with the rest of The Hindu’s coverage and I would not hold that against them. Media is a very sensitive topic and there are very few people writing on the media. So you can’t judge a paper by how it treats a media column.”

There were more eyebrows raised over The Hindu’s handling of what it called “The India Cables”—classified US diplomatic communications made available to it by WikiLeaks. This was around the early summer of 2011, as several states went to assembly elections. Indian Journalism Review, a media-criticism blog, observed that The Hindu ran a story in between phases of voting in West Bengal about a cable that that reflected poorly on the Trinamool Congress—a bitter rival of the CPI(M) in the state. “The insinuation that Washington wanted to cultivate Mamata Banerjee’s party quickly became ammunition for the Left,” Indian Journalism Review noted. Prakash Karat held a press conference on the issue, which The Hindu covered.

The newspaper also carried a story on a cable that detailed how Dayanidhi Maran, Karunanidhi’s grandnephew and a DMK leader, told a US diplomat in 2008 about corruption in the party and admitted to fears of electoral losses stemming from its failures in power. This story appeared more than a month later than the one on the Trinamool Congress, and also more than a month after polls had closed in Tamil Nadu. The incumbent DMK had been voted out and Jayalalithaa has just been sworn in as chief minister. The day after the story appeared, Ram called on her to offer congratulations. “The best-case scenario is that The Hindu staff chanced upon the Dayanidhi Maran cable only after results day,” Indian Journalism Review noted. “The worst-case scenario is not too difficult to imagine.”

The Hindu had mellowed in its approach to Dravidian politics over the decades, and nowhere was this as clear as in the equation between Ram and the DMK. “When Karunanidhi was in power, he was a very clever statesman and he was able to win over his arch enemies,” Rajadurai, the writer, told us. “N Ram cannot be said to be an arch enemy of the DMK but he was not sympathetic to the DMK. But, over time, he became very close to Karunanidhi. They had a mutual respect.”

This connection endured. In 2017, Ram tweeted a picture of himself visiting the DMK supremo. Also in the picture was MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu. After Karunanidhi’s death the following year, The Hindu ran a piece describing him as a champion of social justice and caste amity.

BEFORE HE WAS SENT to cover Mangaluru, in 2007, Sudipto Mondal was working at The Hindu’s bureau in Bengaluru. Then as now, Mangaluru was notorious as a hotbed of Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene, and frequently witnessed violence against Muslims. The newspaper’s bureau in the city would not cover these incidents, Mondal told us, and he was expected to change this. Ram and Parvathi Menon, the chief of bureau for Karnataka, conveyed to him “that this is an important assignment and it is a communally sensitive area.” Mondal recalled that he was told “to do hard reporting on the conflict there and set good standards.”

When he arrived in Mangaluru, Mondal said, senior staff at the bureau were oblivious to his brief. In a conversation with one of them, they discussed the RSS. The senior staff member described the RSS as a social-service organisation, of the kind that organises blood-donation drives and the like, and offered to share the contacts of Sangh activists.

“For the first time, somebody actually started writing about these Sanghi groups,” Mondal said. There were rampant cases of harassment and violence against young Hindus and Muslims who were found in each other’s company. “It would be treated by the local reporters as some crime news,” Mondal recalled. At best, these cases would get “one para in the evening dailies in Kannada. The Hindu would not even report it. None of the English dailies would report it.”

Mondal made it a point to quickly get to the spot every time these vigilante attacks took place and his reports on them became a regular feature in The Hindu. Staff at the Mangaluru bureau soon began to object, Mondal said, and he was asked why he was only writing negative stories about their region.

“In the office, I was put through hell in those days,” Mondal said. The Mangaluru bureau would not push for his stories to be placed on the newspaper’s state pages. Mondal said there were efforts to divert him from reporting on communal violence—by assigning him stories on ports and transportation, for example, or leaving him to do non-reportorial work such as compiling train, flight and cinema timings for the newspaper.

On 24 January 2009, the Sri Ram Sene attacked a pub in the city. Two young women were injured badly enough to need hospitalisation. Mondal was on his day off. Worried about how the story would be covered by the Mangaluru bureau, he discreetly reached out to colleagues in the Karnataka bureau. Soon, he got a call from the Bengaluru office promising to intervene to make sure he could file a story.

Afterwards, Mondal said, he was challenged by his superiors at the Mangaluru bureau to show his call records and prove that the Bengaluru office had called him and not the other way round. This was an especially sensitive point within the newspaper, where the editorial hierarchy was historically strict and almost sacrosanct. Mondal described “bureaucratic silos” that mean a reporter could not bypass their immediate boss to have pitches heard by those higher up the chain. “There will be so many intermediaries in between that N Ram won’t even know that there is an important story,” he said. “Some cool comrade of his in Mangaluru would have a hotline to Ram because he is CPM. But as an employee of his organisation, I would have no way of telling him there is an important story that needs to go into the national pages.”

On another occasion, Mondal wanted to pursue a story on an Air India Express flight that overshot the runway on landing in Mangaluru, killing 158 people. “I had discovered some very interesting technical details about why the crash had happened,” he told us. Ram had asked for another story on the catastrophe, and in a response email Mondal also pitched his idea. Three senior colleagues pulled him up for this. Mondal recalled that they told him, “How can you reply directly on that mail? You are writing directly to N Ram. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Mondal told us, “You cannot step out of the chain of command or aukat”—status. “There are some kinds of stories only some kind of reporters can do.”

FROM “TOO MUCH AUTONOMY” on the editorial side before Ram replaced Ravi, N Murali felt that the newspaper had now moved too far in the opposite direction. He told Forbes that “when Ram took over we swung from one extreme to another extreme of over centralisation and arbitrariness, so much so that diverse views and pluralism were shut down.”

By the time Murali made these remarks, in August 2011, he was no longer part of the organisation. He had retired from the board the previous month, while protesting that Ram had reneged on earlier promises, compromised the newspaper as its editor-in-chief and sidelined board members who had opposed him. Several others from the family had quit various posts to echo Murali’s protest, including N Ravi, Parthasarathy, and her sisters Nirmala Lakshman and Nalini Krishnan.

The spat burst into public view in 2010, when the Indian Express reported a battle within the board, with one faction backing Ram and the other seeking his exit and retirement. The report said that the board had previously agreed to set a retirement age of 65 for all members, on Murali’s suggestion. Ram was to be the first to reach the age and would be replaced as editor-in-chief by Ravi. But, with his cut-off date approaching, Ram reportedly went back on a promise to step aside. He denied that he had ever agreed to the proposal.

The report also spoke of discord over the appointment of several younger family members to coveted foreign postings. Narayana Lakshman, son of Nirmala Lakshman, was made the newspaper’s correspondent in Washington DC, while Ananth Krishnan, son of Nalini Krishnan, was sent to China. Ram’s daughter, Vidya Ram, became the European correspondent. A few years earlier, The Hindu had run a celebratory story on how Vidya topped her class at Columbia Journalism School.

