Media silence over Tripura scam

BY SUBIR BHAUMIK| IN Media Practice | 08/09/2014
An order to Tripura schools to use their funds to buy books written by Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and former bureaucrat Sanjoy Kumar Panda is a scandal.
Why, asks SUBIR BHAUMIK, is no one covering the story. PIX: Manik Sarkar~s book "Atit Diner Smriti"

Strange is the silence of the national media corps based in Agartala when it comes to reporting on scams involving the ruling Marxists. Not one national paper seems to have carried a story on the recent controversy over a government order asking schools to buy a book written by the Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, and one by his former Chief Secretary Sanjoy Kumar Panda, as well using funds provided by the Central government for improving school education. 

The local media has provided all the details and the Opposition has raised the issue about how could Central funds meant to boost school education  be used for large-scale purchase of these books, which surely cannot be treated as a must-read for school children unless Sarkar wants to perpetuate a personality cult. 

The local media has also raised the issue of who gains from the not insignificant royalties inevitable from the substantial sales. What has made matters worse is the suspension of a School Education Department official Ambalika Dutta, who apparently had nothing to do with the government order issued for the purchase of the two books. This appears to be an attempt to put the lid on the controversy by blaming a relatively junior official while she is away in Rajasthan attending to her ailing son who studies there. 

Sarkar’s "Atit Diner Smriti" (Memories of Days Gone By) is a hybrid between a memoir and a recollection, but one that is reasonably readable and a useful source for researchers on the state's Communist movement. Senior CPI (M) leaders like Biren Dutta, the founder of the Communist party in Tripura, and former chief minister and legendary tribal leader Dasarath Dev have both written excellent memoirs and Sarkar has now only followed in that tradition. 

From his party’s point of view, it is a useful exercise to link its past with the present to inspire cadres who carry the message across the state - not the least because the past clearly appears more inspiring than the present. If one compares the huge sacrifices of party builders like Nripen Chakrabarty, Biren Dutta and Dasarath Dev with a small time divisional committee member who was caught on camera sleeping on a bed of currency notes, basking in the satisfaction of a windfall earned through lucrative government contracts, what a fall is all that can be said. 

But Sanjoy Kumar Panda’s “Eker Sathe ek Melay Egara” (One and One makes Eleven) is an unreadable volume, poorly argued and more poorly written, better not dumped on children who have better things to read. While Sarkar's recollections serve a purpose, Panda’s book is a purposeless compilation.   

The former chief secretary is known to give favours to those who publish and market his books.  That he influenced the allotment of prime government land and allowed fundraising from a government department for a money-spinning annual quiz for a local website which published his earlier titles, is well known. 

“If he is so confident of having done a great book, why can’t he leave it to the market to see how it does! Why does he have to pull strings to seek a captive market through manipulated government purchase," says Saumen Sarkar who runs www.tripurainfoway.com.  

Nor does Panda seem likely to happily transfer his royalties to the state exchequer as Sarkar may well to his party coffers. But for the moment, the white kurta-pyjama clad Manik Sarkar and his former controversial Chief Secretary seem to be as much in the same boat (or horse) as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. 

On June 2, 2014, Tripura’s Additional Director of School Education (RMSA) D.K. Debbarma issued a notification vide No.F.19(38)-SE/RMSA/2010 (Loose) asking all the District Programme Coordinators (DEOs) of Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (8 districts: Tripura West, Sepahijala, Khowai, Gomati, South Tripura, Dhalai, North Tripura and Unakoti) to procure the two books. 

In the circular Debbarma writes: "It has been decided that the aforesaid books…….are to be procured by all the  Secondary Schools out of the Annual Grant provided to 839 schools by RMSA during 2013-14……please arrange to procure/purchase above two publications in a bulk for all the school libraries under your control out of Annual Grant 2013-14.... ..." 

If all the DEOs are forced to spend their RMSA funds, sent from the Centre to bolster school education, to buy these two books, at least Rs3,52,380/- will be spent. After the circular was published in the local media, the government went into cover-up mode, suspending Ambalika Dutta and warning Debbarma for the lapses. 

Debbarma can justifiably be pulled up because he issued the order - never mind at whose prodding - but many believe Dutta has been hauled over the coals because the administration suspects she was responsible for the media leak. 

Legal experts say the state government will stand further embarrassed if Dutta moves against the authorities and wins a favourable judgement in the High Court, some of whose recent verdicts have added to the consternation of the Tripura government. 

Sarkar could easily have used his considerable party network to market his recollections of the past. Besides the usual allegation of cult building, there would have been no room for any other criticism. By acting as he has, Sarkar has made himself vulnerable to charges of using his administration for personal gains and political mileage. And this at a time when large sections of the party outside Tripura are looking up to him for leadership in difficult times, with some even suggesting he would make a more effective general secretary than Prakash Karat  in the rundown to the Vizag party congress next year. 

Tripura has staffers and stringers of most leading dailies and news agencies, though national TV channels do not have stringers, using their correspondents in Guwahati to cover the state. Not one journalist, for reasons better known to themselves, has bothered to report this brazen case of using government funds to promote a personal agenda. Self censorship is journalism's worst enemy. 

In fact, local website www.tripurainfoway.com, which first published the story, has been threatened with closure. Its managing director, Saumen Sarkar says he has been told by ' influential people' to stay away from reporting on Tripura politics. 

"But I am a Tripura boy wedded to its soil and nobody can stop me from reporting on the state," said Sarkar, who is based in the US and is one of the Vice-Presidents of the Bank of America. He also runs Tripura Conclave, a policy dialogue forum where one major issue important for Tripura is debated every year.  

(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent and founder editor of the now defunct "Seven Sisters Post", is currently senior editor with the Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. He is author of two books on North East India: Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery.)


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