Monday, March 5, 2007

The Singur Smokescreen: The process of land acquisition and the mainstream English press

The Singur Smokescreen: The process of land acquisition and the mainstream English press

Aniruddha Dutta

A perusal of certain major newspapers on the Singur land acquisition issue reveals serious problems of inadequate/biased representation and even obfuscation and falsification of ground realities, all to create a blind optimism on industrialisation


An anti-democratic press?

Much has been debated in the print media - through editorials, solicited op-ed pieces and readers’ letters or website threads - about the macroeconomic issues connected with the acquisition of agricultural land for industry by the state, notably in the case of a Tata Motors small-car plant in Singur, West Bengal. Most of the mainstream English press (The Telegraph, Hindustan Times, The Times of India) has forwarded the conclusion that such land acquisition is necessary, attended by certain short-term problems and long-terms gains for all. This article will not go into the tenability of that conclusion, but highlight the way this same press has treated and covered the ground situations through the course of the Singur acquisition – from the protests in June/July, to the beginning of construction of the Tata factory in the third week of January. A detailed survey of this coverage shows that at least at the acquisition stage, sections of the press have not bothered to look into or advocate even a nominal democracy or justice during the acquisition process, and in fact, have often worked to unquestioningly support the lack of transparency and even the violation of rights: all in the great cause of development. Thus, there is not only a “disenfranchisement” of lower class sections from the media as Aloke Thakore has recently suggested in The Hoot, but also an inadequate scrutiny of government and police procedures, misrepresentation and suppression of dissenting voices, and even building a sense of panic around the infiltration of “outsiders” into the area, to effectively support anti-democratic restrictions on the expression of resistance.

The maximum damage to the cause of just representation and liberal debate would attach to the ABP (Anandabazar Patrika) group and its mouthpieces The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika, which went heavy duty in their support of the Government and condemnation of any opposition to its methods and policies. This went to the extent of supporting blanket use of force by the state to check “violence” in the area: without any real thorough enquiry into the causes and nature of resistance, without scrutinising whether the “threat” warranted unqualified use of state force, but evoking a rhetoric similar to the all-too-familiar ‘war against terror’: “Violence has only one antidote: counter-violence. In this context, the actions of the police at Singur on Saturday had one major flaw. They were woefully inadequate.” (“No velvet glove”, TT December 05, 2006). In another editorial, the newspaper even justified the overall opaqueness and lack of dialogue with the affected people regarding the land acquisition process and policy, by holding up an abstract ideal of “best for west Bengal” that apparently justified any means taken: “Industrialization must take place and therefore land has to be obtained. How the land will be obtained — through consent or otherwise — is a matter of political management… it cannot be part of the government’s decision-making… (which) must be driven by what is Best for West Bengal” ( “Best for west Bengal”, TT, Dec 24 2006). There are less blatant but more insidious cases of bias, for example when a national newspaper like The Times of India presents a skewed representation of public opinion in favour of the acquisition: the web edition carries a readerspeak thread titled “all sensible people are with Buddha”, whereas a detailed perusal of the thread yields greater diversity and unevenness even among middle class voices.

The sections that follow will attempt to unpack, in more detail, the many problems with the coverage in the most prominent English dailies in the East (The Hindu and Indian Express, having negligible market share, have been omitted.) Even if one – hypothetically speaking - does not question the logic of land acquisition for industry and accepts the media conclusion that it would be eventually “best” for everyone, what becomes clear is how the presentation of this logic uses exclusion, distortion and inadequate representation of the “people” as its premises. At the worst, some of the coverage (like The Telegraph) totally constricts the liberal democratic space for debate and dissent, obfuscates facts and ground realities, and in effect, works to violate the basic precepts of democracy itself. Then again, some of the coverage (like The Times of India) has been hypocritical in mouthing demands for greater transparency in editorials while often accepting government and corporate versions of the story in news reports that have a more immediate relevance and impact.

The questions of “consent” and willingness

The issue of “consent” has been presented as one of the most checkered ones in the controversy around Singur, with the media focusing on claims and counter-claims from the Government (through the “status report”) and the Trinamul Congress (through affidavits presented to the Governor). The government, and even a CPM politburo member like Brinda Karat, claims that most of the land has been taken with the “consent” of the land-owners (see Karat’s article “Singur: Just the facts, please”, The Hindu, December 13 2006). On the other hand, The Paschim Banga Khet Mazdur Samiti has refuted Karat’s claims point by point, in a piece available on the Web (“Brinda Karat’s Untruths”, online at ). While the Trinamul Congress has presented a list of plots to the Governor that have been ostensibly acquired without consent, the government has claimed that 350 of the plots in the list are outside the acquired area. This expected political standoff has been, for the most part, the binary held up by the media whereas other voices are less frequently accommodated, including the organisations directly comprising farmers. Let us examine two distinct areas where the issue of “consent” has been obfuscated, if not falsified, by the media or sections of the media.

