Best of Times, Worst of Times

Growing with Frontier

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

Many of us who were in their teens in the 1960s, grew up with Frontier. Leftism was the hallmark of intellect and sensitivity in those days. Developing leftist leanings was as natural as, say, fondness for football. And reading Frontier in the 1970s was as essential as reading the daily newspaper. We would rely on the dailies for news and look forward to the weekly Frontier for its views. News without views makes no sense, we had learnt meanwhile.

But Frontier was important for us for another reason. There was a time when the guardians and teachers would advise the youth to read The Statesman to have an idea of good English. We learnt about Frontier's brilliant linguistic style from some of our teachers. We would try to emulate Frontier's English. We, of course, failed but would boast of some words and phrases picked up from Frontier's editorials. Interestingly, we loved Samar Sen's poems as much as Samarbabu's style of English. He seemed to be two selves combined into one.

The standard that Frontier had set from the beginning was however not the editor's contribution only. He was armed with a group of powerful writers who helped Frontier break new ground and make its mark as a distinguished journal. Compared with the formidable Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), we found Frontier to be more reader-friendly. It was not a journal for the academics only. It rather acted as an informed guide to explain and interpret the goings-on around us.

Moreover Frontier was not just a mouthpiece of a certain brand of leftist politics. It was ready to incorporate diverse leftist views. Writings on the Naxalite movement and the Liberation War in the Bangladesh stand out as examples. This is what attracted this writer in his college days in the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, to the present generation, Frontier is known as a political weekly only. Contemporary politics did form a major part of its content, but Frontier did not overlook the creative oeuvre either. Ashok Mitra (ICS), Samik Bandyopadhyay wrote on art and aesthetics. Sandip Sarkar was once a regular art critic. Benoy Ghosh, Sumanta Banerjee, Nityapriya Ghosh wrote on various cultural issues. With time, the cultural section lost its prominence but did not disappear. Film review still continues to be a regular feature of this journal.

Frontier's struggle during the days of emergency is more or less well-known. A few days after the police raid on the Frontier press, some cultural activists organised a meeting at the Worker's Party office on Surya Sen Street in Central Calcutta. The meeting strongly condemned the police action and stressed the need to 'Save Frontier'. It was significant because none of organisers was directly associated with Frontier. The meeting was presided over by Prof Jyoti Bhattacharya of Calcutta University.

The high leftist tide in West Bengal ebbed by 1972-73. Frontier then engaged in introspection on the future of leftism in India. In the 1980s, it broadened its spectrum by encouraging discourse on Marxism vs Ambedkarism. It published a series of articles on the subject written by Sharad Patil, Gail Omvedt and some others. The same decade also witnessed the so-called 'separatist' movements (Assam, Punjab, Kashmir) challenging the very concept of Indian nation. Frontier addressed the nationality question with a liberal outlook. The ongoing debate on the agrarian structure contained as well of the many, such names as Ashok Rudra, Nirmal Chandra, Partha Chatterjee, Hiren Gohain, Moni Guha come to mind. Mahasweta Devi and Kancha Illaih also began to write for Frontier during this time.

Since the end of the 1980s, when Samar Sen (1916-87) was no more and Timir Basu held the reins, Frontier has tried to retain this character. Who can forget Gail Omvedt's controversial pieces on the prospects of GATTS and the storm that they raised? With the rise of Hindutva politics, the communal question surfaced afresh during this time. Frontier published articles written from various perspectives. Some of them, including one by the present writer, ran into controversy. But Timir Basu didn't mind.

In the 1970s, Frontier had played a significant role in the movement for release of political prisoners. In the following decades it joined the tirade against the violation of human rights in West Bengal under Left Front rule. It also incorporated emerging new issues such as environment, the gender question, the dalit and tribal question, primary education, to name a few. There is no denying that Frontier's standard began to decline from the 1990s but it widened its perimeter under the stweardship of Timir Basu.

A liberal approach was also discernible. Frontier provided space for Gandhites, socialists and even the non-Marxists. Keeping pace with the changing time, it allowed debate on Marxism both in theory and practice. Readers will certainly appreciate Paresh Chattopadhyay's incisive articles on the November Revolution in Russia (1917) published in the last ten years. In the process, Frontier however did not lose its essentially anti-establishment character; not did it completely shake off its broadly Marxist identity.

It is unfortunate that Frontier's popularity began to wane from the late 1990s. Able writers, who had once stood by Samar Sen, gradually lost interest in Frontier and felt that it had become outdated in the current context. The allegation may not be totally unfounded. Frontier has been showing signs of intellectual blight for the last twenty years or more. It routinely publishes banal articles that dogmatically stick to the age-old Marxist doctrine while ending up with predictable answers. On the other hand, Frontier tries to inform that readers of the various socio-political movements going on across the country. It also reprints reports, speeches, interviews etc to throw light on the global scenario. But in these days of internet and social media they are available from other sources. A section of the readers might have already read what Frontier would publish two months later.

This challenge now faces the print media in general. But what increasingly makes Frontier dull and barb is the absence of insightful articles which had once been its chief attraction. It has definitely lost its glory even as it has set a glorious example of intellectual commitment. Crippled with acute economic insecurity, it desperately tries to survive in these days of ideological decay. Fifty years is quite a long period. Frontier has seen the best and worst of times.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018