The Open Page, a longstanding weekly feature of TheHindu, is meant to give its readers opportunities to write on a variety of subjects of their choice. It has proved extremely popular, particularly after it went full page on March 14, 2010, on a suggestion made in this column. The suggestion came in response to the expressed wishes of a number of enthusiastic readers. They wrote on an impressive range of subjects relating to the social, political, economic, and cultural lives of the people. Many of these contributions addressed the issues with fresh insight and a progressive outlook. The number of letters to the editor that have come in testifies to the spontaneity, the liveliness, and the élan of the Open Page.
Way back in 1978, when The Hindu introduced the ‘Open Page' as one of three special features, along with ‘Outlook' and ‘Special Report,' to commemorate the newspaper's birth centenary, the one-page feature was also termed the reader's page. The first Open Page was published with a four-line highlight at the top, which read: “How do people react to events, ideas, developments? TheHindu seeks, in this monthly feature, to provoke public discussion on key topics of current interest, to promote purposeful thinking. This page is open to you” (quoted in Rangaswami Parthasarathy's educative A Hundred Years of The Hindu: The Epic Story of Indian Nationalism, Kasturi & Sons Ltd. 1978, Madras).
These terms of reference remain relevant today. Given the lively response from readers to the contents of the Open Page over the past four months, the feature is clearly living up to its claim “to provoke public discussion ... [and] promote purposeful thinking” among tens of thousands of readers.
Of the approximately 80 articles (many of them have been accompanied by illustrations, photographs, and cartoons) published in this page up to July 18, 15 probed issues relating to women and children. Eight dealt with problems relating to the environment and wildlife. Issues relating to education and linguistic chauvinism accounted for five articles each. There were four articles on the plight of senior citizens and the same number on Bt. Brinjal. A few articles highlighted problems ranging from the quality of TV serials to the justness or otherwise of capital punishment, from understanding Mahatma Gandhi to confronting Maoists, from eulogising Super Moms and Super Grandmas to ensuring communal harmony in a pluralist society. Most of the articles were eminently readable because they touched upon the contemporary concerns of large sections of the people. The mix included some light articles, human interest stories, humour pieces, and interesting tales that people like to read in addition to the heavy stuff. Some writers wrote sensitively on people who suffer deprivations, such as housemaids and Dalits. Recent incidents of barbaric ‘honour killings' and corporal punishment inflicted on schoolchildren were taken up for earnest discussion.
Interestingly, not just the articles on serious subjects, but also those written in a lighter vein won the appreciation of readers who wrote letters to the editor or to the Readers' Editor. Thus recent Open Page articles have generated discussion on everything that serious newspapers write editorials about.
The subjects covered included the entry of foreign universities, ‘honour killings' of young couples, the flourishing of khap panchayats, which nullified weddings between consenting adults, the continuing practice of corporal punishment in schools and the resultant tragedies, gender discrimination in fixing wages, the ill-treatment of house maids, child abuse, linguistic chauvinism, communalism, casteism, and terrorism. The theme of changing social values in relation to the indiscriminate use or abuse of modern gadgets such as mobile phones, the ‘cultural shocks' that modern society has often to face, and the increasing isolation of senior citizens from the rest of the society have also provoked thoughtful discussion.
They suggest solutions
Many contributors to the Open Page do not stop with highlighting the problems. They propose solutions as well. This suggests that readers are not less committed than media pundits to resolving troubling issues through a process of social change and reform that has been delayed for too long in India. For instance, Anandita Gupta (“Employing women: going beyond quota,” Open Page, March 14, 2010) writes “… the question is not which class of women will benefit from a higher number of women representatives.” The question is: will it really empower women. In her opinion, a seat in the legislature does not automatically ensure that the interests of the group/section/community of that person are made safe. The article refers to the continued oppression of women and instances of gang rape of Dalit women. Ms Gupta's clear-sighted formulation is that women's empowerment means “giving the power to women to say no to what she does not agree to and giving her the freedom to exercise her fundamental rights as a citizen of India.” She then spells out measures that, “if implemented in their true spirit, would empower women the way we would like them to.”
The measures include the sensitisation of judges towards cases involving women, the formation of a separate cell to investigate cases involving women, the enactment of stronger laws to deal with atrocities against women, and steps to sensitise the police to woman-specific problems. Although Ms Gupta's stand on reservation for women in legislatures may sound cynical, her article displays a practical approach to the real, long-pending problems ordinary women face in their day-to-day life.
Issues before society
Another subject that has caught the attention of discerning readers is premarital sex and live-in relationships. There have been three Open Page articles on the subject in the last four months. Dr. Meena Chintapalli, a Texas-based paediatrician, offers this surprising generalisation in “Ever thought about the child caught in crossfire?” (Open Page, April 18, 2010): “Encouraging sexual relationships with the co-living prior to marriage leads to what the western society is now regretting. The guy loses interest in the girl he has a relationship with, as another girl attracts his attraction for whatever reason. The girl tries to save the relationship by getting pregnant. The guy walks out of the life of the child and the mother. The mother looks for another support and that man will not accept this child and this child will not accept the new guy. Anger builds up and this leads to emotional and physical abuse as well. The child grows up with insecurity and the mother loses interest in the child as a result of the failures and depression.” Noting that the affected children suffered from abnormalities of different kinds, Dr Chintapalli cautions Indians against similar occurrences.
“People of the same gotra do not necessarily have the same origin” (Open Page, July 4, 2010) by M.V. Anjaneyalu challenges the contention of the khaps that same-gotra marriages cannot be validated on the ground that the man and the woman involved have the same origin. The writer punches holes through this pseudo-theory by pointing out that people of a gotra are descended from families of different origin. “Moreover,” he writes, “the genes undergo change in course of time as the spouses come from different parents.”
Another article that has triggered reader interest is by K. Alagesan. “We are casteless, give us our due” (Open Page, July 4, 2010) looks at the couples “who have chosen to lead a life away from the casteist social order” to make out a case for doing a census of inter-caste couples. Referring to the contradiction between the Constitution envisaging a casteless society and the social order remaining caste-ridden, he asserts that inter-caste marriage is the only remedy. “Crores of people,” he claims, have married across castes and discarded the oppressive caste system, but intolerant of this, caste forces have ostracised such couples. Mr. Alagesan presses for a separate reservation of 0.5 per cent for the sons and daughters of inter-caste couples, as recommended by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, headed by Justice M. Venkatachalaiah, in 2000.
Strengthening the bond
The Open Page is a vital, increasingly important part of the newspaper. Making it a full page has attracted a big response. It strengthens the bond of trust between the newspaper and its readers. It helps the newspaper learn from its readers, many of whom bring to the table fresh insights and ideas. The Hindu's Chief News Editor, P.K. Subramanian, who selects the articles from a large inflow and edits them on his own time, mostly at home, and a small team that helps him put together the Open Page, as well as thousands of the newspaper's readers deserve the credit for this enthusing work in progress.