It was March 1969. Andhra Pradesh State Assembly was in its budget session. T Nagi Reddy was delivering a speech in the Assembly. While announcing his resignation as member of the Assembly and the path he was choosing to carry forward the struggle for emancipation of the people he was making his observations on the condition of the country, policies the state machine was following and its implications on the people. Nagi Reddy said:
“We are meeting today in the midst of the extremely serious crisis all around. We can see it right in Andhra Pradesh. If we keep in our mind that we are in a great crisis not only here in Andhra, but throughout India, it will be possible for us to carefully understand all these phenomena.” (T Nagi Reddy, “To move the people into revolutionary action is our task”, India Mortgaged, A Marxist-Leninist Appraisal, Tarimela Nagi Reddy Memorial Trust, Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India, 1993)
Issues TNR discussed in the speech included intensified crisis, surge of struggles, ruling classes’ mortgaging of the country to imperialists, anti-national government, five-year plans, ruling classes servile to foreign monopolists, protection of big landholders. He said: “I have 12-14 years of experience with assembly and parliament. We have said many things. We have waited if anything we said would be implemented. To my bitter experience, I don’t think we have succeeded in getting even a single suggestion implemented.” (ibid.) He questioned: “How many instances of atrocities by landlords and police have we brought up here, either through our speeches, or call attention motions or adjournment motions? Has anything been done? At least in one instance, has any action been taken?” As an example of protecting the powerful the veteran politician said: “When an ordinary farm laborer is killed, we have never heard any landlord being arrested, never in the history of our society.” (ibid.)
Proceeding further, TNR said:
“Nothing can be done here. The best thing is to rouse the people outside. That is exactly the decision to which I had come. […] [A]ll classes are coming out in revolt today, may be in a small way in one place and in a bigger way in another place. The revolt, the tendency to revolt is the most evident factor in the whole country.
“Sitting here in the Assembly for 16 years, could I render the people any consolation by reflecting about these here? Would it even be possible? When I think of this, I find no other purpose served, except an attempt at a sort of demoralization. Unless people are moved, unless people learn to stand up to and resist these atrocities on their own, there is no way out. […] It is after a serious thought that I [have] decided that I should get out of this assembly here and now. […] I have tried my best to bring forward a number of things on various acts of exploitation, immoral and illegal […] Nothing could be done. What could be done? The country is going into a bigger crisis, economic and political. Are we going to leave the people to themselves and ask them to wait on, to see as to what is happening inside the Assembly[?] When this Assembly has become to my experience just a talking shop, a kind of mockery so far as the interests of people are concerned what I have decided is a very serious decision after a long life of 16 years of parliamentary democracy in the country in which I have played a part all these years.
“[…] The way out for any person to save his own country is to raise the people to action against the exploitation and ruling sections of imperialism and landlordism. […] It is to do the job that I leave this house and I wish I will be able to devote as much time with vigor as I have devoted to my time in this Assembly.” (ibid.)
The speech, unprecedented in the history of legislative assembly in India, announced a position, which reflected a philosophy, an ideology, a politics, a trend with immense possibilities, and condition of the ruling and ruled classes in the country. Kolkata, hundreds of kilometers north-east from Andhra Pradesh, was fundamentally not different from the condition, and was not isolated from the trend. Seeds of possibilities were also there in Kolkata, in the reality, and among certain social forces, to which many persons belonged.
Almost two years prior to the delivery of the above cited speech, peasants in Naxalbari, then an obscure location hundreds of kilometers north of Kolkata, rose in rebellion. It was a Spring Thunder in the politics in India. Luminous Liberation wrote:
“India is in the throes of an acute economic and political crisis, when the class struggle within our country and outside grows sharper and sharper, when the imperialists and their stooges […] are waging a brutal, fascist war against the peoples in three continents. In India, the big bourgeoisie, big landlords and their masters, the US and British imperialists, are bleeding the people white. To deceive the starving, super-exploited people of this country the ruling classes seek to preserve the façade of parliamentary democracy and resort from time to time to the worst kind of chauvinism – a game in which revisionists and neo-revisionists have joined them. On the other hand, brutal, fascist attacks are being made on the working class and the peasantry and on the national minorities whenever they rise in revolt.
