Saturday, Sep 13, 2003
G. Subramania Aiyer
Believe it or not, The Hindu, was born in ire. Six angry young men, all barely out of their teens, felt the campaign waged by the Anglo-Indian Press - newspapers owned and edited by the British - against the appointment of the first Indian, T. Muthuswami Aiyer, to the Bench of the Madras High Court was blatantly unfair and should be forcefully rebutted. So they borrowed a rupee and twelve annas and founded The Hindu, printing 80 copies at the Srinidhi Press in Mint Street, Black Town, and promising every Wednesday evening an eight-page paper, each a quarter of today's page size, for four annas.
In that first issue of September 20, 1878, `The Triplicane Six' justified their venture thus: "The Press does not only give expression to public opinion, but also modifies and moulds it according to circumstances. It is this want that we have made bold to attempt to supply... The principles that we propose to be guided by are simply those of fairness and justice. It will always be our aim to promote harmony and union among our fellow countrymen and to interpret correctly the feelings of the natives and to create mutual confidence between the governed and the governors... "
These would-be moulders of public opinion were two schoolmasters, the 23-year-old G. Subramania Aiyer of Tiruvaiyyar and his 21-year-old fellow-tutor and friend at Pachaiyappa's College, M. Veeraraghavachariar of Chingleput; and four law students, T.T. Rangachariar, P.V. Rangachariar, D. Kesava Rao Pant and N. Subba Rao Pantulu. All were members of the Triplicane Literary Society, which like similar clubs and societies had been formed to educate and enlighten the masses and mould public opinion against draconian measures of the time. The Triplicane Six' started their careers in journalism and education by bringing out a cyclostyled `newspaper' fortnightly. Its enthusiastic reception in Madras encouraged the six to start their weekly newspaper.
It did not take long for the students, who became lawyers, prudently to part company with their fiery editor, Subramania Aiyer, and his strongest supporter, Managing Director Veeraraghavachariar. Only Pantulu continued to write for the paper for many years, in fact until its Diamond Jubilee. After a month with the Srinidhi Press, the newspaper had its printing shifted to the Scottish Press, also in `Black Town'. There it welcomed the new Viceroy, the Marquis of Ripon, who, from his belief that "righteousness exalteth a nation," began a series of reforms that The Hindu's owners were convinced would win for him "the affection and gratitude of the people." The paper felt he had recognised that "even the most paternal despotism had never been and could never be a lasting foundation for foreign rule" in a country like India with an ancient civilisation. Ripon restored the liberty of the `Native Press', vigorously promoted the principles of local self-government through local and municipal administration, encouraged education, and invited Indians to work hand in hand with the Government. Subramania Aiyer and Veeraraghavachariar felt this Viceroy had successfully sown the seeds for the political education of the people.
The Founding Fathers of The Hindu were Anglophiles to a great extent. "How enormously the Indian people are indebted to British rule for everything that makes human life worth living, that imparts to it happiness, dignity and the quality of progress," The Hindu wrote in 1894. However, it was equally convinced that the Anglo-Indian Press should be challenged, despotic bureaucrats condemned, and the abuse of power exposed.
And so almost from birth, The Hindu collided head-on with the administration. "No harsher words," it has been remarked, were ever used in The Hindu than when it took on Governor Mountstuart Grant-Duff. In 1881, the paper, commenting on the Chingleput Ryots' case, charged Grant-Duff with allowing the affair "to cast dirt on the fair face of British Justice." Three years later, lashing out at the Governor and the judiciary, following the Salem Riots of 1884, The Hindu thundered: "... the prosecution of the so called Salem Rioters and their convictions were the result of a premeditated design, hastily formed and executed in a vindictive spirit, not very honourable and utterly unworthy of a civilised Government... ." The paper said about its béte noire on another occasion: "Oh! Lucifer! How art thou fallen? Oh! Mr Grant-Duff, how you stand like an extinct volcano in the midst of the ruins of your abortive reputation as an administrator! Erudite you may be, but a statesman you are not."
