Alternative Voice Matters

The Reluctant Hero

Partha Chatterjee

At a time when we are daily being treated to the blood-curdling spectacle of a celebrity talk show host threatening to unleash the mobs on other journalists for their "anti-national" news reports, it seems a little futile to even bring up the question of the ethics of journalism. But Frontier has always been a journal that has stood apart from the so-called mainstream. Its founder, Samar Sen, gave it a foundational strength of character that still, a full century after his birth, allows us to use its columns to remember him as a soft-spoken, unheroic, but resolute defender of the simple virtues of truthful journalism.

Early in his career, Sen was the news editor of a major English daily published from Kolkata. In 1964, following the Hazratbal incident in Kashmir there was communal tension and violence in many parts of India, including West Bengal. At a meeting convened by the Chief Minister Prafulla Sen, the editors of major newspapers and magazines agreed not to publish news or photographs that might inflame communal passions. But a few days later, the Bengali daily belonging to the same media house where Sen was employed published sensational reports of the alleged killing of ten thousand Hindu jute-mill workers in Narayanganj in East Pakistan. Sen told the owner of the house that he was unwilling to publish that story in the English daily. Two days later, Sen discovered to his shock that the story had been published in his paper without his knowledge. He was told by his staff that the owner had instructed them to put out the story. Sen immediately resigned. But interestingly, when he later recounted this incident in his memoirs Babu Brittanta, Samar Sen confessed that in his resignation letter he had merely expressed his personal dismay and did not cite any principle of journalistic ethics. His friends, it seems, rebuked him for having missed such a golden opportunity of scoring a point against communal politics. In his memoirs, Sen also remarks that such self-censorship could be seen by many as a restriction on the freedom of the press, but his view was that in disturbed situations restraint was necessary. In other words, Sen recognized that there did exist a genuine debate about journalistic truth he had merely chosen his side in that debate. He preferred to see his resignation as a personal decision and not a heroic act for a cause.

This incident tells us a lot about Samar Sen's personality. The decision to give up a secure job in a prominent newspaper house would put him into considerable financial difficulty for the rest of his life. He became editor of Now, a weekly launched by a Congress academic-politician who was then a minister in the Central government. In Sen's hands, now emerged as a significant voice of the Left in Bengal. The owner was not pleased. After some exchanges in which Sen was charged with promoting a bunch of "anti-national" writers, he was dismissed in 1967. After this, he never went back to working for a newspaper owner. Frontier was born with meagre funds and a pool of goodwill. That was to be his life-austere, dignified, perpetually in need, but always true to his calling.

Under his leadership, Frontier became a forum for a range of critical opinion that the establishment—both political and cultural—considered radical, extremist and anti-national. But the journal never signed up for any party or organization. Instead, it opened up its columns for individuals and organizations that were not welcome elsewhere. These views were often angry, intemperate, dogmatic—sometimes full of slogans rather than argument. Samar Sen created a little democracy wall where these opinions, debarred from mainstream media, could flourish.

But his own journalistic style was very different. His criticism was sharp but understated. Sarcasm and irony were his chief weapons. In the late 1950s, he spent a few years in Moscow as part of a team engaged in the translation of Indian literature into Russian. Sen was particularly busy with the translation of Tagore's works. While in the Soviet Union, he wrote periodic columns in the Economic Weekly of Mumbai and the Hindusthan Standard of Kolkata. He wrote about a range of things—not only politics and socialist planning but also about daily life in the Soviet Union. He wrote about the de-Stalinization campaign, Khrushchev's speeches, the deification of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the multiethnic cultural life in the Soviet capital, the reaction to the publication abroad of Dr Zhivago, the Cuban missile crisis. Sen was aware of the fact that he was in the Soviet Union as an employee of a Soviet publishing house. He was also sympathetic to the cause of building socialism. His despatches were never overtly critical. But ever so often, there was just a slight undertone of irony that gave away his scepticism. Take his report on a campaign flagged off by Khrushchev encouraging academics, writers and artists to engage in some productive manual labour. That way, the campaign insisted, the quality of intellectual work would also improve. Samar Sen added as comment: "Personally I am for the new scheme. In the Calcutta school I went to, polytechnical training was compulsory and for four years I laboured at carpentry, weaving and dyeing. The result has been most fortunate. I can sharpen my pencil with a blunt knife, thanks to my knowledge and practice of carpentry." The reader was left in little doubt about what Sen thought of the chances of improving the writer's intellectual output by doing manual work. Or again, take the following opening lines to his report on the 21st Congress of the CPSU : "Raucous crows cried themselves hoarse over the approaches to the Kremlin and snowsweepers responded with a similar grating noise—this similarity always fascinates me—as delegates to the 21st Party Congress discussed, applauded and approved the blue-sketch of a communist society. Even an oriental could not take the crows as an evil foreboding : they must be crowing with delight, for prosperity is round the corner; even taxation is to be abolished in the next few years".

