The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the eastern bureau of Parliamentarian
Being from Kolkata, may I be allowed to quote a very old Bengali adage: “Je Jaye Lonkaey Shey-i Hoi Rabon”, that is, whoever sits on the throne of Lanka becomes the demonic Ravan. Bengalis, you see, were wise people, till they elected Mamata Banerjee on the false promise of “poriborton”, or Change. Intriguingly, there has been no change in the people’s lifestyles. Instead, she has changed. Now she has abducted press freedom, like Ravan abducted Sita, and is shrieking at the top of her voice at every chance that she will teach the media a lesson.
And yet, while in the Opposition, she had been the media’s saviour on many occasions against Red Repression. But among her first acts after coming to power was issue an order banning the top state newspapers from public libraries. But then, she is merely carrying on the inglorious tradition media suppression from the past.
That Bengal has been reeling under a creeping sense of fear, is well-known to the media community. Only, the manifestations are not immediately visible. Because, an overriding pressure from the respective owners of the media houses to play safe has ensured that none bites the back of the other. And the result is inevitable: only a few media organisations have fastened their seat belts to withstand the wrath of the powers that be.
The manifestation of the government wrath on the media assumes various shapes and forms; only their application varies from one disposition to another. And often, it goes beyond the twin traditional tools of government advertisements and media accreditation. West Bengal has lately been passing through this phase. But more of it later.
Since the regime of former Congress chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who toed the diktat of his leader and the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in implementing the black rules of the Emergency, West Bengal has gone through phases when press freedom anything but existent. That politicians survive on the divide and rule policy (which we have successfully inherited from the British Raj), is no secret. The simple fact is that when one media house or journalist is targeted, others either enjoy the show, or remain silent or even gleefully report the incident in a manner that carries no credibility.
Secondly, very few politicians in the world, leave alone in Bengal or India per se, would have a penchant to welcome positive criticism. The Emergency period saw such famous journalists as Gour Kishore Ghosh, Barun Sengupta and so many others suffering varying periods of confinements in jail as they refused to bow to SS Ray’s diktats. The day after Emergency was declared, Ghosh tonsured his head, saying his parents have died. He was jailed, naturally. The tales of Emergency excesses were dime a dozen and people, grappling with the excesses, sought to repose faith in the CPI(M)-led Front because the Left parties, which were in the opposition, made several noble moves to resist the `tyrant’ Ray.
Seven years into the Left Front rule, Barun Sengupta launched Bartaman newspaper with the slogan: “Bhogoban Chada Kauke Bhoi Paena)”, or fears no one except God. He was countered by the state with the counter slogan: “Only sinners fear God”. But Bartaman remained the undeclared opposition in the state, exposing scams and needling the Reds, without its eyes being gauged out.
The first two decades of Left rule in Bengal did not witness any major showdown with the media barring some minor hiccups. It was towards the latter part of the third decade of the Marxist regime that the patience of the ruling clique began to wear thin. Assaults on media persons covering bandhs (which were tediously frequent then) or opposition party rallies slowly began to tear the ‘progressive’ mask of the Left. Emboldened by an acquiescing Alimuddin Street (the party headquarters of the CPIM in Bengal), the Marxist cadres often went beyond the brief of the leaders and resorted to coercive tactics on media men.
It was at this time that the state reporter of a now dead weekly newspaper, Sunday Mail, published from New Delhi, started a series of exposes on the CPIM, the most serious being a minutely detailed report on how CPIM has planned, attacked, gang raped and assaulted two UNICEF officials and their driver in the infamous ‘Bantala Case.’ This lead to the upright deputy chief minister, late Binoy Chowdhury to offer his resignation. But the reporter was not harmed, beyond verbal threats, partly because his base was Delhi and, partly also because a powerful intellectual faction of former CPIM leaders was backing him.
However, the worst skeletons started to tumble out of the cupboards during the bitter and prolonged land agitations that rocked Singur and Nandigram over construction of Tata Motors car factory and a chemical hub respectively. Media men proceeding towards Singur or Nandigram were physically prevented from reaching the spot of trouble; those who managed to sneak in, faced the brutality of the CPIM cadres. The bid to muzzle the media reached its height during the police action on the villagers refusing to part with their land, codenamed `Operation Sunshine’ in Nandigram.
