'People Are Not Fools'
A conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, India’s hugely successful news portal, on why this is a “particularly dangerous moment” in the world’s largest democracy.
By Michael Judge
When I reached Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder and editor-in-chief of India’s hugely popular news portal, The Wire, at his home in New Delhi recently, I felt as if I was talking to an old friend. This was partly because I’d written for The Wire in the past and we’d corresponded. But mainly it was due to the fact that his older brother, the gifted New York-based journalist Tunku Varadarajan, is a dear friend who has never missed an opportunity—usually over drinks—to tell me how brilliant his brother is, and how I must interview him for TFP. “He is like the boy with his finger in the dike,” Tunku recently told me, “trying valiantly to keep out the sea of intolerant Hindu chauvinism that would wash over India.”
That’s not just a proud big brother’s opinion. At 57, Siddharth Varadarajan has arguably done more than anyone in India since the 2014 electoral victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to beat back the flames of the BJP’s assault on press freedom, religious tolerance, and longstanding democratic institutions and norms.
Founded in May 2015 by Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, and MK Venu, The Wire is a nonprofit news and commentary website with more than 10 million weekly readers that publishes in English, Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu. Its founding editors, including Varadarajan, who remains editor-in-chief, started The Wire on the premise that “if good journalism is to survive and thrive, it can only do so by being both editorially and financially independent. This means relying principally on contributions from readers and concerned citizens who have no interest other than to sustain a space for quality journalism.”
That model has proven tremendously successful. The Wire's many reporters, commentators, documentarians, and editors have received scores of domestic and international awards for journalistic excellence and independence. More importantly, The Wire’s widespread success proves that there’s still great demand in Modi’s India for a news outlet that takes its role as a government watchdog seriously and stands up for press freedom and minority rights in the world’s largest democracy.
An economist by training, Varadarajan studied at the London School of Economics and Columbia University and taught at New York University before returning to India to work as a journalist. He has been a visiting lecturer at the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley and a Poynter Fellow at Yale University. But it is his journey to places, as W.H. Auden said of Yeats’s poetry, “where executives would never want to tamper,” that sets him apart from other economists, academics, and many journalists whose names top a masthead.
As Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University’s Watson Institute, said in his introduction of Varadarajan when he delivered a lecture at Brown this spring, Varadarajan is “not only a trailblazing journalist,” but also “one of the sturdiest pillars of intellectual freedom” in an India that is “increasingly hostile to the idea of intellectual freedom and indeed to the idea of freedom of expression in general.”
Sadly, and yet, not surprisingly, since the conversation below took place on June 21, two more prominent government critics were arrested: Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, and social activist Teesta Setalvad, secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace. Both arrests have been widely condemned by human-rights activists and journalists, Siddharth Varadarajan chief among them.
M.J.: First, congratulations on the success of The Wire. Among scores of other awards, last fall the International Press Institute awarded The Wire the 2021 Free Media Pioneer Award for being “a leader in India’s digital news revolution and an unflinching defender of independent, high-quality journalism.” Well-deserved.
S.V. Thank you very much.
This spring you delivered a lecture at Brown University on the media and democracy in India. In it you said that “India’s democracy has always been less than perfect, and the media has tended to mirror those imperfections. But today we are witnessing a particularly dangerous moment in the life of both.” What makes this such a dangerous moment?
There is a very close relationship between democracy and free media in the sense that freedom of the press in any democratic country is an integral part of democratic processes and accountability. Democracy is so much more than simply people having the right to vote every four or five years. It’s about citizens being well-informed, citizens being empowered to know what's happening, to have questions asked on their behalf of those who are in power. And when the media begins to pull its punches, doesn’t ask those questions, doesn't shine a light on what’s happening, when the media helps to obfuscate the real issues of the day, when it helps to divert people’s attention away from things that are important and into side alleys of the government’s choosing, then this is something which is very harmful to democracy. And what we’ve seen over the last seven or eight years in India is, one by one, all of the broad institutions, constitutional as well as social, failing to do the job of keeping Indian democracy on the rails.
