Media and State Terror

Nirmalangshu Mukherji

Protests on State Terror: some arrests and the newspapers (In Bengali), Collection of newspaper clippings and other material in Bengali and English, Edited by Amit Bhattacharya, Parimal Ghosh, Mihir Chakravarty, Subhendu Dasgupta and Madhuwanti Maitra, published by the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), Kolkata, November 2003, pp. viii + 148 (Bengali), iv + 151 (English), Rs. 65/-.

It is a truism that if there is a state, there is terror launched by the state with a plea to defend itself from assorted enemies, phantom or real. However, the form and the content of state terror varies widely depending on the character of the state, its locale, its reach over its people, and the specific historical moment of its occurrence. Since 9/11, terrorism of the state has found a new dimension, perhaps even significant acceptance, in the context of ‘war on terrorism.’ The undeniable and menacing growth of ‘jehadi’ terrorism across much of the world has enabled the establishment of a doctrinally acceptable version of terrorism their terrorism against us.

Instead of developing new democratic norms to address the problem, it has given the the rulers of the current world order, with the American state in the lead, a new opportunity to crush local dissent and rebellion in the name of democracy, justice, and freedom. Classical repression by the state to any perceptible opposition to its rule can now be advertised as part of the global effort to protect human civilisation. Thus, we witness the spectacle of erstwhile ‘socialist states’ such as Russia and China ruthlessly crushing indigenous rebellion in tandem with the American effort to decimate entire populations. It does not need a mathematical mind to realise that state terror can only fuel terror of the other kind.

As the tentacles of terror versus terror spread and cover the political space, the Bush doctrine, ‘you’re either for us or against us,’ becomes the ruling political framework. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate and organise civilized resistance to the process. For example, it is now common to target human rights organisations one of the few remaining political forums trying desperately to create a democratic space between the twin terrors as terrorist organisations themselves.

The volume under discussion is an admirable effort to regain some of that democratic space under particularly difficult circumstances. The focus on West Bengal during the short time-frame of 4-5 July, 2002 to 8 October, 2002 (p. 2) is significant. A left front regime has ruled the province for over a quarter of a century. The parties that form the regime, especially the CPI(M), had grown out of decades of people’s struggle for just livelihood and democracy. In the first decade of its rule, the regime did implement much relief to large sections of unempowered people especially, landless peasants within the obvious limitations of provincial and constitutional governance. This has resulted in impressive gains in the agricultural sector. The regime was also able to initiate perhaps the most vigorous panchayati raj system through much of the state. Finally, the province has remained largely free of the communal virus that has infected much of the rest of the country in recent decades.

Yet, despite some amelioration in the livelihood of sections of people, the social fabric of West Bengal had remained invariant. Hence, any regime presiding over this class-divided, unequal, unjust, and essentially undemocratic fabric is likely to develop dark stains sooner or later. The earlier, egalitarian optimism generated by the Congress regimes of the 1950s in West Bengal evaporated in less than a decade. The current rule, after all, is a communist one at least by word; unsurprisingly, the optimism of the people could be sustained for a longer period.

More significantly, the left-rule has left little room for the usual forms of democratic resistance to the regime. The only electoral alternative to the left-front are the various factions of the Congress, the memory of whose last bloody rule in the 1970s remain fresh with the people. The current leaders of these factions are directly traceable either to that rule or to the Emergency-rule of Indira Gandhi or both. No wonder people are not willing en masse to bring them back to power. (It is to be noted though that, cumulatively, these factions have retained over 40% of their vote throughout, which is a telling comment on the left-rule itself) Thus, unchallenged and fattened by decades of power, parts of the regime has begun to walk on two feet and squeak in a different voice, to use George Orwell’s lasting images. As with the democratic critics in the erstwhile ‘socialist bloc,’ it is obvious how difficult the situation is with the non-establishment left in West Bengal.

Very thoughtfully thus the editors of the volume have focused on a specific period because some events in that period displayed an authoritarian feature of the regime without any ambiguity and which led to an immediate and massive outcry across the province. During the night of 4-5 July, 2002, the young brilliant lecturer of applied chemistry in the University Science College, Dr. Kaushik Ganguly, was picked up by plain-clothed policemen from his home in Kolkata for his alleged links with the People’s War Group without any arrest warrant, identification, and arrest memo; they did not even intimate the family of their destination. Simultaneously, a number of other people Tinku Ghosh, Parashar Bhattacharya, Abhijit Sinha and Rabindranath Mahato were also arrested from other areas.

