Paper Priests

The battle for the soul of The Hindu

Illustration by Jignesh Chavda
Illustration by Jignesh Chavda
30 November, 2021


“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.