It was during this explosive period that The Hindu moved to Mylapore and `The Hindu Press', established by the paper's friend Ragoonada Row, where it expected greater priority in production. However, within a month it found that what the proprietors were planning, a tri-weekly paper to keep on top of the news and provide "a timely discussion of topics of current interest," would be impossible to produce here. It now moved to the Empress of India Press, where, from October 1, 1883, it became a tri-weekly, but maintaining the same size.
The first available issue of The Hindu, June 21, 1881.
The Hindu idolised `Father' Ripon, who had succeeded Lytton, the Viceroy "the people of India can never think of without a curse... (who) left the country without a single soul being sorry for it." The newspaper affirmed its belief in the bonds with Britain but "conceived a just aversion" to the bureaucracy, which was "the object of our hatred and contempt." It felt that Britain would produce better results in India with greater "sympathy for the indigenous institutions of the conquered country." The paper in those years did not hesitate to criticise legal tribunals as well.
Commenting on the arrest of Tilak in Poona in 1897, The Hindu wrote: "The Indian Press would not do its duty if it fails to write strongly and with indignation on the mad doings of the Bombay Government and so long as it has the freedom which the law gives it, it would write frankly and freely and would recognise no vocation in a constant singing of hallelujas to the European services." After Tilak was sentenced, the newspaper commented: "The British Government in India would appear to have taken leave of its old traditions of freedom, benevolence and popular sympathy and have fallen entirely into the ways of irresponsible reactionaries... "
Subramania Aiyer was willing to take on anyone and any institution if convinced he was right. He accused Reuters of "tendentious reports" on India and was "thunderstruck" by the The Times' hands-on "mendacity" and willingness to publish "trash from... India." But over the years it was against The Mail and The Madras Times that The Hindu, first in Subramania Aiyer's day and then, to a lesser degree in Kasturi Ranga Iyengar's, waged some epic battles.
On one occasion, The Hindu wrote: "Impartial judges will... distinguish between Indian and Anglo-Indian journals in regard to their policies, motives and ends. Anglo-Indian journals have not the same inducements or interests as Indian journals have in watching the administration in the districts and calling public attention to official misdeeds." Some months later, rebuking the Madras Mail for its remarks about The Hindu, the paper wrote: "It is time that the Madras Mail ceased writing nonsense about The Hindu. If it is ambitious of playing The Times of India's role in Madras it is quite welcome to its endeavours."
The Hindu became a triweekly in 1883.
Such Delphic pronouncements running into columns and enthusiastic encouragement of letters from its readers were to be the hallmark of "the Oracle of Mount Road" for decades to come. The political pronouncement has been important to The Hindu from its earliest days. Since the paper has catered to an erudite readership, the formula has worked and the paper has gone from success to success.
Within three months of coming out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening, the owners felt that the demand for the paper could only be met if they had their own press. They therefore rented new premises, had Rajoo Pathur of Arulanandam & Sons equip it to meet their requirements, and moved to 100 Mount Road on December 3, 1883. The new place of business - established on borrowed capital when public subscriptions were not forthcoming - was called `The National Press'. A new era in India journalism was to begin. The building itself became The Hindu's in 1892, after the Maharaja of Vizianagaram, Ananda Gajapathi Raja, generously gave The National Press a loan both for the building and to carry out needed expansion.
From the new address, 100 Mount Road, which to remain The Hindu's home till 1939, there issued a quarto-size paper with a front-page full of advertisements - a practice that came to an end only in 1958 when it followed the lead of its idol, the pre-Thompson Times, London - and three back pages also at the service of the advertiser. In between, there were more views than news. From the beginning, the paper carried a London Letter (the first correspondent being a mystery) and a considerable amount of Indian news from the Imperial capital - Calcutta and, subsequently, Delhi. It was this that made The Hindu a newspaper with a national outlook from its inception. The paper had room to spare for comment on such local matters as the lighting up of Grant-Duff's Marina and the Banqueting Hall, and the tragic fire at the People's Park Christmas Fair in 1887. As early as in the 1890s, when sport was still to develop in Madras, the paper briefly reported county cricket and local matches, condemned racial discrimination at Chepauk, and carried pieces on "Mr. Ranjit Sinhji."