The first area concerns the specific sense of “consent” within the procedure of land acquisition itself. It is not the purview of this article to go into the details of the claims and counter-claims on the area of plots and number of farmers’ “consent” obtained. Rather, one notes the credence given to one party’s figures over the other (while not even considering or giving space to the claims of the farmers’ groups), and the obfuscation of the details of the process: for example, the conflation of consent to compensation amount with consent for acquisition itself. While The Telegraph is largely guilty of the former, Hindustan Times effects the latter.

The appearance of the Government status report is greeted by The Telegraph with a frontpage headline, “State picks 350 holes in Mamata Tata map” (TT, January 3, 2007). Each of the plots supposedly outside the fenced area is therefore rhetorically presented as decimating the Trinamul claim (there is no ground reporting to counter check the figures, even by way of a journalistic gesture.) We read, “Many of the plots Mamata Banerjee claims were forcible acquired from farmers in Singur are not part of the land earmarked for the Tata small car factory at all, the government has found”. The government doesn’t ‘claim’ or ‘state’, it finds: the newspaper thus gives complete credence to government report (On the same edition, Pg 13 carries a statistical graphic on land acquisition with “figures according to a government release” so that the claims are even more clearly and credibly presented to the reader.) The frontpage article gives no reference to other ground-based claims on forcible acquisition (e.g. those of the Paschim Bangla Khet Mazdur Samiti), which give far different figures regarding “consent”. The opposition is thus generalised into the Trinamul, which having largely lost political credibility among the middle class in Bengal, is an easy straw doll to set up only to knock down. In this way, the government’s claims are made to appear unchallengeable, and the issue of force hidden from view.

However, there is one telling detail in the report that gives the deviousness of the game of representation away: it is a quote from Nirupam Sen, the state minister for industries. ““Under the Land Acquisition Act, there is no scope for individual consent to acquisition. The farmer can only give consent to the compensation amount he’s being offered”, Sen explained”. This crucial fact is completely ignored in the rest of the article, by focusing on the supposed falseness of Mamata’s claims.

The obfuscation of the definition of “consent”, into apparently meaning more than it does, is very clear in the Hindustan Times article on the same date. In comparison to The Telegraph, which at least includes the clarification regarding consent, HT straightaway assumes “consent” to mean willingness the acquisition of land: “A state report filed by the commerce and industries department… contradicts Mamata Banerjee’s claims that a big section of the Singur farmers is unwilling to give up their land” (HT, January 3, 2007). The headline for the article again carries out this extension of the concept of “consent”: it states, “State figures to refute land grab claims”, whereas if “consent” means only consent to compensation, the “land grab” doesn’t even come under its purview. What this article, like the article in The Telegraph, also conveniently ignores is the issue of non-landowning farmers: share-croppers, landless labourers and so on. The Times of India doesn’t even carry the story, perhaps mercifully.

It is to be noted that the list of “consenting” farmers have not even been put forth at this point – the list was eventually put up on the government website only on January 12, when The Telegraph carries no follow-up (having supported the government claims even before they are fully put forth.) Only The Statesman (which, it must be noted, has a long anti-CPM record) carries an article scrutinising the list: “the controversy-dogged list of consent award for acquisition of land for the Tata small car project at Singur… leaves the crucial questions unanswered.”

But otherwise, what we see is that instead of putting any real pressure on the government to come clear on facts or transparency, some major newspapers only make token gestures toward transparency while accepting and even exaggerating government claims: almost criminal given the stakes at the ground level.

But of course, the issue of “consent” hardly stops with the specific procedures for acquisition/compensation: the issue is expanded (by both the government and the media) into one of general willingness to the process of industrialisation itself. It is by now well known that the group of farmers is not a homogenous whole, but comprises land-owners, share croppers, landless labourers et al. The acquisition of land might have had different implications for, and different reactions from the land-owning and non-owning or share-cropper sections, and the analytical articles have repeatedly emphasised these disparities. This has not stopped section of the media from building feel-good sense of a general willingness to the land acquisition and industrialisation process based on the opinions of few.