It was immediately pointed out that PWG was not a banned organisation in West Bengal and, thus, sympathising with this organisation, even if it is true, cannot be a legal offence. The loud message from the state was, therefore, entirely political: it was a signal to the people not to associate with the PWG. Arrest and torture of a distinguished member of an elite-driven society is a well-tested device of the state to instill fear in the general population. The Hon’ble Chief Minister of West Bengal, Shri Buddhadev Bhattacharya, publicly stated that ‘we know how to treat these people, we won’t allow these things here.’ (p. 40)

Kaushik and others were taken away to a police station in Kolkata where they were brutally tortured. Then they were moved to Midnapore where they were presented before the magistrate two days later. The police alleged that they had learned about the involvement of these people in the activities of PWG from a diary recovered from another member of the PWG arrested before. Abhijit Sinha was subsequently released from custody presumably because his father-in-law happened to be a DIG in the State Police (p. 22). Even though he was released, Abhijit could not withstand the humiliation and indignity ‘the brutality of police terror took away his sleep’ (p. 1); he committed suicide by jumping before a train.

Kaushik and others were charged with treason and conspiracy against the state under the familiar and convenient 120B, 121 and 122 of the Indian Penal Code charges that saw Gandhi incarcerated several times under the British rule. The Sessions Court refused to grant bail twice. Finally, the High Court granted bail on 10 October, 2002, and Kaushik Ganguly returned home after three months of imprisonment. As noted, the entire case was marked by a sustained outcry from the media.

The editors of the volume took advantage of this unprecedented media coverage to let the media speak. In other words, with striking editorial skill, the editors tell the story and its political backdrop with the device of placing clippings from a variety of newspapers in two orders. First, the subject is divided into five parts for each of the Bengali and the English sections: The Event, Language of the State Power, Ground Reality, The Response, and Appendix which basically contains petitions, open letters, leaflets, protest notes, etc. Second, within each part in either section, the clippings are placed in a chronological order that help the reader in understanding the unfolding drama and the grave issues of justice, fairness and democracy that gradually emerged.

In time, details of a virtual, unstated war by the state against the PWG comes into view that go much beyond the initial story of arrests. For example, it turns out (a) over 300 persons had been arrested in the past year on suspicion of their links with PWG (p. 4), (b) the state was raising several platoons of an elite police force to combat the PWG in close co-operation with the Army and the renowned ‘Greyhound Force’ of the Andhra Police (p. 20). As the editors note, ‘the release of Kaushik on bail does not mean that state terror in West Bengal came to an end … many political prisoners are illegally re-arrested as soon as they are released from the jail … the list includes Babulal Ahir, Partha Bannerjee, Parashar Bhattacharya (arrested with Kaushik), and many more…’ (p. 2).

However, I am sure the editors realise that this painstaking effort is more a documentation of the subject rather than an understanding of it, though, as noted, some revelations do emerge from the skillful organisation of the clippings. There is much interesting material in the extensive clippings that merit focused analysis. I will mention two related issues among many:

(a) In a perceptive piece published in the Anandabazar Patrika (p. 63-5), Saswati Ghosh made a comparative study of the Geelani case in Delhi and the Kaushik case in Kolkata, especially with respect to the role of the respective teacher’s unions of which they were members. Geelani was arrested and tortured by the police working under a right-wing government. Yet, in both the cases, the teachers unions DUTA and WBCUTA controlled by the CPI(M) refused to protect their members. What explains the striking similarity between the two cases, including the post-9/11, post-December 13 timings? Could both the arrests be viewed in terms of the opportunities offered by the ‘war on terrorism’?

(b) Nevertheless, there is a striking difference between the two cases. While the mainstream media, including those in Kolkata, presented the prosecution’s story without question in the Geelani case, the same mainstream media virtually tore the state’s case apart in its coverage on Kaushik. The explanation favoured by the left-front, especially the CPI(M), would be that the right-wing, corporate-controlled media leaves no opportunity to discredit the ‘people’s regime.’ However, we would not expect a right-wing media to voice the concerns of a non-establishment left so vociferously. For example, the mainstream hardly gives meaningful coverage to the increasing failures of the regime to implement rural wages and protect labour rights; in any case, we would not expect them to make a case for the sympathisers of PWG!

A better explanation seems to be that, granting some residual historical enmity between the press and the left-rule, a large body of dormant but restless non-establishment left, emanating basically from the earlier Naxalite movement and occupying journalistic positions in the mainstream, simply jumped at the opportunity to express themselves. As evidence, we could cite the impressive demonstration by thousands of writers, intellectuals and activists on 28 August (p. 78), and many other meetings, demonstrations and petitions signed by hundreds of people each time (p. 68). Piece after piece in a variety of newspapers reminded the readers of the dark days during the Congress-regime of Siddhartha Shankar Roy in which thousands of left activists were murdered in cold-blood by the agencies of the state: ‘meetings, demonstrations, rallies, petitions, open letters to the Chief Minister all carried the same tone: Siddharthfication of Buddhadev. (p. 68) There is no doubt that the waves of protest were largely responsible for Kaushik’s proper treatment in a renowned hospital and his reasonably early release from prison. The phenomenon needs to be better understood to enlarge the scope and the quality of the democratic struggle that finally broke open in support of Kaushik and others.

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