An Alternative Approach

Legacy of Samar Sen

Farooque Chowdhury

Peasants in Naxalbari, then an obscure location hundreds of kilometers north of Kolkata, rose in rebellion in 1967. It was a Spring Thunder in the politics in India.

"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 a 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 understatement in such matters is unlimited, and for all one knows the hunger-strike may be fast nearing a tragedy." ("Apathy and consent", vol. I, no. 38, December 28, 1968, editor: Samar Sen)

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", Naxalbart 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 turbulence of the time. 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 I976. (...) 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 crore (10 million=1 crore] for their clients in 1981 (roughly US $300 million in 1981) and Rs 4,200 crore 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 organization 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 I1 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 attempt 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 establishment 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 friend and the entire environment were not favoring Samer 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-tarism, 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.)

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.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016