S. Viswanathan, a crusading journalist 'who understood the travails of the poor'

Published : November 15, 2019 12:07 IST

S. Vishwanathan Photo: THE HINDU

THE veteran journalist S. Viswanathan, a former special correspondent of Frontline and former Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, passed away in Chennai on November 5 after a brief illness. He was 80.

Born in Kandy in Sri Lanka, Viswanathan completed his school and college education in Thoothukudi and pursued his master’s in Economics from Pachaiyappa’s College, Chennai. He joined the Madurai office of Indian Express as a subeditor and went on to become Chief Sub Editor. In the late 1980s, he moved to Chennai to head the newspaper’s weekly supplement “Express Weekend”.

The “Weekend” provided Viswanathan a platform to share his views on social, political and cultural issues of the day. He gave substantial print space to Tamil writers, whose articles and interviews became regular features in “Weekend”, until then uncommon in the English-language media. Viswanathan also commissioned English translations of Tamil short stories, including those on pastoral life, to ensure a wider readership for Tamil litterateurs. This series was not only a huge success but also served as a veritable repository for modern Tamil literature in translation.

In the early 1990s, Viswanathan joined Frontline as a correspondent based in Chennai. He covered Dalit and social issues in Tamil Nadu, wrote in-depth reports on Dalit atrocities and also followed up stories that The Hindu broke. These reports that first appeared in Frontline were compiled into a book titled Dalits in Dravidian Land, published by Navayana in 2005. The Tamil translation of this book was published recently.

Viswanathan served as Readers’ Editor of The Hindu from 2009 to 2012 before retiring from active journalism. He also served as a member in one of the panels of the Sahitya Akademi. 

Many activists and political parties expressed their condolences on Viswanathan’s demise. The State secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), K. Balakrishnan, said that in Viswanathan’s demise, the poor and downtrodden had lost one of their staunch supporters.

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, in his message, recalled his long association with Viswanathan and praised his commitment to the social uplift of people on the margins. He said that Viswanathan had recorded the struggles the VCK had encountered in its early days. He also recalled how Viswanathan had extensively toured the Chidambaram parliamentary constituency during the 1999 general election to record the violence and atrocities unleashed by casteist elements, which he wrote about in Frontline.

Thirumavalavan added that Viswanathan understood the travails and tribulations of the poor intimately, not merely superficially. “This empathy was well reflected in his writings,” he said. 

Villipuram Member of Parliament and senior functionary of the VCK, D. Ravikumar, who is also a long-time associate of Viswanathan, said that he had meticulously recorded the atrocities committed against Dalits in the Villupuram district in the 1990s. Ravikumar pointed out that Viswanathan would not depend on any secondary information: “He used to come to the field, verify personally and record what he saw. He always stood by the victims.” Ravikumar was instrumental in bringing out Viswanathan’s book Dalits in Dravidian Land. He also organised a memorial meeting for the journalist at Villupuram recently.

Viswanathan is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

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