The redoubtable campaigner, Annie Besant, arriving at the House of Commons, London, 1919.
The Hindu's national image was enhanced when it announced the birth of the Indian National Congress on December 12, 1885: "The objective of the Congress... is to bring to a focus our scattered political energy and to give solidity and organisation to native opinion... [on such] topics in which... all parts of the country are interested... " The status of The Hindu was made even more secure when its Editor moved the first-ever resolution of the Congress at the inaugural session in Bombay on December 28, 1885.
From the birth of the Congress, The Hindu emphasised the secular nature of the Party, a reflection of its own commitment to secularism. The Hindu of the early years owed much of its editorial panache to the man who became its friend, philosopher and guide, Surgeon - Major Nicholson of St. Thomas' Mount, after he saw the first edition of the paper and came in search of the publishers, and much of its later prosperity to the Maharaja of Vizianagaram and Nawab Humayun Jah Bahadur, a descendant of Tippu Sultan.
After the Congress session was held in Madras for the first time in 1887, when The Hindu's press did much of its printing, the volume of `national' news and views became so great that a tri-weekly paper was found "utterly insufficient." Therefore The Hindu became an evening daily on April 1, 1889. Within a month, Subramania Aiyer launched the paper's first columnist, `Sentinel', whose `Olla Podrida' took sly digs at the foibles of the upper class, Britons as well as Indians. A few months later, `A Native Observer' launched another column, intended to act as a brake on educated Indians imitating the West. Both columns were to pose problems for The Hindu.
"The Native Observer's" conservative views on Hinduism started a major controversy in the columns of the paper that ended only when The Hindu revealed the identity of the columnist as Sir T. Madhava Rao and chastised him: "Within the short period of three years, Raja Sir T. Madhava Rao has changed his opinions on political and social questions and the change has been decidedly for the worse ... We believe our aims... must be... not of a civilisation which however venerable its antiquity is for practical purposes more or less antiquated and useless." Those words of Subramania Aiyer were almost the first words in the rift that was to break up The Hindu partnership.
"Sentinel", on the other hard, was an Englishman, none other than Eardley Norton, the eminent Madras criminal lawyer. As City Coroner, he had sued the paper for its comments against him - the first defamation case it faced. But after The Hindu had apologised, Norton and Subramania Aiyer became friends and `Olla Podrida', with its biting humour and parody, was the result, though a short-lived one, the column running only from May to December 1889.
When Norton's election to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1894 was threatened, The Hindu came out strongly in his support. It then opened its columns to acrimonious correspondence when Norton, within a month of his election, resigned his seat, in consequence of an adultery suit being filed against him. Subramania Aiyer's partiality for Norton continued despite the lawyer's personal tirades at the Madras Congress in 1894 against those who disagreed with him. These attitudes of Norton turned Veeraraghavachariar against him and when, in 1898, the lawyer contested a Corporation seat in Triplicane, Veeraraghavachariar wrote a `Letter to the Editor' that The Hindu published under his name. Editorially, however, the papermade no secret of its admiration for Norton. When the Englishman won, it congratulated him warmly.
The Norton incident added fuel to the flickering flames of discord between the two proprietors of a paper that had grown to 12 pages and claimed the second largest readership in South India. The discord grew out of differences of opinion over social reform. Subramania Aiyer was a dedicated crusader against the social evils of Hindu society. He sought to raise the age of marriage; advocated widow remarriage; wished for a better place in society for Dalits; and demanded the abolition of caste, child marriages and nautch parties.
Subramania Aiyer was not a man to preach what he would not practise. He arranged for the remarriage of his eldest daughter, Sivapriyammal, who had been widowed at the age of 13, to a boy in Bombay during the 1889 Congress session. When a child died in a Triplicane home where there had been a widow remarriage and the community would not help at the funeral, Subramania Aiyer sent his own purohit to officiate. One day in 1893, The Hindu carried a display advertisement with the heading: "Wanted Virgin Widows to Marry."
The paper did not tread softly when attacking orthodoxy: "The Hindu that offends the orthodoxy is not argued with but is persecuted and denied all the pleasures of association and the solace of religion. It is this intolerance that has killed individuality in the country. The arbitrary power exercised by a section of The Hindu society has so far demoralised the whole that it has become utterly insensible to the needs of its own well being. To exercise this arbitrary power ... to see its own capricious and fossilised regulations implicitly obeyed without regard to change and changing condition ... has become the end it is ever conscious of; it will even calmly face its own destruction rather than admit itself to be wrong in any respect and adopt change."
Subramania Aiyer wrote that "the degraded condition" of Dalits was "notorious and the peculiarities of The Hindu social system are such that from this system no hope whatever of their amelioration can be entertained." It seemed hopeless, he commented, for Dalits "to expect redemption from anything that The Hindu might do" and "no amount of admiration for our religion will bring social salvation to these poor people."
The Hindu was Subramania Aiyer's vehicle for social reform crusades. In a conservative society, it was inevitable that such zeal encountered a hostile backlash. Veeraraghavachariar, in charge of the business side, found the repercussions squeezing the paper's finances. Not only was circulation dropping as orthodoxy broke with it. The heavy damages awarded in three of four defamation suits against the newspaper and a compromise in the fourth also hurt.
The times were not ripe for the entire Subramania Formula and, after his return from England in 1897, he restrained himself in anguish, responding to the organisation man Veeraraghavachariar, "the custodian of Congress prestige in Madras." But literary silence was foreign to that disciplinarian and man of few spoken words, Subramania Aiyer, even when it came to protecting a losing investment. Soon the bickering resumed, fundamentally over the issues of social legislation, for which, Veeraraghavachariar contended, the newspaper's readership was not ready. He came to the conclusion that continuing with Subramania Aiyer's policies would neither increase circulation nor bring financial help from outside to The Hindu. There was an inevitable parting of ways and the partnership was dissolved in October 1898, Norton presiding over the formalities. Veeraraghavachariar was to say later that Subramania Aiyer had quit because he had become "disheartened on account of the heavy encumbrances of The Hindu" and his desire to quit had come "as a thunderbolt" to the Managing Director.
Within days of the break, Subramania Aiyer took over full-time the editorship of the Swadesamitran while Veeraraghavachariar took over the entire business of the struggling The Hindu. Veeraraghavachariar appointed C. Karunakara Menon, who had been with the paper from its first days, as Editor. Of Menon, Veeraraghavachariar had this to say five years later: "I have every reason to be proud that he has maintained the prestige of the paper unimpaired, coming as he did after Mr. G. Subramania Aiyer." But the bitterness of the dispute between the two friends never really healed. A response from Veeraraghavachariar led to Subramania Aiyer suing him for defamation. A published apology, however, settled the case.
Subramania Aiyer, who has been called the greatest journalist of his generation, felt there was no hope for an India living with the traditions of the past. In Western training and attitudes to society alone did this nationalist see hope for India. Even as late as 1903, at the Silver Jubilee celebrations of The Hindu, he was speaking out in favour of "change, reforms and progress" and warning that "blind and thoughtless conservatism lead to stagnation and eventual ruin." Long before the women's liberation movement, he felt that what was offensive in Hindu society was its treatment of women. Today, the ideals he fought for are enshrined in the Constitution.
Subramania Aiyer did not think that de mortuis nil nisi bonum should be a matter of policy. In unsparingly reviewing the work of the dead, he felt: "When a man dies we can review his work fully. The dead do not care what we write. Let the living take a lesson from our policy... Let all feel that even when they die their defects - if they injure the national cause and national self-respect - will not be forgiven."
He himself lived up to this code - to a point.
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