First Indian National to get
"Sri Lanka Rathna" award
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Highest national honour conferred by Sri Lanka on non - nationals is the
"Sri Lanka Rathna " award. Narasimhan Ram the Editor in chief of four Chennai
based publications became the first Indian national to be awarded that honour on
Nov 14th. Apart from the fact that "The Hindu", " Frontline" "Business Line" and
"The Sports Star" are very familiar to Sri Lankan readers there were other
reasons too for the sixty year old Tamil Brahmin of Iyengar stock to be made Sri
Lanka Rathna. Predominant among them is the abiding interest he shows in Sri
Lankan affairs and his contribution to the resolution of the ethnic conflict here.
N. Ram as he is generally known has focused much of his personal and
professional attention towards Sri Lanka in general and the issue of resolving the
ethnic conflict in particular. In the eighties when India played a mediator role
people like N. Ram played a supportive role in an unofficial capacity. Being close
to almost all the big players in both Countries and having special access to the
power corridors of New Delhi N. Ram were very effective in a behind the scenes
Though modest about it Ram contributed greatly to the process which culminated
in the signing of the Indo - Lanka accord by JR Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi on
July 29th 1987. On paper it was and still is the best possible arrangement ever
made to resolve the Sri Lankan crisis by guaranteeing the unity and territorial
integrity of the Country on the one hand and ensuring the legitimate rights of Sri
Lankan Tamils on the other. The 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution
paved the way for Provincial councils while the 16th amendment made Tamil an
official language. Both amendments were off - shoots of the Indo - Lanka accord.
In later years India withdrew from its mediatory role for reasons that are well -
known. The Hindu too stepped back from its crusading role but continued to be a
concerned commentator and observer. It is regarded in India as the foremost
authority on Sri Lankan affairs and has effectively helped mould public opinion on
the issue. The paper is influential enough to set the parameters for most media
coverage in India.
Ram himself is often cited as an expert on Sri Lanka and is interviewed by media
persons and diplomats from different parts of the world. He is also busy on the
seminar and lecture circuit. What is of importance is the continuing reliance of
political leaders and bureaucrats on the input provided by Ram and the Hindu in
formulating and implementing policy on Sri Lanka.
It was the Hindu which played a leading role in encouraging an interventionist role
for India in Sri Lanka in the eighties. Today it advocates an open "hands off
"policy towards Sri Lanka while being supportive of whatever assistance possible
to help resolve the problem in a manner acceptable to all sections of the people.
Ram himself with the wisdom of hindsight sees the earlier New Delhi policy as
This decisive shift in Indian policy also took on an anti - tiger veneer after the Rajiv
Gandhi assassination. Once it was established that the LTTE was responsible for
the killing the Hindu along with many other Indian media became stridently critical
of the LTTE. This perspective gathered momentum over the years as LTTE
conduct deteriorated into extremism bordering on neo - fascism. Being privy to a
lot of in depth information about the LTTE compared to other Indian media the
journal has been firmly opposed to tiger antics on a principled basis. This position
manifests itself very clearly.
This naturally has led to much resentment in the tiger and pro - tiger camp. The
tigers and fellow travellers feel that New Delhi could have been swayed to some
extent during the BJP period if not for the Hindu and "Hindu" Ram. Though Ram
was for long Editor of "Frontline" and "Sports Star" he is popularly referred to as
"Hindu" Ram. Since he has been the public face of the Hindu group of publications
for long and has been forthright in his criticism of the LTTE it is N. Ram who is
often singled out for virulent attacks by the tigers and their acolytes.
Most of the pro - tiger elements in Tamil Nadu have a background of Dravidian
nationalist ideology. A crucial component of this ideology is its pronounced anti -
Brahminism. As N. Ram is from a Vaishnavite Iyengar Brahmin family which
incidently owns the "Hindu" Group of publications the pro - tiger lobby accusations
are casteist and charge him of being anti - Tamil.The "Hindu" is derisively referred
to as the "Mahavishnu of Mount Road".
This is a ruse regularly used by the tiger elements. If the LTTE is criticised it is
twisted as being anti - Tamil. The Hindu editorial policy and N. Ram's personal
worldview to a great extent is against communalism, ultra - nationalism,
fundamentalism etc. Contrary to the name "The Hindu" the newspaper has firmly
and actively opposed Hindu fundamentalism in India. The paper and
newsmagazine have been in the Frontline of resistance to the Bharatiya Janatha
Party and its kindred organizations known as the "Sangh Parivar like Rashtriya
Seva sangham (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Bajrang Dal etc.
It is this ideological position that forms the basis of policy towards the LTTE.