The Indian Express said that this “was strongly objected to by Murali, Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy, among other members.” They alleged that the appointments had come without the board’s consent and objected that the company’s resources, “financial as well as editorial, were used to further the interests of some board members.” (Posting family members as foreign correspondents was an old habit: Ravi and Ram had both had a turn as The Hindu’s Washington DC correspondent earlier in their careers.)

Ram and his backers succeeded in removing Murali from his position as managing director and replacing him with K Balaji, son of G Kasturi. Murali was later reinstated after the matter went to court. When Ram threatened to sue the Indian Express for defamation, Parthasarathy tweeted, “As journalists, why should we be afraid of public scrutiny?”

The drama coincided with a growing scandal involving the DMK leader A Raja and the central government’s allocation of 2G spectrum. Raja, the minister of communication and information technology between 2007 and 2010, was under investigation for alleged procedural irregularities and favouritism that shaved massive sums from public revenues. While other media outlets tripped over each other to bring out new exposés, The Hindu secured two exclusive interviews with Raja himself. Raja was spared the toughest questions on both occasions and was instead given the opportunity to exonerate himself.

This would become perhaps the biggest scandal of Ram’s time in charge of the newspaper. As a parting shot on his way out in 2011, Murali sent out a letter to employees about “the horrible happenings in our institution for the past eighteen months.” When it was leaked, the letter caused a sensation. “On the 2G scam, under the Editor-in-Chief N. Ram, The Hindu shamefully acted as an apologist and mouthpiece of the prime accused A Raja,” Murali wrote. “It had only muted coverage of the 2G scam.” While the newspaper had called for the resignations of Ashok Chavan, Suresh Kalmadi and BS Yediyurappa, all implicated in high-profile corruption cases, “there was not even a whisper about A Raja’s resignation. On the other hand, two obliging interviews of A Raja were specially arranged to be done, not by the correspondent covering telecom, but shockingly by RK Radhakrishnan who used to cover matters relating to DMK.”

Earlier that year, N Ravi had also sent a letter to The Hindu’s employees. It stated, “Very recently, those of us who were not privy to the deal making learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy … involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially and hurriedly cleared by the Minister personally for publication on the same day in The Hindu.”

Ram denied the accusation. “As for the ad or ads in question, I can assure you the editorial people had nothing to do with it or them,” he told the Economic Times. “Our editorial people do not solicit advertisements, either from government or corporate bodies or private parties.” To the charge that The Hindu had gone soft on Raja, he said that The Hindu had demanded his resignation “when enough evidence was in hand.” Murali, in his letter, wrote that the newspaper had shown “a change in stance reflecting a shameless and seamless U-turn” in the wake of Raja’s eventual arrest and resignation.

“The Editorial side is run like a ‘banana republic’ with cronyism and vested interests ruling the roost and finding space in the editorial columns,” Murali added. He pointed to “the blatantly pro-CPI(M) and pro-China tilt in coverage,” and complained that the “periodic and extensive friendly interviews of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha done by N Ram and carried in full op-ed pages served only as a smokescreen to hide the alleged war crimes.” But, Murali pointed out, “Ram’s abuse of his position in The Hindu and influence peddling has been unrestrained by any ideology.”

Besides the handling of the 2G scandal, Murali also pointed to another incident. Sanjiv Bhatt, a former police officer who served in Gujarat during the 2002 pogroms, had recently filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court alleging that a special investigation team formed to probe the violence had disregarded evidence of the complicity of the state government under Narendra Modi. Bhatt also submitted a series of emails indicating that S Gurumurthy, a Hindutva ideologue with links to the BJP, had obtained confidential reports on the SIT investigation and shared them with Ram, along with his own notes on them. Gurumurthy’s email to Ram asked him to read the note and “understand the issues before you talk to the person concerned.”

This SIT was headed by RK Raghavan, a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and a regular contributor to Frontline. When questioned by the Hindustan Times, Ram identified Raghavan as “a close family friend” but said the two “never discussed anything about the Gujarat riots.” He also said he did not remember receiving any email from Gurumurthy in this regard. Murali’s letter said, “We all know who the ‘person concerned’ that Ram was supposed to talk to is.”

But the immediate cause of the wave of resignations at The Hindu was something else. At the time, top decision-making roles across the company remained the exclusive preserve of members of the Kasturi family. In 2010, the company had hired the consulting firm McKinsey, reportedly to help set professional norms for the functioning of the board as well as business and editorial operations. In the wake of this, Ram and his supporters on the board suggested the appointment of a new editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, then the chief of The Hindu’s national bureau. In mid 2011, Varadarajan became the first person from outside the family to hold the role in the newspaper’s history. The board voted him in by a narrow majority, and the discontents quit.

Murali wrote, “Any claim of professionalisation in the appointment of Siddharth Varadarajan as Editor of The Hindu is a sham as professionally qualified and experienced family members on the editorial side—N Ravi, editor, Malini Parthasarathy, executive editor and Nirmala Lakshman, joint editor—have been selectively targeted for removal.” Ravi, in a resignation letter, also maintained that “any claim of professionalisation is a sham.”

In light of family tradition and her position on the paper, Parthasarathy could fairly have expected a turn in the editor’s chair herself. In a letter of her own, she informed the board that she was “resigning from the post of executive editor since my continuance has become untenable with the Board seeking to humiliate me by putting a junior professional like Siddharth Varadarajan over me as editor.” She tweeted, “Tremendous family jealousy and misogyny.” Parthasarathy, like Ravi, remained a member of the board.

As part of the changes after McKinsey was brought in, The Hindu adopted a code of editorial values. One clause stated, “There is no wall but there is a firm line between the business operations of the Company and editorial operations and content.” Parthasarathy’s letter warned that a group of directors “want to reduce the role of the Editor to another functionary in the company, sitting along with business side executives, treating the editorial operations as another branch of the corporate banyan tree.” Murali wrote, “Primacy of editorial on which The Hindu has always prided itself has been sacrificed.”


ON 1 JANUARY 2012, The Hindu’s Delhi edition carried a full first-page advertisement by H Vasanthakumar, a Congress leader and businessman from Tamil Nadu. The ad was a tribute to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi—“We remain, Madamji, ever at your feet,” it read. The cost of a regular jacket ad in the Delhi edition at the time was reportedly Rs 9 lakh.

The newspaper was heavily criticised for carrying the ad, and Varadarajan felt the need to voice his view. “To all those who messaged me about the atrocious front page ad in The Hindu’s Delhi edition on Jan 1, my view as Editor is that this sort of crass commercialisation compromises the image and reputation of my newspaper,” Varadarajan said. “We are putting in place a policy to ensure the front page is not used for this sort of an ad again.”

A few months later, another jacket advertisement appeared to mark the occasion of Akshaya Tritiya. Again, The Hindu came in for criticism. The next day, the newspaper carried a note from Varadarajan about the content, which had been “laid out in the form of an in-house advertisement.” Varadarajan wrote,

Neither I, as Editor of The Hindu, nor anyone from the editorial side, was involved in the drafting of this message. Nor did we know of, let alone approve, its contents.

