There is no grand design or divine plan around life as far as Anand Ranganathan is concerned.
There is “no grander purpose of life beyond mere existence; we’re simply an aggregation of cells”, he says. Ranganathan is an atheist.
What then is the fundamental principle guiding what he writes, tweets and speaks?
“As long as we’re breathing, we might as well make life more comfortable and tolerable for those around us,” he says, and adds, “talking of which, thank you for writing on me, but a small disclosure, although it is public knowledge and mentioned in my Twitter bio: I am the consulting editor of Swarajya.”
We visited Ranganathan at his office cubicle that seamlessly adjoins his laboratory at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU’s) Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, where he holds a professorship.
The lab is an organised chaos of beakers, flasks and test tubes, and microscopes, spectrophotometers and sequencers, with staff and students donned in their white lab coats and gloves, moving about with a purposeful air.
A study carried out in this lab by Ranganathan and his fellow researchers, on repositioning of anti-Hepatitis C drug, Alisporivir, for treatment of malaria, gained media attention this year. Ranganathan’s lab has published half-a-dozen high-impact papers in the field of malaria and tuberculosis in the past couple of years.
“From nine to five, it’s strictly science,” he says. He arrives at his centre by nine o’clock, convenes with colleagues for a “sugar-free” filter coffee at the campus’ Indian Coffee House, and then returns to his lab where his students are at work.
Amidst this, he manages to take out moments to post his opinions online, which invariably go viral with thousands of reposts.
He skips lunch, a habit he picked up after a health scare two years ago. “I had said my goodbyes,” Ranganathan recently shared in a popular podcast, describing the heart attack. “The last cigarette I smoked was two years ago.”
In the evening, he dedicates about an hour to brisk walking. Then, he makes a cameo on a TV news debate, where he is known not to spar but dispense cogent arguments within a two-to-three-minute window.
Contrary to typical TV panellists, Ranganathan prepares assiduously, he says. He requests the subject matter a couple of hours in advance, scours for relevant facts and data, forms his opinion, writes it down, and then articulates it compellingly. “I blend facts with wit, humour and punch, and deliver it in a manner that is forceful.”
Afterward, he posts the video of his ‘monologue’ on social media, stirring instant buzz. These snippets frequently find their way to social media.
Type “Anand Ranganthan” on YouTube and the auto-fill suggestions include: “Anand Ranganthan debate”, “Anand Ranganthan thug life compilation”, “Anand Ranganthan destroys leftist”, etc.
He is aware of the impact his commentary generates. His television appearances began as fun but have evolved into a weighty responsibility, he admits. He recognises that his perspectives wield considerable influence, and his followers often await his stances to take a stand themselves.
Ranganathan grew up at the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, where both his parents served as faculty. He credits his father for instilling in him a voracious appetite for reading.
During his undergraduate and doctoral studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, he dabbled in fiction writing. However, he found his initial efforts lacking in impact. He then set himself a rigorous reading regimen — 70 pages per day for an entire decade, immersing himself in the works of authors ranging from V S Naipaul to Ryszard Kapuscinski.
In 2012, he ventured into the publishing world with his debut book, The Land of the Wilted Rose, a “dark what-if parody” released by Rupa Publications. It wasn’t long before Madhu Trehan, a journalist and media entrepreneur who was assembling a team for her digital venture, Newslaundry, invited him to join.
Thus began Ranganathan’s second act as a public commentator, contributing columns and making podcast appearances.
As a commentator, Ranganathan’s pieces ranged widely, from the intellectual prowess of B R Ambedkar to the troubling persistence of caste-based atrocities, and from religion’s uneasy relationship with science to the patchy execution of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation initiative.
This middle of the stint with Newslaundry coincided with a watershed event in Indian politics. In 2014, a political sea change swept the country as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), riding a wave of widespread support for Modi, secured a decisive electoral victory, capturing the most resounding mandate any Indian political party had seen in three decades.
Modi’s campaign had projected him as a non-dynast with unassailable integrity, and an economic reformer. Yet, even before he could take the oath of office of prime minister, headlines such as “For India’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows” and “Being Muslim under Narendra Modi” proliferated, setting the tone for the kind of scrutiny that he was going to face.
Critics claimed that a Modi-led India would imperil its Muslim and Christian population. Soon enough, every cricket ball that landed at a church window and every cattle rustler confronted by villagers were counted as incidents of ‘hate crimes’, and magnified as evidence of a burgeoning wave of state-endorsed communalism.
The disparity in reporting had culminated in the emergence of a global narrative that painted Muslims in India as disproportionately targeted victims of religious hate crimes perpetrated by the Hindu majority.
This narrative found its biggest push through two influential initiatives: Hindustan Times’ “hate tracker” and Indiaspend’s database of hate crimes. These endeavours selectively highlighted incidents where Muslims were the victims, while systematically overlooking cases such as the brutal murder of Prashant Poojary in Karnataka or the beheading of three sadhus who had attempted to prevent cow slaughter in Uttar Pradesh’s Auraiya district.
This narrative was eagerly embraced and amplified by global media outlets and human rights organisations, and calls for international intervention were made.
As the crescendo of communal anxieties reached a fever pitch, Ranganathan utilised Twitter (now called X) to set the record straight.
He compiled and shared lists of Hindus who had tragically lost their lives in communal hate crimes but had been omitted from such databases to confirm pre-established theories of Muslim and Christian victimisation.
He began appearing on primetime television debates, where he frequently requested a mere “30 seconds” to make his persuasive case, calling out “selectivists posing as activists”, that is, activists who purported to champion human rights but exhibited clear biases.
It was during this period that the authors of this piece began to grasp the significance of Ranganathan’s documentation and the impact of his advocacy. While Swarajya collected and published evidence of hate crimes against the Hindu community, he dismantled the false narratives on primetime TV, often citing our work for his data-based refutations.
This was a rarity in an arena where plagiarism is a norm. Of course, his approach of thorough citation was guided by his training in science.
Eventually, his work compelled an established institution like Hindustan Times to rescind its biased ‘hate crime tracker’ and even dismiss the editor responsible for such reporting. Indiaspend, too, withdrew its tracker and showed the door to the editor.
Since then, no subsequent attempts to advance similar narrative agendas have been made by any prominent media house.
Today, Ranganathan is unfazed if categorised as ‘right-wing’ or even a Hindutva pundit. “It’s acceptable if well-intentioned people ascribe such labels to you.”
Self-identifying as part of the “anti-hypocrisy wing”, Ranganathan challenges critics to compare Hindutva with Islamic extremism.
To his detractors, he asks, “just because you are embarrassed by the violence, misogyny, and bigotry commanded by your holy books, you bring in a false equivalence to deride Hindutva? Here’s an open challenge for all those who hate Hindutva: list just five principles, dictats and commandments that you hate in Hindutva, that are not there already in Islam. Just five. And if you can’t, then will you declare that you will henceforth hate Islam as much as you deride Hindutva?”
Ranganathan does not shy away from taking controversial stands, such as openly supporting young politician Nupur Sharma in a blasphemy row, at a time when mobs vowing to behead her were running amok in all corners of the country and even her party’s leadership was treading cautiously.
“Lift your head and stand with Nupur today, or you will not have a head to lift up and the legs to stand up tomorrow,” he posted. It was reposted 14,000 times.
However, he has occasionally incurred the wrath of the same crowd that supports him. Reason? His free-speech absolutism.
For example, in June 2022, when an FIR (first information report) was registered against a notorious staffer of the portal AltNews, Ranganathan posted an “I stand with Zubair” tweet on X. Many of his followers either gently expressed their disagreement or clearly let it be known that they were aghast to read his tweet.