After 14 agitators were killed in police firing, the motorcade of the then governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi and accompanying newsmen were blocked by armed Marxist supporters. The governor had perforce to make a detour while several reporters, lensmen and TV camera crew were thrashed by goons at several points prior to their entry at ground zero. Some newsmen had been compelled to abandon their trip, bruised and battered. Angry and agitated over the way they had been waylaid by the CPIM supporters, the media lodged a strong protest with the police. But the cops acted smart albeit with a sleight of hand that dangled only at the discretion of Alimuddin Street. Several senior journalists were wondering whether dark days of the Emergency were back in Bengal.
The vicious attack on the media triggered a national furore, compelling the Marxist mandarins to hunt for all sorts of alibi. But the damage was done; Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee, who was the lone voice of opposition then, seized the opportunity, fuelling a groundswell of mass support. Yet, very few had the inkling that the tide was turning and that too, decisively. It was the land agitation that pitch forked Didi in the national political arena and finally helped her conquer the erstwhile Marxist citadel riding on heavy anti-incumbency.
Many veterans thought the change of guard at the Writers’ Building, the then state secretariat headquarters in West Bengal, would augur well for the state that had suddenly been in the news for the worst reasons. Tata’s much-vaunted Nano factory took a flight to Gujarat from Singur; Jindal’s promised steel factory at Salboni hanged in limbo and the despair of the unemployed hit its nadir.
Tyrant At Grassroots
With Mamata Banerjee came a litany of promises; of democracy, freedom of the Press, talks of development, women’s empowerment, so on and so forth. In fact, during her prolonged stint in the Opposition, she had become the saviour of the media on many an occasions. It was only in fitness of things that expectations began soaring and they went through the roof once she assumed the helms in Bengal.
But man proposes, God disposes; the flicker of hope that glimmered in the eastern horizon of Bengal began to dim and the veterans were soon to discover contradictions and contrary state of affairs, much to their chagrin. Since her very first innings as chief minister (June, 2011), she has tended to put an attitude of indomitability, resulting in an exodus from the think-tank within three years of her assuming power. A major chunk of these intellectuals, who had believed in her to usher in a `whiff of fresh air of emancipation from the tyranny and oppression of the Left’, was completely disillusioned. A string of incidents shortly in the wake of her assuming the chair shows this.
The initial semblance of irritation against the media made its maiden appearance when a government notification was issued (March, 2012) saying that the state and statewide libraries could purchase only eight newspapers whose names found a mention in the circular. Names of leading English Newspapers such as Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, Statesman were missing.
Having realised the grave impact of her decision, the chief minister quickly took a U-turn and said that the order was being altered only to include more newspapers. Her decision to ‘ban’ English newspapers in libraries was met with sharp criticism from all quarters, including the then Trinamool ally Congress, Left parties and the intelligentsia as a whole. They called the decision “undemocratic, undesirable and worse than censorship”.
CPIM general secretary Sitaram Yechury claimed: “She (Mamata) wants that only what she says should get into print and not anything else. This shows that seeds of fascism have been sown in the state. But her statements will not change history and neither will the realities change.” That was just the beginning and people were to witness growing intolerance of criticisms. Then with scary regularity came incident after incident.
During a people show at a TV channel where university students gathered to engage Mamata Banerjee in a Q&A session moderated by the channel’s senior editor, she lost her cool and what followed thereafter was simply absurd and deplorable. She directly alleged the students, rightly critical of her government, of being “Maoists”, “CPM cadre”, SFI members and everything anti-TMC. Going a little further, she wildly asserted that the audience was selected from an ultra-Leftist student block. Clearly, it’s the same old conspiracy theory (popular with the Left!) that she resorted to. Bengal has heard this before; the nation too.
