Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Indian Press - 3: Broad Awakening

By the end of the 19th century Indian journalists were active all over the country. Among the most notable was the impassioned Vishnushastri Chiplunkar in Pune; his Nibandh Mala founded in 1874 turned its satirical attention on Indians who believed the British were in India for the good of its people. He was a formative influence on two college students in Pune, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, who went on after their studies to found (1881) the first openly nationalist weeklies in Western India. One was Kesari (Lion) in Marathi; it explained complex issues in simple language to an Indian readership. The other was The Mahratta, in English; it sought to reach the political elite in India and Britain.

The measure of British opposition to these initiatives can be judged by the fact that the very next year Tilak and Agarkar, both in their early idealistic twenties, were charged with defaming a loyalist Indian, tried by a kangaroo court, and sentenced to four months of “rigorous imprisonment.”  For no more than reprinting a report from another paper they were punished harshly, made to break rocks, twist coir and live with hardened criminals. While they were in prison, Chiplunkar died suddenly at the age of 32, one of the many victims of the early-death syndrome that affected Indian nationalists. (Murder as British policy will be the subject of a later post in this series.)

The harsh punishment of Tilak and Agarkar made them nationalist heroes and Kesari became the widest circulated publication of its era. When the Congress split between "moderates" led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale and "radicals" under Tilak's leadership, the British sought to aid their allies: in 1908 they trumped up a charge of sedition and sent Tilak away from India for six years, the entire time spent in solitary confinement at Burma’s Mandalay Prison. He emerged unbroken and unbowed, declaring at the 1914 session of Congress the sentiment that became the battle cry of the nationalists: “Swaraj is my birthright and I will have it.”

Journalism in Gujarat got off to an early running start with the hugely influential writings of Dadabhai Naoroji, the scholar/businessman/leader who first documented the colonial draining of Indian resources; but regular publications focused primarily on social and religious issues. B. M. Malabari’s Indian Spectator pushed stridently for social reform, as did the Indian Social Reformer, a weekly in English founded in Madras and moved to Bombay in 1897.

Two decades later Gujarati, and indeed, Indian journalism as a whole, felt the revolutionary impact of the most prolific writer of his generation, Mahatma Gandhi. His weekly Navjivan in Gujarati (Young India in English) became the lodestar of the nationalist movement. With Harijan, which Gandhi began publishing in 1933, the topic of caste reform was made an issue of central importance. Gandhi's publications were unique in that he did not accept advertising, believing that dependence on any revenue beyond reader subscriptions corrupted editorial integrity. Gandhi  spent over six years in British prisons but he was seldom charged with specific offenses; his conviction and imprisonment in 1922 was an exception: the regime cited four of his articles to accuse him of promoting sedition. At his trial, Gandhi not only accepted the charge of sedition but said it was the only option left to Indians in the existing circumstances.

In South India, journalism independent of missionaries was slower to develop than in the north because society was innately more conservative in a region that had not experienced the  repeated shock of foreign invasions. The British tried not to inflame the South by specifically excluding Madras Presidency from the jurisdiction of the Vernacular Press Act. But the North-South gap did close with several new publications in the last quarter of the 19th century.

A group of new graduates in 1878 founded The Hindu, issued first as a weekly, then thrice a week and from 1888 as a daily. One of the group, Subramania Iyer, broke away to establish the Tamil weekly Swadeshmitran which became a daily in 1899. Both were sedate in their political views. A more radical publication was the Madras Standard, established by missionaries in 1877 but taken over by 21-year old Parameswaran Pillai in 1892.

The tiny French colony of Pondicherry (now Puducheri) saw a rare journalistic flowering in Arya, the monthly magazine Sri Arobindo founded there in 1914 after fleeing police harassment in Calcutta following his acquittal in the infamous "Alipore Bomb Conspiracy." He used the magazine to interpret and comment on the Upanishads and serialize the epic poem Savitri, exploring the mythic and philosophic aspects of the Mahabharata story of wifely devotion that conquers death. Aurobindo was one of India's great visionaries, looking beyond nationalism to a time when humanity would evolve a universal spiritual civilization.

In Telegu the first weeklies were founded to promote -- and oppose -- social reform; it was not until 1886, after the founding of the Indian National Congress, that the politically oriented Andhra Prakasika began publication. Srinivasa Shastri’s Desabhimani in Kannada did not endure long because it offended the Dewan of Mysore who confiscated its printing press. Four other publications, two in English and two in Kannada – Mysore Herald, Mysore Standard, Vrittanta Chintamani and Nadgannadi – were founded in Mysore and later transferred to Bangalore.

Early journalism in Hindi and Urdu was neither nationalist nor reformist; it was devoted to the defence and promotion of religious orthodoxy. Not until Bharatendu Harischandra founded the Kavi Vachan Sudha in 1867 was that tradition broken. Other literary weeklies appeared, among them Ram Krishna Varma’s Bharat Jivan and Harischandra’s own later publications, including Chandrika. Only some, like Balkrishna Bhatt’s Hindi Pradeep were strongly political. Few of these publications survived for long. In 1884 the publication of Hindustan (initially in Britain and then in India) finally provided Hindi readers with a daily newspaper; it appeared also in English and Urdu.

A press in Ludhiana established by missionaries to print religious tracts during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule produced in 1854 the first printed publications in gurmukhi. To counter the mission publications, Munshi Hari Narayan began issuing the pro-Hindu (and pro-British) Akhbar Shri Durbar Sahib. Following the rise of the puritanical “Kuka” movement under Baba Ram Singh and the 1873 founding of the Singh Sabha in Amritsar, there were other publications. They included the Sukanya Samodhini, the Kavi Chandrodaya, the Gurmukhi Akhbar and the Khalsa Akhbar, all of which began publication in the early 1880s.

The decimation of the Muslim intellectual and cultural elite following 1857 resulted in Urdu journalism getting off to a slow start. Hindus issued the first Urdu publications after the uprising, and they were generally non-political. Then the writings of the loyalist Syed Ahmed Khan (a former employee of the East India Company), brought about a revival. Some of the new publications were inspired by the desire of the orthodox to counter his reformist views.

In the following decade numerous weekly and some fortnightly journals appeared at Agra, Aligarh, Delhi, Lahore, Lucknow and Meerut. Although mostly politically moderate, they were not shy of commenting on the regime's rampant discrimination against Muslims. However, they were not nationalist in spirit. Reformist publications in Urdu were heavily influenced by Jemal ud Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), who propagated pan-Islamism and a return to Islamic purity as part of a seductive anti-imperial cocktail. He came to India in 1881 after being expelled as a troublemaker by the Islamic rulers of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Egypt; in India, he spent two years, most of the time lecturing in Hyderabad.

Another strong influence was the Deoband Dar ul Uloom (House of Learning) established a decade after the post-1857 destruction of the great liberal institutions of Islamic learning at Delhi. The Deoband ulema were stridently anti-British without being nationalist, for they promoted a retreat into the theocratic Arabian past. It is interesting to speculate on the course of Indian history if Deoband had set out to revive the liberal legacy of Akbar the British destroyed.

No comments: