The Singur smokescreen: Part-III

BY aniruddha dutta| IN Regional Media | 08/02/2007
The farmers` resistance was soon overshadowed by law-and-order issues and "mobilization" of public opinion.

Aniruddha Dutta 

Farmers and the ?outsiders?

The strategy of representing protests in particularly The Telegraph, however, changes later, when the police surveillance and farmers¿ resistance escalate into larger clashes, with ground reports of police atrocities. The coverage shifts from trivialising protests to emphasising the gravity and danger of the situation, but due to the alleged involvement of, and danger posed by, ?outsiders?. Thus again, the farmers¿ resistance is defanged and the situation projected as a law and order problem, demanding only greater police presence and direct action rather than allowing dissent (prohibited in ways like the imposition of section 144) and initiating dialogue. 

Here, the reports in The Telegraph around the December 2 clash between the police and the villagers, culminating in the forcible entry and assault of police inside farmers¿ houses, need to be studied in detail. The first front page report on December 3, ?Atrocity boot on left foot?, is clearly taken aback at the unexpected eruption (the ABP group, like TV channels Star Ananda and Kolkata TV, had been busy highlighting the Trinamul vandalism at the WB legislative assembly that gave the government an immense leeway to continue ground activities unwatched). ?Something told everyone that it was not good news. It wasn¿t ? Singur was erupting, on the ground and on television screens as police fought pitched battles with a crowd protesting against acquisition of land for the Tata small car project?. The article gives a brief overview of the events and quotes villagers on the police action: ??Why did they enter our homes and drag us out and beat us?? asked Manashi Manna, a villager. ?Our homes do not even fall in the area acquired for the Tata factory. The police were inhuman.? Even aged villagers were not spared. ?Why did they arrest my father along with my mother?? asked Sabita Das.?? The article reports that the trouble started when the police attempted to disperse a gathering of 500 villagers under Section 144, and while mainly focusing on the villagers, mentions that ?among them [the crowd] were Naxalites who had traveled from Calcutta to shore up the farmers¿ resistance as well as the local Trinamul MLA, Rabindranath Bhattacharya.? It closes with the CM¿s claim that the trouble was propelled by outsiders, but takes a cautious stand on it: ?Bhattacharjee seemed to suggest that outsiders were to blame. ?The villagers, along with some Naxalite elements, first attacked the police,? he said.?

This attitude changes entirely from the December 3 report till the appearance of the editorial ?No velvet glove? on Tuesday, December 5, which not only puts down the entire blame to ?outsiders? but advocates as strong police action as possible: ?Violence has only one antidote: counter-violence. In this context, the actions of the police at Singur on Saturday? were woefully inadequate.? The newspaper has found its feet on the issue, only by ignoring the rights violations and arbitrary atrocities that it initially highlighted. The span between the initial report to this editorial has a clutch of articles that carry out a total transference of responsibility to the ?Maoists?, whose presence was only marginally noted in the first ground-based report. But suddenly, they alone seem to have engineered the current situation, as per a December 4 report: ?As the 25-year-old labourer trudged? cutting the bushes before the land acquired for Tata Motors would be fenced off, he found the Maoists everywhere, huddled in their makeshift camps. Most of Bengal learnt about them yesterday, when a 500-strong mob armed with stones and sticks fought police and tried to resist the fencing, and the chief minister blamed ?outsiders? for the flare-up. Even local Trinamul leaders? hadn¿t foreseen the attempt to hijack their movement from right under their nose? The ?outsiders? from CPI (Maoist), CPI(ML) Liberation, SUCI and All India Students¿ Association moved in fast, residents said.? (TT Dec 4, ?Inside story: Outsiders who foxed Mamata?). These vague generalised statements (?he found Maoists everywhere? outsiders moved in fast?) obviously milk a larger scare regarding Maoists among the Indian citizenry, connected to longstanding Maoist violence in other rural areas. Two points need to be noted. Firstly, the ?Maoists? in question are hardly the same as those active in such areas and are (as the same report shows) a diverse collection, comprising parties like SUCI, CPI-ML and even greenhorn university students coming to the area on their own. Secondly, the resistance in Singur, as we noted, was simmering long before this apparent invasion (e.g. the August 19 report): are we to suppose the Maoists were suddenly the chief instigator or were they, as the first December 3 report suggested, there to ?shore up? an existing resistance?

