Wounding with ink

share this article

Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, has a history of political influence and reach. And that makes it too loud to ignore.

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

There was a lot of outrage over the actions of Shiv Sainkis who threw ink on Sudheendra Kulkarni. A blackened face did manage to exhibit intolerance in a manner very few images could.

But how uncommon is it for the Sena to employ ink to tarnish a character, or intimidate people or threaten communities? Not that rare, in a manner of speaking.

The party has been prolific in ink attacks for much of the its existence. Through a more conventional, democratic and non-violent medium, of course: its mouthpiece, Saamana. It would not be off the mark to say that the Marathi daily, the most identifiable instrument of the Sena's propaganda and rhetoric machinery, is singular in its sting. It is the Sena’s most quoted spokesperson. In fact, the Saamana, which translates to ‘confrontation’ in Marathi, personifies the nativist street politics of the Sena.

Under the onslaught of social media, when major political parties are using online mediums to propagate their agendas, mouthpieces and printed material are confronted with irrelevance. Not Saamana. How many political mouthpieces would a common citizen be able to name? A few, perhaps. But how many make news as often as Saamana?

Despite the serious political implications, the blandness of the content of political mouthpieces makes them pale in comparison to official newspaper. This is where Saamana’s shrillness scores. It is a newspaper that makes news.

 

With the death of Bal Thackeray, the Sena today cannot boast of a credible voice pushing forward its hardline Hindutva position and Marathi chauvinism at the national level. The flair is missing. Bal Thackeray’s son and present party chief Uddhav is soft-spoken and lacks the oratorical skills or charisma of his father, or even his estranged cousin, Raj. Aaditya Thackeray, the third-generation of the family, is bound by the burden of progressive thought and is usually seen supporting issues that are distanced from Hindutva or strong-arm politics. The burden of carrying on the Hindutva rhetoric, therefore, lies with Saamana.

The daily was born on January 23, 1989, at a time when the Sena was attempting to spread its wings. An Hindi evening version was later launched on February 23, 1993, to woo Hindi speakers settled in the State. The need for a daily was being felt as Marmik, being a weekly, could not disseminate Bal Thackeray’s views and retorts to political developments and criticisms with the speed and immediacy that a daily can provide. Thus, Bal Thackeray “gifted himself a paper tiger,” notes senior journalist Vaibhav Purandhare, “...to channelise party appeal into a force potent enough to dislodge the Congress regime.”

In his book, Bal Thackeray & the Rise of the Shiv Sena, Purandhare describes the mood during the launch of Saamana: “Sena workers had been building up the atmosphere for the paper’s arrival months in advance.

Walls in Mumbai had been adorned with banners and colourful hand-drawn ads with the catch-line “ Dainik Navhe, Sainik (Not a daily, a soldier).”

Indeed, the Saamana is much more than any other mouthpiece. From the start, it was meant to be the voice of the supremo, who himself provided the line for the editorials written by the paper’s executive editor, Sanjay Raut, a member of Parliament. Thackeray edited the paper till his death in November 2012. As tribute to his father, Uddhav Thackeray designated Bal Thackeray as the founder-editor of the paper.

  But how uncommon is it for the Sena to employ ink to tarnish a character, or intimidate people or threaten communities? Not that rare, in a manner of speaking.

Today, as you read the Saamana’s editorials, you can still find Bal Thackeray’s voice embedded in them. Raut tries to garner legitimacy with regular evocation of Thackeray in the third-person.

Senior journalist Mahesh Vijayapurkar writes: “To many of the Sainiks who lacked a direct day to day access to him, the Saamana offered a connect. Even for many leaders of the party holding important posts within and without the Shiv Sena, the paper became a window to understand emerging and new ideas from their leader-editor. If they missed the morning date with it, they could miss something.”

In the age of social media, I don’t not know how significant it is for the Sena cadre. But it definitely stands true for journalists in Mumbai. A lust for sensation, and limited access to the Thackeray family has meant that the media, both print and TV, national and local, relies heavily on the Saamana’s daily dose.

It’s not surprising to know that there is something loosely termed as the ‘ Saamana beat’ in Mumbai — agencies and channels deploy a staffer to dedicatedly follow-up the editorials in the paper each morning.

As per the drill, any fiery or sensational item is thoughtlessly latched onto by the media, which is relayed over the day by channels and printed on next day’s newspaper. The more outrageous the content, the more newsworthy it becomes. Be it calling for Muslim disenfranchisement or demanding treason charges against those who opposed death penalty to Yakub Memon or appealing to Hindus to act as human bombs and attack Pakistan, the Saamana knows how to grab attention. It also does so by directly targeting communities and groups, Muslims being its favourite target.

 

Each time I report on a Saamana editorial, I am faced with this dilemma: how much publicity does it actually deserve? For objectivity’s sake we must report it. But by regularly carrying Saamana’s edits without any counter view or inquiry, mainstream media is guilty of giving it disproportionate coverage. But in the present climate of “byte-driven” journalism, however, it cannot be ignored. Its publishers truly understand this.

“Thackeray is news. Balasaheb Thackeray would always say... after reading the Saamana, people should have tears in their eyes or stones in their hands,” Raut recently told me. Saamana “is not an art film, it’s a commercial film. No vernacular paper in the country has got the glamour that it has,” Raut proudly said, explaining the commercial model of the paper.

When I asked him why the Sena never thought of expanding the reach of the paper (it currently gets published out of Mumbai, Pune and Aurangabad), his answer did not surprise me. “We don’t need growth. Even if we print just 100 copies, lakhs of people read it and hear about it the next day, thanks to electronic and print media,” he said, laughing. In what is little more than self-indulgence, its masthead has this line: “ Jagateel sarvadhik charchile janare ekmev rutpatr [World’s most talked about newspaper].”

Last year, senior Nationalist Congress Party leader and Rajya Sabha MP Majid Memon suggested that it was best to ignore Saamana, as its edits were exaggerating and going beyond limits. But can we really ignore Saamana?

At least the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Sena’s alliance partner in Maharashtra, cannot. Senior BJP leaders irritably refer to Saamana as the main “opposition party” for its constant attacks on the party. During the 2014 State elections, the BJP leadership came under a barrage of scathing editorials in the magazine. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not spared.

In the heat of this, I met a senior BJP leader to ask him what he thought. He was disgruntled by the episode and even suggested that he would soon conduct a survey on the content of editorials published there. Did Saamana attack the BJP more than it targeted the Congress and NCP? “I bet the BJP is the number-one target,” he ventured.

As the Sena faces a fresh political challenge with the ascendance of the BJP, its editorials in the recent months have acquired a fresh level of aggressiveness. That should help us reflect on its past. During the 1992-93 riots, Saamana was used as a tool to incite communal violence. There were 16 reports made to the Press Council against Saamana for publishing objectionable and provocative materials during 1992 and 1993, notes the Sri Krishna Commission report.

So, the next time Saamana publishes a divisive editorial, I hope we raise as much voice as we did when Shiv Sainiks smeared ink on Kulkarni's face.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor