Guwahati: Amidst the threat of spreading novel coronavirus (precisely the Omicron variant) across India, Asom Granthamela (Assam Book Fair) came to a successful end in Guwahati, the virtual capital of Northeast. Organised jointly by Asom Prakashan Parishad (Publication Board Assam, the government sponsored literary institution) and All Assam Publishers & Book Sellers Association maintaining necessary Covid-19 precautions, the 12-day event genuinely paved ways for observation, debate and resolutions over the future of books and also physical newspapers.
Braving the cold wave, thousands of book-lovers from different parts of the region thronged at Assam Engineering Institute playground in Chandmari locality every day to celebrate the festival of reading, information and wisdom. Nearly 150 book-publishing groups and retailers comprising a few from neighboring Bangladesh, as well as Delhi and Kolkata besides the local publication houses showcased their printing works. They were put in six rows in memory of renowned Assamese intellectuals namely Hemchandra Goswami, Padmanath Gohain Barua, Panindranath Gogoi, Giripada Devchoudhury, Rabin Devchoudhury and Sananta Tanti.Inaugurating the book fair on 29 December 2021, State education minister Ranoj Pegu emphasized on developing a culture of book reading and he insisted on translating various literary works in Assamese to different larger languages and also translating ethnic language works of the region into Assamese. Pegu, also the Chairman of Prakashan Parishad, expressed happiness that more people are now reading books as they acquired the decent habit with an aim to escape the loneliness created by nationwide corona-lockdown days.
The minister also honoured Nandita Devi with Prakashan Parishad literary award for her novel ‘Bongol Bohu Door’ along with its publisher Nagen Sarma of Jyoti Prakashan. Kuladhar Saikia, president of Asom Sahitya Sabha, the State’s highest literary forum, graced the inaugural function to stress on popularising the books among young people with varied and rich contents. He argued that new technology should be used for making books available to them. Noni Gopal Mahanta, adviser to the State education department, revealed that even after the invasion of internet, the books remain popular around the world. The inaugural function was attended by Prakashan Parishad secretary Pramod Kalita, its vice-president Sumanta Chaliha, top education department officer Preetom Saikia, State publishers & book-sellers association’s office-bearers Imran Ahmed, Baharul Islam Choudhury, etc. The first evening’s cultural program was inaugurated by Pabitra Margherita, member-secretary of the State level advisory committee for student and youth welfare. Mentionable is that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the publishers & book-sellers could not organise Northeast Book Fair in 2020 and it even failed to accommodate the annual event because of violent anti-CAA (citizenship amendment act) agitation in 2019 that almost defaced the city with panicky situation among the residents. However, Prakashan Parishad successfully held Guwahati Granthamela in 2020 with visible public support.
Organisers of both the events joined hands this time to go for a combined trade show, where State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took a positive initiative. Sarma, who could not grace the inaugural function, visited the fair later and interacted with the book-lovers. A large number of youths at the venue applauded Sarma, where he appreciated efforts of the organisers for making the festival of wisdom possible. Next year, both the events may take place separately if the corona-situation improves, he commented.There were however initial resentments among a section of book lovers as the name of Granthamela was temporarily changed from Guwahati Book Fair (or Northeast Book Fair) to Asom Granthamela. But it was done under a difficult situation and Prakashan Parishad has publicly announced that it has no intention to dishonour the legacy of Guwahati Granthamela that started its voyage in 1984.
People of Assam will always remember contributions of the great souls including author-journalist Chandra Prasad Saikia who were instrumental in organizing the first book fair in the region. Prakashan Parishad joined hands with National Book Trust (of India) to launch the book fair movement and it was a huge success. Later Prakashan Parishad took enough challenges to organise the book fair independently in 1987 and it continued. In the initial years, the regular venue of Guwahati Granthamela was the Judges field on the south bank of mighty river Brahmaputra, which was later overcrowded by the book enthusiasts. Soon a large number of publishers and booksellers from various parts of the country started participating in the book fair and lately the venue was shifted to the present location to accommodate more participants and appreciators. “With the availability of cheaper mobile internet services across the country there were apprehensions that the young people might turn away from the practice of reading. But till now it has been proved wrong. Various exciting (extreme) audio-visuals, made easily available through the internet, can attract a huge number of people, but they finally get solace in serious reading only,” said Dhiraj Goswami of publishers & book-sellers association, adding that books worth rupees five crore were sold in the fair.