Despite claims of fighting for lofty ideals the LTTE of today has become a
reactionary outfit . It also poses a long term threat to the stability of India. The
Hindu and N. Ram feel that the best solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis is
maximum devolution to a federal unit within a united Sri Lanka. It was felt in recent
times that Chandrika Kumaratunga provided the best bet in Sri Lanka towards the
realisation of that goal. There is no doubt that recent developments such as the
rise of Sinhala chauvinist forces like the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Mahinda
Rajapakse's insistence on a unitary Constitution etc will be prickly issues to the
avowed policy of both India , The Hindu and N. Ram.
The LTTE lobby loves to attack the "Hindu" and N. Ram as causes for its abysmal
failure in hoodwinking the Indian establishment. I too have been attacked for this
"Hindu" connection. I was the Frontline correspondent in Colombo from 1985 to
1987 and the Hindu correspondent from 1986 to 1987. Nowadays I contribute
articles to Frontline infrequently. Because of this the tiger lobby attacks me too as
an Indian or Brahmin stooge something which tickles my fancy often.
What the tiger lobby tends to forget now is the fact that the "Hindu" and "Frontline"
voiced the grievances of the Tamil people to the world during the 1983 - 1987
years. N. Ram himself took a keen personal interest in Sri Lankan issues and
interviewed people like JR Jayewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini
Dissanayake, Appapillai Amirthalingam and Velupillai Pirapakaran. Ram's interview
with the LTTE leader carried in two instalments remains the most quoted one by
Pirapakaran so far. The LTTE and its supporters would do well to do some soul
searching into what went wrong with their "Hindu" connection instead of launching
anti - brahmin tirades against Ram.
Sometimes I am amused when I read the verbal abuse in pro - tiger Tamil
journalisms about the "paarpaneeyam" (brahminism) of N. Ram. It appears to me
that some of these critics perceive him as a typical orthodox Iyengar brahmin with
the striped "namam" on his forehead. The reality is starkly different from
Far from being a conservastive brahmin the Hindu editor in chief is a progressive
cosmopolitian equally at ease in the drawing rooms of the West and the parlours
of the East. His first wife Susan was an English lady who was for many years in
charge of Oxford University press publications in India.He is now married to
Mariam who I believe is a Keralite Syrian Christian. She is an advertising
executive. He is no chanter of Sanskrit slogas or manthras but someone capable
of quoting from the Western classics as he once engaged in a verbal duel with JR
Jayewardene on Shakespeare.
Since this article is about the Sri Lanka Rathna and is written primarily for Sri
Lankan readers I have concentrated mostly on the Sri Lankan angle. Ram's CV
itself says that one of his special interests in the Journalist field is - " The Sri
Lanka ethnic crisis and the Tamil question; the experience of, and lessons from,
India's interaction with this problem." It would however be a gross error to confine
this piece to that perspective alone. The man has a multiple of talents and a
variety of interests.
One of his chief interests is cricket. My first visit to his house at Alwarpettai in
Chennai was in 1985. England was touring India. I was watching a thrilling match
on TV and reluctantly left for his house as he invited me to come over in the
afternoon. When I went there he asked me to come up where along with a couple
of friends Ram was watching the game on TV too. I happily sat there and watched.
It was only after the match was over that we got talking. I later learnt that he had
captained the Madras University team and also played for Tamil Nadu state in the
Ranji Trophy tournament. He was a wicket - keeper batsman.
It was this cricketing background which helped Ram strike up a deep friendship
with the late Gamini Dissanayake. I am not sure but I think NPK Salve the Indian
politician and Cricket Board chairman introduced Ram to his Sri Lankan
counterpart first. Both became close. Gamini metamorphosed over the years into
a firm friend of India and a dove on the ethnic question. The Gamini - Ram link
was of great value in the run up to the 1987 accord. Ram was used as an
"unofficial emissary" to carry messages that could not be sent "officially" between
Colombo and New Delhi .Like the ping - pong diplomacy between USA and China
this was cricket diplomacy. Gamini and Mrs. Dissanayake spent a few days with
Ram in India a few weeks before his death.
Another of Ram's characteristics is his pro - CPM or marxist sympathies. In his
youth he was an activist of the pro - marxist Indian Students Federation. It was as
an ISF activist that I first saw him in an incident of high political drama. I was then a
student at the Madras Christian College in Thambaram. Muttuvel Karunanidhi was
the DMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu.There was a rice shortage then due mainly
to blackmarketeers hoarding it. Karunanidhi appealed to the people asking them
to distribute hoarded rice.
ISF student members took matters into their hands and in a show of force seized
ssacks of rice from the hoarders and began distributing to the people. Police was
called in and 16 ISF members arrested. Ram was a state level office bearer of the
ISF and arrived at the scene to sort out matters. He was detained too. The
University students organized a city wide strike. As a result of the student agitation
the detained persons including Ram were released.