Ridiculously, an isolated incident like the breaking of glass of a Tata showroom in Kolkata by unarmed students happening around the same time evokes larger concerns of security and law and order, and is even interpreted as a return to the ?dark days? of the 70s Naxalite uprising. The Telegraph report, by Ashis Chakrabarti, first reconstructs a supposed scene from the 70s Naxalite movement, and then goes on: ?The next scene is set on AJC Bose Road in Calcutta today, where a small Maoist group smashes the glass panes of a Tata Motors dealer¿s showroom, pastes some posters outside the office protesting against the Tata group¿s small-car project in Singur and quickly melts into the passing traffic. The operation lasts barely two minutes? the political import of the Naxalite charge in Singur was not immediately understood by even the media, including The Telegraph. It was not adequately understood that the ?outsiders? in Singur had given the campaign a dramatically new turn. Slowly, the realisation began to sink in. If there were any doubts, the attack on the car showroom must have removed them.? (?In rebel¿s return, an opportunity for Buddha?, TT Dec 05).  This is ?investigative? reporting at its very worst and most irresponsible: the showroom incident was, in fact, the work of an urban student or students of the Revolutionary Students¿ Front, not the primary Maoist group with the highest visibility or clout in Singur (which would be the CPI-ML with its leaders, too, travelling to the area). The incident of vandalising and pasting posters is therefore significant as a separate gesture, and hardly connects organically with the larger events far away in Singur. (Also note that such vandalism is not confined to Maoists but have been carried out by Trinamul activists both before and after this specific incident: whether at the legislative assembly in end-November or at a Tata showroom in Joy Nagar on January 28: however, the scare associated with ?Maoism? is more intense, and this is what is deliberately evoked here.) The Times of India, too, carries out a similar conflation between the showroom glass-breaking incident and the possible breach of ?security? at Singur: ?Activists of a Naxalite outfit on Monday attacked and damaged the showroom of a Tata Motors dealer protesting against farmland acquisition at Singur, even as fencing work on the land for the Tata project continued at Singur amidst tight security.? (?Tata motors showroom attacked in Kolkata?, TOI, Dec 4 2006).

Of course, the scare totally dies down by the time of the January fence destruction attempts by farmers, and there is not much mention of the Maoists by the newspapers, which now speak mostly of Trinamul activists. One wonders what happened to all those people who had been ?everywhere? and ?moved in fast?. What the strange evolution of the Telegraph reports - from carrying farmers¿ accounts of police action, to blaming it all on the Maoists, to forgetting all about them - suggests is that while the farmer as victim is a figure who can be accommodated, any real show of resistance cannot find place in its ideological framework and has to be explained and rationalised away in other terms, thus also rationalising the unlimited use of police force.

Another Telegraph strategy to dilute the issue of farmers was the way certain concurrent incidents were projected - such as the murders of Tapasi Malik, and of Tinkari and Maya Dey, and a robbery at the house of an elderly couple - sensationalising these (undoubtedly tragic) incidents by creating a whole aura of mystery and significance around them, such as the report ?Mystery shrouds Singur killing field? (TT, Dec 29 2006). These murders, unsolved till date, do not immediately evidence any concrete link with the issue of acquisition, except that they happened in the area around the same time: yet just as the opposition (TMC) tried to capitalise on them, the media latched on to the incidents as if they contained the key to the situation, at the expense of neglecting other ongoing events. One must note that this attention was not much liked by the concerned themselves - for example, Tapasi¿s father protested reports by the Bangla channel ?24 ghanta? that alleged a love link behind her murder. Again, the report ?Now, a dacoity in Singur? (TT Dec 31, 2006) ingeniously connects an obviously money-motivated incident with the fact that the victims had sold off their land: ?A Singur farmer who had sold his land to the Bengal government for the Tata Motors factory today became the target of robbers who took away money and jewellery worth over a lakh from his house.? The report carries a very brief mention of a letter protest by the ?Save Farmlands Committee? in its last paragraph, thus marginalizing the protest issue by creating a scare around a robbery. Similarly, the report ?Mystery shrouds Singur killing field? (TT, Dec 29 2006) hunts for a pattern and a significance in the three murders (Tinkari, Tapasi and Maya), but the simultaneous arrest of 82 farmers merits only a brief line at the end: ?The day also saw 82 farmers, who say they have not given their consent for land acquisition, being arrested for violating prohibitory orders under Section 144, which is in force in Singur? (note how the phrase ?the day also saw? relegates this as a mere background incident). This is also a way of putting forth the entire issue as a crime-related, and therefore a law and order, issue.

Constructing and mobilizing Public Opinion

The last area I will briefly mention are certain clear instances of constructing the sense of a uniform and homogenous ?public opinion? on the Singur issue.

One example is on the website of The Times of India (www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com). At the time this writer accessed the website in the third week of January, the website was carrying the story of the beginning of construction of the Tata Motors factory quite prominently. Underneath this (?Tata motor starts initial work for car plant at Singur?) and related reports (e.g. ?Medha Patkar detained on way to Singur?), the web page had a thread of readers¿ opinions symbolised by a speech bubble and captioned, ?All sensible people are with Buddha?. A perusal of the thread shows that this general caption quotes a particular response: ?All sensible people in and out of Bengal are with Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Baburam, WB.? However, a further perusal reveals various discrepancies in opinion: from ?I am a Bengali and I strongly feel that WB will never progress with leaders like Mamata. She must know that industrialisation is equally important for the state`s growth? to ?Buying land for projects and SEZ by government is against the spirit of democracy and justice. The farmers must be given down payment and a share in the equity of the company on the basis of fare market price including the appreciation potential.? The overall caption, thus, is a glib overview ignoring the dissenting voices even within the middle class. There is another caption for the continuing thread - ?Look for a rational way out? - but this caption is used only once in the linked pages and not on the presentation of readers¿ opinions as ?readerspeak? beneath the main Singur-related reports. The immediate impression is therefore of a pro-state unanimity on the issue.