Of course, we very much have India as an electoral democracy where elections take place like clockwork and are widely regarded as free and fair in terms of the mechanics of voting, and there is never really any serious dispute over election results and this sort of thing. But the outcome of these free and fair elections—which is the formation of a government and the functioning of that government in a democratic and transparent fashion and in an accountable fashion—that part has been seriously compromised by Parliament failing to function the way it was meant to, by the Indian judiciary not doing the work it’s meant to, by various other autonomous or semi-autonomous bodies which are meant to hold the executive to account, by all of these institutions essentially failing to do their job.
And then you have this problem magnified by the executive getting a free pass from the media. And in the absence of scrutiny or serious critical examination by the media, you have the actual abuse of authority. And when the media is unable to point this out, it puts a veil on the government’s functioning behind which the government is able to engage in the most gross abuses of authority that then further undermines civic freedoms and political freedoms. The government has made use of this lack of scrutiny by the media in order to misuse the police, misuse the tax authorities, misuse various other investigative agencies, and use them as a weapon against its political opponents and its critics. And that’s what we've seen over the last seven or eight years.
You left your post as editor of The Hindu, India’s leading newspaper, in 2013, the year before Narendra Modi and his populist Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power. The following year, in 2015, you started the Foundation for Independent Journalism and launched The Wire. Why then?
It was quite apparent from the end of 2013, and then in the months leading up to the 2014 election, that many media houses had begun to trim their sails as far as Mr. Modi was concerned because they didn't want to be on the wrong side of the person who was going to win the elections. But in any democracy, the public interest is best served by the media not being invested in the victory or defeat of any particular politician, but simply being invested in holding truth to power. Yet it became very clear from 2014 onwards that the bulk of the media, particularly television, had crossed over to the dark side. I would point out, however, that The Hindu is still far better than any other paper in India, and is today very much on the positive side of the equation, as far as good media and bad media is concerned.
That sounds a bit like 2016 in the U.S. when, as soon as it became clear that Donald Trump would win the GOP nomination, many news outlets, especially on the right, scaled back or stopped reporting altogether on his unfitness for office, authoritarian tendencies, and alleged illegal activities.
I think the comparisons are instructive as far as the servility of a major section of media is concerned. But the big difference between the U.S. and India is twofold. With Trump you have support from traditional Republicans and Tea Party members and the Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracy theorists, etc.—a largely inchoate support base. But Mr. Modi is the product of an existing fascist organization that is nearly a hundred years old—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The RSS is a Hindu chauvinist body that was set up in 1925 with the premise that Muslims and Christians are aliens. They're not real Indians. They're not true Indians, that India is essentially a Hindu country, and belongs first and foremost to Hindus. And this organization has been pursuing a political project for nearly a century now and has been fielding political parties, candidates. It has cadre in the civil service, in the judiciary, in universities, all over the place. So there is a much more enduring and well organized and sinister political machine that stands behind Narendra Modi, which is what, to my mind, makes him that much more effective and more dangerous for democracy.
The second difference is that Modi exercises this kind of power in a system that does not have very well-developed and well-functioning institutions. Of course, the Indian Republic is 75 years old, but if you look at the functioning of the judiciary and the degree to which it is independent as the constitution envisages, and you compare its independence with, say, the U.S. judiciary at all levels, you would find quite a significant difference between the two. And if you look at the functioning of investigative agencies, I don't think any media proprietor or any rival political leader ever seriously feared Trump’s ability to unleash the FBI against them or for Trump to send the taxman knocking at their doors. Whereas in India, if you are a rival politician or you are a media house that is critical of Mr. Modi, chances are that you’ve had some investigative agency or coercive arm of the state deployed against you.
“One reporter, Siddique Kappan, has been in jail for over a year now because he was trying to report on the case of the alleged gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman, a woman from a community which is historically and even now subjected to caste discrimination.”