For the record, it is not The Hindu’s editorial position that Akshaya Tritiya, an occasion that has risen to prominence only relatively recently, is one of “the most auspicious days in the Hindu religion.” Nor can we possibly endorse this statement—“The belief that buying gold on this day would make you prosperous throughout the year is shared by one and all”—or others contained in that message.

This time, Varadarajan said that the newspaper had taken “internal steps to ensure that advertising messages put out in the name of The Hindu are consistent with its editorial policy and that our Code of Editorial Values, which says there is ‘a firm line between the business operations of the Company and editorial operations and content’, is strictly adhered to by all.”

Several journalists who worked at The Hindu under Varadarajan told us that his arrival meant a palpable change in the order of the newsroom. “Anybody could approach Siddharth with a story and if it was good he would publish it,” one former reporter said. “He would give direct feedback and encouraged us, which never happened before.” Varadarajan would later make it a point to say that he changed the “earlier sycophantic institutional culture.”

“Varadarajan’s tenure saw far more investigative reporting and more varied views on the editorial page than in the immediately preceding years under Ram,” Sevanti Ninan, the media critic, wrote in 2013. By Varadarajan’s own reckoning, The Hindu “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.”

Soon after Varadarajan took over, Praveen Swami was made a resident editor in Delhi. In April 2012, as cases related to the Batla House encounter were being heard in a Delhi court, The Hindu published a story questioning discrepancies in the phone records submitted by the police for one of the men who had been gunned down. Mohammad Ali, who filed the report, told us he had sent it directly to Varadarajan and not to Swami. “I knew Praveen Swami would not like this,” he said. When the story came out, “Praveen was furious.” Ali said Swami told him and another reporter to file a story echoing the version of the police. That story was published too. Later in the year, The Hindu carried a report by Ali that focussed on the JTSA’s call to disband the Special Cell.

As his executive editor, Varadarajan brought in MK Venu, a long-time Delhi journalist. Interviewed for a 2013 story in The Caravan, Venu said, “I am very happy that we don’t have any reporter with Deep Throat kind of IB sources”—referring to the Intelligence Bureau, the domestic intelligence agency. “We have taken a decision not to carry claims from the security and police establishment immediately after blasts.”

Swami did not reply to our messages or emailed questions.

Sudipto Mondal, back in the Bengaluru bureau, was witness to a visit by Varadarajan. He recalled that the editor announced, “I know that there may be certain hurdles. Anybody who has a good story, you can come and contact me directly.” Mondal added, “N Ram never did that.” With easy access to Varadarajan, Mondal said, his stories started making it to the front page.

Mondal got his hands on a story about a group of high-ranking judges having been allotted plots of land meant for junior judicial employees, in defiance of a court order. Varadarajan “was very excited about the story,” Mondal said, but things were not straightforward in this case.

While he was working on the story with Varadarajan, Mondal told us, news of it got to Ram. “The drafts started getting sent to Ram,” Mondal said. “You won’t believe, there were some eighteen or twenty drafts, redrafts—remove this column, put that column, change this.” Ram was often aggressive in his responses. “I had made a typo,” Mondal said. “For that, N Ram wrote back, ‘For an important story like this, such a lackadaisical attitude.’”

The revisions gradually removed crucial details. By this point, Mondal said, Varadarajan was completely absent from the process, although the two were communicating informally.

Ram asked to meet Mondal’s source. Mondal said he protested but eventually agreed, and the source went through the whole story to clear up any doubts. The final draft of the story was completed, but there was no sign of it in print. Mondal said Varadarajan apologised to him, remarking that the incident was demoralising for a reporter. “It was a farce,” he added. “Siddharth still had to report to N Ram on day-to-day activities. He would have to pass things through him. He was the editor only in name.” Varadarajan, like Ram, did not respond to our emailed questions.

Mondal had a theory for one of the reasons the story was buried. “The judiciary, don’t forget, is part of the same pillars of Brahmin democracy in India that N Ram is part of,” he said. “Judges and senior lawyers have always been part of the op-ed pages of The Hindu. They provide the social support for the institution’s survival.”

Mondal said Varadarajan attracted opposition from two lobbies. “One is the Sanghi lobby, all the Brahmin uncles and aunties. They started calling him ‘Varaatharajan,’ which means Rajan who doesn’t come to office”—in reference to Varadarajan’s frequent appearances at conferences and panels. This group was opposed to the changes that the new editor was introducing. “The other group was the CPM lobby because he is a liberal and not someone with the party line.” One of this group’s complaints was that Varadarajan, a US citizen, was bringing in American culture.

There were similar objections from another political stream too. Subramanian Swamy, a politician with the Janata Party who would soon join the BJP, raised an official complaint that a foreigner should not be allowed to edit an Indian newspaper, and took the matter to court.

How The Hindu approached Modi, who was then cementing his position as the BJP’s favoured son, was to become a major question of Varadarajan’s tenure. In early 2013, fresh from his latest re-election as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi spoke at Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. Journalists descended on the event, and it became a minor landmark in his ascent. It also became a test case for the media’s conduct.

Inside the venue, Modi delivered a speech typical of his style. “The youth of the nation has its finger on the mouse of computers and is changing the world,” one memorable line went. “India’s journey has gone from snake charmers to mouse charmers!” Meanwhile, outside, a large group of students protested against him, with black flags and placards that called Modi a killer or told him to go back. The protesters were lathi-charged and sprayed with water cannons, and prohibitory orders against large assemblies were imposed in the area.

“For seventy-five minutes, nearly two thousand college students were left spellbound by the oratory of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi,” India Today reported, adding that the students had discovered a new word: “Modi-vational.” An accompanying infographic offered detailed descriptions of Modi’s wardrobe. The Hindustan Times carried a report titled “Modi talks development, floors SRCC students,” which stated that, for many students, “the 2002 riots were not an issue any more.” A wire report by the Indo-Asian News Service declared that some students wanted Modi as the next prime minister. A few outlets mentioned the protests in passing. India Today noted that “the suffocating police bandobast or even the loud protests outside the college gates mattered little as the youngsters, mesmerised by Moditva, lapped up every word of his.”

Reports in The Hindu did not share the same enthusiasm. The paper carried two reports on the event: one on the manhandling of protesters and another foregrounding the BJP’s increased focus on Modi. The latter read, “Mr. Modi chose the platform provided by a Delhi University College to market himself as a leader who could change the face of India. Speaking skilfully, he claimed to have transformed Gujarat in the past 10 years with a ‘clear vision and planning’ and said the model he had perfected could be replicated nationwide.”

While its rivals carried their coverage on their front pages, The Hindu placed its stories in the national section, on an inside page. “No mention of Modi in The Hindu on front page,” the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai wrote on Twitter. “First lead in TOI and Hindustan Times. Newspaper polarisation?” Varadarajan replied, “We refuse to be part of the herd. Every story on our p1”—front page—“was far more newsworthy than a speech by a CM to a Delhi college.”

