West Bengal’s terrorised district reporters

BY Sankar Ray| IN Regional Media | 09/03/2009
Mofussil reporters who file exposes on corruption, nepotism, non-performance and crude partisanship in West Bengal, risk their lives.
SANKAR RAY says the media is frequently harrassed under the Left Front regime. Pix: CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.


"Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information" – Ian  McEwan  in New Yorker.


The connotation, ¿semi-fascist terror¿, coined by the CPI(M) in the early 1970s to define suppression of democracy in West Bengal under the then Congress regime, is applicable to the  CPI(M) itself. Mofussil reporters who file exposes on corruption, nepotism, non-performance and crude partisanship in this state, risk their lives. Sadly enough, national dailies and even newspapers such as Ananda Bazar Patrika almost never highlight assaults on district reporters including their own staffers. Rather, private TV channels sometimes come to their defence.

Prabir Chattopadhyay, Burdwan  district reporter of the Kolkata-based Bengali daily, Sangbad Pratidin, is a recent  victim of his genuine commitment to the canons of journalism. An exclusive story on a girl-trafficking racket by him, front-paged in the daily on  February 1 this year, earned the wrath of  the  ruling party CPI(M).  Aseema  Khatun of Dubraj village under the Burdwan PS , involved in the trafficking committed suicide. The very next day the CPI(M) Bengali daily Ganashakti  accused Chattopadhyay of forcing Khatun to kill herself.  Burdwan¿s additional superintendent of police summoned Chattopadhyay on 3 February at 5.30 am and arrested him, based on Ganashakti¿s mysterious conjecture. Chattopadhyay was put up before the court and was remanded to police custody for over a week.

Interestingly, an FIR filed on Khatun¿s suicidal death named two other frontline activists of the CPI(M) but not Chattopadhyay. The two, named in the FIR, were left untouched. District reporters were up in arms against the arrest of their intrepid colleague while leading members of  Burdwan District  Bar Association joined them in a sit-in demonstration in front of the office of district magistrate , but for which Chattopadhyay might have been physically assaulted and mentally traumatized. Journalists, representatives of non-CPI(M) political parties and intellectuals  gathered at the Metro Channel, Esplanade, Kolkata demanding release of Chattopadhyay who got bail on 6 February.

Was the ASP pressurized to resort to an inexplicable breach of police code? Over half a dozen media veterans, going by the past experience, believe that the diktat was transmitted from the  chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee¿s secretariat. (In my own experience  of January 9, 2007 I had observed a party secretary being told by a police officer that he was "awaiting instructions from Writers¿ Buildings and CM¿s secretariat" to know which IPC sections to apply to some student protesters they had arrested.)

Scan through Kolkata newspapers and you will find other evidence of Ganashakti¿s belligerence. The Telegraph of 10th January 2007 carried a photograph of a Ganashakti reporter punching a student with the police looking on.

The existence of a network for girl-trafficking with links in Burdwan , remotely controlled from Mumbai is not unknown to the state police. Among the functionaries in the racket are strong sympathizers of Left Front, particularly CPI(M).  In fact,  the  Dainik Pratidin of 3-4 February 2009 named them, and  carried a photocopy of FIR which has no mention of Prabir Chattopadhyay.

 Small wonder that the  CPI(M) is the only party, let alone its morninger, which did not condemn the act. CPI(M)¿s Burdwan district committee secretary Amal Halder, a state committee member too, said, "Let law take its own course." Khatun, according to follow-up reports, was under tremendous pressure from the racketeers who demanded excessive money from her on the plea of saving her, according to Sangbad Pratidin.

This is nothing new, rather a continuation of expressed intolerance of the Left Front government towards criticism in the media, particularly during the period of present chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Now a CPI(M polit bureau member, Bhattacharjee has been LF government¿s  minister of home (police) and information since 1996. 

