Sarkar vs Sarkar

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar inspects the Independence Day parade in Agartala on August 15. Photo: PTI

Text of the Chief Minister's address that was not telecast.

The mail regarding telecast of the C.M.'s speech.

Prasar Bharati’s refusal to broadcast the Tripura Chief Minister’s prerecorded speech raises questions on its autonomy and functioning.

PRASAR BHARATI’S (the public service broadcaster) refusal to broadcast Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s prerecorded Independence Day speech on All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD) is being seen as a direct assault on the rights of an elected Chief Minister and on the principle of federalism. The incident, which caused a furore in social and political circles, once again reinforced the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s tendency to muzzle dissenting voices. Manik Sarkar has been at the helm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government of Tripura for four consecutive terms now. As has been the ongoing practice for several years, on August 12 AIR and DD recorded Manik Sarkar’s Independence Day address, in Bengali and English respectively, to be aired and telecast on the morning of August 15.

However, on the evening of August 14 the Chief Minister’s office was informed through a letter from AIR that the speech would not be broadcast unless he “reshape[d]” it. The move was clearly an attempt to pressure an elected head of government to conform to the will of the ruling party at the Centre whose policies Manik Sarkar had criticised in his speech.

The letter from the office of the Assistant Director General, AIR, on behalf of the Director General, said: “… keeping in view the sanctity and solemnity attached with the occasion the broadcast is meant for, the CEO Prasar Bharati was also consulted and the collective decision taken at Delhi advises that the broadcast may not go with its existing content. AIR/Prasar Bharati will however be more than happy if the Hon’ble Chief Minister agrees to reshape the content making it suitable to the solemnity of the occasion and sentiments of the people of India at large.”

The Chief Minister refused to “reshape” his speech, and so it was not telecast or aired. “Manik Sarkar has been the Chief Minister for more than 19 years. Does he not know what to say in an Independence Day address? This is as a direct infringement on the rights of an elected Chief Minister,” Gautam Das, the spokesperson of the CPI(M) in Tripura and member of the party’s Central Committee, told Frontline.

He pointed out that nowhere in the letter did AIR specify which part of the Chief Minister’s speech was not in keeping with the “solemnity” of the occasion and the “sentiments of the people”. “They did not say what their objection was. It is clear that they are censoring what the Chief Minister will be saying to his people at the behest of their political leaders at the Centre. They [the BJP] do not want [to accept] that varieties of opinion exist in the different States of the country. There should not be anything that goes against their views and they do not want the media which is under their control to telecast or broadcast any view directly or indirectly critical of the BJP and its policies. This is intolerance at its worst and it is undemocratic and unconstitutional,” Gautam Das said. The party’s State secretary, Bijan Dhar, called it “an insult to the people of Tripura”.

The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) said in a statement: “This is a gross infringement on the right of a Chief Minister to address the people of his State on Independence Day. This Act is reminiscent of the Emergency days and goes beyond as it seeks to gag the elected Chief Minister of a State. The Central government is trampling upon the autonomy of Doordarshan/AIR and Prasar Bharati by such acts of censorship.”

The Congress party also condemned the Centre’s move. Tripura Pradesh Congress president Birajit Sinha said the Centre’s attempt to gag the Chief Minister’s speech could not be supported. “The Central government is indulging in groupism at every level. This is very dangerous for democracy. All the media is under their control. This is worse than the Emergency,” he said.

Doordarshan Kendra (Agartala) tried to counter the allegations of the State government by claiming that it had given “wide coverage” to the Chief Minister’s Independence Day programme. In a statement, U.K. Sahoo, the Kendra chief, said: “I would like to state that [the] news unit of the local station of Doordarshan at Agartala has given wide coverage to [the] public address of [the] Chief Minister of Tripura and the development activities of the State government…. On August 15, Doordarshan also gave wide coverage to the Chief Minister’s Independence Day programme and telecast report running to 29 minutes and 25 seconds. The Chief Minister’s speech coverage was for 12 minutes. This was telecast at 1900 [hours].” However, he did not mention the recorded speech of the Chief Minister that Doordarshan refused to telecast on the morning of August 15.

The incident once again brought to the fore the question of Prasar Bharati’s autonomy and its powers. Although the Prasar Bharati Act was passed in 1990, it was not until 1997 that Prasar Bharati became a statutory autonomous body and the country’s public service broadcaster controlling AIR and DD, which were earlier under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990, states: “The Corporation shall, in the discharge of its functions, be guided by the following objectives, namely: (a) upholding the unity and integrity of the country and the values enshrined in the Constitution; (b) safeguarding the citizen’s right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters of public interest, national or international, and presenting a fair and balanced flow of information including contrasting views without advocating any opinion or ideology of its own.”

However, according to Jawhar Sircar, former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Prasar Bharati, the principles upon which it was established were being perverted mainly by internal bureaucracy. “The form of the institution remained autonomous, [but] the functioning was not. Internal corrosions started taking place. The same set of people trained in the same manner simply carry out the ethos from one government Ministry to another governmental organisation. Such a place cannot breed autonomy,” Sircar said.

He pointed to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that said it was imperative for Parliament to make a law “placing the broadcasting media in the hands of a public or statutory corporate” whose constitution and composition must be such as to ensure “impartiality in political economic and social matters and on all other political issues”.

“The Supreme Court specifically says to allow the federation to articulate itself; to allow pluralism and diversity of opinions and views. The Act says it will provide space for the contradictory voice. It is ridiculous for the bureaucracy to try and censor it, as it did in the case of the Tripura Chief Minister,” said Sircar.

He added that such a thing did not happen during his tenure as CEO nor could he recall any precedent before his time.

Sircar found nothing “unconstitutional’ in Manik Sarkar’s speech. “Certain words like conspiracies and others may sound a little jarring, but that is his way of saying it. A politician does not come on television to speak on cookery, he is there to make a political statement. This [Prasar Bharati’s decision] conveys a mistake in [the] reading of its powers, with not a single contrary voice available within the organisation to speak out against it,” he said. By not airing or telecasting Manik Sarkar’s prerecorded speech, Prasar Bharati stirred up a controversy. Had the speech been telecast, it may have passed largely unnoticed outside Tripura, but by censoring it, Prasar Bharati has ensured that it has become one of the most talked about speeches in the country today.