Some months later, Uttarakhand was hit by disastrous floods, and Modi made highly publicised efforts at aid. The Times of India reported that Modi, over a two-day visit to the state, had “managed to bring home some 15,000 stranded Gujarati pilgrims” using a fleet of vans and buses and four Boeing jets. This account was picked apart, and a follow-up story in The Hindu reported that the ludicrous figure had been fed to the Times of India reporter by a BJP spokesperson in the presence of the party’s state president. The story was carried on the newspaper’s front page.

After Modi was confirmed as the BJP’s choice for prime minister, he visited the self-styled guru Amritanandamayi in Kerala. After The Hindu, like many other dailies, carried a photograph of her blessing the politician, Varadarajan sent an email to senior colleagues. “There is zero news value in the front page Kerala picture of Modi touching Amrithanandamayi’s feet,” it read. Varadarajan explained that, between then and the 2014 elections, Modi and other politicians “are going to stage hundreds of photo ops and make hundreds of speeches as part of their own self-promotion. The Hindu has to be careful about how it covers these sorts of things.”

Within a month of this, in October 2013, Varadarajan took to Twitter to announce his resignation. Speaking on Varadarajan’s exit, N Ravi told the media that the “news desk was given standing instructions not to take any stories on Narendra Modi on page one. The Hindu has always been anti-Hindutva, but it was always kept out of our news judgement.”

Varadarajan refuted this. He told the magazine Tehelka that his rule for Modi, Sonia Gandhi and other politicians was: “front page in the local edition, elsewhere only if newsworthy.”

Ram, as chairperson, made his view known too. “Speaking as a former editor-in-chief,” he tweeted, “Chief Minister Narendra Modi cannot be treated as persona non grata by a professional paper.” In a statement in the paper, he mentioned “recurrent violations and defiance” of the institution’s editorial and business values. Ram later also complained that Varadarajan had pursued “campaign journalism.”

The alliances on the board had shifted. Ram, Ravi and Parthasarathy were now acting in concert. Ravi was given the post of editor-in-chief and Parthasarathy returned as the executive editor. The changes that saw Varadarajan elevated to the editorship had included the appointment of a CEO from outside the family, Arun Ananth. Now, he left the company as well. Varadarajan said the owners had decided to again make The Hindu “a family run and edited newspaper.”

Varadarajan admitted to Tehelka that he felt bitterness to be leaving just as the paper “was on the cusp of something great, its journalism was rocking.” He also lamented that “there is a lot of unfinished work.” On the day he quit, he was editing “a blockbuster of a story” involving the billionaire Mukesh Ambani and a private media company. This reportedly had to do with a government investigation of potential fraud in the acquisition of INX Media by Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited. “I am not sure that story—and other hard-hitting investigative pieces, especially on corporate issues—will ever make it to print now,” Varadarajan said. “I hope I am wrong.” He was not—The Hindu never carried the story.

Even so, Varadarajan insisted there was “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.” He also addressed Subramanian Swamy’s challenge to his position as the editor. Varadarajan said Swamy “was exercised not by my citizenship but by my refusal to print news stories about every statement and speech he used to make.” A member of the board even asked him to give Swamy the attention he craved, Varadarajan added, but he refused and Swamy filed his case in court. Ram had defended Varadarajan’s legal right to hold the editorship.

The Hindu continued to draw criticism over its coverage of Modi, though now of a different nature. The month after Varadarajan left, the prime-ministerial hopeful faced a scandal over leaked telephone conversations. The recordings, from 2009, had Modi’s closest lieutenant, Amit Shah, ordering the illegal surveillance of a young woman using government resources in Gujarat at the behest of “Saheb”—possibly Modi himself. The scholars Usha M Rodrigues and Maya Ranganathan later observed that the story, which “made it to the front page of all newspapers, was missing in The Hindu, which led to speculation that the newspaper was under political pressure to cover Modi favourably.”

As the scandal mounted and the Congress demanded answers, the paper carried an editorial saying that “the main players need to come clean.” It began: “It may well be that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s opponents, particularly the Congress, ought to combat the party ideologically rather than on issues such as surveillance and the tapping of telephone conversations of a young woman.”

N Ravi remained in charge through Modi’s electoral triumph and retired in early 2015. Parthasarathy stepped in as the first woman editor of The Hindu.

“THIS FIGHT WAS the last thing that was necessary when competition was right at our doorstep,” Murali told Forbes in 2011. “The family members should have had the institution in heart instead of engaging in the slugfest over the last 18 months.”

The Times of India launched a Chennai edition in 2008. This was part of a wider push by the Mumbai-headquartered giant into the south, The Hindu’s home ground, and more editions followed in other cities. By 2011, the two contestants were waging battle via television advertisements. The Times of India ran a cheeky campaign showing a reader falling asleep while clutching a newspaper. “Stuck with news that puts you to sleep?” it said. “Wake up to the Times of India.” The Hindu hit back with clips showing readers of its rival failing to answer basic questions on current affairs, and urged readers to “Stay ahead of the times.”

The Times of India’s expansion eroded The Hindu’s core base at a sensitive time. The newspaper industry, like the rest of the economy, was feeling the after-effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. The Hindu had tried to branch out into the television business, as the publishers of the Times of India had done, but saw its efforts fail. In 2009, in partnership with New Delhi Television, it launched NDTV Hindu, a Chennai-focussed English-language channel. After two years, it was sold to the Dina Thanthi group, publisher of a major Tamil daily.

The Times of India played on The Hindu’s sleepy reputation as it promoted its Chennai edition, launched in 2008. The challenger’s arrival coincided with bitter public feuding on The Hindu’s board.

Arun Ananth, the CEO installed alongside Varadarajan, led the resistance against the Times of India, among his other tasks. In an attempt to grow the business, he also oversaw the launch of a new Tamil-language daily, Hindu Tamil Thisai. But Ananth did not get much time with the project—the launch came shortly before his exit.

In 2017, the Kasturi family went through with a demerger. Kasturi and Sons, which earlier held all its publications, became the holding company it is today. The Hindu Group was formed and given charge of all English-language publications. Kasturi and Sons retained just over half of the Hindu Group’s shares, with the rest distributed among family members. KSL media, another subsidiary, took charge of the Tamil daily. Other subsidiaries include KSL Digital Ventures, which operates a real-estate portal, and Sporting Pastime India, which is in charge of a resorts business and an effort to develop a golf course in Chennai.

“We are still coming out of that,” Parthasarathy told us. “You have to demerge ultimately. Hindu Tamil is run by somebody else. Each company gets its own energy.” But two senior officials with the Hindu Group expressed misgivings. One told us that demerging the publishing operations was not structurally efficient, since “creating multiple things ensures that you can’t leverage efficiencies.” Another said the various businesses could have been allowed to grow under the single parent company, and added, “I think we were too quick to do it.”

“I think, in a year or two, it will open up investments from outside,” Parthasarathy said. “Some of the younger generation want to stay” and run the business, she added, but many of them are non-resident Indians, “so they are not very interested.” In the future, she said, “it may not be solely family-controlled like today. I think we may retreat and move towards some external investor. It may not work after the pandemic. There are ambitions to invite strategic investors, private equity or open up to external capital.”