When I was sorting out my papers prior to leaving Sri Lanka I ran across the
leaflet issued then condemning the detention of N. Ram. I kept it with me and
showed it to Ram later when I met him in the USA. He seemed visibly embarrassed
at being reminded of his hectic activist past. Ram continues to maintain his leftist
connections and CPM leanings though that is not allowed to affect Hindu editorial
policy. Ram is closely associated with Prakash Karat the current Indian CPM
leader. Due perhaps to the CPM background Ram keenly follows developments in
China too and has written a series of articles after his numerous trips there.
Another interest is literature though his bachelors and masters degrees were in
history. Ram was closely associated with the doyen of Indian writers in English RK
Narayan and even co - wrote a biography of his early years with Susan Ram.
Once he was accompanying Narayan to see his former residence at Puraswakkam
to find that the old house was being demolished for a new building. Ram managed
to salvage the wooden lattice above the doorway and present it to Narayan as
treasured memento. He is also a fan of crusading author Arundhathi Roy and was
once seen sitting on the steps of the British Council auditorium to listen to her
lecturing to a packed audience.
Among his many interests are dogs. Ram raises pedigreed cocker and golden
spaniels that have won many , many prizes and ribbons. he is also fond of music
and was one of the speakers recently at the release ceremony of the path -
breaking "Thiruvasagam in symphony" by Ilaiyarajah. He is also an honoured
invitee to many DMK functions and is often the only man in Western attire on
stage amid the "karai verti" (bordered dhotis) clad DMK functionaries. Though the
lunatic fringe of dravidianism continues to rant and rave mainstream dravidianism
has established a sound relationship with the Mount Road Mahavishnu.Ram is
also associated with the Nawab of Arcot in the harmony association which
promotes unity and amity in India.
The question of free _expression is of crucial importance. Ram has been an
ardent votary of the principle. "The Hindu" faced a crisis recently when Tamil Nadu
chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram launched an offensive against the paper. She
was offended by the criticism levelled by the paper. After filing a series of cases in
court she overstepped her mark by getting arrest warrants issued against senior
journalists including executive editor Malini Parthasarathy a cousin of Ram.. Ram
spearheaded the resistance to this abuse of power and countered Jayalalitha at
many levels. Finally she backed down. The incident demonstrated clearly the
extent of influence the paper and its editor in chief had at an all India level.
Ram has been in journalism since 1966. It is a family business as the "Hndu" is
owned by members of the Kasturi Rangan family. Ram also acquired a masters
in comparative journalism from the Columbia University in New York. His biggest
journalist triumph was the Bofors scandal of the late eighties and nineties
pertaining to artillery equipment bough from Sweden. Together with Geneva
based Chitra Subramaniam and also on his own N. Ram uncovered many aspects
of L'affaire bofors . He won many honours and awards for this He was also
awarded the Pathma Bhushan in 1990 by the President of India. (R. Venkatraman)
I have been interacting with N. Ram for about two decades now. The relationship
has been volatile at times because of certain issues. I was extremely critical of the
IPKF and as a result was fired by the Hindu then. This dispute however did not
affect our personal relationship. Even professionally I contribute articles to
Frontline and Hindu depending of course on the availability of time and space. I
will however be appreciative of him for two things.
One is for his solidarity and support when I was arrested by Sri Lankan authorities
in 1987 for alleged links with the LTTE. The flimsy basis was an interview I
obtained with then deputy - leader of LTTE Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah alias
Mahathaya. The interview was published in "the Island" and not "The Hindu".
When Neelan Tiruchelvam informed Ram of the arrest he took up the issue
though he was advised by many to "keep out" since it was not directly connected
to "The Hindu". But Ram undertook a special trip to Colombo to meet with JR
Jayewardene and urge my release. He also published the "Mhathaya" interview in
"the Hindu" threby incurring displeasure in sections of South Block.
The other was when the LTTE conducted a campaign against "Muncharie" the
Tamil weekly I was editing in Toronto. I was compelled to shut the paper down
because the tigers intimidated advertisers and sellers of the paper.Not only did
Ram condemn the incident but also published my open letter on the problem. He
also alerted several media rghts organizations about the issue. Fearing for my
physical safety in Toronto as I had earlier been attacked and hospitalised by
baseball bat wielding LTTE goons he asked me to come down to Madras and
work and stay there for a while. I declined but remain grateful for the timely offer.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of a major crisis. The paradigm shift in Southern politics
of moving towards Federalism has received a jolt from Mahinda Rajapakse's
insistence on a unitary state. The LTTE through its enforced boycott has
demonstrated that it is shedding the so called exploration of a federal solution and
heading out towards its Eelamist goal. The coming months will be extremely
"The Hindu" from its vantage point in Chennai will no doubt be monitoring and
reporting developments. Wise counsel is necessary to ease tensions and restore
sanity. "The Hindu" group carrying much credibility on Sri Lanka can make a
positive contribution in this. Narasimhan Ram will be taking a personal interest in
all this. After all he is now an honoured "non - citizen" of the Island being a "Sri