Visiting the Granthamela, Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal also appreciated the organisers for taking the initiative. Buying several books and interacting with booklovers at the venue, Sonowal also commented that books remain the symbols of identity of a community and society. The young generation should inculcate the habit of reading books, he opined, adding that a book revolution should be everyone’s resolution. Assam children’s literature trust secretary Hrishikesh Goswami accompanied Sonowal at the venue. The book fair witnessed the formal release of more than 50 new books in two halls named after distinguished Assamese authors Dr Lakshminandan Bora and Homen Borgohain. Prakashan Parishad itself released 16 books at the fair. It also showcased the digital channel, where Assamese folk-tales are recorded with the voice of celebrity performers. A number of literary discussions as well as children programs were organised. Every evening, cultural programs were inaugurated by celebrated personalities like Moloya Goswami, Surya Goswami, Aimi Barua, Gayatri Mahanta, Partha Sarathi Mahanta, etc at the venue.
Bangladesh assistant high commissioner, posted in Guwahati, Shah Mohammad Tanvir Mansur also graced the book fair to welcome representatives of three visiting publication houses namely Murdhanya, Sarulipee and Joyotee from his country. In a brief meeting, attended by Mihir Deuri, editor of Prakash (published by Prakashan Parishad), author-journalist Rupam Barua, columnist Ranen Kr Goswami, author Prasanta Chakrabarty, poet-journalist Nabajyoti Pathak, Jintu Geetartha with a few others, the diplomat thanked India again for supporting their freedom movement. Presence of many eminent Assamese authors and academicians including Govinda Prasad Sarma, Hiren Gohain, Shyama Prasad Sarma, Dhrubajyoti Bora, Gajendra Adhikari, Pranabjyoti Deka, Rita Choudhury, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, Rani Gohain, Bipul Deuri, Jogesh Kakati, Mira Thakur, Ankita Dutta, Raktim Patar, Ajanta Burhagohain, Ranju Hazarika, Jayanta Madhab Bora, Abhijit Bora, Phanindra Kumar Devchoudhury, Pranjit Bora, Nilim Kumar, Bandita Phukan, Apurba Saikia, Atanu Bhattacharya, Satyendra Narayan Goswami, etc were enjoyed by the young book-enthusiasts. Similarly, notable personalities like Dinesh Goswami, Dayananda Pathak, DN Chakrabarty, Gangapada Devchoudhury, Narayan Talukder, Jagadish Patgiri, Paramananda Majumder, Mrinal Chandra Kalita, Khagen Saikia, Niranjan Kalita, Arindam Borkataky, Mayur Bora, Utpal Dutta, Debashish Sarma, Noni Borpujari, Aminul Haque, Nilima Thakuria, Baharul Islam, Bhagirathi, Devajit Bora, Pabitra Gogoi, Subodhmalla Barua, Pranjal Sarma Vasistha, Hyder Hussain, Bhaskar Sarma, Naba Talukder, etc visited the stalls adding colour to the festivity. A session dedicated to Nilamoni Phukan, the third Assamese litterateur (after Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and Mamoni Raisom Goswami) to receive Jnyanpeeth award recently was intriguing for the literary enthusiasts. The closing ceremony on 9 January 2022 was graced by Jnyanpeeth awardee Damodar Mauzo, an illustrious story writer, novelist and critic in Konkani language from Goa. Bodo Sahitya Sabha president Toren Boro was also present on the occasion.
An interactive session involving young writers, where they narrated their literary dreams, received appreciation from the audience. Moderated by this writer with supports from promising author Geetali Bora, the session was participated by budding talents like Anindita Parag Saikia, Aparajita Pujari, Utpal Deka, Monika Das, Pranjal Talukder, Gitali Saikia, Srinjana Sarma, Diganta Nibir, Pranjal Barman, Manaswini Mahanta, Jayanta Dutta, Farhan Javed, Pranjal A Sarma, Ranjit Patgiri, Manoj Neog, Mukutraj Sarma, Ankurita Phukan, Dwip H Borhi, Ratan Sadiyal, Shyamanta Payeng, Munidra Baishya, Nayanjyoti Sarma, etc. They were unanimous in their views that the medium (physical paper) may change in future, but the habit of reading will continue forever. While the number of book lovers is still growing, the quality readers of Assam based newspapers continues to fall.