By the accounts of numerous former staff at Hindu Tamil Thisai, the family member most involved in its affairs since the demerger is Vijaya Arun, second cousin to both Parthasarathy and Ram. “It had no character to start with,” V Geetha, the scholar, told us of the paper. But it “became pro-BJP at some point after Vijaya took over.”

Geetha and Vijaya were schoolmates and acquaintances. In 2018, after Geetha had refused multiple requests to contribute to the paper, Vijaya asked her why. Geetha recalled that she replied, “I don’t like your paper. Why should I write for it?” To this, Geetha said, Vijaya responded, “Why can’t we give Narendra Modi a chance?”

Vijaya and the paper’s editor, K Asokan, did not respond to our questions. Parthasarathy denied that Hindu Tamil Thisai had taken a pro-BJP turn. “Nobody is pro-BJP,” she said. “It’s very centrist. You can say we are less anti-BJP. We can’t be in favour of Congress, BJP, CPM. I don’t think we should be pro any political party.”

“This is a complex question,” Samas, who served as the opinion editor for Hindu Tamil Thisai, told us about the paper’s stance. “It cannot be approached as black and white.” Samas said the news pages started slanting towards the right after Modi became the prime minister but “the op-ed and supplement pages started to get more left-leaning” to balance this out.

Hindu Tamil Thisai has seen limited success and has not threatened the established heavyweights of the Tamil press. N Chellappa, a former news editor with the paper, argued that this was to be expected given its target readership. He told us that Hindu Tamil Thisai, like other Tamil-language publications, has a largely non-Brahmin audience, but the newspaper’s politics do not align with the interests of this group. “If you write against those who read your paper,” he said, “why will they buy it?”

Samas pointed to the same issue and added, “The problem is the Tamil newspaper had to react to the attacks and backlashes faced by the English newspaper.” For over a century, he said, “The Hindu as well as the Tamil Brahmin society were possessing a Congress kind of mindset towards the idea of India and its rulers.” After Modi’s election in 2014, “a strong conflict emerged in this,” and for The Hindu “it was truly a challenge.”

A senior editor at The Hindu told us that critical coverage of Modi upset the paper’s traditional Tamil Brahmin readers—something echoed by a reporter who worked at the paper at the start of the Modi years. One reader from Mylapore, a Brahmin stronghold in Chennai, posted to Facebook a letter he addressed to The Hindu in 2019. “As a middle class Tamil Brahmin, it is almost an unwritten law in our society to subscribe and support The Hindu,” it read. “People used to say morning coffee and The Hindu go together in almost all Brahmin houses. I am no exception to this.” The reader accused the newspaper of siding with the DMK and “antagonising the majority religion,” and declared, “I shall withdraw my subscription to The Hindu from the Tamil New Year. Not only me. My friends and family members also join me.” Many other posts have spoken of Tamil Brahmins boycotting The Hindu.

Varadarajan’s exit signalled that certain differences within the family had been put aside, but the underlying issues with the way the paper was run remained. The board was evenly split over the return of Ravi and Parthasarathy, with Ram using his deciding vote to break the deadlock.

On retirement, Murali had reflected that The Hindu was earlier run by only a few people who were professionally qualified, but the number of those involved had swelled over time as “each family wanted certain number of directors.” He complained that “family members came in for family representation and for perks and entitlements.” In a legal petition filed amid the boardroom battles of 2010, Murali and his supporters noted, “The company is taking care of the welfare of the members of the four families, like pension to the wives of the former directors, funding for the education of the children abroad, foreign travel for the directors at the expense of the company, etc.”

According to the latest company filings, Kasturi and Sons currently provides for a salary of roughly Rs 2.2 lakh and special pay of Rs 3 lakh per month for each of its 13 directors—making for a total of over Rs 8 crore per year. It also covers, within generous limits, their rent, utility bills, medical expenses, retirement contributions, travel, club fees and more.

In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the recommendations of the Majithia wage boards, which had earlier set out binding conditions of service for media workers. At Kasturi and Sons, where the vast majority of employees fell under the wage board’s purview, this meant an increase in outlay on staff remuneration that pushed the company into losses. The company introduced an alternative contractual system of employment and has since prodded journalists towards it. It also introduced a voluntary-retirement scheme, and many journalists took the way out.

Numerous former and current journalists at The Hindu told us the scheme was not as voluntary as it was made out to be. “Many employees opted for it because they felt it was the only option available for them,” one senior journalist said. “Most of them were afraid that they would be subjected to harsh treatment and punishment transfers if they did not listen as the management nudged them into opting for it.”

Things were changing. Sevanti Ninan wrote around this time that, among India’s major family-owned newspapers, The Hindu had always stood apart for how it treated its staff. “It was paternalistic, it looked after its employees, paid mandated salaries, met healthcare costs and even the less competent were not sacked or moved around,” she noted. “In return, non-family employees were expected to know their place in a set-up where the owners also worked in the publications. All of that was easier when it was king of its market with no competition to worry about.”

The company has continued to cut its employee numbers since. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it first announced wage cuts and then mass layoffs. Many former employees have challenged the company’s actions in court.

LV Navaneeth, a veteran of the company who is now the CEO of the Hindu Group, told us that the peak in the company’s staff strength had come a long time ago. “There were a couple of rounds of voluntary-retirement schemes before my time, and that people opted for,” he said. “In certain cases, where there is role redundancy, people have not been replaced.” Navaneeth shared that the company currently has more than 2,300 employees, but did not want to share an exact number “because then there is a tendency to say that downsizing is so much, which is not right.”

“People have to do well,” Parthasarathy said. “My ethos is different. People have to perform and can’t just be there because of patronisation and bootlicking. Culture of sycophancy in The Hindu in the last decade was terrible.”

“We continue to do well in our various markets both on readership and revenue,” Navaneeth said. By 2019, before the pandemic, the Times of India had an advantage on The Hindu’s readership numbers in Chennai. Official filings show that the Hindu Group has seen tumbling revenues and significant losses in recent years. It posted a loss of Rs 55.5 crore for 2020–21—its third straight loss-making fiscal year. Its latest revenues have fallen to just under Rs 550 crore—less than half of what they were just three years earlier.

Parthasarathy told us that advertising accounts for more than sixty percent of the newspaper’s revenues. “But I am saying that we are also looking for a new model where storytelling becomes attractive, where digital business grows, so it means less and less dependency on ad revenue,” she said. “The more you depend on ad revenue, the more you need to be looking over your shoulder. Because unless the business climate is favourable, you don’t get ad revenue.”

With The Hindu, “I think particularly we are at a crossroads as a legacy media, we are not able to keep pace,” she added. “We have got a lot riding on the digital transformation. Especially with the volatility in the political climate, we should not depend too much on ad revenue.”

In 2019, the Modi government cut off advertisements to The Hindu and two other newspapers. Critics said this was a deliberate move to punish these publications for stories the government did not approve of—an accusation that the government denied. A senior official of the Hindu Group told us that advertising definitely came down around this time.

