The Mamata Banerjee Government in West Bengal is trying its best to gag the language media. It is not news anymore. To some extent she is exposed in this regard, and people are protesting against such a move. But gagging a small but very important alternative media centre remained out of sight of the people. It is mainly because the big press or the corporate media have not shown any interest over it. Moreover, most of the media persons even do not understand what alternative media could be. So the news of gagging of the Dodhichi Newsletter did not find any place in any major publication in Kolkata, in print or on TV media, barring a line or two in a couple of news media.
What is the Dodhichi Newsletter? According to its director, Dr Shyamal Roy, “Dodhichi Newsletter is a Kolkata-based cellphone text messaging service disseminating information, news, and views not appearing in the mainstream media.” It is in operation running since 2010. In a letter addressed to Home Secretary, Government of India, Dr Ray said: “ Our service provides a platform to hundreds of freelance news-gatherers, social and cultural activists, and NGOs and reaches out to a select list of thousands of message receivers, among them MPS, MLAs, Ministers, political leaders as well as eminent personalities in various fields.“
This writer himself is a message receiver and sender listed with Dodhichi. It’s a unique service, at least in Kolkata. There is no other service of this kind here. During the last two and a quarter years it has provided wonderful service to all the mass organisations and their activists.
Whenever an organisation calls for a demonstration or rally, or any State crackdown occurs on any mass organisation, a single text message (SMS) sent to Dodhichi was enough to inform and mobilise all the activists. Through the Dodhichi mobile newsletter the SMS containing the information reached hundreds of interested persons within seconds. Within a short time, the activists could decide on their duty or they could assemble at the place of demonstration or at the site of the happenings.
During the last months of Budhadeb Bhattacharjee government Mamata Banerjee got the benefit of this service, as it was the time of anti- government and anti-establishment mass movements. Dodhichi was very active in sending news of these movements to its subscriber activists and supporters. But within months of Mamata’s coming to power she began expressing her displeasure publicly against this SMS service. In several public outbursts she publicly criticised this service and Facebook and Twitter. The first direct attack occurred about six months ago during the Chief Minister’s outbursts against APDR, a rights organisation. The Government of West Bengal cancelled permission to APDR to hold a public meeting in Kolkata, and many intellectuals including Mahasweta Devi and Sankha Ghosh critisised the Chief Minister for this attack on democracy. As Dodhichi was actively sending SMS containing all condemnations and about all protest programmes, one morning policemen in plain clothes went to Dodhichi’s office located on the outskirts of Kolkata. As informed by Dr Ray, the policemen introduced themselves as journalists and entered his office. But within minutes they started collecting mobiles phones, computers, and data base registers. Dr Ray and his family members protested vigorously, and the policemen slipped away.
This time, the Mamata government did not make the same mistake for fear of public resistance. It went the other way round to stop Dodhichi Mobile Newsletter. As Dr Shyamal Ray complained to the Central Government, “on 9 April we discovered that most of our SIM cards (57 of them) had suddenly been deactivated, causing us to suspend our service and of a great deal of inconvenience to those availing of it. The service-provider (Docomo) when contacted, could not give us a credible explanation.” It was at the height of Nonadanga anti-eviction movement when a series of rallies and processions and demonstrations was going on in the City against the Mamata government’s eviction drive and throttling of democracy in the State. And alas, without Dodhichi’s mobile SMS service.
Why did this happen to Dodhichi? Dr Ray wrote to the Government of India: “Next day, Khabar 365 din, a Bengali daily published from Kolkata, presented a front-page story suggesting that Dodhichi Newsletter had been disbanded by orders from the State Home Department.” This writer has gone through the concerned front-page report. The report said that the reason for the Home ministry’s action, as usual, was “anti-state campaign” by Dodhichi through SMS service. Dodhichi’s Dr Shyamal Ray, on enquiry by this writer, expressed his anger and raised the question: “what is anti-state campaign and who decides it?” He explained: “Dodhichi only sends news and views related to legal and constitutional activities and mass movements. What is anti-government does not necessarily mean anti-state. Everyone has the right to criticise or support the government’s policy and send news and views of the movements for or against the government’s policies. This is constitutionally guaranteed”. So, he wrote to the government: “…we are still in the dark about why our service has been abruptly terminated in this manner, without stating any reason and without notice. And if the story published in the Bengali daily is true, then it certainly is tantamount to ‘censorship’, a violation of our constitutionally guaranteed free speech”. He urged the Central Government, to “clarify the matter immediately and instruct the service provider to re-activate the SIM cards so that our service is resumed at the soonest.” The letter was written on April 11. Even as of April 22 he had not received any reply from any quarter. The copy of the letter has been endorsed to the Home Secretary, Government of West Bengal too. However, the 57 SIM cards remain in-operative, and a severe hate campaign is going on against Dodhichi and against its subscribers and contributors in some pro-government newspapers branding them as anti-state and members of “urban Mao-network”.
It is clear that it is a coordinated move of the government and the ruling party to silence this mobile newsletter. The design is to stop spreading of news of the government’s anti-people activities and to cause as much hindrance as possible to anti-government mass movements.
Dodhichi Mobile newsletter has not stopped fully. The spirit of Dr Shyamal Ray, a super-annuated physician, is indomitable. Dodhichi is still running the service, though in a small way, with SIMs from a different service provider which has a number of restrictions and do’s and don’ts.
According to Dr Shyamal Ray, he has a data base of 500300 subscribers who send to and receive SMS from him on various issues. He has divided these numbers in groups according to their areas of interest. The group interested in rights movement and other mass-political activity has 550 subscribers. There are cultural groups interested in music or drama and there are group of MPs and MLAs, doctors and so on. Dodhichi’s service is free of cost. All the subscribers need to do is register their mobile number, name and address with him along with their area of interest. How does he run this service? Where does money come from? Dr Ray says that initially he had to spend Rs. 2.5 lakh procuring good quality mobile phones and a computer. The money was from his superannuation benefits.
Now his monthly expenditure is Rs. 2000 which he gets from his headmistress wife, daughter, and son-in-law. He receives no money from any other source. He himself runs his office along with his family members. He works for 12 hours a day.
Dodhichi is insignificant so far as the number of its subscribers is concerned. Yet the rulers seem to be bent on crushing it. Is the government afraid of alternative thought? Not only that Dodhichi’s services should be allowed to continue without any governmental intervention, but more such vibrant services should flourish in different parts of the country.
(The author is a secretariat member, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, and contributes to newspapers and websites in Bengali and English)