Sen was taken aback when one day he was called up by a senior official of the publishing house and shown an entire folder of his reports published in Indian journals, along with their Russian translations. He was asked to explain why he had written several untruths about the Soviet Union. Sen explained that everything he had written was based on what he had read in the Russian press and picked up from his conversations with Russians. He was told quite firmly (or so Sen writes) that only that which was published in Pravda was the truth; he should take nothing else as reliable news. The meeting was very cordial, but the message was conveyed. Sen became careful in sticking to official versions when reporting on the news. But he did not abandon the note of irony and occasional jabs of sarcasm. After all, he could not be reprimanded for engaging in the writerly art of rhetoric.

For the record, it should be noted that even as editor of Frontier, Sen did not shrink back from penning an acerbic comment or two on the tactics of the Naxalites whose cause his journal did more than most to defend. In 1970, when the Naxal Youth brigades targeted the cultural symbols of semi-feudal and semi-colonial nationalism, he wrote in Frontier : "But can one be cocksure that the urban tactics seen so far will ever transform the social and political order? That the revolution they talk about will not again be aborted as in 1949? It is not that easy to overthrow a system. Where is the working class in all these activities? However, to the Naxalites all doubters are at best fools and at worst traitors and agents. Let them meditate on the frustrations of 1949—1970 is not 1949. The youths will urinate and defecate on them, not debate with them."

His journalistic ethics were sorely tested during the years of the Emergency. Despite the restrictions on the press and the hassle of getting the text of every article cleared by the censors before its publication, be did not close down Frontier. Had he done so, the small staff that worked for the paper would have been left without a job. Instead, in order to publish his weekly on time, Sen chose not to submit any matter for pre-censorship, accepting the full risk of any subsequent trouble. Since sales were down, he decided to forego his own salary and instead wrote regular columns in the mainstream press. That is how his memoirs got written. Sen had a very realistic sense of the constraints, both institutional and personal, within which he had to practise his journalism, and instead of railing and ranting against those constraints chose the option which would best allow him to meet his obligations as well as follow his professional calling with dignity, self-respect and truthfulness.

Some might ask if Samar Sen's personal ethics in the field of journalism were not somewhat elitist, perhaps even snobbish. After all, choosing to work within the given constraints and restricting one's critical armoury to occasional thrusts of sophisticated rhetoric could only work for a rather select readership. In any case, he had deliberately limited that readership by running a low-budget English weekly. In fact, there were occasions when his friends did volunteer to raise the funds for a more glossily produced news magazine of the Left that might reach many more people across India. Sen did not respond with enthusiasm, declaring that he had no experience of working with such publications. Perhaps he suspected he would lose the autonomy he enjoyed as the editor of Frontier. In any case, he certainly preferred the small scale.

He also had a good idea of the opportunities offered, rather than the limitations posed, by the divide between English and the Indian languages. In 1962, he wrote, with his tongue characteristically stuck in his cheek: "We do not always seem to remember another great advantage we have over most countries. The Indian Press speaks with two voices—the mother tongue and English. And it seems unlikely that English newspapers will be crowded out by the indigenous Press. Our new rich will take to English as they have taken to trousers. The scope for varied news presentation, for speaking with two voices, is thus almost unlimited in India".

Sen was prescient in his observation about the future of English in India. In fact, there are many more Indians now who read English : the number of news outlets in that language, both print and electronic, is growing exponentially. The quantitative change has had many qualitative effects. Apart from content, there has been undoubtedly a flattening and impoverishment of language. The subtleties of argument and rhetoric that educated Indians of Samar Sen's generation strove to master—not just in English but in their mother tongue too (after all, even with the small output from his younger days, Sen still holds his place as a major modem poet in Bengali)—have become a lost art. This is not so much the result of the increasing democratization of higher education, which cannot but be a good thing, but its effective bifurcation into an elite stream of good English-medium private institutions that only the wealthy can afford and a vast morass of mass education where, irrespective of language, the quality of learning is abysmal. The result is the loss of the educated bilingualism of the reader which editors of English newsmagazines in the 1970s could assume. It is not surprising that journals like NOW or Frontier cannot be launched today, and even the Economic and Political Weekly remains a unique exception. In fact, virtually all news media today, whether elitist or not, runs with the sponsorship either of corporate business houses or state agencies. Samar Sen refused both.

That is why we are perhaps better able today to appreciate Samar Sen's achievements. As someone who never preached, never flaunted his considerable abilities—indeed as someone who was self-deprecating to a fault—he surprises us in these hapless times with his immense courage, fortitude and dignity. He would have scoffed at us, of course, but for our sake we need to remember him as our hero.

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