Navaneeth told us that, thanks to The Hindu’s relatively high cover prices, circulation accounted for a greater share of its revenues compared to many other English-language newspapers. He said that incomes from government advertising were cyclical, depending on “the schemes of the government” and “the mix of central versus state government.” But, he added, “I can’t remember a time when government ads would be less than ten percent of revenues.”

He explained that incomes from government and non-government ads had never been significantly different, but 2020 could be an aberration. During the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “when businesses were shut, government was the only active advertiser. So the ratios that way, last year, could get skewed.”

“As I told you, the legacy business model has too much dependency on ad revenue,” Parthasarathy said. “Pandemic was the main thing.”


“ONE OF THE REASONS for the change were the dicey story leads that were being pursued that didn’t really fulfil public interest in any sense,” Parthasarathy announced on Twitter days after Varadarajan’s departure. “We intend to get back to classic news coverage and journalism based on rigorous reporting and editing.”

After Ravi and Parthasarathy took charge, there were swift changes in The Hindu’s functioning. “They wanted to shake up things and had a different idea of how to run the newsroom,” a former reporter at the newspaper told us. Parthasarathy, he said, went about “hiring people who had really good journalistic careers, famous bylines in Delhi’s media industry.” Another former staffer recalled, “We started hearing of new hirings, transfers and changes in portfolios. The change in order was palpable in the newsroom and we were all gripped with a sudden sense of uncertainty and anxiety.” The staffer said it felt like The Hindu was out to shake off its staid image as “the newspaper for UPSC aspirants”—the staple of those studying for the notoriously pedantic exams to enter public service.

Josy Joseph, an investigative journalist with a reputation for doing stories critical of the establishment, came in as the national-security editor. Parthasarathy “gave complete freedom to people like me to do stories on all kinds of corruption and manipulations,” he told us. “We took on some seriously powerful people.” Joseph thought this was especially admirable “at a time when most other newspapers had become propaganda extensions of the authoritarian government of Modi.”

The new hires also included Suhasini Haidar, who joined as the diplomatic editor and is now also the paper’s national editor. (Haidar is the daughter of Subramanian Swamy.) Nistula Hebbar, who had long experience covering the BJP, also joined around this time.

“I wanted a team more sensitive to change,” Parthasarathy told us, “who understood the news without ideological narratives.” But numerous journalists who worked at The Hindu during this time told us they were uncomfortable with how this approach played out. One told us, “It felt that the priority was to have strong sources within the BJP government who are going to rationalise all the problematic policies even though they are controversial and normalise all the problematic statements that the government makes.”

The new regime did not sit well with some of the old guard, and a wave of veterans walked out. Joseph, for instance, replaced Praveen Swami, who continued to cover strategic affairs in the wake of Varadarajan’s departure only to quit less than a year later. P Sainath, The Hindu’s decorated rural-affairs editor, was another high-profile departure. At the time, N Ravi told the News Minute that Sainath and Swami “did not fit into the roles they were assigned.” The News Minute reported that Swami especially had differences with Parthasarathy. Swami told another outlet, “It began to feel a little bit like working for Pol Pot, and I didn’t want to hang around until I was executed or sent off for re-education.”

Numerous journalists who worked under Parthasarathy told us they struggled with her style of management. Several pointed to the departure of Rahul Pandita, the opinion editor, who left with a letter to Parthasarathy:

I am bogged down with this hourly need to consult you, and with the practice of selecting articles on the basis of whether you’ve been addressed as “Malini” or “Ma’am” in the covering letters.

I am also sick of this constant play of yours: to pitch one person against another for one week, and then reverse it in the next. One is also tired of your changing goalposts. The Sunday Anchor has to be reportage-driven, and then suddenly it becomes policy-driven, and then suddenly, depending on what you hear or get impressed with, it has to be made reportage-driven again.

Perhaps the boldest move Parthasarathy made as editor was to take the fight to the Times of India in its own home territory of Mumbai. In November 2015, The Hindu launched a dedicated edition in the city. With this, Parthasarathy wrote in a note to readers, “The Hindu has fulfilled its historical destiny as India’s National Newspaper.”

The company recruited a select Mumbai bureau to try and give itself an edge in the city’s highly competitive, saturated media market. This came with significant financial cost and pressure to make it count. Within months, Parthasarathy stepped down.

“In view of the strong feedback I have been receiving on ‘general dissatisfaction’ with my performance as Editor these last 11 months, I hereby resign,” she wrote in a letter to staff. “I also want to place on record my deep disappointment that my performance has been judged so harshly within such a short span of time, without any cognisance of the landmark initiatives in my tenure—the launch of the Mumbai edition and the total upscaling of editorial content.”

“Initially, for six or seven months, the bureau was functioning well,” a former journalist with The Hindu told us about the Mumbai edition. “But after then the reporters and editors felt abandoned.” The edition was shut down in June 2020 and the bureau dissolved.

After the loud battles of the board and Varadarajan’s abrupt departure, the family was under a lot of scrutiny. Now, at least publicly, things had quieted down. Parthasarathy was replaced by Mukund Padmanabhan, the editor of BusinessLine—the business newspaper of the Kasturi stable. A former journalist who spent five years with The Hindu told us that this was seen as a safe choice within the organisation. “He wouldn’t do anything radical like Siddharth Varadarajan,” she said, pointing out that Padmanabhan had been with the Kasturis’ publications for two decades. “He is coming from this system.”

Padmanabhan was a good boss, the former journalist said, and had a lot of skill and experience with features. But, when it came to daily news, “even senior editors and bureau chiefs were quite upset with him because he didn’t understand why some news had to be on page one.”

Mohammad Ali was with The Hindu’s Delhi bureau at the time, looking closely at increasing communal tensions and clashes in north India. When Hukum Singh, a BJP member of parliament, alleged that Muslims were forcing hundreds of Hindu families to abandon Kairana, in western Uttar Pradesh, Ali headed to the area and found the story to be untrue. “I filed a story poking holes in Singh’s claims,” Ali told us. “The editors sat on the story for around twelve days. They seemed very uncomfortable to show that the BJP MP was doing something wrong.” Then the Times of India broke the story, and The Hindu followed its lead. After other outlets covered the issue too, The Hindu also ran an editorial on it.

“My stories started getting dropped especially after Yogi Adityanath came to power,” Ali said. Adityanath, a Hindu religious leader with his own militia, was appointed chief minister after the BJP defeated the incumbent Samajwadi Party in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election. “Stories on issues like farmer suicides, violence or failures of the government, which were getting published till the Samajwadi Party was in power, were now being kept pending for long.”

The Bhim Army, a Dalit-rights organisation with a muscular approach to defence against attacks and provocation, was then gaining prominence in Uttar Pradesh as a counter to Hindutva forces. An editor told Ali that it would be great to get a story on the Bhim Army but the editorial hierarchy would not clear it. When he pitched a story on a lynching, Ali said, “one of the news editors in the Delhi bureau told me, ‘Don’t pitch lynching ideas, it makes the editor nervous.’”

