Remarks on conferring the Bernardo O'Higgins Order
on Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan, Deputy Editor,The Hindu
Good evening, and welcome to the house of Chile in India. As head of
mission, I have to do many things, but there is little doubt that one of
the most gratifying is to recognize the achievements of distinguished
Indians who have contributed, in one way or another, to enhance ties with
Chile, and the Order Bernardo O'Higgins is one way to do that.
The Order itself was established half a century ago, in 1956, to
recognize foreign citizens for their outstanding contribution to the arts,
sciences, education, industry, commerce or social and human cooperation.
The order is conferred by the President of the Republic of Chile at the
proposal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Norma and I have been in India a little under two-and-a-half years. You
may know the story of the visitor to India who, after two weeks in India
says,"this is an extraordinary country, I must write a book about it";
after two months, he says, "this is a great place, I must write an article
about it", and after two years, he throws his hands up, and says "this is
so overwhelming, there is nothing I can write ". Presumably, we find
ourselves in the third stage of this "shock and awe" of Western visitors
to Mother India. Yet, of the many things that have struck me in my Indian
sojourn, I would single out two.
One of them is the enormous respect for the intellect.I don't think
there are many countries in the world where the President has a PhD in
physics and is an accomplished scientist, and the Primer Minister has a PhD
in economics and is an accomplished economist. This is not just a
coincidence, but a reflection of a nation where education, research and the
pursuit of knowledge are highly valued.
The second is the role of the Indian media and especially the press. It
is often said that we live in a media-driven age.If that is the case, I
would posit to you that there are few countries in the world where the
press makes such a significant contribution to the national debate, where
it takes up with such gusto the role of what in Greece was known as the
agora, or the public square, the place where citizens engage each other and
the issues facing the state. Both in its detailed and no-holds barred
reporting of current events, and in its analysis and dissection of them, it
enriches enormously the fabric and the texture of Indian democracy. This,
of course, is in the best deliberative traditions of this country, that go
back to Ashoka and Akbar, as Amartya Sen has reminded us in his recent and
remarkable book The Argumentative Indian. At the same time, as India opens
up to the rest of the world, and engages in what has been described as The
Global Indian Takeover, this high-quality coverage has also been extended
to international affairs.
And it is in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the
informed and well-documented analysis of international affairs in general,
and of Latin America and Chile in particular, that we gather today to
honour a young journalist and analyst, who in his little over ten years
with the Indian press, first with the world's largest English-language
broadsheet, the venerable Times of India, and, more recently, with The
Hindu, India's "newspaper of record", has already made his mark, by his
sharp reporting and trenchant analyses.
You could, of course, argue that it was all in the genes. Siddharth
is the son of a distinguished IAS officer, Mr Muthusamy Varadarajan, who
was Secretary Culture, and of Usha, a highly successful businesswoman in
her own right, both of whom are here with us this evening-- as is his wife,
Nandini, a professor at Delhi University. His brother Tunku edits the
opinion page of one of the world's leading newspapers, The Wall Street
Journal, so that one could say that their parents provided them not only
with the right genes, but also with something else.
I suppose being educated at the London School of Economics and
Political Science and at Columbia University, including doctoral studies in
Economics, also helps, as does a stint of teaching at New York University,
and speaking five languages. The same goes for being well-traveled, and
Siddharth has visited over 60 countries, including many in Latin America,
and, of course, Chile, where he developed a weakness for our famous
aperitif, pisco sour.
Now, while it is true that Siddharth has kept himself quite active on
the academic front, having edited a book Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy,
published by Penguin, publishing chapters in scholarly volumes, and
presenting papers at international conferences, the Bernardo O'Higgins
Order is given to him mainly for his extraordinary contribution to Indian
journalism, mostly over the past couple of years.
His supple prose, sharp analysis and always well-documented pieces on
many issues of world affairs have brought to Indian readers the sort of
perspective on issues of concern to the public of South Asia and its
environs that is often not even available in the world's best newspapers.
To be able to communicate highly complex issues of war and peace in
straightforward language that is accessible to newspaper readers is the
task of today's diplomatic correspondent, and this is an art that Siddarth
Varadarjan has mastered like few others. To avoid the extremes of turgid,
impenetrable academic prose, on the one hand, and of the vacuous, breezy
writing that passes for reporting in today's seemingly ever shorter news
items, on the other, is not an easy thing to do. But it is something that
Siddharth is in full command of: he writes with a light touch about weighty
In television ,as well as in the press, it is often argued that
international news is a "loss-leader", meaning viewers and readers are more
interested in local than in world affairs, as a result of which they are
left to international news organizations and outlets, which in many ways
only compounds the problem. The latter often provide either a highly
sanitized version of them ( so that they can reach as broad a market as
possible) or they come with their own biases. The real challenge for
journalism in the developing world, of course, is to cover world affairs
from our own national perspectives, allowing viewers and readers to
identify with them and fully appreciate their implications.
This is what Siddharth Varadarajan has done, first from the pages of The
Times of India, and now from those of The Hindu. Only last Saturday, we
had not one, but two pieces of him in the editorial pages of the latter, an
uncommon occurrence in contemporary journalism, but one that reveals that
he has much to say on the developments of the day.
It is often said that journalism provides the first draft of history.
Well, I would like to submit to you that when the history of South and
Central Asia and their interactions with the rest of the world, including
Latin America, is written in the future, the inputs provided to it by
Siddharth Varadarajan will take pride of place. Thank you.
30 March 2006