“Here, in India, an unprecedented revolutionary situation is fast developing. The brave peasants of Naxalbari, armed with Mao Tse-tung’s thought, have raised the banner of revolt against feudal oppression, against the rule of the reactionary classes. For the first time in India’s history, the revolutionary peasant movement led by the working class has been able to smash a weak link in the feudal-comprador bourgeois-imperialist chain despite all the terror unleashed by the rulers. Naxalbari marks the beginning of a new era in India’s history – the beginning of the end of the old regime of exploitation by imperialism and its parasites. The message of Naxalbari, the message of agrarian revolution led by the working class as the only path to complete national liberation and socialism, is spreading and dispelling from the minds of our peasantry and working class the gloom of despair and instilling into them a revolutionary consciousness and a revolutionary urge. […] It is Naxalbari which has given the revolutionary working people of India their rightful place as a contingent of the world revolutionary forces.” (“Notes”, 1st issue, 1967, editor-in-chief: Sushital Roy Choudhury)
About a year later, Frontier from Kolkata, the city vibrant with lofty ideas and practices, wrote in its year-end number:
“In this season of goodwill and merriment will some thoughts turn to the prisoners in Darjeeling and Siliguri jails who are on hunger-strike demanding classification as political prisoners? Among them are leaders of last year’s Naxalbari movement, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santal – familiar names in the country today. On Christmas Day Jangal Santal completed two months of fasting; Kanu Sanyal was short by some days. There are some twenty others undergoing a similar ordeal. Neither the obstinate refusal by the Government to meet their demands nor the calculated indifference of the political parties has been able to break their will. […] The prisoners did not have an easy time before the Government could get at them. Many of them undertook the fast almost immediately after months of life as a fugitive with the police constantly on their trail. All this has begun to tell on their health though certainly not on spirit. Kanu Sanyal was removed to hospital, and even official reports admit that he is losing weight and his condition is deteriorating. Jangal Santal is no better; so must be the condition of some others also. The bureaucratic capacity for under-statement in such matters is unlimited, and for all one knows the hunger-strike may be fast nearing a tragedy.” (“Apathy and consent”, vol. 1, no. 38, December 28, 1968, editor: Samar Sen)
Citations made above unwrap a reality of the time. Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech already lost its appeal to millions of the downtrodden Indians. The melting down of the Nehru-appeal began years ago, almost immediately after the inauguration of the new rulers. “Ambedkar had warned at the end of the Constituent Assembly debates that India was about ‘to enter a life of contradictions. In […] social and economic life we will have inequality.” In his view, the failure to redistribute landed wealth in India would put ‘our democracy in peril’.” (Stuart Corbridge, “The political economy of development in India since independence”, in Paul Brass (ed.), Handbook of South Asian Politics, Routledge, London, 2010, Ambedkar’s statement is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1997)
“By the early-1960s it was apparent that increases in grain production were barely keeping pace with population growth. Food supply growth in the 1950s came mainly from increases in the area under cultivation, and now the land frontier was closing.” (ibid.) The incidence of absolute poverty in the Indian countryside had increased from 1961 to 1969. (V M Dandekar & Nilakanth Rath, “Poverty in India: dimensions and trends”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. VI, nos. 1 & 2, January 2 & 9, 1971, also cited in Stuart Corbridge.) Dr. P K Bardhan’s study on poverty in rural India found the percentage of rural people below the poverty line went up from 38 per cent in 1960-61 to 54 per cent in 1968-69. (Devath Suresh, “Poverty alleviation programmes in India and its consequences”, Review of Arts and Humanities, 1(1), December 2012) “In India, […] scholars as diverse as Francine Frankel, Pranab Bardhan and Jagdish Bhagwati have […] shown, the developmental state was captured by three interlocking groups: India’s richer farmers (who blocked agrarian reform), its industrial bourgeoisie (business houses that took advantage of state-induced scarcities and which blocked competition and innovation), and the country’s leading bureaucrats (many of whom earned large rental incomes from the ‘Permit-License-Quota-Raj’ built up around ISI, and almost all of whom enforced unproductive rent-seeking behaviour on smaller businesses and ordinary citizens).” (Stuart Corbridge, op. cit.) While making the statement Stuart Corbridge referred Francine Frankel’s India’s Political Economy, 1947-1977: The Gradual Revolution (1978), Pranab Bardhan’s The Political Economy of Development in India (1984) and Jagdish Bhagwati’s India in Transition: Freeing the Economy (1993).
It was also a phase, which exposed the status quo-ist “left” camp – revisionists and neo-revisionists: That “left” camp’s “ever-yawning gap between precept and practice since Telengana”. (Samar Sen, Debabrata Panda and Ashish Lahiri (ed.), “Foreword”, Naxalbari and After, A Frontier Anthology, vol. 1, Kathashilpa, Calcutta (now, Kolkata), June 1978)
Samar Sen, the legendary editor of the famous weekly Frontier, was experiencing the phase narrated briefly above. Millions others in the land were also passing through the same bearing. Samar Sen’s days with mainstream journalism including the brief period in Now are well-described.
