The family feud which is gripping India's media: Editor of ‘The Hindu’ newspaper resigns

Siddharth Varadarajan's ousting is the latest turbulent chapter of a company run by four branches of the same clan

Delhi

The news was short, dramatic, and delivered by means of social media. “With The Hindu's owners deciding to revert to being a family-run and edited newspaper, I am resigning with immediate effect,” tweeted Siddharth Varadarajan.

The resignation of Mr Varadarajan last month has triggered a wave of reaction through the world of India's media; just two-and-half years earlier, the respected 48-year-old had been made the first external, “professional” editor in the newspaper's 135-year-old history. The position had previously always been held by a family member.

Yet few could have been entirely surprised that his position had finally given way to the toxic feud within the branches of the family-owned newspaper that has raged for generations.

Over the years, one family member labeled others “Stalinists”, one brother accused another of running a “Banana Republic”, one faction tried to make India's highest court intervene against another faction, and family members wrote letters to the newspaper's staff, denouncing decisions taken by their kin.

The real-life dramas at The Hindu are of note even in a nation at ease with the twists and turns of religious epics such as the Mahabharata or its popular television soap operas. Observers say events at the newspaper, which has considered itself the industry standard, carry important consequences for India's entire media industry.

“This is a reminder that in India, owners of a business, even media houses, treat professionals as low caste labour,” said Madhu Trehan, a veteran journalist who runs NewsLaundry.Com, a media watchdog website. “The required subservience grates even the most humble of professionals, so it is especially difficult for journalists who, of course, have attitude.”

Originally founded in the southern city of Chennai as a weekly newspaper in 1878 by four law students, The Hindu was bought 20 years later by S Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, who had been its legal advisor.

Today, The Hindu's holding company, Kasturi and Sons Limited, is controlled by a 12-strong board made up of brothers and cousins from four branches of the clan - the Narasimhan, Parthasarathy, Rangarajan and Kasturi families - each with 25 per cent ownership of shares.

The ousting of Mr Varadarajan has its roots in a decision taken in 2011 by the then chief editor, Narasimhan Ram, who tried to ignore demands that he honour an agreement to stand down at the age of 65 and hand over control to other family members.

To see off those relatives, he pushed for the board to hire a new, non-dynastic editor from outside the family and suggested Mr Varadarajan, who was then the paper's Delhi bureau chief.

At the time, Mr Ram's youngest brother, Narasimhan Ravi, wrote a furious letter to staff saying his sibling's action was a “shocking display of bad faith”. He accused his brother of being pro-China, soft on corruption and blurring the lines between editorial and advertising. Another brother, Narasimhan Murali, accused Mr Ram of running the paper “like a banana republic, with cronyism and vested interests ruling the roost”.

A year earlier, a cousin, Malini Parthasarathy, had complained that Mr Ram and others were trying to force her out. “The Stalinists are trying to beat me down,” she said on Twitter.

Those who had followed events at The Hindu had seen such scenes before. The Sans Serif blog, which reports on India's media, noted that in 2003 another boardroom spat had seen Mr Ram get rid of his brother, Mr Ravi, and take the position of editor-in-chief.

In 1989, Mr Ram, who was then the paper's associate editor, was involved in yet another public battle, on that occasion with his uncle, Gopalan Kasturi, who was chief editor. They argued over the latter's decision to halt a series of reports on the Bofors arms-dealing scandal that implicated the powerful Congress party.

At the time, Mr Ram issued a statement against his uncle, accusing him of acting in a “highly derogatory” manner. He also made a formal complaint to the Press Council of India. As result, Mr Ram lost his executive post and Mr Ravi was made editor while Mr Ram's cousins, Nirmala Lakshman and Ms Parthasarathy, were given senior roles.

Today, all the main players appear to have brokered an agreement and at least for now put aside their differences. Mr Ravi is back as editor-in-chief and Ms Parthasarathy as editor.

“I would say that for the past 20 years there have been similar family upheavals. It does no good for the institution...We should not be doing this,” admitted Mr Murali, who has also returned to a management position, as co-chairman.

Mr Ram, 67, said Mr Varadarajan and a non-family CEO had been replaced because of breaches of business and journalistic conduct. He also claimed Mr Varadarajan had refused to devote sufficient coverage to India's main opposition candidate, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist and one of country's most divisive politicians, who is accused of stoking tensions that led to the killings of Muslims in 2002.

“I have long been opposed to the politics of Narendra Modi - not just because of [the killings in] 2002 - but because of his divisive role, his hate politics,” Mr Ram told The Independent, speaking during a visit to New York. “But in a news report you have to keep an appropriate distance. You cannot treat some like that as persona non grata.”

Asked about the famously bad blood in in the company, he said: “That is because we are a family-run organisation. It's no surprise if you look at the history of family-run newspapers.”

As to the damage such feuds did to the image of the paper, he said: “Of course there is a cost. It does something. There is a toll.”

Ms Parthasarathy, who just a couple of years ago called her cousins Stalinists and accused them of misogyny, said Mr Ram had come to the conclusion that the decision he had taken two years ago was a mistake. “Justice has been done for me,” she said.

Cho Ramaswamy, a Chennai-based writer and founder of the Tamil language Tamil magazine, said he had watched numerous spats within the paper's extended family over the years. “Now and then they go public. Now and then it's private,” he said. “In spite of everything, the family holds together.”

Many within the media industry credited with Mr Varadarajan of injecting life into a left-leaning paper that could sometimes be somewhat staid, a little like the city of Chennai itself. He hired new foreign correspondents, devoted more space to investigations and invested in the paper's website. He said the readership of what was already the third-largest English-language paper grew.

Mr Varadarajan has dismissed the various claims of the family members. If they felt he had made mistakes, he said, why not fire him and get another outside editor. Rather, it appeared that whatever personal matter lay behind the 2011 blood-letting, and his appointment, had now been resolved.

“It's hard for us to understand the dynamics of a family-run businesses,” he told The Independent, sitting in his Delhi apartment where he said he is considering several job offers. “At the time it did seem that Ram was committed to the goal [of introducing professional editors]”.

Mr Varadarajan also denied ordering the paper not to cover Mr Modi, saying that he judged events on merit, rather than leaping onto a “Modi bandwagon”, that he claimed much of the Indian media had done. He said under his tenure, the paper had stepped on “powerful” shoes, on which The Hindu had traditionally avoided trampling.

“I am not saying that that's the reason I was ousted but we were doing things that a paper should be doing,” he said. “My fear is that a lot of the things we started will go out of the window.”

But even the apparent ceasefire at The Hindu might not last long. The six-hour board meeting that ultimately led to the decision to get rid of Mr Varadarajan had witnessed a 6-6 ballot by the members. Mr Ram used his tie-breaking vote as chairman to break the stalemate and secure the issue in his favour.

Those six dissenters have now said they will challenge the other board members through an “appropriate mechanism”.

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