Take another episode. On 2 November 2008, former Guwahati chief of bureau, The Hindu, Barun Dasgupta, went to cover an Opposition rally at Singur for Dainik Statesman, the Bengali daily of Statesman group. He was accompanied by Himansu Halder, a former  senior reporter of the  Bengali daily AajKaal, who was  imprisoned for 19 months during the Emergency. Both of them were threatened, abused and assaulted by  CPI(M)-led  comrades in presence of police on duty.  Dasgupta wrote two days thereafter in the Danik Statesman  on 4 November  that a 200-strong mob, claiming to represent the Save Nano Committee (beneficiaries of Tata Motors Company¿s  small car project at Singur. subsequently dropped in the face of strong protest from Trinamul Congress and other Opposition parties) ,"rushed towards us with bamboo and wooden sticks when we decided to defy them. They beat up Himansu black and blue the way cattle are beaten by shepherds". 

Another companion, Manik Mandal, a fiction writer, was beaten up severely and he  started bleeding profusely.  They abused the three in unprintable language.

These attackers who assaulted the three in front of a large contingent of police did not spare even the ambulance van carrying Mandal. A local CPI(M) honcho and a police officer said, Dasgupta wrote, "Tell us whether you belong to the Trinamool Congress" ( as if Trinamool Congress supporters deserve to be assaulted and beaten). When they showed their valid press cards, they were allowed to go but the ambulance van was damaged.

No newspaper excepting Dainik Statesman and the Statesman  carried  a report on the assault on scribes in front of police. Journalists¿ bodies such as the  Indian Journalists¿ Association (IJA) or National Union of Journalists (NUJ) were mum. The Press Club of Kolkata (PCK)  was mum.

No action was taken against these hoodlums, obviously because they were helped by the police as deliberate onlookers. Incredibly as it may seem to many, instructions for framing up innocent and intrepid journalists from the top brass- Bhattacharjee¿s secretariat - are not rare.

Two years ago, on 8 January, 2007, the police assaulted a cameraman of a private channel ( hospitalized as its sequel) and beat up a reporter of an English daily at English Bazar, Malda district, while covering Bangla Bandh, called by the Opposition Trinamool Congress, Socialist Unity Centre of India and  some  non-Left parties in protest against killings at Nandigram. 

Exactly a month before the incident, the police roughed up three journalists at Seoraphuli near the Nano project site while videographing an opposition  rally against ¿usurpation of highly fertile multiple-cropping lands for the Tata Motors Project. They too were hospotalised with head injuries.

The Press Club of Kolkata did not even issue a communiqué in mild language, let alone writing to the CM.

Kushal Bagchi, Dainik Statesman¿s Murshidabad district correspondent was mercilessly roughed up by five activists of Student Federation of India (Sandipan Das, Himadri Ghoshal, Mustaq Ahmed, Kundan Mandal and Qaoar Sheikh) at Berhampur College of Commerce in front of College principal Samaresh Mandal on 20 February this year  when Bagchi went to cover a story on cacophonous use of microphones while examinations were on. This was reported in the Dainik Pratidin of 3-4 February 2009.  

The West Bengal Union of Journalists district unit and another district journalist body lodged a strong protest . On 24 February , journalists met with the district superintendent of police B L Meena to ask why culprits were not arrested. He replied that the matter was being looked into , but hastened to add, "you had rather informed us before going to cover the incident."

 The police in West Bengal are more dependent than bonded labour in remote villages of Hindi heartland, 32 years of Left Front Hukmat notwithstanding.  

 Amalendu Bhushan Chowdhury, convenor, Kolkata Nagarik Samanway Committee – a citizen¿s  coordination initiative – laments, " We are amidst a state of unpromulgated emergency in West Bengal."

 Tailpiece: The day , a CPI(M) –led action squad captured Nandigram in November 2008, Bhattacharjee dished out his infamous dichotomy ¿amra-ora¿ ( We : CPI(M)  and they: The Opposition ). When Amal Sarkar, a senior reporter of Dainik Bartaman, asked its rationale of¿amra-ora¿, pointing out that he was behaving in an openly partisan way. . Bhattacharjee came back with a threatening tone in front of journalists " Don¿t talk rot. It takes us few seconds to close down your newspaper". The next day, Bartaman editor, the late Barun Sengupta (imprisoned during the Emergency), described the CM as a pygmy saying, " Come on, do what you said." There was a barrage of letters to the editor. But the CM did not express regrets.   

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