By Pradipta Tapadar
Kolkata: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seems to have mastered the art of making unforced errors, to use a sports terminology, to hand down potent ammunition to her opponents.
She regularly generates controversies without fail through her actions and utterances, the latest being the government’s decision to ban most leading dailies from state-run and state funded libraries.
Earlier, during her consistent opposition to the Left rule before she became chief minister, Banerjee was the darling of a large section of the media and had always spoken in favour of media freedom.
Now she has attracted severe criticism from all sections of society following the government’s ill-thought order to these libraries to stock only specific eight vernacular newspapers for promoting “free thinking” among readers. Banerjee has further fuelled the controversy by asserting that she may in future even ask people to stop buying certain newspapers “because a conspiracy is going on against us”.
However, buckling under immense pressure, the government has now included Bengali daily Aajkaal, English daily The Times of India, another Bengali newspaper, and two others in Alchiki script and Nepali in the list.
But still the two most read Bengali dailies Ananda Bazar Patrika and Bartamaan along with leading English dailies like The Telegraph, The Statesman and Hindustan Times – severely critical about policies and functioning of the 10-month old Trinamool Congress government – have been kept out.
Library Affairs Minister Abdul Karim Chowdhury said the government’s purpose was to promote small newspapers and encourage free thinking and it does not mean that “we have imposed censorship on big newspapers or banned them”.
Banerjee’s detractors have said the newspapers included in the first list are ‘pro-government’. One of the Bengali newspapers is owned by the family of a Rajya Sabha lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress, while its associate editor was recently elected to the upper house of parliament on the Trinamool ticket.
Also on the list are a Hindi and an Urdu newspapers whose managing director and a senior journalist respectively have also been elected to the Rajya Sabha as Trinamool Congress members.
The omitted newspapers in their editorials and banner headline reports termed the order as ‘fascist’ and ‘totalitarian’. However, Banerjee remained unfazed, and chose to give interviews to select channels to explain the government stand.
Terming the row as much ado over nothing, Banerjee claimed that the controversy was created to stop the development activities of the government.
In fact, the decision to ban leading dailies from state-funded libraries has drawn parallels with the days of censorship under chief minister S.S. Ray during the 1975-77 internal emergency. Significantly, Banerjee has always been considered close to Ray and used to visit him quite often for “good advice”.
Although there were numerous instances of friction between media and Left Front- led West Bengal government in the past three decades, this is the first instance after the emergency that a government has issued such an official order.
Magsaysay awardee Mahasweta Devi, who had backed Banerjee to the hilt during her fight against the Left Front regime, condemned the order strongly. “Dictatorship has never worked. It has neither worked in Hitler’s Germany nor did it work in Mussolini’s Italy,” she said.
In fact, two of the biggest pillars of Banerjee’s success against the Left in last year’s polls were anti-incumbency against the ruling Marxists and support of the media.
Banerjee’s honeymoon with the media started fizzling out within days of Banerjee taking over as chief minister, as newspapers and news channels began pointing out the flaws in her governance.
The roots of the tussle between Banerjee – known to be sensitive to criticism – and the media can be traced to the crib deaths followed by incidents of increasing rape and violence in the state – when the media questioned the functioning of the government.
After the Park Street Rape case became public, Banerjee termed the incident as “cooked up” to malign the state government. Further, she accused a specific media house of hatching the conspiracy. Later on, police conceded that the victim was actually raped.