Later, Ali got a call from an editor in Chennai asking for something on the Bhim Army, but with instructions not to make it political. He filed a story on the group’s network of free schools. It included a teaching volunteer echoing a famous call by the Dalit political icon BR Ambedkar to educate, organise and agitate for change.

The editor called again to say that Padmanabhan had objected to this, and wanted the story to also talk about allegations of recent violence by Bhim Army members. The published version carried the blurb: “Last month’s violence threatens to overshadow the Bhim Army’s grassroots education project for Dalits, its real success story.” Ali said, “They wanted to highlight that it has become a violent movement, which was nonsense.”

Ali saw the paper’s nervousness as revealing “a lot about their inability to outright counter Hindutva narratives, which were exploding in the Hindi heartland.” Once, he said, “The Hindu was known for empathetic reporting on Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and farmers, even when it was done in a patronising manner,” but “this started changing slowly. One by one, these communities started going out of its circle of sympathy with the onslaught of corporate culture and Hindutva.”

After the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, in September 2017, Ali was one of several journalists to receive death threats. He was living alone in Meerut, reporting on Hindutva groups. “It is a volatile town and no one will even know if anything happens to you there,” Ali said. His mental health deteriorated. He got no support, he said, except from a few mentors in the organisation. He soon quit.

In April 2018, the New Republic, a US magazine, published an investigation into the Indian business interests of Donald Trump, the US president, including collaborations with individuals closely linked to the BJP. The story stated that it was produced in collaboration with reporters at The Hindu, and that the investigation had uncovered possible bribery, fraud, illegal land deals, tax evasion and money-laundering. No part of the investigation appeared in The Hindu.

The story carried the byline of the investigative journalist Anjali Kamat. “As late as January, the idea was for the story to be published in The Hindu,” Kamat told us. “But then, in March, the paper abruptly decided not to publish it.”

Padmanabhan did not respond to our emailed questions. After he retired, in the spring of 2019, he told an interviewer that though he had heard “about the problems media organisations and journalists” faced under the Modi government, he “never faced one.” He mused, “Perhaps, we are headquartered too far down south and so out of mind? Or perhaps, there was a sense, and this is the more flattering interpretation, that we could not be pressured?”

Padmanabhan said that he once received a call from a minister about “a report we had written despite a government counter.” The two “argued about it at length on the phone and then agreed to disagree, which was fine. But I didn’t see this as pressure, just a difference in views.” In 2018, he had met Modi at an event with editors from other publications in Tamil Nadu. His interaction with the prime minister was off the record, Padmanabhan said, but he could reveal that Modi “did make a point about The Hindu and its coverage of him over the years.”

Padmanabhan said he did his best “to make everyone adhere to the rule that news and opinion must be clearly separated and delineated in the newspaper.” Though “laying down the rule ran the risk of people saying we were too matter of fact, too staid, too boring,” he felt this was important in a media environment where “news and opinion were being increasingly fused.”

Several journalists told us that the newspaper had started being very cautious with certain terminology by this time. “They did not like it when we referred to the government as a Hindu nationalist government, but wanted to just stay Indian government or the BJP government,” a former reporter at the paper told us. Another found the term “Hindu mob” changed to “miscreants” in his stories on violence by Hindutva groups.

“The Hindu uses the excuse of old-school of journalism to not report the politics of the transformation of India with the rise of the Hindu Right under the Modi government,” Mohammad Ali said. “Most of the news reports are three-hundred or four-hundred-word stories where you stick to the five Ws and H”—Who, What, When, Where, Why and How—“and leave out all the subtleties and nuances. They would totally neutralise the story.” Ali said this approach “is very much a political decision.”

AROUND THE TIME Padmanabhan stepped down, The Hindu ran a series of reports by N Ram on the Modi government’s controversial purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France. These covered many details reported earlier by independent outlets but that India’s legacy media had scrupulously ignored—for instance, how the government had waived anti-corruption clauses and bank guarantees, how Modi had held parallel negotiations that undermined his government’s own negotiating team and how the prime minister’s decisions had dramatically escalated the cost of each aircraft.

In the wake of this, MK Stalin, by then the head of the DMK, appeared at a campaign rally for the upcoming national election. “Mr Modi, India and The Hindu have turned against you,” Stalin declared. “You won the election by using the two words—Hindu and Ram. Now you are scared of these two words.” Stalin said that Ram was being threatened but would not be intimidated. He swore that if Ram faced any coercive action, the DMK would protect him.

The reports of the government’s freeze on advertising in The Hindu followed in June, soon after Modi won re-election. Parthasarathy had her “warm and illuminating” conversation with the prime minister the following month. That November, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions calling for an investigation into the Rafale deal. Parthasarathy tweeted to welcome the judgment and profess, “I have always believed personally that the integrity of Prime Minister @narendramodi is unimpeachable & unquestionable as regards the Rafale issue. … This controversy should now be put behind us as we focus on real concerns!”

In a later interview, Ram said that The Hindu had seen a big drop in advertising after the Rafale stories.

Parthasarathy had remained on the board after quitting as editor, with Ram still the chairperson. With the demerger, in 2017, she was appointed the co-chairperson. In mid 2020, when Ram reached the age of 75, he stepped down and Parthasarathy took his place by unanimous decision. The Hindu’s announcement of the change included words of mutual admiration from both parties. Parthasarathy, it said, highlighted Ram’s “updating of the earlier idea of a ‘wall’ between editorial and business to ‘a line, not a wall’, an idea that has been successful in integrating aspirations on both sides.”

A senior official with the Hindu Group told us that the family’s tribulations have paled in recent years compared to the highly public disagreements of previous decades. “Now, because of the precariousness of the industry, nobody is going public,” the official said. “Nobody is going to court.”

But there had been disagreement on editorial matters, and not just on the Rafale stories. In the newspaper’s Puducherry edition, one former employee said, “every Auroville story will be the lead story, no matter how mundane the story is.” Desk editors faced frustration “because N Ram will call them and yell at them for giving this coverage. But if they don’t, Malini will go on a different tangent.”

Parthasarathy is a former member of the governing board of Auroville—a “universal town” on the edge of Puducherry founded by a self-styled guru in the 1960s. A reporter who worked in the Puducherry bureau confirmed that they were expected to studiously cover any developments concerning Auroville. In 2016, the township’s official website listed links to recent stories by The Hindu and thanked the paper “for promoting us once more.” It said that Dinesh Varma, the head of the Puducherry bureau, had “talked about our new website, the blog, our presence on social media and some of our other upcoming aspects.”

“People at the desk kind of played along,” the former employee said. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t about journalism, it was about pleasing their bosses.” Parthasarathy, Ram and others “all had these mini factions in office. News would also be prioritised based on who is in command.” The former employee added, “Any major editorial decisions and any major change that happened, it is always because of these internal feuds, not because of what’s good for the paper.”