After those days, Frontier came forth. Samar Sen’s new struggle began. An editor emerged. It was a struggle on many fronts: building up an alternative info-medium for people; practicing with an approach to democracy as Frontier was striving to voice aspects of commoners’ life unceremonious to mainstream media (MSM); encountering a mean opposition – a sectarian and mechanical approach to reality – by a part of those, with whom he and Frontier were standing by. It was hostility from the right and a part of the left, from market and from a part of alternative approach. Samar Sen was facing the eye of a storm. And, a legacy – alternative approach to democracy – was being built up.
The MSM with its market was, compared to Frontier, not small. The following fact cited by N Ram, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hindu and group publications, indicates a part of the MSM:
“The First Press Commission estimated that the total circulation of the 300 or so daily newspapers being published in India in 1953 was 2.53 million. […] India’s daily newspaper circulation climbed […] to 3.15 million in 1957 and 5.11 million in 1962.” (N Ram, “The changing role of the news media in contemporary India”, Indian History Congress, 72nd session, Punjabi University, Patiala, December 10-13, 2011)
With passing years and increase in capital in the MSM industry the market widened. “In 1976, […] the Registrar of Newspapers recorded 9.3 million newspapers produced each day in India”. (Robin Jeffrey, India’s Newspaper Revolution, Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press, 1977-99, Hurst & Company, London) The number of daily newspapers in 1976 was 875 daily newspapers. (ibid.)
Total number of copies of daily newspapers produced doesn’t define the entire media-market. It shows only a segment of the market. Along with other parts another vital segment of the market is advertising. “In the 1980s and 1990s, expenditure on advertising on all media increased stupendously. Between 1981 and 1989, it rose by five times. It quintupled again between 1990 and 1996. In crude rupee [Rs, Indian currency] terms, major advertising agencies spent something like Rs 320 crores [10 million = 1 crore] for their clients in 1981 (roughly US $300 million in 1981) and Rs 4,200 in 1996 (roughly US $1.2 billion in 1996).” (ibid.)
The ’60s and the ’70s saw wider encroachment of public sphere by the MSM as capital gained further strength. A look at capital invested in the MSM or the way MSM was used in MS politics or reports of related organizations provide a sketch of the power. In opposition to that power, Frontier, with its thin appearance and people-oriented journalism, stood there in the reality dominated by the powerful, vast and fat MSM. It required courage and a vision, part of the legacy Samar Sen was building up.
Not only the market and the capital there were against Samar Sen and his Frontier. The environment for Frontier was also not free from hostility from a few friends. Part of that hostile reality there at the time is told by Timir Basu, editor, Frontier: An ideologue in the far-left camp issued “a mandate to the followers of the CPI (ML) not to read Frontier, because in his view, Frontier was actually a front of imperialism [….] (on-line section of Frontier, Jan 19, 2016, Interview with Timir Basu, editor, Frontier, “Frontier chronicled the spirit of the Spring Thunder era”) [Yes, Samar Sen’s Frontier was termed as “a front of imperialism”.(!)] However, “many serious political activists of those days defied” the directive “and used to read Frontier secretly.” (ibid.) Here, to the activists determined to make supreme sacrifice for people’s cause, Frontier emerged as an essential requirement as it was required to know and understand burning questions within the emerging people’s movement of the time. Samar Sen’s legacy was thus being constructed.
Simultaneously, for people, especially for the poor peasantry and the working class, on a broad spectrum, the situation was hostile. The Second Press Commission – Report said: “Journalists have to be on guard against attempts by the authorities or by landlords to pass off agrarian revolts against exploitation as Naxalite or other politically motivated violence”. (Second Press Commission – Report, May 29, 1978 – April 3, 1982, in S P Agrawal (ed.), Committees and Commissions in India 1980, vol. 18, part A, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1994) The suggestion signifies a reality: “All revolts are Naxalite, smash it down”, and the situation was so hostile that a part of the ecesis has to suggest considering the ground-temperature.
It was, for Samar Sen and Frontier, hence, standing against prevailing stream. The related market, a part of friends, and the entire environment were not favoring Samar Sen’s Frontier. But he was undaunted. Frontier under Samar Sen’s stewardship was carrying on its task, which was entrusted by none, but his sense of responsibility. The sense of responsibility was social, but, in the present parley, it appeared personal, private. It was zeal of a person appearing lean. Samar Sen, in his non-loud-non-vulgar way, defined his task. It was a relentless, tiring, everyday work. Political developments stood as evidence of the undaunted stand. It was not only an unshaken attitude. It was also an approach. A legacy was thus being created by Samar Sen.
More than 125 years ago, Plekhanov, in a speech to the 1889 Paris international meeting of socialist parties, said:
“In order to overthrow and finally destroy Tsarism, we must rely on a more revolutionary element than student youth, and this element, which exists in Russia is the class of proletarians, a class which is revolutionary […]
“I repeat – and I insist on this important point – the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working-class movement or else it will never triumph!” (Selected Philosophical Works, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1977)
India’s case is not different: Working-class will bring triumph. Frontier, from its days of inception, stands for the working-class movement; and doesn’t favor sectarianism and adventurism as these go against people. Its pages are the evidence of the legacy Samar Sen was constructing. And, the pages, today part of history, were initially designed by Samar Sen with help of his friends.