At The Wire, for example, we’re currently battling several police cases. When we do stories that are critical of the government or that the government doesn’t like, apart from defamation or libel suits, we also have to deal with the danger of police cases being filed for stories where the police make absurd claims like the story is inciting disaffection and insurrection against the government, or, fueling religious hatred between two communities. It’s utter nonsense. But they are able to tie you down with police and court procedure and thus take you away from journalism. This might happen in Russia, or Turkey, or Hungary. But I think in the U.S. you’re lucky that you haven’t seen that aspect of things. In other words, we don’t see cops or tax officials unleashed against The New York Times because of its reporting. There are other risks, but not these sorts of risks.
I should mention that in 2020 you were the target of one of those assaults on the press by government officials and the police, for something published in The Wire at the height of the COVID pandemic, were you not?
Yes. Two cases were filed against me by the government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, in Ayodhya—that’s about 700 kilometers east of Delhi—in the middle of the first national lockdown, at the height of the panic over COVID. Even though the prime minister had told people to “stay indoors, don’t venture out,” we had this ridiculous situation of two jeep loads of policemen driving 700 kilometers and landing up at my house, demanding that I accompany them back to Ayodhya. Luckily, I wasn't there. But when we found out, we made a noise about it and also tried to move the courts, which was very difficult to do. But I think the national—and international—outcry helped to stay the police’s hand.
But that was a response to a story and a tweet that we had done, which the government didn't like—and I was fortunate. But I have to tell your readers that 60 or 70 other cases were filed against reporters of other media organizations across the country for stories that they had done during the pandemic that were critical of various aspects of the government. Many ended up getting arrested and spending time in jail. Sadly, what became the norm during the pandemic has stayed with us, so that now—in state after state—it’s not uncommon to see the police file criminal cases. At The Wire, we are currently facing four criminal cases filed by the police in Uttar Pradesh, after a fifth was quashed by the high court.
One reporter, Siddique Kappan, who works for a Kerala-based media organization, has been in jail for over a year now because he was trying to report on the case of the gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman, a woman from a community which is historically and even now subjected to caste discrimination. He was traveling from Delhi to a place called Hathras in Uttar Pradesh to report on her case and was arrested before he could get there. He did not even get to file a story. He was a Muslim reporter from Kerala and the police chose to file all kinds of absurd charges, including terror and sedition charges, and the poor guy has been in jail for more than a year because the anti-terror law under which he’s been booked makes the granting of bail very, very difficult.
That reminds me of what’s happening in Hong Kong. Obviously even before the pandemic, the tide was beginning to turn there, in terms of using the local police force to target the pro-democracy movement. But now, using the anti-sedition law, they’ve really ramped up their attacks and my friend Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily, is behind bars.
And that’s a frightening, frightening idea that people like Jimmy Lai or yourself could be targeted for sedition . . .
Fortunately, they never threw sedition at me. But they have done so to colleagues and friends of mine. The respected editor, Mrinal Pandey, for instance, India’s first woman editor of a national daily, was charged with sedition. And then there’s Rajdeep Sardesai, another respected TV journalist; and Vinod Jose, who edits The Caravan magazine. So there’s a whole bunch of people who’ve been charged with sedition. And here’s another thought. You compared this to Hong Kong, which is very apt, but don't forget that Biden and Modi are part of a grouping called the Quad, which also includes Japan and Australia and what’s meant to connect these four countries is an attachment to democratic values.
And so these four countries are supposed to share certain political and civilizational values in contrast to China, which doesn't respect those values. Yet here you have India and China—which is the authority in Hong Kong—behaving in a similar fashion when it comes to invoking all kinds of crazy laws against journalists.
In the past, you’ve pointed out the silence during the Obama and Trump administrations regarding the anti-democratic velocity of the BJP and the Modi government.
But Biden’s Secretary of State Andrew Blinken has been more outspoken on Modi’s poor track record on human rights and democracy. Do you see that as a hopeful sign or is it mostly just window dressing?