The chief minister kicked up a storm when the state administration issued an order - Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in official jargon – which is largely being seen as an attempt to confine mediapersons to the Press Corner on the first floor of Nabanna, the 14-storey building, which now serves as the seat of governance. It was exactly a repeat of what the CPIM-led government slapped on reporters when it was at the helm. Any entry of mediamen to any other part of Nabanna without approval of the competent authority, the order claimed, for the purpose of media coverage is “literally breach of the SOP and also prejudicial to security of the VIPs and official secrecy of various departments of the government.
Mediamen are supposed to remain only at the Press Corner on the first floor... until and unless they are informed or allowed by a competent authority to go to any of the departments at Nabanna for a photo session or a press briefing,” the order strictly stated.
A stunned Kolkata Press Club issued a counter statement: “Indian democracy has always unequivocally rejected attempts at press censorship and there shall be no exception in this case as well. No stone will be left unturned to ensure smooth functioning of the fourth estate.”
Noting has moved an inch since then and the order still remains in force!
Interestingly, only one Trinamool Congress MP demonstrated a little guts to flow against the tide, albeit temporarily. “I think the media should be left alone.
That is why I am strongly against any form of censorship of the media,” Sougata Roy, TMC MP from Dum Dum said at a panel discussion on “Has the media failed the people?” moderated by veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.
Roy minced no words and said he did not think media controls voters and he was not among those politicians to have “a love-hate relationship with the media”. “When a person goes out to vote, he votes on the basis of his own experience, not on the basis of what is written in the press or what is broadcast in the media,” Roy added. Obviously,
Roy’s observations at the panel discussion stirred a hornet’s nest in the innards of the party and was understood to have drawn the ire of the party supremo. The beleaguered MP, it was learnt, was censured and cautioned against overstepping his limits.
There have been umpteen instances thereafter that reflect the growing intolerance towards the media by the ruling regime. And to cite one of the latest is the Facebook post of a very senior and respected government doctor Arunachal Choudhury. His only fault (though the service book rules never list it as a strict no) lay in giving vent to his anguish at the state of affairs in the government hospital he served in the wake of the raging outbreak of dengue in Barasat, Deganga and neighbouring areas of North 24 Parganas district. As Dr Choudhury walked back home with a suspension letter, the medical fraternity burst in anger. But surprisingly, several newspapers and TV channels opted to ignore it, lest it draws the ire of the state government, or the flow of government advertisements to the organisation dries up. “Didi is of a different mettle. She gives far more importance to the mass media than the Left ever did; she also takes any opposition, every criticism very personally. And she is not lily-livered when it comes to wreaking vengeance,” alleged West Bengal Pradesh Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Choudhury.
Media veterans attribute the mechanism of the government’s gag on the media on the state-sponsored advertorials; successive governments have made deft use of the huge advertorial budget in their kitties to force a majority of the print and electronic media either to toe their line or desist from mounting hard-hitting and scathing attacks on their policies and actions. It is almost a fait accompli to state that advertorials are tools for the government to tame a `bull’ (read rebellious media) that develops an uneasy knack to hunt down issues that hurt once they are highlighted.
In her second innings, Mamata Banerjee, her baiters claim, has fine-tuned this tool with such a magnificent craftsmanship that a large majority of the media, both print and electronic in the state, has lost the voice of protest. The officials in the Information & Cultural Affairs department would flatly refuse to speak to newsmen over phone, leave alone any embarrassing query that might show the government in poor light.
But why the gag? Trinamool Congress returned to power for the second time in a row with a thumping majority –213 seats in a house of 294. Obviously, a huge majority of people must have reposed faith in the party. Neither was it a rigged election that the opposition might cry foul about. In such a situation, any government would not be wary of criticism, since people of the state are supposed to be its pillar of strength. Then what exactly is ailing the state authorities that they are so keen to sweep them under the carpet?
“Deep within her lie a sense of insecurity and a fear that she might be unseated. She fears tough questions. She doesn’t like her shortcomings being pointed out to her. Critics and criticisms unsettle her,” confided a close confidant who walked out of her camp. Those who are still in the camp, feel Mamata Banerjee has to get over her paranoia, stop seeing conspiracies everywhere, bite the bullet, and finally broaden her mind up. And if she gets the time, she should start fearing the lull in Bengal. The storm might not be too far away.
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