A CENTENARY TRIBUTE - Asoke Kumar Sarkar (1912-1983)
Centenaries are powerful reminders of legacies. Asoke Kumar Sarkar’s legacy is inextricably linked to Anandabazar Patrika — the daily and the institution bearing that name. He was born on this day a hundred years ago. He was thus only 10 years old when his father, Prafulla Kumar Sarkar, and his father’s friend, Sures Chandra Majumdar, took the momentous decision to publish a newspaper called Anandabazar Patrika.
The first edition of the paper appeared on March 13, 1922. The day was Dol Purnima and, as if to mark the auspiciousness of the day, the first day’s paper was printed in red. The significance of the choice of colour, however, did not escape the leading English newspaper in Calcutta of the time which noted that the new daily at its very moment of birth was defiantly waving the banner of protest. Anandabazar Patrika was born under the star of nationalism, which in the 1920s meant protest against the oppression of foreign rulers. Nationalism also signified hope — the hope of a nation in the making — and Anandabazar Patrika embodied this hope. It was self-consciously a part of history being made through struggle and through aspirations. Bande Mataram was blazoned on the paper, as it is even today.
Young Asoke Kumar imbibed these values and his later career was to show that he never abandoned them. His family had strong links with the literary and cultural world of Bengal too, especially with Rabindranath Tagore. Both his parents were extraordinary and powerful writers. These influences determined Asoke Kumar’s calling. He trained to be a chartered accountant. But the combined lure of newsprint and the printed word was stronger than the dreariness of account books. He joined the family newspaper as, indeed, he was destined to.
But before that, when still in his twenties, he participated in another hallowed tradition: going to jail for nationalism. It has been said that JB (Jailed by the British) was the highest honour the British monarch bestowed on his subjects in the colonies. Sures Majumdar had been incarcerated by the British. In his early youth, Majumdar had been a follower of the armed revolutionary, Jatindranath Mukherjee (popularly known as Bagha Jatin). Prafulla Kumar had been a participant in the Swadeshi movement but he was arrested and jailed in 1923 as editor of Anandabazar Patrika for publishing an article praising Jatindranath Mukherjee. Between its founding and 1947, the editor, publisher and printer of Anandabazar Patrika were jailed by the government innumerable times for fearlessly propagating nationalist views. Asoke Kumar’s mother, Nirjharini, was jailed three times in the 1930s for participating in satyagraha at the call of Mahatma Gandhi. There was no way Asoke Kumar could escape this tradition. He was jailed by the British in 1932. It was his baptism by fire.
In the pre-independence years, Anandabazar Patrika became a champion of nationalism and of Gandhi. Those who worked in the paper saw themselves as freedom fighters. The coming of independence was to alter this perspective and, in an editorial written on the occasion of India’s independence, the paper warned that the jubilation of August 15, 1947 should not overwhelm the daily and more mundane tasks that lay before the nation. The newspaper had to face the challenge of the transition from being an actor in the drama of a nation in the making to a bearer of the onerous responsibility of making the nation. It was at this conjuncture that Asoke Sarkar came into his element.
He took over the reins of the editorship of Anandabazar Patrika when the new republic was not even a decade old. He was conscious of the heritage and the tradition that he carried upon his shoulders — both of the family and of the institution. The overall context in the late 1950s did not make his task any easier. At the national level, the so-called Nehruvian consensus still held but there were enough signs to suggest that it was fraying at the edges. A democratically elected government in Kerala had been dismissed through a presidential fiat; economic progress was slow and the shadow of food shortages was looming over the country; social reforms had halted; the promise of socialism seemed like a fading dream.
Nearer home, West Bengal, the by-product of a forced partition, was plagued by the problem of the influx of refugees from former East Pakistan, resulting in overpopulation, rising unemployment and growing social discontent. Violent demonstrations and destruction of public property on the streets of Calcutta and in the districts beleaguered the Congress, the ruling party in West Bengal till 1966. The violence was led first by the undivided Communist Party of India and later, after the party split, by the CPI(M).
Internally, within the institution of which he was the head, Asoke Kumar had the responsibility of transforming a daily dedicated to the cause of nationalism into a professional newspaper capable of reporting on and assessing the emerging contemporary reality without fear or prejudice.
Asoke Sarkar’s initial years as editor coincided with tumultuous changes in West Bengal and in India. In West Bengal, the Congress government was overthrown by a political formation led by the CPI(M), and a combination of the policies of the new government and Maoist violence pushed the state down the slippery slope of economic decline and political turbulence. In Delhi, the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi witnessed a new concentration of power and a slew of socialistic measures. It is a measure of the success of Asoke Sarkar, both as editor and as institution-builder, that he made Anandabazar Patrika a critical observer of the events unfolding. This made the paper the largest circulated single edition daily. In a period when everything in West Bengal seemed to be in terminal decline, Anandabazar Patrika was the story of a success.
This success was not limited only to the sphere of journalism. Asoke Sarkar could not afford to overlook his literary and cultural lineage. A chance comment one evening from an eminent literary figure inspired him to institute the Ananda Purashkar to recognize and honour outstanding writers in Bengali fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Under his guidance, the literary and cultural magazine, Desh, which his father and Sures Majumdar had started in the 1930s, became the principal vehicle of expression of Bengali creativity through the printed word. He also made Ananda Publishers the premier publishing house of Bengali books.
Given this background, it was almost inevitable that Asoke Sarkar and his newspaper would find themselves totally involved in the war to liberate Bangladesh, since that struggle focused on the Bengali language and the sufferings of the Bengali-speaking people. While Anandabazar Patrika reported on the liberation struggle, often from within the war zone, Asoke Sarkar worked tirelessly to help some of those who had had to flee from East Pakistan. This work, done at some personal cost, is one of the unwritten episodes of a historical epoch.
The success of Anandabazar Patrika and Asoke Sarkar made enemies and there was a price to pay. The assault came during the Emergency and it was directed at the person and the institution, and a vengeful chief minister masterminded it. Anandabazar Patrika and its editor, it seemed during those dark months, were back to their initial years when they had fought the onslaught of the British Indian State. Asoke Sarkar refused to surrender the freedoms that had been won by the paper’s founders and had been guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Anandabazar Patrika was a victim of the Emergency. It was also, as it had been since its birth, a principal spokesman for the freedom of the press in India.
Asoke Sarkar’s advocacy of the freedom of the press was manifest in the many national and international bodies that he led or of which he was a member. These included the Press Trust of India, the Commonwealth Press Union, the International Press Institute, the Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society and others.
As his role in the world of media increased, Asoke Sarkar recognized that his institution could not remain confined only to West Bengal and the Bengali-speaking world. He began the process of entering the English language media space with the publication of the popular weekly, Sunday. The old English newspaper of the group, Hindustan Standard, was completely refashioned to make way for a new English daily, The Telegraph. Unfortunately, Asoke Sarkar did not live long enough to see the triumph of The Telegraph.
He died on February 17, 1983. His death was as sudden as it was untimely. His achievements were many but, perhaps, the most significant one was the manner in which he blended the tradition he inherited with the demands of the contemporary. His legacy, as indeed all legacies are, is rooted in the past. But it is also a challenge to forge ahead.