In the early part of February, 1904, a well-known time of debate within radical politics in Tsar-ruled-Russia, Lenin wrote the following while discussing “a severe crisis” their party was going through as Plekhanov came “forward […] as a champion of the demands of the minority”, accused “the Central Committee of ‘eccentricity’, of an intransigence that only [benefited] […] enemies”:
“Have the courage to expose our sores, in order to diagnose them without hypocrisy or official humbug and to apply the correct treatment.” (Lenin, “To the party”, Collected Works, vol. 7, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1974)
The debate continued; series of debates followed; and the proletariat in Russia got help from the debates to get equipped theoretically for waging its war against capital.
Samar Sen never tried to assume the role of Lenin. But, in absence of an environment and forum for debate on burning issues of those days, he, in the pages of Frontier, created and extended the scope for debate on essential questions the valiant struggle in the ’70s was raising. The questions and answers to those are as important as life and death. Of the splendid ’70s, Samar Sen writes:
“[T]he Naxalites raised more problems than they solved. But the very problems they raised and tried to solve in a hurry had never been raised with such force of sincerity before or after Telengana. That is their achievement.” (Samar Sen, Debabrata Panda and Ashish Lahiri (ed.) op. cit.)
On Frontier, Samar Sen writes:
“Frontier reflected the new trend. […] Frontier became associated with the movement.” (ibid.)
Thus, a legacy of Samar Sen was born. The legacy is alive and active as the media-market is not only there; it has expanded, has turned much powerful, and, characteristically, is acting against people’s interest. Following is only a small segment of information of the market:
“[A] total of 1,05,443 newspapers/periodicals are registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) as on 31st March, 2015.” (Rakesh Dubbudu, “More than a Lakh Newspapers & Periodicals are registered in the country”, May 28, 2015) The total circulation of publications during 2014-15 was 51,05,21,445; the largest circulated daily was Baanglaa Ananda Bazar Patrika from Kolkata with a circulation of 11,78,779; and the second largest circulated daily was Hindustan Times in English and published from Delhi with a circulation of 10,18,367. (Press in India 2014-’15 report of the Registrar of Newspapers for India, cited in The Economic Times, December 29, 2015)
In politics, the reality gets reflected everyday in the MSM. Following is a single example picked up randomly from many MS political developments:
“The publication in early 2011 of a series of articles based on the US Embassy cables on India, made available by WikiLeaks, has provided the reading public and historians of contemporary India a wealth of information on foreign and domestic policy issues, and on corruption, the cover-up of corruption, and ministerial and official misconduct; and at least in one case relating to the 2008 ‘cash-for-votes’ scandal, it triggered the launch of a criminal investigation under the watch of the Supreme Court of India.” (N Ram, op. cit.)
“On March 17, 2011 a front-page story in The Hindu revealed that a US Embassy cable dated July 17, 2008 and marked ‘secret’, made available by WikiLeaks, reported to the State Department that just ahead of a no-confidence vote the United Progressive Alliance government faced in the Lok Sabha on the Indo-US nuclear deal, Nachiketa Kapur, an aide to Congress leader Satish Sharma, showed off to a US Embassy employee ‘two chests containing cash’ as part of a much larger stash of dirty money to buy MPs’ votes (“India Cables”, The Hindu, 2011; and Tehelka, 2011). Publication of the report and the text of the cable caused a political storm in Parliament and, after a PIL or Public Interest Litigation citing the cable was filed in the Supreme Court of India, a criminal case was launched and several politicians, including Amar Singh, were arrested. The three-year delay in starting a criminal investigation spoke volumes about the official cover-up of corruption in India, which in this case would have continued had the whistle-blowing cable not surfaced in the press.” (note 6, ibid.)
The reality described above is not basically different from the reality reflected in TNR’s statement cited above, and Frontier is encountering it since it came to light. And, Frontier continues to manifest its founding-editor Samar Sen’s approach and practice as it upholds his stand – people’s interest and democracy. Thus, the legacy of Samar Sen, a famous radical editor and one of the leading poets in modern Baanglaa literature, lives.
Farooque Chowdhury is a contributor from Dhaka
A shorter version of the article appeared in the autumn number, 2016, a special issue, of Frontier (Vol. 49, No. 13-16, October 2 – 29), Kolkata. The special issue is dedicated to Samar Sen, Frontier’s founding-editor, as a tribute to him on the occasion of his birth centenary year.