Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Indian Press - 4: Ending an Era

In 1889, the Amrita Bazaar Patrika published a secret official memorandum by Mortimer Durand on the state of the Kashmir frontier. British officials in Calcutta (then the capital) claimed it was not accurate and further, that it “could not have been obtained except by a distinct and criminal breach of trust.” They took no action against the paper – since the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 the bureaucrats had become wary of public criticism – but later that year the regime adopted an Official Secrets Act.

It made criminal the “wrongful obtaining of information on any matter of State importance” as well as the receipt of such information. This marked a watershed in the history of Indian journalism, which in the early days often saw officials of the East India Company serving as editors and writers. In the 1850s the Bombay Secretariat even had an “editor’s room” where information of public importance was provided, and journalists could consult official records. That easy interaction ended as Indians entered the bureaucracy and the ranks of journalists.

By the first decade of the 20th Century there were numerous Indian-owned publications critical of British rule. Valentine Chirol, a journalist for The Times of London who wrote the incendiary Indian Unrest (1910), listed those he considered particularly offensive: Hind Swarajya, Yugantar, Gujarat, Shakti, Kal, Dharma Hitaishi, Khulnavasi, Kalyani, Bedari, Prem, Vartabaha, Akash Kesari, Karnatak Vaibhav, Rashtramath, Vishwaritta, New India, Bande Mataram, Sandhya, Bengalee, Hitabadi, Dacca Gazette, Jung Sial, Navasakti,and Sahaik. There were others on his list published by Indians abroad.

Most of the names on Chirol’s list will ring no bells with readers today, but collectively they should sound a giant gong, for they represent every part of the country and indicate how wide the nationalist wave had become. None of the papers of the nationalist era had the mass circulations of modern newspapers, but they had devoted and attentive audiences. They made educated people politically aware, underpinning the age-old Indian commonalities of culture and religion.

Read, passed around and discussed, they also succeeded in spreading nationalism slowly but surely to the villages where India lived. Simple village folk might not have known much about the specifics of the changes afoot but they became aware of the stirrings of a new age. By the end of the First World War, the British could no longer count on the blind loyalty of the armed forces, and that deprived them of any hope of holding on to India.

The British were all too aware of the long-term implications of the emergence of a nationalist Press, and resorted to overtly discriminatory treatment of Indian journalists. Pat Lovett, a British journalist in Bombay, wrote of the differences in treatment and attitude: “Candour compels the admission that there is far more liberty allowed to the British-owned newspapers than to those edited and owned by Indian nationalists.” The latter suffered “the vigilant antipathy of the Bureaucracy in marked contrast to the fraternal tolerance extended to the British section.” He went on to note a reciprocal duty incumbent on British journalists: “if an administrative measure is attacked by the Indian-edited Press it is the duty of the British-edited Press to defend it with all its ordnance.”

In the final phase of British rule, The Times of India and The Statesman were staunch supporters of the regime. The TOI was always more openly racist and pro-British, a fact that has not kept its current Indian owners from continuing to advertise the paper as “A Bennet Coleman Company” as if it were a badge of honour.

More to come.

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