In 2019, The Hindu published a story on how schoolchildren in Karnataka were unhappy with the bland food being served as their free midday meal. The food came from the Akshay Patra Foundation, tied to the Hare Krishna movement, which refused to use onions or garlic in preparing it—a dietary restriction steeped in caste practice and superstition, and one that Brahmins especially pride themselves on and propagate. The story considered the nutritional quality of the meals and quoted experts criticising the lack of eggs for the children despite only a small fraction of people in Karnataka being vegetarian.

The story caused a small storm on social media. Some right-wing handles lashed out against what they saw as an attack on a Hindu spiritual organisation and Hindu values. Parthasarathy tweeted, “I agree the attack on Akshaya Patra was unwarranted.” She blamed Suresh Nambath, the paper’s current editor, for his selection of news content, and promised, “I will surely make efforts to upgrade the quality of our approach to content.” Ram defended the story, and criticised “communal and bigoted elements” for trying to suppress freedom of expression.

Besides being chairperson, Parthasarathy is also the director of editorial strategy for The Hindu. Under her and Nambath, the newspaper has steered clear of official ire. The former journalist with five years at The Hindu described Nambath as a safe option, similar to his predecessor. “He is sitting on a shaky chair and this could be snatched from him anytime,” the former journalist said. “He has been with The Hindu for more than two decades and definitely has an understanding of how things work. He knows that he is dispensable.”

“IF YOU HAVE to understand the transformation of India under Modi, you have to understand the behaviour of Indian newspapers,” Mohammad Ali told us. “Especially institutions like The Hindu, which were the last bastions of the liberal—or rather left-liberal—kind of thinking.” With Modi’s rise, Ali said, “organisations like The Hindu have become nothing if not the enablers of the Modi regime in a variety of ways.”

A former senior journalist with The Hindu told us that the newspaper was once very clear that there was “absolutely no compromise on secularism—communalism of any kind was not to be supported.” But, she added, “it looks like that has changed now, especially since 2014.”

In July 2019, The Hindu ran a story by Nistula Hebbar, the political editor, looking at the Modi government’s renewal of president’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir for another six months, extending an earlier suspension of the state’s elected government. Hebbar offered a long list of excuses to justify the move, writing that the government’s approach “seems to be” to “concentrate on delivery of basic services,” to nurture the “green shoots of an alternative political discourse,” and more along the same vague lines. None of this was attributed or backed by reported evidence, thought the story ran as news in the national pages. Hebbar paraphrased Amit Shah, the home minister, talking up “grassroots democracy” in the state. Less than a month later, the Modi government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and statehood.

Modi and Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, came together in August 2020 for a religious ceremony to break ground for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Afterwards, Hebbar published a story titled “The VHP monks who led the mandir movement.” This was a whistle-stop tour of the organisation’s history that drew favourable attention to its role as “one of the first advocates” for the temple. An accompanying illustration showed a cheerful crew of men in saffron against a backdrop of a golden temple, orange pendants and a shining blue sky.

The violence that preceded and followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the horror of the event itself, all of which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had a hand in, was not mentioned. Hebbar said merely that, in the mid 1980s, the VHP initiated a series of processions that “ratcheted up communal tensions across the north and central India.” She noted that the Bajrang Dal, the VHP’s youth wing, was set up to protect the processions but “ended up giving a more muscular, and militant tone to the movement.” The story mentioned only in passing that the Bajrang Dal had been banned after the demolition and later threatened with bans for attacking minorities. There was nothing at all about the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, when The Hindu had called for a ban on both organisations.

Of late, the RSS and its affiliates have amplified Hindu claims to two other Muslim religious sites: the Shahi Eidgah in Mathura and the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi. Now that the Ram Mandir was rising in Ayodhya, Hebbar wondered, will the VHP “create the same social energy in its call for ‘liberating’ Kashi and Mathura?”

Hebbar occasionally travels with top BJP leaders on campaign as part of her coverage of the BJP. For instance, she joined Rajnath Singh on a private jet while he campaigned for the 2019 national election and Amit Shah when he flew to West Bengal during the state’s 2021 assembly election.

As the newspaper industry struggles to recover financially from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Uttar Pradesh government under Adityanath has been an especially large advertiser, with a budget running into the hundreds of crores. Opposition leaders have argued that this is part of a strategy to gain favourable coverage and whitewash the failures of Adityanath’s rule. The Hindu, like many other newspapers, has recently run full-page jacket ads of the Uttar Pradesh government’s self-proclaimed achievements.

In August, The Hindu published an extensive interview of Adityanath by three senior journalists, including Hebbar. It was riddled with false claims, including the one picked for use as the headline—“We haven’t invoked the National Security Act in wrong cases.” The Allahabad High Court has dismissed the large majority of NSA cases that have come before it since Adityanath became chief minister, a great number of them involving allegations of cow slaughter against Muslims. The court has also repeatedly upbraided state officials for abusing the draconian law. Parthasarathy, on Twitter, chose to promote the interview with a quote on Adityanath’s spiritual philosophy: “I reject the idea of any heaven that may accrue due to following superstitions. I want to achieve rewards through my karma.”

About a week later, The Hindu carried an op-ed by the journalist Vidya Subrahmaniam questioning the “exaggerations in the project to build Mr. Adityanath as a brand” and raising numerous criticisms of the Uttar Pradesh government that the three interviewers had missed. When the piece was posted on The Hindu’s website, her analysis was referenced with hyperlinks to the newspaper’s own ground reports.

“I am not the editor today, if you remember that,” Parthasarathy told us. “Today, I am not the one who writes the editorials.” Nambath did not respond to requests for an interview or to emailed questions. In April 2021, Parthasarathy had announced the arrival of Krishna Prasad, former editor of Outlook magazine, in the role of group editorial officer. She wrote to employees that Prasad would coordinate across publications to “help us raise the bar in building high quality journalism and widen our digital imagination.” Prasad announced at the start of December that he had quit.

Parthasarathy denied that The Hindu had killed any stories critical of Modi or any BJP government. “I think there is some drama here,” she said. “A reporter wants to do a story and the editor says don’t do it. It’s not always repression.” She also insisted that her own position had not shifted since the days when The Hindu was strongly critical of Hindutva and the RSS. “At that point, that was the requirement,” she said. “There was a strong political consensus around secularism as it was known then. Even today, I have the same stance on Babri Masjid, I have the same stance on CAA.”

She felt that the media today was in a bad situation. “How do you navigate this ship, how do you negotiate this tricky phase?” she asked. “According to me, we don’t want to be too ideological, we don’t want to be too polarising.”

“Everything must be backed by facts, there must be rigour in analysis,” Parthasarathy explained. “Even blind data journalism, without a focus on why the data is being produced, I don’t like that kind of thing—do only COVID death, only COVID suffering, it looks like bias. And you don’t know what is the recovery rate.”

Parthasarathy emphasised, “We are a newspaper, not a political party. I want The Hindu to be a newspaper.” And she objected, “You are expecting a newspaper to have the views of a political party.”

“I think all fundamentalisms have to be opposed critically,” she said. “Hindutva, Islamic fundamentalism, caste supremacy, Tamil chauvinism. All fundamentalisms have to of course be criticised. Why only Hindutva? Why not other fundamentalisms?”

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