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Kolkata: In a move reminiscent of her takeover in 2009 of Kolkata TV—then one of the most watched Bengali news channels—West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party have seized control of two newspapers owned by the Saradha Group by providing them financial support to stay in circulation.

The two rescued newspapers, Kalom and Azad Hind, are targeted at West Bengal’s Muslims, who account for 26% of the state’s voters.

Other newspapers of the Saradha Group—one of eastern India’s biggest deposit-taking companies that went bust last month—such as The Bengal Post, Sakalbela and The Seven Sisters Post, were not as fortunate. They were wound up, making over 1,000 journalists and technicians redundant.

Kalom and Azad Hind are to be used as mouthpieces of the Trinamool Congress, say political leaders, citing the example of Kolkata TV, which was rescued in a similar manner. Kolkata TV, however, maintains that its news coverage is in no way influenced by the Trinamool Congress or the state government.

Though their circulation has declined to “a few thousand" over the past few months, Kalom, a Bengali daily, and Azad Hind, an Urdu one, are still widely respected in Muslim households, according to Asif Khan, the Trinamool Congress’s observer in Uttar Pradesh, who has been asked to provide “financial support only in extreme situations" to keep them afloat.

“The newspapers are being run by their employees," said Khan. “I am only providing moral support… and piecemeal funding as and when required."

The long-term plan is to form an association of the employees and secure through a court process the legal rights to publish the newspapers.

“If (Saradha Group chairman) Sudipta Sen eventually wishes to sell the newspapers to their employees, I will help them buy his shares," added Khan, whose family has a construction business in Uttar Pradesh.

Sen is in police custody, detained on charges of fraud and cheating.

Similar associations of workers run a large number of jute mills in West Bengal after their founders filed for bankruptcy and distanced themselves from the mills and their liabilities. They are, though, actually controlled by invisible financiers. Armed with court orders, workers run these mills, sharing profits with the people who provide working capital. For the financiers, this model of taking over mills under court intervention is more efficient than a plain vanilla share purchase because they don’t have to take over the outstanding liabilities.

Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress took over Kolkata TV in the same way three-and-a-half years ago after its founders ran the channel aground.

When creditors filed petitions for the liquidation of Kolkata TV’s assets, its workers formed a co-operative and moved the Calcutta high court and secured the rights to run the channel. They were backed by a Kolkata-based entrepreneur Kaustuv Ray, who was asked to rescue the channel by the Trinamool Congress.

Both the dailies that were rescued from being folded up have chequered pasts.

Kalom, which is targeted at Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state, was launched as a monthly magazine in 1981. It became a weekly in 1983. The Saradha Group bought it two years ago and turned it into a daily. Under its new management, Kalom’s circulation went up to 40,000 at one point and it was arguably the most successful publication of the now discredited Saradha Group. But over the past few months, things went haywire. Kalom was on the verge of closure when Khan rode in last month with money.

Azad Hind was founded in 1948 by A. Razzak Malihabadi, a close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Indian political leaders who fought for freedom from British rule. The newspaper derived its name from the Bose-led army, Azad Hind Fauj, according to its founder-editor’s grandson Ahmad Saeed Malihabadi.

A.S. Malihabadi, a Rajya Sabha member, edited and owned the newspaper till August 2010.

“Till then it was secular and independent in its stand as Netaji’s (Bose’s) Azad Hind Fauj," he said, adding that contracting revenues forced him to sell it to the Saradha Group.

These two newspapers have a long history and command “a lot of respect" among Muslims in the state, said M. Nuruzzaman, a Trinamool Congress legislator and a member of the party’s minority cell. “Our leader (Banerjee) asked us to make sure that these two newspapers survived the collapse of the Saradha Group."

Banerjee’s heart bled for Tara Music as well—a Saradha Group-owned popular entertainment channel on which anchors were seen last month sobbing in distress after the management announced its decision to pull it from air. She said at a press meet recently that she was moved by the sight and asked her party’s leaders to figure out what went wrong and how it could be rescued.

A spokesperson for Tara TV’s employees, Dipankar Nag, said the channel was currently being run with donations from artistes—mostly singers and musicians. Employees of the channel have already formed a welfare association and are trying to secure the right to run it, Nag said, adding that potential investors, even from the US and neighbouring Bangladesh, where Tara Music was telecast, have shown interest in backing the employees.

The seizure of the two newspapers by the Trinamool Congress, though, has attracted sharp criticism from opposition leaders, even from the Muslim community.

Muslims in the state have traditionally voted en bloc. A vast majority supported the Trinamool Congress in the 2009 general election and later in the 2011 assembly election. They contributed in great measure to the 9% vote swing in the 2011 assembly election, which ended the Left Front’s 34-year rule in West Bengal.

Banerjee took control of these two newspapers so that she could directly address this constituency, said Congress leader Abdul Mannan. “It is unfortunate that she is dividing West Bengal’s polity on communal lines," he said. “This is new in this state’s politics and extremely deplorable."

It would be interesting to see how the state eventually deals with these assets of the Saradha Group, which stand to be seized and liquidated for the recovery of depositors’ dues.

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