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“Which was the one newspaper of India that did not carry the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on its front page?” – thus ran a quiz question asked by Amin Sayani in the Bournvita Quiz Contest, one of the most popular radio programmes of the 1970s. The answer was The Hindu, not due to any lack of respect for the father of the nation but because it then carried only advertisements on its front page. Today it is common practice across almost all newspapers of the country. When you are around for 140 years, there is very little that you have not seen, or done.

To most South Indians, the paper was almost a family member. At home, The Hindu played a very significant role in a family legend that was narrated by grandmother to all of us grandchildren when we reached story-understanding age. The family fortunes took a dramatic upswing with grandfather qualifying in the intermediate examinations, thereby taking the first step to becoming a top-ranking railway officer of the British Raj. “In those days, the results of the examination would be published in The Hindu,” grandmother would say. “There was just one copy that was delivered at our village and that was at the residence of the Zamindar. Your grandfather waited at the doorstep but the paper could not be passed on to anyone until the Zamindar had read it. That day he did not do so till lunchtime and your grandfather waited, forgetting hunger and thirst. Finally the great man condescended to ask what was wanted and on being told, scanned the page for the relevant roll number. There it was, right at the top of the list.” How many times had we heard this story! Now, thankfully, there is no question of waiting at a Zamindar’s doorstep for taking a peek at The Hindu. It is available on the internet even before the physical copy reaches us. Yes, the newspaper was, is and will always remain a part of our daily lives. As I write this I realise that at least five generations have grown up with the paper, at least three eventually reaching its obituary column, which for years was the first thing that people saw in the publication, for on its contents the condoling and bathing schedule of the day depended. In the 1970s, newly migrated to Calcutta, our family missed the paper so much that we subscribed to it from there. It used to be delivered a day late, but it did not matter, for we had our daily fix. The paper’s exhaustive coverage of the December Music Season in particular was something we eagerly looked forward to. In the chilly and smog-ridden Calcutta winter, it brought home some of the warmth of Madras. And yes, its language rivalled that of The Statesman, which was really something. When I began working as an advertising professional at Lintas, The Hindu was held up as the newspaper that best reproduced advertisements, such being its print quality. The paper was a byword for technological innovation and adapting what was the latest.

The Mahavishnu of Mount Road as many of its detractors have referred to it in private, cannot be ignored no matter whether you adore it or not. Many accused it of being a staid newspaper that published the obvious. Its fighting years were in the era before Independence they said. And certainly, a superficial glance at its history would make it appear so. The Hindu was formed in 1878 to protest against British outcry when T Muthuswami Aiyar became the first Indian to grace the bench of the High Court of Madras. In 1906, the paper was in the forefront, demanding the arrest of Sir George Gough Arbuthnot, when the banking firm of Arbuthnot & Co failed, taking with it the savings of thousands in Madras Presidency. Most British-backed papers soft-pedalled the matter. The Hindu was firmly in support of the freedom movement, particularly of the Gandhian variety. It strongly condemned regimes of repression everywhere, be it in other parts of the world, or in the Princely States of India. In those days, if you were in the Government, you could not take a decision without getting a earful from The Hindu. It was no darling of the administration and no, its editors did not get knighted or feature anywhere in the Birthday Honours List of the King Emperor.

Come Independence, the paper changed from being a strident critic to a more mature voice of caution. It watched, and reacted when necessary. True, the editorials came to be more carefully worded – it was almost as though the paper felt that the hard-won Independence had to be given time to grow and bear fruit. But this was also when the paper began to devote increasing amounts of space to fine arts, literature and sports. It was addressing the task of nation-building through this route. And it has continued that way. In how many other newspapers do you find this amount of space given to classical music? Which other newspaper runs a literary festival? And who else publishes a literary review every fortnight?

There have been occasions when you do feel the newspaper could have been more strident. Its silence during the Emergency was deafening but that dark phase was more than atoned for when it came out with all its guns blazing on the Bofors issue. It was also around this time that the daily did an about turn on its attitude towards militancy in Sri Lanka. From a time when it was strongly in favour of the Tamil cause, it became pro-peace, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It has since been accused of being pro-establishment, but it has in effect reflected the official Indian policy no less. And then in 2003 came the sensational order to arrest its editor, for he had dared criticise the then Chief Minister for her authoritarian ways. Almost a decade later surfaced the Wikileaks – scooped by The Hindu. It did not however escape criticism on this – there were accusations that the paper timed the release of the contents based on the impact it could have on events of national importance. The Hindu it was said, was soft-pedalling on matters pertaining to those owing allegiance to the left. Would all of this have made for a staid newspaper? There has, beneath that veneer of peace and quiet, a lot happening in The Hindu.

Over the years, the paper itself has become a vast treasure trove of history. Awaiting discovery in its archives, all of it most professionally digitised and search-friendly, are photographs, first-person narratives, articles, editorials, and general writings of happenings across the world over 140 years. In the recent past the newspaper has been mining all of this and bringing out publications featuring some of its past content. Two that came out in 2018 are particularly good – one a compilation of the historian Nilakanta Sastry’s writings in the paper and the second a collection of articles on Madras-based institutions, written by Kamala Ramakrishna. There are plenty more titled The Hindu Speaks (on music, sport, etc), All of these books are commendable and combined with The Hindu’s voluminous history brought out during its centenary, make for a formidable record. And yet you are left with the feeling that just the surface has been scratched. What is needed is a team of researchers, trawling the archives and bringing out every hidden gem.

That brings us to the present. Among the right wing it is common practice to refer to the paper as the Anti-Hindu because it has made no bones about its left-wing liberal leanings. In bhakt parlance I presume the newspaper would qualify as pseudo-sickular. Sometime back social media was awash with rumours that The Hindu is funded by the Church. If that be so, how is it the only publication where appeals for donations to kumbhabhishekams of temples share space with articles espousing minority causes? Editorials against the beef ban appear alongside a longish report on a discourse on Vedanta. A story on MS Subbulakshmi pops out amidst a larger piece on gaana paattu. The Hindu has striven to provide a voice for everyone. Where else will you find a lit-fest where a Perumal Murugan, hounded by right-wing Hindus for his writing was given as much prominence as a Tasleema Nasrin for her fight against Islamic orthodoxy? It was rather ironic that the very people who trashed the paper for its support to the former praised it for featuring the latter. The Hindu has however kept going. Did they really say the paper appeared staid? Surprise, Surprise! It is actually anti-establishment – but in a nice way, with the decencies of the debate maintained. Not many today will understand that.

In the present times, its very tenacity to remain committed to a liberal society is a great comfort to have, at least for those who believe in such an environment. That in effect will be its new crusade and its fight for independence, of a new kind.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated September 20, 2018 and can be read here