Perhaps the most blatant instance of this was the formatting of an article on Singur, “Fields of Foment”, published in The Telegraph on December 10, 2006. The intro to the article is seemingly dispassionate, balanced: “The ‘bargadars’ are opposing the government that had given them a share of the land (while) ‘jotdars’ have come to the CPM’s aid, reports Debashis Bhattacharyya”. However, the large caption, spread across the top of the page in bold type, gives the politics of representation away. What we read is a quote; “We should get a picture of Ratan Tata and do his puja every day”. This is a quote from a Jotdar, happy that he can sell off his land. The article text contains other voices from bargadars who take a radically different point of view, but their voices are not sought to be highlighted on such a level. Moreover, The text of the article ignores the combined resistance of the poorer farmers in various subtle ways: “Singur, heaving with a political convulsion, has witnessed a sea-change ever since the Tatas picked it as the site for a small car plant.” The problem with Singur is located as a problem of “political convulsion” involving the state and the opposition, and as a problem in rural sociology itself, involving “opposite extremes of the rural spectrum”. What is left out is of course the sense of any real struggle; yes “foment”, between the state and the police/RAF on one hand, and the poorer farmers and villagers on the other.

Another instance of the creation of a sense of feel-good is the beginning of the construction of the Tata factory in the third week of January, as covered by The Telegraph and The Times of India (the Hindustan Times thus a better job this time with some ground-based probing). The Telegraph presents the construction not as an expected development but as an achievement, almost a triumph: the headline of the frontpage anchor reads, “Tatas Break Ground” (TT, Jan 21, 2007), with the caption saying “work begins in Singur with local role”. The first sentence of the article creates the sense of a general willingness and effort: “About 100 Singur villagers drove the Tata Motor’s plant’s first three pillars into the ground as the “people’s car” project turned on ignition today” (note the strategic mention of the “people’s car” – who, of course, is this “people”?). Following this in the next paragraph, a farmer is quoted as saying that “I feel very happy, we never earned enough from farming”. The juxtaposition of this quote with the first positive sentence of the article mentioning “about 100 Singur villagers” obviously connects the two to build a general picture of welcome opportunity. But one needs to cross check with just one more report from the ground, this time in the Hindustan Times, to get a sense that there is no such uniform sense of satisfaction, while there indeed is widespread resentment and anxiety. The report “We shall all eat cars” (HT, Jan 21 2007), appearing one day before the Telegraph anchor, takes a brief survey of the opinions and behaviour of various villagers in the adjoining mouzas: ““I’ve invested in two minis [tubewells] and a tractor without asking for any government help,” says Mahadeb Das. “Now, the government has put half of my land behind the fence insisting that I had agreed to sell those plots. Why would I want to sell land that provides me with better money than I can make out of a onetime payment?”… Binoy Das, a sharecropper asks with a wry smile, “It’s as if farming is suddenly a crime!”… “A Kolkata journalist recently asked me whether the farmer’s son should remain a farmer forever,” says Dhana [a gram panchayat member]. “What is wrong with being a farmer?””

Thus, the ethics of representing farmers is a question from which The Telegraph cannot be exempt: in what context should a vulnerable section like the farmers be quoted? If a marginal farmer like Sanat Das says he is happy to have found better paying work, does it mean he and his likes are really well taken care of in the long term? Construction work is obviously a one-off job, can it compare in any way with loss of land-based occupation, even if not well paying? Ignoring the resistance of farmers and creating a false sense of general willingness has the gravest implications for the media as a forum of representation in a democratic society.

