The Media and the Left in India Jayati Ghosh

The past few weeks have witnessed an extraordinary frenzy of media attacks on the Left – and in particular, on the Left Front government in the state of West Bengal. These attacks have been so sharp, so abusive and so based on partial or total distortion of facts, that they may even be unprecedented in the history of independent India. And the attacks are coming not only from the mainstream media which is now well-known for its anti-Left propensities, but from non-mainstream and relatively new sources such as internet blogs. So what exactly is going on?

The focus of all this is the relatively small block of Nandigram in East Medinipur district of West Bengal, which has now been a political hotspot for about a year. The protest against the possibility of land acquisition for a chemical hub in the early months of 2007 turned violent, forcing the local peasants and workers associated with the ruling party (the CPIM) out of their homes.

The protest was led by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) a motley combination consisting not only of some local people, but also outsiders especially from the opposition Trinamul Congress and some Maoist groups including from Jharkhand. Even after the state government had retracted, promised that the chemical hub would be located elsewhere and that there would be no land acquisition in Nandigram, the protests continued, apparently inexplicably, and the peasants who had been displaced by the January violence were unable to return to their homes.

The effort by the state government to bring these people back to their homes led to the shocking and deplorable incident in mid-March, involving an incident of police firing which killed several people. Shaken by that incident, the state government withdrew police from that area, effectively allowing it to become a “liberated zone” with road blocks, barricades and even land mines preventing the entry of the state administration and not even allowing basic public health services to be provided within the area. Meanwhile more than 3000 refugees continued to live in makeshift camps without access to their own homes, fields, or means of livelihood.

Yet all this time, when there were thousands of displaced people living in distress, there was no attention at all from the national media, and certainly no concern from any national politicians other than those from the Left parties. Throughout this period, the media did not ask any of these basic questions: Why is this protest still going on when all the demands were met by early March? Why are the displaced residents not being allowed back into their homes? Why is the state administration not being allowed to enter? Who is leading and orchestrating this, and what are their real aims, given that the sufferers on both sides are poor peasants and labourers?

In early November, the displaced peasants once more sought to return. This time they were able to do so, and clearly violence ensued, involving both sides. It is certainly correct to criticise the police for doing nothing – but nothing is also what they had done in January when the BUPC first violently threw out those villagers, and nothing is what they had done (with the exception of the tragic incident in March) over these past nine months as the BUPC established control based on physical force over the area.

The state government in West Bengal repeatedly requested the CRPF to come in to restore order in the area in October, and there is no doubt that if these forces had arrived in time, instead of after it was all over, much violence would have been avoided and many lives would have been saved. Yet the media has not noted this fact. Instead it has been deeply critical only of the last incident, rather than criticising the ineffectiveness of the police over this entire period and the late deployment of the CRPF.

But these notable silences are nothing compared to the shrill hysteria that has accompanied the reportage of the recent events. There are two features that must be noted: the gross and even malicious distortion of facts that has accompanied the completely one-sided media coverage; and the false and extremely dangerous analogies that have been made comparing this to the Gujarat genocide in 2002.

The extent of the distortion of facts is startling even to those who have grown weary and cynical about the role of the media. Take only one example. In a programme on 12 November 2007, a national television channel showed horrifying images of a villager being shot at in cold blood, followed by images of a dead body being wrapped in polythene sheets by a few people in what appeared to be an attempt to dispose of the body secretly. The commentary announced that CPI(M) cadres were responsible for these gruesome acts, and proceeded to ask the viewers “Does the CPIM have blood on its hands?” (The answer emerging from the sms poll was overwhelmingly “yes”, which is unsurprising given the images and attribution.)

Yet it turns out that the news channel had absolutely no evidence to back its claim that this footage was of CPIM cadres. This became evident in an interview telecast later that night, with the photo-journalist who had shot the footage. In fact, it has been suggested that the circumstantial evidence is that it may actually have been BUPC activists engaging in these ghastly acts. This did not stop the channel from repeatedly showing this footage as example of the horrific violence unleashed by the CPI(M) on innocents in the area. In general TV channels have been replaying a few images, some of them even from the incident of March rather than November, to drive home this point of violence by the CPIM.

This is not to say that there has not been violence in the area or that it should not be condemned. Obviously, there has been violence, especially since lives have been lost (at least 27 of whom were Left Front supporters) and there was clearly a breakdown of law and order in that area for the past nine months. All incidents of violence since January must be fully probed and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. But it is important to recognise that there has been violence on both sides, in a conflict that was no more about land acquisition at all but was essentially about destabilising the government through controlling that particular area, and that the poor local peasants have been pawns in this cynical game.

The apparently intentional distortion of facts by the media has been accompanied by extremely biased commentary in the press, in which all sorts of wild allegations have been made and analogies have been drawn that can only be described as both completely wrong and deeply irresponsible. The most dramatic of these is the comparison that is being made between these events and the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.

It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence (although it is apparently not so for the more deliberately cynical or the more currently hysterical observers) that there is absolutely no way the two situations can be compared. First of all, the violence in Nandigram was not communal but fundamentally a political struggle between groups. Even though cynical attempts have been made to introduce a communal flavour into the events, especially recently, it should be remembered that West Bengal has an exemplary record of communal harmony over the past three decades when many other states have faced communal violence of different sorts.

Secondly, in Gujarat what occurred was the attack on innocent Muslims across the state supposedly “in revenge” for the Godhra train fire, which not only involved deaths of thousands of people but also forced displacement of the minority community into camps and subsequent ghettoisation. All this was aided and abetted by instruments of the state government, in a state which has an unfortunate history of communal violence and also a systematic build-up of anti-minority sentiment.

In contrast, in Nandigram it was actually the supporters of the Left Front government who were forced to live in refugee camps for the past nine months, who have only now been allowed into their homes. Of course, there was displacement again in early November, this time of BUPC supporters, when those earlier displaced returned forcibly. But at the time of writing, almost all the people who had fled their homes in early November have returned to their homes, and the aim is to ensure that everyone is allowed to live peacefully in their own homes without displacement.

But then the question must be: why is such a ridiculous comparison being made at all, when it is so evident that there is no similarity? While the motivations for such a comparison may not be clear, the results of making it certainly are. This comparison serves to muddy the waters significantly, creating great confusion about what is to be opposed and where. It even serves to legitimise the pogrom and continued suppression of minorities in Gujarat, by implying that such things happen in other places. It makes a mockery of determined secular opposition and divides the secular forces so comprehensively that even Mr. Narendra Modi could not have wished for a more satisfactory outcome. So it is more than just foolish – it is deeply dangerous.

One last question still remains in the mind: why is the media currently so particularly fierce, so determinedly anti-Left and so blatantly partisan to the extent of even blocking out the truth when their own correspondents might accidentally provide it? Here again, the answer is fairly obvious. The establishment in the country, as well as the media that supports it and is heavily financed by internal and external capital, has been smarting at the inability to push through the Indo-US nuclear deal. This could be stopped so far only because of the opposition of the Left parties, and so the current media attack also reflects rage at being so constrained and the desire to damage the Left so that it cannot provide such a concerted opposition to the deal in future.

So once again, while motives of the various attackers of the organised Left may not be clear, the implications of the current frenzy of criticism are only too clear. It damages the Left and reduces its ability to mobilise against an international alliance that is clearly in the interests of imperialism. The only hope, unfortunately, is that the media ultimately matter much less to the politics of the country than they think they do.