The largest north-eastern State with over 30 million population supports nearly 25 morning daily newspapers in different languages along with a large number of periodicals and magazines. Guwahati hosts eight satellite news channels (mostly free-to-air) along with a number of local cable channels and hundreds of news portals. Their cumulative readership-viewership may reach 3.5 million, but the number of social media users in Assam should cross 4.5 million. Reactions from the public (sensitive readers) against a news item in any newspaper (also news channel) are usual in the largest democracy, but outrages against the mainstream media outlets in digital platforms for not covering a particular issue is definitely an unusual phenomenon.
Assam witnessed such a public fury against some of the editor-journalists for avoiding the press conferences by opposition political parties who targeted the State chief minister for his family’s alleged land scam. The organized public uproar in the alternate media was so intense that the celebrity editor-journalists did not dare to clarify even their positions. They preferred to avoid the debates killing time. Shockingly, no media worker’s outfit, civil society groups or reader and viewers came forward defending the otherwise glamourous editor-journalists, when they faced the abusive social media posts for many days. The controversy started with an investigative news article, presented by two important digital media outlets in the first week of December 2021, where it was alleged that Assam chief minister was indirectly involved in a land-grab episode. The content indicated that a real estate company, founded by the saffron leader’s wife, illegally occupied around 18 acres of government land meant for landless farmers. Based on the specific media contents, three political parties namely Asom Jatiya Parishad, Raijor Dol and the Congress organized separate press conferences demanding proper investigations into the alleged scam. For reasons best known to the editor-proprietors of Guwahati-based newspapers and news channels, they did not cover the issue and simply tried to kill the news.
The issue should have died naturally after some time. But a sudden outbursts of anti-media posts in the digital platforms surfaced in the morning hours on 9 December. For almost three days, most of the editors were named and shamed for their silence over the issue in social media. News channel’s logos and photographs of some celebrity editor-journalists were made viral with abusive words. Soon the State legislative assembly began its winter session on 20 December and as usual the first day’s proceedings were interrupted by the opposition legislators over the issue. They wanted the assembly to discuss it, but the speaker did not allow it. Later the opposition legislators staged a walkout in protest. But amazingly the development was not prominently published by most of the newspapers and news channels. However, many metro-based morning dailies provided space for the same. Reluctance for covering such issues by the majority of Assam’s mainstream media outlets can be guessed from their dependence on government advertisement revenues for acute survival. They are lately facing a serious financial crisis since the Covid-19 hit the country.
The pandemic resulted in abrupt loss of circulation for newspapers and also commercial advertisement revenues. The news channels also lost their quality viewership drastically. So, most of the newspaper managements today cannot go against the government policy even if it becomes necessary for sustaining their credibility. Thus, they have slowly turned out to be an unofficial organ of the government (also the ruling party). They cannot go for newfound business models like crowd-funding as they are not sure of getting support from their valued readers. Personal corruption of some well-known editors also added complications to the situation, where public goodwill towards the media fraternity continues to erode. Recently, a senior Assamese scribe made a sensational social media post claiming that at least seven editors (of city-based news channels) possessed more wealth than actually they can earn legally from their jobs.
Speaking to this writer, Dipankar Devsarmah, who has been in the profession for more than three decades, lamented that because of some greedy editor-media owners, the media industry has lost its credibility (whatever left). Talking about naming the editors in the post, Devsarmah asserted that it may be unpleasant for many, but it’s true. He even made a declaration in the post that all details about the said editors’ properties and luxury vehicles are with him and would make it public in need. Lately, editor Ajit Bhuyan (presently a member of Rajya Sabha) resigned from his post citing the reason of not being able to cover the CM family’s land issue. Once a popular editor Bhuyan stated clearly, “To remain true to my conscience I had to take this decision.”
The author is Guwahati-based journalist and media commentator