For the first time ever, Calcutta Book Fair is riven with controversy. Organisers, split down the middle, are hurling allegations and counter-allegations that have reached the chief minister’s table.
The fair has never had such a bumpy run-up, agree senior officers of the information and cultural affairs (I&CA) department, looked after by chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee himself. Members of the Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Guild fear that the rough run-up may take its toll on the one fair that the city has repeatedly hosted with considerable commercial success.
I&CA department officers insist that the fair will be held but, nevertheless, appear wary of any legal move initiated by any faction. “If attitudes harden further and one of them goes to court, things may change drastically,” said a senior officer.
The chief minister, who has become one of the most recognisable mascots of the city’s most-frequented fair since its Phoenix-like rise in 72 hours after it was reduced to ashes in a 1997 fire, has been petitioned by a guild faction to set up a steering committee to take care of this year’s fair.
Raising unprecedented charges of corruption, nepotism and electoral malpractice against the dominant faction, some guild members wrote to Bhattacharjee, saying that formation of an “unbiased” steering committee (like the post-fire one) is the only way the fair can be saved from the “self-seeking individuals”.
The plea to the chief minister follows another first-time occurrence — intervention by an official wing of the state government — in the history of the guild and the fair. The state registrar of firms, societies and non-trading corporations has ordered a fresh poll to the guild executive committee, allowing dissenters to question the “constitutional validity” of a fair organised by a “lame-duck” committee. Registrar P.K. Chattopadhyay, after a Calcutta High Court directive, set aside the last poll’s results in a November 2002 order, when guild members highlighted “irregularities” in the procedure and gave the guild a “reasonable time period” for fresh polls. Kalyan Shah, who became general secretary for the fourth year running last year, explained that the registrar’s order followed some “technical faults in the procedure.”
But most guild members feel the issues now being raised are a direct fall-out of the “increasing commercialisation” of the fair. “The problems we are talking about now crept into the guild’s system after the 1997 fair, which attracted tremendous media attention and sponsors eager for a slice of the money-spinner mela,” said a veteran guild member.