I wouldn't use the word hope or hopeful because, frankly, the battle for democracy in India is a battle that Indians have to fight, and democracy will only be defended when Indians fight that fight and prevail. But I think that the world needs to understand what is happening in this country. I think the world’s media needs to keep its eyes focused on the human-rights situation, because under the cover of closer economic ties, under the cover of a common united front against the geopolitical challenge posed by China, there is obviously a tendency—one that we saw with Obama and Trump, and I dare say even now under Biden—for the U.S. to prioritize ensuring that India is a destination for U.S. investments and that India and the U.S. stand united against China in Asia. I do sense a subtle shift under Biden. This perhaps is partly a reflection of the fact that Western media is increasingly focused on what Modi is doing and is increasingly unwilling to cut him too much slack, which creates a certain expectation in domestic public opinion in the U.S. that the White House should not ignore these things. But frankly this is a fight, as I’ve said, that people in India have to wage. History is full of examples of countries where change which has come not from inside, but outside, has never proved to be durable or necessarily positive. So that impulse has to be internal.
Right. That reminds me of two things. First, Tunku has talked about your father's love of Walt Whitman and how he would read Leaves of Grass to you when you were growing up, which I think is telling and beautiful. But the second thing is that the Modi government is creating these museums—a museum for prime ministers and a museum for Indian democracy—which is really quite bizarre, given his antidemocratic leanings. I love your quote: “Democracy is not something you put on display in a museum, but a way of life that you must fight to lengthen, strengthen, and preserve," which I thought was very Whitmanesque.
It's so true. There's something extremely ironic about creating these museums for things that are supposed to be civic duties alive right now.
Yes, it is bizarre. Modi very clearly has what some might call a “cultural agenda,” which is driven by the RSS and its worldview, which is informed by this idea of Hindus nurturing a perpetual grievance against Muslims, against Christians, against the wider world; of Hindus never having been given their due.
I think he calls it “righting historical wrongs.”
Exactly. For him, the righting of historical wrongs essentially means you create new textbooks and you create new museums, etc. I think, across the world, there is a common longing for historical wrongs to be addressed and those wrongs are addressed by dealing with injustice as they exist in front of us. So if there is institutional racism in the U.S, which is part of the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, then I think modern America has a moral obligation to redress or to address that historical injustice. In other words, it’s far more important to address injustices as they exist today, rather than inventing new injustices and grievances or trying to argue that because, say, a temple was demolished by an invader 800 years ago that somehow the Muslims of today need to be taught a lesson, which is the approach that Mr. Modi and his colleagues reflect and embody. The Muslims today are not a ruling class, they are not some oppressors who have benefited from historical wrongs! All data shows they are far worse off than Hindus.
Modi goes even further back than that, right? He says India’s been subject to “1,200 years of slave mentality.”
Exactly. This is very significant because, as young Indians, we were brought up with the idea that India became free in 1947 after having been colonized for roughly 190 to 200 years. Because we date India's loss of freedom to the advent of British rule. Roughly, the Battle of Plassey, 1757, if you want to put a date on it, that's when the East India Company begins to make major inroads and then, one after the other, different regions of India come under their control. Modi, on the other hand, sees India's loss of freedom as going back, as you say, 1,200 years. And one of the first statements he made when he became prime minister, he spoke before parliament of ending a thousand years of slavery.
And this was a very clear reference to treating all of India's Muslim rulers as foreigners, as anti-Hindu, and you mentioned my dad. This is so different from the kind of view... My father considered himself a devout Hindu, even a proud Hindu. Took great pride in the religious texts and the philosophy and even the rituals, actually of Hinduism, which he followed and yet, for him, there was no sense in which non-Hindu philosophy or non-Hindu religions or culture was in any way un-Indian, or in any way, not something that he would not want to embrace. Similarly, writers from around the world... Dad was, of course, fond of Whitman, very fond of Blake.
‘We were brought up as proud, confident Indians who didn't have a sense of insecurity or nurture a sense of grievance against fellow Indians. But Mr. Modi and the RSS, their whole approach to life is very, very different, with their rewriting of history, changing of school textbooks, new museums, and the like.”
