Kolkata: When on 3 July, Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee announced that Indian Railways was willing to take over Basumati Corp. Ltd—publisher of the oldest Bengali newspaper Dainik Basumati—she joined a long list of Bengal politicians who have over the years determined the fate of the 128-year-old publishing house that is now owned by the state.
Basumati started its life as a publishing house in 1881 and launched Dainik Basumati in 1914.
The newspaper counted among its patrons nationalists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Chittaranjan Das and Aurobindo Ghosh.
Helping hand: The headquarters of Basumati Corp. in Kolkata. Mamata Banerjee wants the railways to use the defunct printing press and it looks like the owner, the state government, might not be averse to the idea. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Banerjee wants the railways to use Basumati’s printing press, which, until November last year, was printing a wide variety of things ranging from textbooks to movie tickets, and it looks like the state government might not be averse to the idea.
The West Bengal government-owned company, which stopped publishing Dainik Basumati six years ago, became a political plaything after the Mukhopadhyay family, which founded it, fell on hard times and was forced to suspend publication of the newspaper in 1970.
In its heydays, which lasted till the mid-1960s, Dainik Basumati sold around 80,000 copies a day and was one of the most popular newspapers in Kolkata, says 74-year-old Kalyanaksha Bandyopadhyay, who at the age of 16 joined Dainik Basumati in 1952, and retired as an editor of its magazine 41 years later.
After remaining shut for four years, Basumati, at the request of its employees, was acquired in 1974 by the state government, which then was headed by Congress leader Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
“The takeover by the state government opened Basumati’s doors to politicians,” recalls Asoke Bhattacharya, a former journalist who retired from the newspaper in 2005.
Three years after the state government rescued the ailing newspaper, the Left Front came to power in West Bengal. Under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the current chief minister who was then minister for information and cultural affairs, Dainik Basumati received a lot of support from Writers’ Buildings, which houses the secretariat of the West Bengal government.
“Buddhababu took a lot of interest in Basumati—he used to come to our office quite often,” says Bhattacharya. “In one of his first few meetings with our editors, he (Bhattacharjee) had said Basumati should critique the state government and not be its mouthpiece.”
Still, that didn’t stop the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, from “packing Basumati with its own people”, according to Bandyopadhyay.
Because of the interference of politicians and state government officials, a lot of senior journalists quit the paper, says Bhattacharya. “After a point, the editor of Basumati was routinely appointed by Writers’ Buildings from among government officials.”
The paper’s popularity fell sharply when bureaucrats started editing it after the departure of one Prashanta Sarkar, Dainik Basumati’s last “true journalist editor”, says Bhattacharya.
The killer blow was finally delivered in 1993, when, a year after the CPM launched its mouthpiece Ganashakti in Kolkata as a morning daily, the state government decided to suspend publication of Dainik Basumati’s Kolkata edition.
“Though the paper was not doing well, it still had a circulation of 10,000-12,000 at that time,” recalls Bhattacharya.
In 1993, Dainik Basumati was launched in Siliguri, but the edition never took off. Notwithstanding mounting losses, the Siliguri edition ran for almost 10 years, until it was shut in 2003, soon after Ganashakti’s Siliguri edition was launched.
“It couldn’t have been a mere coincidence... Ganashakti was launched in Kolkata in 1992 and in Siliguri a decade later, and almost immediately Basumati’s editions in these cities were shut,” says Sarbajit Basu, a technician who used to work at Basumati’s printing press.
The state government continued to use Basumati’s printing press, but in May 2007 announced its decision to close the company.
However, Writers’ Buildings took more than a year to despatch the closure notice, and when it finally arrived at Basumati’s headquarters in central Kolkata in November last year, it had around 210 employees. Till February this year, the state government continued to pay them salaries, but has stopped doing so as it prepares to wind up the company.
Basumati’s employees continue to fight for the survival of the publishing house, and though they are divided among four unions, none of them agreed to the separation package offered by the state government in November last year.
For the last four months, salaries have been paid out of Basumati’s cash reserves of Rs5 crore. “Our wage bill comes to Rs15 lakh a month... The reserves won’t last long unless didi (Mamata Banerjee) takes over this company,” says Basu.
The state government claims Basumati owes it around Rs91 crore, but employees say more than half of it is interest that has accrued on loans granted to the ailing newspaper earlier.
The state government seems to have lost interest in Basumati, and might agree to giving it up to Indian Railways, according to S.N. Haque, principal secretary of the information and cultural affairs department, which for the past 32 years has controlled Basumati.
To be sure, the state cabinet still has to agree to the railway minister’s proposal, but Haque says, “In all probability, the state government wouldn’t object to the railway minister’s proposal. After all everyone wants a sick baby to be healthy.”