How many newspapers does Mamata Banerjee read? While uncharitable skeptics might raise an eyebrow at the question and brush it aside with a one-word, “none”, the number can now safely be assumed at eight.
While national networks have been busy covering and uncovering purported bribe offer to the Army chief and the hungama in the aftermath of a letter sent by General V.K. Singh to the Prime Minister, overlooking the Defence Minister who spends most of his time defending his spotless white shirt, sorry career, Mamata Banerjee is quietly busy fiddling in Bengal with another bout of authoritarianism.
So back we come to eight, the number of newspapers the West Bengal government has allowed to be kept in public libraries across the state. Sangbad Pratidin, Sakalbela, Khabar 365 Din, Ekdin, Dainik Statesman, Sanmarg, Akhbar-E-Mashriq, and Azad Hind.
According to a circular, a.k.a. diktat, of the Mamata government, these are the eight daily newspapers that state-run libraries will subscribe to. This, according to the circular, is in “public interest” and “as a measure to develop free thinking among the masses“.
A welcome proposition, indeed. If the idea was committed to the verbosity of the government circular, that is. While the first five are Bengali (or Bangla) dailies, the sixth is a Hindi newspaper and the last two Urdu. No English newspapers.
“Free thinking among the masses”?
You must be kidding. According to a research report (Language Press in India: A Study of Contemporary Bengali Journalism) published in the Indian edition of the Global Media Journal (June 2011), West Bengal has “nearly 560 published newspapers, 430 of which are in Bengali”.
Are we to thus assume of the 560-odd (more papers have certainly spawned up since Mamata ushered in her ‘paribartan‘ nearly the same time last year) dailies published in the state only these eight are suitable to generate “free thinking” among the readers. Don’t English newspapers spread “free thinking”?
I take refuge in another set of stats: the Q1 2011 figures for Indian Readership Survey (IRS) released on June 30 last year gave the top 10 most read newspapers in West Bengal. In order, they are: Ananda Bazaar Patrika, Bartaman, The Telegraph, Sangbad Pratidin, Ganashakti, Aajkaal, The Times of India, Uttar Banga Sambad, Sanmarg, Sambad.
While the figures could have certainly changed in the nearly one year since, the difference between most papers in the list is fairly large enough to discount the possibility of any major shake-ups. Are we then to believe that eight out of 10 people in West Bengal have been reading papers that do not engender free thinking every day of their life? Why did the government’s ‘subscribed’ quota of eight dailies then have only the number 4 and number 9 from the top-1o list?
The government circular also says, “No government fund will be spent for purchase of newspapers/dailies published or purported to be published by any political party.” As several news reports have pointed out, only Ganashakti (number 5) can be dubbed as a party mouthpiece (of the CPI-M). What the circular laughably forgets is Sangbad Pratidin is owned by Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Srinjoy Bose, and its executive editor Kunal Ghosh was recently elected to the Upper House on a TMC ticket. Sanmarg’s director Vivek Gupta and Akhbar-E-Mashriq journalist Nadimul Haq have also been elected to the Rajya Sabha by Trinamool.
Sure, the fine print is fine: neither of these papers are directly “published or purported to be published” by a political party (read Trinamool). But what happens when people directly associated, if not running, these papers are directly backed by a political party? Nope, not a question the government is willing to come clean on.
Interestingly, Sangbad Pratidin executive editor Kunal Ghosh recently made news himself, when he, for all purposes, backed Mamata Banerjee and her government’s vilification of the woman gangraped last month at Park Street, Kolkata. The honourable Rajya Sabha member had then said: “I will use my democratic right by dancing away the night in a night club, skimpily clad, will befriend unknown people and then if any untoward incident happens I will blame the government? This is unacceptable.” (Read: Insensitive and unrepentant)
His paper, being the most circulated among the eight dailies now to be subscribed by the state’s nearly 2,500 public libraries, would of course now teach the readers “free thinking”.
It’s pliable, of course. I have never read the paper but checked the e-paper on the Web version of Sangbad Pratidin while writing this piece. The notable aspect in the front pages between March 23 and 27 was, only March 27 didn’t have a single photograph of Mamata and just one headline mentioned either the word “Mamata” or “mukhya mantri“.
The front page on March 23 was also remarkable: all stories, barring a single column on extreme right about miracle surgery on an 18-month-old child and an advertisement, were about Trinamool Congress. Either “Mamata” or “chief minister” marked four headlines, while the other story was on Trinamool getting four more Rajya Sabha members.
But even in the story about the surgery to take out an iron rod that had gone into the infant’s mouth, the second paragraph eulogises Mamata: “The doctors managed to perform the miracle surgery under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s leadership”, it says. Catchy slogan, but exactly how did the CM help in a surgery done in Asansol, which is more than 200 km from Kolkata? Would the honourable RS member enlighten us?
So, is it a non-partisan newspaper, Madam Chief Minister?
Mamata Banerjee will, of course, ignore all questions; she sees most questions as conspiratorial in tone and tenor. She also has an uncanny ability to snub all questions and twist it in a way that lets her cry victim at the drop of a hat — all classic characteristics of a totalitarian.
What she also forgets, in her penchant to keep to her roots of ‘maa, maati, maanush‘ and pander to the ‘poorest of poor’ (read farmers), whom she and her party members claim to represent, is the majority of people who go to public libraries are not farmers. Among them, a large section reads English, and with language dailies across the country focusing more on local news, English papers are often the only source of reading national or global news of significance since most middle class households in India do not subscribe to multiple newspapers.
In pandering to Bengali in such scary fashion, Mamata is inadvertently toeing the line of her once archrival, the late Bengal CM Jyoti Basu. Basu, who banned English education till class V in all state-run schools for over a decade, is often credited to have made a whole generation, ill-equipped in English, lose a certain value in the job market.
While the circulation affected thus would in no way affect most newspapers with readership well into lakhs, it certainly does create an unpleasant precedent. Will the government next issue a diktat for government and semi-government offices and PSUs? Will educational institutions follow after that? And if one step leads to the other, what stops the CM from changing school textbooks and curriculum to suit her purpose? And if all those are in, can muzzling the free media be far behind?
Questions galore. But the biggest question is who will answer them?
PS: Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet even has a Libraries Affairs minister, Abdul Karim Chowdhury. Interesting.