The Singur Smokescreen: Part-II

The issue of compensation

The representation of compensation and relief is another area where priorities and stakes in the sections of the media become clear. In case of The Telegraph, the politics of representation is consistent and starts from the early efforts of the ruling party regarding compensation, in June. Once again, we see the focus on the most moneyed section, the big landowners who are not directly connected with land cultivation unlike the bargadars, to create the sense of a general willingness to accept the compensation: “CPM zonal committee secretary Suhrid Dutta urged local Trinamul Congress MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya and the Trinamul friends [sic] not to confuse the farmers by spreading misinformation about the compensation … According to the CPM leaders, only 250 bighas of the land earmarked for the Tatas yield three crops a year. After the meeting, Ashis Saha, who owns 100 bighas, Swarup Barui, who owns 60, and Dwarik Ghosh, the owner of 15 bighas at Beraberi said they would sell their land. Cultivation, Saha added, is no longer cost-effective and remunerative prices for produce have become uncertain.” (“CPM launches Mission Singur”, TT Jun 05 2006). The sense of a just and adequate compensation process is again created in the article “Singur braces for battle: In court & on field” (TT, Sept 19 2006). To a careful reader, The article is paradoxical: it seeks to clarify and support the government’s compensation policies and process as fair and farmer-oriented, and yet it exposes the fact that the process has proceeded without any dialogue or any transparency. ““We have received consent for 557.98 acres so far,” said Liakat Ali, the additional Hooghly district magistrate… The land minister will address a public meeting in Singur on Sunday. He will tell the rally there was no option to the acquisition. The Tatas, shown several plots, had chosen Singur because they wanted their showpiece venture to be located near Calcutta… The land reforms department is now calculating the compensation to be paid to the landlosers. The amounts will be declared by Thursday.” All seems hunky dory, happening with the “consent” of a large section, but a chart at the bottom of the page gives us the chronological sequence of the procedure. The chart sets out the government figures: “consent received for 557.98 acres; consent deadline Sept 18; compensation to be announced on Sept 21; Possession to be taken on Sept 25.” One pauses. What would be the meaning of “consent” (applicable to the compensation amount, not to acquisition as we noted earlier) if the announcement of compensation amount comes after the consent deadline? What, indeed, would “consent” mean if the gap between the consent deadline (Sept 18) and the possession date is given as a mere 7 days? And what does “consent” really count for if it is to be given or not by a deadline, that too before the amount is declared? Also, is a large one-time down payment - to be accepted or refused in the face of a deadline - the right way of ‘compensation’ or should farmers have greater stake in the entire process of industrialisation, from greater initial freedoms over selling land to shares in the equity of the company? By presenting the sense of willingness and transparency in the face of these very obvious questions, the article wears its hypocrisy thin.

The Times of India, in its article on the beginning of construction, briefly mentions the extension of prohibitory orders on assembly under section 144 to prevent protests during the initial construction – “The Tata communication came a day after the West Bengal government extended prohibitory orders banning the assembly of four or more people in Singur till Jan 28 midnight following reports that more protests could be organised” but it does not further probe the implications or villagers’ reactions to the extended restrictions. One might have thought that such government measures implied a continuing resistance and thus should have attracted greater scrutiny, but instead, the article goes on to advertise the Tata’s promises of employment and aid to the local people as per a company release: “The Tata Motors plant operation is expected to create employment in excess of 10,000 direct and indirect jobs,” the release said. The civil construction for the plant is being initiated by Tata Motors, it said. Tata Motors said through its contractors and its sub-contractors will deploy appropriate and necessary people from Singur area for various unskilled jobs and skilled assignments like masons and fitters. It said it was initiating various steps to train people of the Singur villages, who had earlier registered with WBIDC, to improve their employability. It has already selected a batch of individuals for an extensive six-month training.” One notes that this “batch of individuals” is but 24 youths and the people hitherto employed in construction number about 200: even if well meaning, such gestures cannot substitute any uniform rehabilitation package for the thousands displaced. By focusing extensively on these gestures at a critical juncture when government thinks it is imperative to contain protests by laws and police presence, the Times makes its priorities only too clear.

In any case, there are important questions about compensation and relief that the ground reporting ought to highlight at a critical juncture of economic decision-making, but these are deliberately obliterated in taking too apparent sides with the government or the corporate sector.

Representing farmers: resistance and agency

We have noted earlier how the farmers have been represented to create a sense of willingness or consent that is specious – the game becomes even more devious when it comes to representing the resistance and agency (that is, the conscious acting capacity) of the farmers and villagers. There are two primary and interconnected ways in which such resistance is ignored or rationalised away: one, the focus on the political clashes between Trinamul and CPM while ignoring/downplaying farmers’ voices or actions, and two, when there is any serious show of resistance or solidarity it is put down to “outsiders” (from the Trinamul to Maoists) and thus delegitimised. In these two ways, any serious expression of dissent is put down as a “law and order” problem which calls for only government force, and not something which requires much greater accountability to the villagers and (dare one ask?) an engagement with the villagers’ rights, demands, complaints and anxieties.

