My first job as the Readers’ Editor is to be a committed reader of this newspaper. No section of the paper is secondary to the other. In the last few days, there was a flurry of mails following the publication of three pieces that form the debate between Sanjay Srivastava and Prema Nandakumar.
Before getting into the merits of the arguments put forth by the readers — both for and against — let me try to conceptually delineate the organisation of space in this newspaper. The paper is broadly divided into three sections — news, views and features.
The distinctions are set out in “Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values.” They are: “In keeping with the exemplary tradition of a general daily newspaper of record and consistent with contemporary best practice, The Hindu shall, as a rule, maintain a clear distinction between news, critical analysis, and opinion in its editorial content and shall not editorialise or opinionate in news reports. The Company must endeavour to provide in its publications a fair and balanced coverage of competing interests, and to offer the readers diverse, reasonable viewpoints, subject to its editorial judgment.”
Unlike the news pages, views pages have two distinct strands. One is the opinion of the paper. This unambiguous section is called the Editorial, and the paper carries two editorials a day. The other strand is a forum for bringing out multiple opinions on a range of topics and they do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the paper or its editor.
As a Readers’ Editor, to take a call on news pages is easy. It is a straightforward exercise of checking its authenticity, accuracy and if something is missing, despite the embarrassment of public gaze, we go ahead and make the necessary corrections right away. It is embarrassing for the journalists involved but the fact that there exists an institutional mechanism of correction, gives the credibility for their journalism.
But, when it comes to views, sometimes the differences between the writer and the readers are extremely subjective. Even in the views section, if there are any factual mistakes, I do not hesitate to make the correction. But, what is the option in front of a Readers’ Editor, if readers differ with the author’s view? And when it comes to the question of faith, can we deny the individual perspectives?
‘Writing can be misunderstood’
In his 1993 tract titled “The Question of Faith” (Orient Longman), Rustom Bharucha examined this rather elusive question by delving into diverse cultural practices and provided some answers with enormous seriousness, sensitivity and understanding. And at some level, he also has answers for multiple interpretations of any writing and captures rather very elegantly the dilemma facing a Readers’ Editor in determining the merits of subjective criticisms.
He wrote: “In the best of times, writing can be misunderstood. A writer may intend one thing and appear to say something else. Words and meanings do not necessarily cohere. This, however, is accepted as an axiom of writing. Only polemical texts are expected to be univocal. But the more reflexive pieces of writing are those in which one can say (and read) at least two things at the same time.”
He further added: “That, hypothetically, is in the best times. Today is a different story. Unlike earlier periods of censorship during the Emergency, for instance, when words were twisted, distorted, erased and manipulated beyond recognition, it would seem that our own words today have become almost as slippery as the politicians manipulating them. We are not entirely in control over what we are saying as the events of our time are proving stronger than our capacity to express them.”
To some of the readers who have taken sides over the debate on interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s photo, not just as a Readers’ Editor but as an individual reader as well, I would like to repeat what Rustom Bharucha had written two decades ago: “it should be acknowledged that there is a communal potential in every representation of religiosity, but this does not necessarily make the representation communal…. As in narratives and fictions, I think we need to ask ourselves when our intolerance of another community becomes malicious. When does prejudice cross the limits of acceptance, when does satire, as in the case of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, become ‘blasphemy’? These are the gradations that need to be more carefully probed instead of blanketing condemnations and endorsements of faith.”
I believe that the opinion pages of The Hindu are a site for much more open-ended debates, where enigmas are not erased and rendered into monochromatic, artificial emphatic sermons, but a study in plurality and diversity. An element of subjective lends credence to this polyphonous debate and I feel that the space for subjective reading should not be erased from opinion pages.
Keywords: Indian women, gender controversy, gender bias, Swami Vivekananda, Indian women's condition, masculinity issue, Indian culture, gender discrimination, women's freedom, sexual violence, Raksha-bandhan, Karva-chauth, Readers’ Editor