Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Indian Press - 2: "White Mutiny"

It is ironic that after Edward Lytton's insufferable personality and policies provoked a pan-Indian political consciousness, the next jump in national awareness was prompted by the liberal policy of his successor, George Ripon. With a personality and attitude towards Indians in stark contrast to those of his predecessor, Ripon won much applause, especially after he repealed the Vernacular Press Act in 1881. Two years later, he had a member of his council, Courtney Ilbert, propose that Indian judges be allowed to hear criminal cases against Europeans if there was no British judge in a district. (The ban had been introduced after the founding of the Indian Civil Service a decade earlier.)

The “Ilbert Bill” as it came to be called, infuriated the British community in India, which was by then steeped in the concept of European “Aryan” superiority to the degenerate “natives.” A “White Mutiny” broke out. British-owned newspapers vented rabid contempt for Indians and there was ever-angrier invective in public forums. The British community in Calcutta ostracized Ripon socially, and a group that included civil and military officers even plotted to kidnap and ship him back to Britain. There was widespread talk of his assassination.

The mounting wave of racist anger forced Ripon to back down; he agreed that in case an Indian judge should preside over the trial of a European, half the membership of the jury should be European, As that condition was unlikely to be met in any district without a British judge, the mutineers declared victory. However, their self-congratulatory celebrations blinded them to the impact the whole affair had on Indians. Their racism had fostered a new and energetic nationalism. In Bengal, the most politically advanced region of the country, there followed an unprecedented cultural and political awakening that spread across the land in the subsequent decades.

As nationalist sentiments found voice in patriotic song and soul stirring novel, as Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s stage plays advocated widow remarriage, as college students evinced an avid interest in European revolutionary history, Indian society began to undergo the slow but inexorable change that eventually made British rule an unsupportable anachronism. The Indian Press was never the same after the Bengal Renaissance; protestations of loyalty to the Crown which were regularly tacked on to articles as a way to avoid charges of sedition sounded ever more hollow and the critical perspective grew ever sharper.

The next big steps in Indian journalism were technological. In the second half of the 19th century, the telegraph and the railways transformed the process of gathering and distributing news, and Reuters ushered in the era of agency reporting. In 1862 it took mail nine days to reach Calcutta from Bombay and Madras, six from Delhi, seven from Karachi; by boat, dispatches from London took five weeks from London, and from China it took an incredible two months. By 1870, the transmission of headline news took only minutes between India’s major cities.

Meanwhile the railways shortened mail carriage times to four days between Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The 1870s saw several important trends: the publication of the first illustrated journals; a growing number of daily newspapers; the diversification of content in regional newspapers, and emergence of a national audience. As commercial houses took to advertising, the resources of successful publications grew significantly, and so did their readership. From the 1880s, commercial advertising became the major source of newspaper revenues.

The leaders in this period continued to be anti-national British publications, most with missionary roots. In Bombay the merger of the Telegraph, the Standard, and Bombay Times created The Times of India in 1861. In Calcutta, John Bull became The Englishman. In the South, The Madras Times founded in 1860 engendered the Madras Mail eight years later. All these publications were heavily dependent on government subscriptions. Madras also had several small weekly papers edited by British officials who argued that being “non-covenanted” (non-contractual) employees they could do so without breaking the rule against such work.

A covenanted officer who did break the rule was Robert Knight, perhaps the most influential Englishman of his era. He was the founding editor of the Times of India and of The Indian Statesman, which later merged with Friend of India to become in 1877 The Statesman of Calcutta. As an official he had participated in the discussions about the need for the regime to have its own media organ that led to the founding in Lahore of The Pioneer (1869) and The Civil and Military Gazette (1872). He advocated a more pro-active role to influence editorial opinion, urging the creation of a Press Bureau and the use of financial incentives through government subscriptions and advertising to encourage the loyalist Press.

In 1871, there was only one Indian owned daily newspaper in the country, The Indian Mirror edited by Keshub Chandra Sen in Calcutta. Sen also directed the Hindu-reformist “pice journal” Sulaba Samachar in Bengali, which had the then enormous paid circulation of 4000. (The Times of India had a print run of 3000 into the 1890s.) In Bengal the zamindar-supported English weekly Hindu Patriot had an influential readership, as did Shome Prakash in Bengali. The centre of gravity for the Indian-owned media remained Calcutta, where more than half of the country’s 38 publications in 1876 were located.

To be continued.

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