Ask him about it and he reminds you, “I am a free speech absolutist”.
Another way he expresses his moral absolutism is his choice of NOTA in elections. “I vote every time and I always press NOTA,” he had revealed in a conversation he recorded with film director Vivek Agnihotri for this very magazine.
But it’s not always his principles which push him into the headlines. Sometimes his jokes do that.
One incident that snowballed into a controversy involved a dessert that frequently finds mention on Ranganathan’s timeline. The Mysore Pak.
In September 2019, various Kannada news channels mistook a satirical tweet by Ranganathan as real news and proceeded to attack Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
In a post, now deleted, Ranganathan had tweeted, “Pleased to receive this token of appreciation, on behalf of the one-man committee for granting of the Mysorepak GI tag to Tamilnadu. Talks are proceeding smoothly. WDTT”.
This was accompanied by a photograph of him giving a box of Mysore Pak to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Kannada channels failed to get the joke and ran the story with much outrage. It required one BJP MP from Karnataka to speak to the channels and explain the joke to them and another to come out and say that there was no question of Tamil Nadu obtaining the GI tag for Mysore Pak.
By 2018, amid a changing editorial leadership that was openly hostile to his views, Ranganathan had parted ways with Newslaundry. He politely declines to elaborate but sports a wry grin as he muses, “A Leftist can never be your true friend.”
Before meeting Ranganathan, we asked a devoted 23-year-old fan, an aspiring writer, about what he would ask him. The young man was intrigued about Ranganathan’s survival at JNU, a campus not typically aligned with his political views and known to lean towards the Left, often to the extreme.
Does he face tensions with JNU’s notably left-leaning student body? “Not particularly,” he states. He attributes this relative peace to his commitment to factual accuracy, devoid of insults or name-calling.
At the same time, he repeats that “a Leftist can never be your true friend”, and elaborates, “because he is deeply embarrassed about eulogising mass-murderers and following a junked ideology.”
He continues, “it’s a heady mix of inferiority and persecution complex that soon turns to anxiety when the ideas of the cult are rejected by all intelligent humans. His only refuge then is among people of his own tribe. It’s a religion. You keep convincing each other that you are correct. What inevitably follows is authoritarianism, thought-control, state-control, and then total-control.”
Ranganathan does receive a fair share of unannounced visitors though, despite stringent entry restrictions in the campus that require staff members’ approval for the guards to allow outsiders in.
On one occasion, a distraught Kashmiri Pandit sought his aid in revisiting a stalled court case. While empathetic, Ranganathan clarified to the visitor that his role as a political commentator did not confer upon him the power to intervene in political affairs.
Misconceptions about his influence seem to be not uncommon. Once, a visitor implored him to broker a government contract. “People see photographs of me with political figures and surmise that I am one of them,” he chuckles.
He is clearly not. In fact, he has been critical of the BJP and the current dispensation in more than one place in his latest work, Hindus in Hindu Rashtra: Eighth-Class Citizens and Victims of State-Sanctioned Apartheid. Just a day after we spoke to Ranganathan, a podcast featuring him was released where he discussed among other things, the contents of this book.
“Where the Congress is visibly anti-Hindu, Modi is not pro-Hindu,” said Ranganathan in it while answering a question on why the BJP had not done anything to alleviate the sufferings of the Hindus in cases where the community was clearly the victim of injustice.
Today, when reels and memes are standard tools employed to fight a contest of narratives, Ranganathan, with his pithy one-liners and sharp interventions is amongst the most followed commentators in the social media space. He is not in politics, but what he says and writes informs the political choices of a few lakh people.
But that doesn’t change anything for Ranganathan. In the same podcast referred above, he candidly says in the context of questioning the current government: “You want me to conform to your biases. I am sorry that’s not going to happen because I’m a no-one and I believe, genuinely believe I’m a no-one. And because of that, I get this power to say whatever I want to say”.
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