She is known as feisty, anti-communalistic, and an advocate of press freedom. Malini Parthasarathy, part-owner and senior journalist of the daily The Hindu speaks about her first impressions of Auroville, on the function of the media and her role as a Governing Board member.
AVToday: Is this is your first visit to Auroville?
Malini: Yes, but I could only visit Auroville for a short time. I attended some of the presentations by the Aurovilians to the Board and the Board meeting itself. I must say I am impressed by the remarkable commitment of the people I have met. Yet, I also felt that Aurovilians are still struggling to find their identity and haven't yet found the way for Auroville to develop.
How is it that an editor of The Hindu, based in Chennai, has never visited Auroville before?
Probably because too little of Auroville's ideals and its work are known to the outside world. I was born and educated in Chennai, yet I hardly know anything about Auroville, which is in my backyard so to say. Because not much is known, people easily get the impression that Auroville is an island, cut off from the rest of Tamil Nadu, from the rest of India . Take the afforestation, for example. When I came in, I was impressed by the work done. I was sad to return later to the barren landscape around it. I am aware now that Auroville has been doing reforestation on some areas in the bioregion, but if you do not know this, you have an impression of a self-absorbed community with little concern for its immediate environment, as the contrast between Auroville and its surroundings is so stark. This ignorance has to be addressed. I would like all of us, the Board and the Aurovilians, to come up with proposals for improvement. For the better Auroville is known, the more empathy and warmth it will receive from the outside world for Auroville's vision and for its plans to become a universal township.
I was happy seeing the presentation of Auroville's tsunami relief work and to hear that it has brought many contacts with the officials of the district and with the governments of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry . But you'll have to make sure you don't lose the momentum.
Do you mean to say that Auroville should become more Indianised?
No, please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that Auroville should be indigenised; that would not be fair to the original concept. The interactions with Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are important, of course, but they should not be considered as predominant. Auroville is meant to be a universal township. There is no need to be apologetic about that. And I am also aware that Auroville is primarily meant to be a spiritual community, so you have to balance the inner and outer work.
Do you have any knowledge of the underlying spiritual ideals of Auroville?
I have read Sri Aurobindo's writings, and always felt a great respect for Sri Aurobindo, first of all for his nationalist fervour and secondly for his spiritual work and legacy. For my own spiritual explorations his writings have been an input. I do not know that much about The Mother.
How did you become a member of the Governing Board ?
I was taken by surprise when I was phoned by the Human Resource Development Ministry and asked to be on the Board of the Auroville Foundation. Perhaps the invitation came because some of my ideals coincide with those of Auroville. As Executive Editor until recently I have wielded a role in the daily news coverage, and have written extensively on domestic and foreign policy issues. I am known in my writings as being against fundamentalism, against communalism, against any kind of religious imposition. I have always advocated the need to strengthen the secular and democratic orientation of India 's political system. This position has drawn the ire of the previous government which, in my view, presented a rather fundamentalist Hindu vision of Indian society. Ultimately there was a confrontation with the Government of Tamil Nadu. In November 2003, the Tamil Nadu State Assembly sentenced the publisher, myself and two others from The Hindu to 15 days in prison for “breach of privilege” after The Hindu had criticised the arrest of an opposition figure and the harassment of independent media. We appealed against the decision and the Indian Supreme Court suspended the orders. It all boiled down to the freedom of the press, whether the press had the right to report and criticise the deterioration of civil liberties.
I am drawn to the idea of a universal township, as I believe it to be in line with the Indian Constitution which talks about civic identity rather than a Hindu cultural identity. As such, Auroville could be a possible microcosm of what India is meant to be. When I was asked to become a member of the Board, I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to this legacy.
You are an advocate of press freedom, yet you also criticised the Indian media for their obsequious towing of a certain political agenda.
Yes, in a piece written for the annual issue of the Delhi-based journal Seminar ‘India 2004, A Symposium on the year that was' in January 2005, I criticised the over-estimation of the Hindutva phenomenon by the media and their disinclination to ask hard questions. They did not examine the authenticity of the issues inspired by Hindu nationalist leaders. Looking back at the content that filled newspapers during the sway of the previous government, it appeared that little was happening apart from propaganda assaults by overzealous Christian missionaries and Muslim terrorists planting bombs in public spaces. Many major publications and television channels painted a picture of Indian society well on its way to becoming a Hindu one, purging itself of the ‘alien elements'. During the Ayodhya dispute, for example, the validity of the argument for a temple at the disputed Babri Masjid site was hardly questioned. Another example is the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2002 which led to a victory of the ruling party. As that same party was accused of having had a covered hand in the slaughter of thousands of people in the riots earlier that year, the media were hard-pressed to find an explanation for the victory. Many insisted that the electoral success did not represent a justification of the carnage but that it only showed that Indian political parties, particularly the Congress, would have to ‘update' its political vision to accommodate the new political reality of the Hindu cultural consciousness.
When the Congress-led DNA won the Lok Sabha elections, the media spoke of ‘a stunning upset' and a ‘shock defeat' for the BJP. But it rather showed how unprepared the media themselves were and to what extent they were disconnected from the ground realities. They had concentrated on the wishful Hindu nationalist campaign of an ‘India Shining' and had failed to properly register the concerns of the voters. I concluded my article stating that the Indian media cannot afford to make this kind of mistake again if they intend to fulfil a credible role in the democratic process.
You are obviously a very busy woman, having done many impressive interviews with important national and international figures such as various Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan, with Pakistan's president Pervez Mushrarraf and with the then U. S. National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. Does such a schedule leave you time for Auroville? How do you see your personal involvement?
I am on a sabbatical now, so I definitely have more time for myself. But I do not want to make any grandiose presumptuous statements. Basically I will help you whatever I can to realise the ideals you came for, help you to remove the bureaucratic impediments to this vision and probably will also nudge Auroville to become better known. Any time you want me to come down, I'll be willing to do so.