So we were brought up as proud, confident Indians who didn't have a sense of insecurity or nurture a sense of grievance against fellow Indians. But Mr. Modi and the RSS, their whole approach to life is very, very different, with their rewriting of history, changing of school textbooks, new museums, and the like. The museums are, in many ways, not the most problematic; it’s far more problematic that they are reopening old and settled disputes about places of worship, trying to suggest that mosques that were built on the site of demolished temples—temples that were demolished hundreds of years ago—that they should become temples again, even though there’s actually an act of parliament which says that there should be no change in the status of the place of worship after 1947.
So, theirs is a revanchist agenda that goes with a certain chauvinism about how ancient India knew everything; that India is the guru of the whole world; that all the learning and knowledge and wisdom of the world comes from India. It’s a typical garden-variety nationalist chauvinist philosophy that these guys espouse, but it comes tinged with this idea that, although 15% of India’s population are Muslim, we will treat our own people as the enemy, as not having a sense of belonging. So you have attempts to try to invisibilize them, erase them, by changing the place names of cities and towns, removing buildings, which is a terrible assault on Indian culture and Indian civilization as we know it.
I wanted to end, if at all possible, on a hopeful note. You spoke in your Brown lecture about “small rays of sunshine” on India’s democratic front. In addition to The Wire, you said, “there are dozens of media platforms doggedly pursuing the path of independent journalism, and dozens of them that refuse to be intimidated,” as well as citizen journalists on social media and YouTube holding officials accountable.
Those who believe in Indian democracy, you said, can still “pull ourselves back from calamity.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your hope for a more functional and open democracy.
Well, I think at the end of the day, the innate self-interest of people who are looking to better their lives—looking for work, looking for a better future for their kids—will assert itself in the face of a government which is hell bent on doing all it can to tie society in knots, in disputes and fights of one kind or the other, so that its own incompetence on the economic front, on the social front, is not revealed and not discussed. And I think that people are not fools. Was it Lincoln who said it? No matter. It’s true: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Even as we speak, we are in the midst of protests by young people. Unfortunately, a lot of it has turned violent in response to a government scheme changing the nature of recruitment to the army. People feel that job opportunities which once existed are no longer there, that the government which promised employment has short-changed them. So people are protesting, people are taking to the streets against government policies that they know are against their interests.
And it is possible for people to assert themselves, but it’s equally important that the media be there to report, to chronicle, to highlight what's happening—as long as the media is able to play the role that it’s meant to. And, as I said, we are there with lots of other small and large media organizations, freelance journalists and digital media, even though the government is trying to control digital media through various legal means—even though it is, by definition, much harder to throttle than newspapers or television. And so the government’s ability to fully manipulate public discourse is under challenge. And this is what gives me some hope that the kind of agenda which is being pushed is not going to prevail.
I wanted to end with this poem by Whitman in honor of your father, which I think gets to the core of what you were just talking about. He wrote this in his early notebook that would become Leaves of Grass:
I am the poet of reality I say the earth is not an echo Nor man an apparition; But that all things seen are real, The witness and albic dawn of things equally real I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea And went down to reconnoitre there a long time, And bring back a report, And I understand that those are positive and dense every one And that what they seem to the child they are [And that the world is not a joke, Nor any part of it a sham].
“The world is not a joke, nor any part of it a sham!” Man, gives me shivers . . .
Yeah. That really speaks to our work.
It seems Whitman’s more relevant now than ever.
Think about what he lived through, trying to prevent the Civil War, and then having to live through that awful war—heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. And then he sees Lincoln murdered and eventually the corruption and backsliding of the Gilded Age. His later book of essays, Democratic Vistas, is really a book written by a man terribly concerned about the future of American democracy, which, he believed, despite the great sacrifices of the Civil War, had become tainted, if not totally corrupt.
It's just astonishing to me how the arc of his life, especially with Democratic Vistas, shows that the process is long and arduous and hard, you know?
So we’re just part of that ongoing history.
I think it’s healthy to remind ourselves that this has always been happening. One has always had to fight the good fight.
So don't despair, my friend.
Absolutely not. It’s been wonderful. Thank you.
And one day we'll finally meet in person.
Either here or there.
Or we’ll meet in Brooklyn and have a drink with Tunku and raise a glass to your father and Walt Whitman.
That would be marvelous.
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