The Bengalis are a deeply divided lot this Durga Puja, what with the newspaper publishing houses deciding to remain shut during the festival following hawkers’ refusal to pick newspapers from October 22 (Durga Ashtami) till the day after Vijaydashami (October 25).
In one of the divisions are the likes of Brajagopal Sen Sharma of Dhakuria in southern Kolkata. And his family is worried. For, a newspaper is therapeutic to the 82-year-old Sharma, who’s begun suffering memory loss. His daughter-in-law Santwana explains, “Baba has begun showing signs of dementia. The doctor says reading the newspaper is likely to help him exercise his brain and slow the onset of the disease.”
But now with no newspapers available this Durga Puja, Sharma is likely to drive the household mad. “We really don’t know what to do,” says Santwana. But would giving him a book help? “How can it? He’s been habituated to Aajkaal – the Bengali daily from Aajkaal Publishers – since God knows when. Switching it with a book may just signal the brain something is wrong and he is likely to erupt violently,” she says.
But the Sharma household’s a small worry, feel the other divide. “Everyone’s entitled to holidays, even us,” says Raju, a hawker in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
This is perhaps the first time in the history of West Bengal that its daily market of 5-million circulation or about 5 per cent of 91-million population will come to a complete standstill in such a regulated manner.
Total newspaper blackout
As it happens in a politically high-strung and strike-prone West Bengal, there are always two sides of a drama. According to reports doing the rounds in the state, the reality behind the bumper holiday for the hawkers is actually the issue of commissions they earn from newspaper sales. They had demanded this to be doubled this season. To press home their point, and to show that they really mean business, a Trinamool Congress-dominated hawker union has said that the commissions can be discussed later; for now it’s a total newspaper blackout during Durga Puja in West Bengal.
“If state government employees can get 10, then why can’t hawkers get four?” the union questions.
Ipso facto, state staff will enjoy Durga Puja holidays from October 20 to October 25. Id-ul-Zuha or Bakr Id will be celebrated on October 27 (Saturday), while Lakshmi Puja is on October 29, a Monday. In between, the only working day is on October 26, a Friday, which has also been declared a holiday by the Mamata Banerjee-government, earning the Bengali babu a full 10-day Durga Puja vacation.
Losing out on peak advertising season
Be that as it may, the newspaper industry is burdened this Durga Puja in West Bengal. As it is, it’s a been a flat-growth year in ad revenue till now for the industry; What’s added to the sting for the print media houses is that they won’t be able to cash in on the festival, one single peak advertising season in the state.
As per the Business Standard, the market estimates the decision by the trade unions, supported by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC), not to pick up newspapers on Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Vijayadashami will mean cumulative losses worth Rs 10-15 crore.
Added to these burdens is a state government that does not particularly seem to fancy the print media and hints at its desire to discourage it as much as it can. In April, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had declared in interviews given to select news channels that “if required, I will tell the people which newspapers to read in future”.
She seemed hell-bent on carrying out her sentence. As a starter, an order soon followed banning all but a specified few newspapers subscribed by state libraries and those sponsored or aided by the state. As per the communication by Rampada Biswas, the special secretary, library services and mass education, Government of West Bengal, the move had been necessitated “in public interest”, with the idea that “no government fund will be spent for purchase of newspapers or dailies published and/or purported to be published by any political party… as a measure to develop free thinking among the readers”.
In support of “free thinking”, the select few newspapers – eight in all, including five in Bengali, two in Urdu and one in Hindi – the state government is ready to use its fund for are, guess what, those whose editors and proprietors are of Mamata Banerjee’s own coterie. These papers include Bengali Sangbad Pratidin (owner: Swapan Sadhan ‘Tutu’ Basu), Urdu Akhbar-e-Mashriq (owner: Mohd. Nadimul Haque) and Hindi Sanmarg (editor: Vivek Gupta). Basu, Haque and Gupta are Trinamool Congress representatives to the Rajya Sabha.
Ajitha Menon says in thehoot.org, a portal of media watchers in the Subcontinent, on the media developments in West Bengal: “Being pro-establishment is bad for media business. When certain media houses realised this and returned to the job of criticising the Government, the political mentors were not pleased. Bad enough, but tolerable, because circulations steadied. But now, with 2,460 Government-aided libraries, 12 state libraries, and seven government-sponsored libraries not buying even a single daily copy, it’s a minimum daily loss of sale of 2,470 copies, amounting to a monthly loss of approximately Rs 3 lakh for a paper selling at Rs 4 a copy on weekdays and Rs 5 on weekends. The pocket pinch is definitely hurting.”
Indeed, the pinch is hurting, and not because the English newspapers have been literally thrown out of the state and state-back libraries while only mouthpieces among their vernacular sisters find representation in these houses of learning. coupled with the February Trinamool-supported strike, where journalists were thrashed allegedly by Trinamool Congress thugs, one wonders what’s happening to the West Bengal media.
Media adopts a wait-and-watch policy
That’s a long haul and as a senior journalist of a national newspaper with Kolkata edition says, “We (the media) have adopted a wait-and-watch policy. We also realise it’s a long wait and the watch may not help in combating what the Chief Minister might want to do with us.” Why? Because, this is one political group which has been unpredictable to friends and foes alike, as UPA-II has found to its dismay. “You never know when a previous rule ceases to exist and a new draconian law takes it place instead,” says the journalist.
He cites the example of the Durga Puja holidays as an example. When Sangbad Pratidin was launched in the early Nineties, the newspaper owned by Trinamool Congress MP Tutu Bose truncated the official Puja holidays to a day, an idea other state-based newspapers followed suit. “There’s nothing official or unofficial about it for the publishers anymore. Even if they wish to they can’t, for the trade unions won’t let them. You won’t get any newspaper during the festive days, period.”
For now, whichever side of this new Bengal divide you are in, if you are in West Bengal, you can do precious little but sit back and enjoy the holidays granted.