A very recent incident around which the representation of agency can be studied is the incident on January 28, when police and Trinamul supporters clashed outside of Singur, following which villagers tried to set the fence around the construction site on fire. Comparing the newspaper reports on Jan 29 (The Statesman/TT/HT) is instructive. The Telegraph, unlike the Hindustan Times and The Statesman, does not carry it on the front page except for a small column, and there are two connected reports in the ‘Bengal’ page. The first, “Trinamul Tussle at House hot spot”, describes how “Trinamul workers planning a march were today stopped at Maitipara, the spot where a similar obstruction of Mamata Banerjee’s motorcade two months ago has sparked vandalism at the Assembly” [the November 30 incident when TMC MLAs rampaged the assembly to ‘protest’ police obstruction]. One notes that the reference to the two-month old vandalism (certainly reprehensible in itself) does not have much relevance for the present situation, as the article itself concedes, “the action this time was limited”. The agenda, then, is to use the older incident of blatant vandalism to write off the events of the day as only another law-&-order issue. The report neglects to mention that this particular police obstruction comes after the section 144 restrictions have been lifted, and that too, at an area away from Singur. Moreover, The reaction of the villagers at the site itself is subsequently portrayed thus: “as news of the trouble spread, some 500 villagers in Singur ran to the… project site and, for the fourth time in just over a week, tried to torch the fence posts. They were subsequently driven away by the police.” The hint of irritating repetitiveness in “for the fourth time in just over a week” makes a mockery of their prolonged rage, and dismisses any inquiry into the pending issues that may have prompted its continuance. They are of course not to be taken with any seriousness: the phrase “driven away” is eloquent in its dismissiveness. Next to this article there is a report (in bold type, too) about a government report saying that the total percentage of land acquired is negligible in comparison to the total cultivated land area, and the report goes on about how that negates Trinamul claims about shrinking fertile land (“State rebuts Mamata slur”). This is not only neglecting the issue at hand, which is not macroeconomic but local, but also a way of diverting attention away from it while highlighting the supposed accountability and transparency of the government (the report carries a pie-chart graphic to pictorially present the government figures). The Statesman, true to its anti-CPM stance, focuses on the police action and its negative consequences, with the frontpage headline “40 injured in Singur clashes”. However, the article again concentrates centrally on the political standoff between TMC and CPM, and although it mentions that the villagers trying to torch the fence were beaten up when the police “rushed to the spot and started beating up some locals”, it does not give any further attention to it. Were there any arrests of villagers made? What were the casualties if any? (the “40 injured” refer to the Trinamul-Police clash). If The Statesman fails to provide answers, the Hindustan Times frontpage report (“Pitched battle near project site at Singur”) is an even worse place to look for further clarification, as it doesn’t even mention the farmers’ reaction and confines the report to the Trinamul-Police clash. It does not even mention that there was any incident except the Trinamul protesters – thus again the sense that is created is of an essentially political (and therefore, not authentic) standoff. Interestingly, it is the Bangla edition Dainik Statesman that unlike its English counterpart carries details regarding the villagers: one couple arrested, several women injured, etc. None of the English biggies thought it worthwhile to provide any such attention to the incident.

This is not surprising at least in the case of The Telegraph, for it has a months long record of slighting farmers’ resistance even as it quotes them (as we saw) to bolster its pro-government stance. The earlier protests – till they acquire stronger expression leading to clashes with the police, notably on December 3 – are covered perfunctorily, sometimes even with a comic tinge. A report such as “Protest rerun in Singur” (TT, Jun 02 2006) at least gives an overview of the protestors and their demands and tactics (“about 3,000 villagers today staged a demonstration in front of the office of the Singur block development officer against the government’s move to acquire farmland for the Tata Motors project”), but by the time of “Broom charge in Singur” (TT, Aug 15 2006) the reporting takes the villagers less seriously: “Wielding sticks, sickles and brooms, farmers and their families stood in the way of district officials who arrived in Singur today to serve notices for the hearing of objections to land acquisition for the Tata small car project.” The report does not bother with any further details but goes straight on to the government stand, without a murmur: “The government has, however, decided to complete the hearing by August 28. It had recently said it would speed up the process of acquiring land. Twenty-three district officials, divided into two groups, went to Gopalnagar and Bajemelia villages in Singur.” The focus on the homely arms of the villagers (“sticks, sickles and brooms”) and the phrase “broom charge” in the headline gives an air of flippancy and humour to the reporting, and this comic strain is further evident in a photo caption on August 19 accompanying a file picture of farmers’ wives at a protest: “broom, broom”. The caption and the picture, however, are not immediately relevant to the report they accompany (“Singur farmers threaten to fight”) which is about a planned CITU rally in Singur (pro-govt and pro-acquisition) and the combined resolution of farmers to nevertheless not give in: “A day after the chief minister warned of police action to “foil the politically-motivated opposition” to land acquisition at Singur, a leader of the farmers’ group opposing the takeover said they were “ready to give our blood, but not part with our land”.” What purpose could the caption serve here, then, except to add a comic aside that seems to trivialise the protests?

The Singur Smokescreen: Part-III

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 frontpage 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 it itself 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, traveling to the area). The incident of vandalising and postering 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 marginalising 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 mobilising 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 ( 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 Parkar detained on way to Singur”), the webpage 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 a binary 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, including 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, privatization, 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.

(Aniruddha Dutta is a student , PG 2, Department of English, Jadavpur University)