But that is only a mild instance of opinion-creation. The Telegraph, resourceful as ever, utilises the strategy of capitalising on the arbitrary strikes called by the opposing Trinamul Congress - using the widespread resentment to sudden strikes in order to mobilise opinion on the issue of land acquisition per se, over and above the issue of ?bandh culture?. The reports such as ?Politics prey to violence in Bengal? (Dec 1) and ?In Bandh call, a return to the Dark Ages? (Dec 4) not only strongly condemn the bandhs called by the TMC but also mobilise opinion on the industrialisation-acquisition issue per se, by projecting it as an anti- or pro-industrialisation question. A simultaneous survey carried by The Telegraph claims that just as an overwhelming majority of the ?public? is opposed to bandhs, only 28% of the ?public? supports the stance of the opposition on acquisition. Thus, a conflation between the two issues is easily carried out: opposing the strike means supporting the government. However, we must note that the survey covers only a few hundred people, that too from a metropolitan area and not presumably affected by land acquisition (a clear instance of disenfranchisement), and utilises the emotional moment of the strike when issues of the city and the state¿s image are uppermost to the urban middle class. This has grave implications for the larger question of how the media constructs ?public opinion? on certain issues, in whose favour it does so, etc.

Notably, at the year-end summing up by The Telegraph on December 31, ?Ratan Tata¿s proposed small car project? is mentioned under the list of ?Points of pride? of the past year, even as the ?bandh culture? and ?vandalism at the assembly? are mentioned as being in the ?Shadow of shame?. This polarisation mobilises public opinion as either for or against industry, and presents an option between the CM¿s brand of industrialisation on one hand and ?bandh culture? and ?vandalism? on the other.  There is apparently no middle ground. (Perhaps one could remember here that the culture of forced strikes and vandalism were initiated during the CPM rule in West Bengal, using powerful local agents like cadres and goons mobilised from above - the latest being the incident in Nandigram over land acquisition, where CPM cadres took the law into their hands). Moreover, the accompanying article mentions the CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as a ?Calcuttan they like? (they being the ?public? of Kolkata, whose opinions were apparently gauged in a Telegraph-Mode survey, the details of which are not provided in the article text.)

This sense of a unanimous civil society on the land acquisition issue also means that protest demonstrations especially by student groups, and responses of the intelligentsia, are covered inadequately or not at all. Reactions of intelligentsia are largely not covered by The Telegraph except one early article on theatre person Shaoli Mitra¿s reaction. The people not adequately represented include (most significantly) the various farmers¿ groups, who are often conflated with the TMC and thereby ignored, as also the activist Medha Patkar (portrayed as nothing but a ?rabble-rouser? in a Statesman editorial (Jan 17) and largely ignored by The Telegraph). Mahasweta Devi, the prominent writer-activist, finds scant space, and a grievances hearing held with farmers at the Singur site that included her in the panel, is given the short shift. Of course, there are exceptions that we must credit: the HT does carry an article by a Trinamul committee member Derek O¿ Brien (Dec 27), which would be taboo for The Telegraph, and the TOI, again to its credit, prominently carries a report (Jan 30) by a ?citizen¿s committee? headed by historian Sumit Sarkar that finds the state approach to acquisition very problematic. Unsurprisingly, The Telegraph does not carry the story separately, but notes in a ¿sympathetic¿ editorial article by Ashis Chakrabarti (Jan 23): ?No one would call historian Sumit Sarkar an ultra-leftist. There are hundreds of friends of the left like him who have been shocked and embarrassed by events in Singur and Nandigram. It is not that such leftist sympathizers are against industrialization.? This is the same Ashis Chakrabarti who in the article on the Maoist link, (?In rebel¿s return, an opportunity for Buddha?, Dec 05), put the issue at Singur as essentially a law and order problem, creating a welcome opportunity for the CM to move in. This accommodation of alternative points of view in the analytical sections does not reveal any real commitment at the immediate ground level of reporting, and is therefore only a token inclusion.

In conclusion

As we have seen, sections of the media not only abdicated their responsibilities as the guardian and forum of public debate in civil society, but also actively worked to restrict and suppress this process of debate/dissent by holding up the government and the corporate through biased ground reporting. The coverage is not only immediately relevant for this particular issue, but has wider implications in the context of liberalisation and the oft-celebrated ?rise of the middle class?: are we looking at a process of deterioration of civil and democratic processes within which the media should play a vital role? Are we looking at a situation when whole sections of the ?public? seem to matter less and less? When there is only one ideology - of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation - to be unanimously supported, and any variation or dissent to be largely ignored except in op-ed sections? One truly hopes not - and it is in that hope that a corrective and critical article like this has been written.

Contact: anirdutt@gmail.com

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