Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Indian Press - 1: the colonial era

Readers today will have a hard time imagining the lengths to which the British went to keep Indians unaware of their political situation.
At a time when the only journalists at work in India were a handful of Englishmen putting out weekly 8-pagers read by a few hundred people, Warren Hastings issued regulations banning the publication of any news of India-related discussions in Britain. That included discussions in the Court of Directors of the East India Company and the British parliament.

Editors were not to carry “alarmist” reports likely to arouse “suspicion” in the local population, comment on the local administration, or print anything about "private scandals" and public conduct of Company officials that would cause dissension in society. (British journalists in India then were generally disreputable figures, as interested as they are now in the sexual excesses of others.) Nor could they carry extracts from the Press in Europe that broke these rules. An official censor reviewed all material before publication. The situation eased somewhat after a British court ruled that the censor rather than the editor should be held responsible for libel, but Company officials continued to review all material. The punishment for offending them was deportation.

The first Indian to venture into this highly sensitive area was Gangadhar Bhattacharjee, a teacher in Calcutta who in 1816 began publishing the weekly Bengal Gazette. He was associated with Ram Mohun Roy’s Atmiya Sabha and the publication lasted only a year.

During this period, Christian missionaries from the nearby Dutch territory of Serampore were increasingly active journalists, putting out Samachar Darpan in Bengali and Friend of India in English from 1818. 

In response, Bhowani Charan Banerji began publication in December 1821 of Sambaud Kaumudi, a weekly in Bengali; it was taken over the next year by Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who also began to issue the weekly Mirat ul Ukhbar in Persian and the less frequent Brahmunical Magazine intended to counter missionary propaganda. Meanwhile Banerji, who was a more orthodox Hindu than Roy, came out with Chandrika Samachar.

In 1822, the Bombay Samachar began publication in Gujarati. All these publications had small circulations of between 100 and 200, but it worried the officials of the regime enough to try and encourage the European-controlled Press: the East India Company subscribed to 100 copies of Friend of India and allowed it cut-rate mailing privileges.

A hawkish faction of Company officials was not satisfied with such indirect means to air their views, and in 1822, eight of them joined in launching John Bull in the East. Even that was considered inadequate, and when one of the eight assumed the top slot in the Company’s local hierarchy he required that all publishers should be licensed by the regime, a move aimed especially at Indian editors and publishers who could not be deported.

That led Ram Mohun Roy to stop publication of his Persian weekly, the one most often criticized by officials. He explained that presenting an affidavit in open court as required by the new regulations was “very mean and censurable.” Further, “after incurring the disrepute of soliciting and suffering the dishonour of making the affidavit, the constant apprehension of the license being recalled” would “disgrace the person in the eyes of the world … and create such anxiety as entirely to destroy one’s peace of mind.”

Thomas Munro, a leading figure in Calcutta presented the British view of the matter: “A free Press and the domination of strangers are things which are quite incompatible. … If we, for the sole benefit of a few European editors of newspapers, permit a licentious Press to undermine among the natives all respect for the European character and authority, we shall scatter the seeds of discontent among our native troops and never be secure from insurrection.”

After Roy’s exit from the editorial scene Dwaraknath Tagore came on stage, launching the Bengal Herald in English and the Banga Dhoot in Bengali. Another Tagore – Prassana Kumar – published the Reformer.

In Bombay, Bal Shastri Jambhekar began issuing a group of publications between 1832 and 1944 ranging from a weekly to a monthly, the most prominent of which were the weekly Prabhakar and monthly Upadesha Chandrika (the latter a response to the missionary publication Dyanodaya). In Madras, the Company funded several small publications, but the most successful ones continued to be issued by missionaries.

All these licensed Indian publications were mute about the racially charged uprising of 1857, but  "manuscript newspapers" proliferated. One estimate at the time said that that the “king of Awadh” was paying 3,194 rupees to 65 news writers.

British owned newspapers were openly racist and intemperately anti-Indian during the uprising. In promulgating the Control of the Press Act of 1857 Charles Canning (whose tenure as the Company’s chief honcho in India straddled the war years) complimented the English Press for its loyalty and support; the constraints in the new law, he assured its editors, were meant for their Indian counterparts (including the manuscript Press).

Indian-owned papers were generally ill financed and made do with the cheapest of everything: the machinery used to found The Amrita Bazaar Patrika was bought for 32 rupees, and it was operated by the editor himself.

The 1878 Vernacular Press Act (modeled on the Irish Coercion Act) sought to exploit the financial weakness of Indian media by requiring publishers to post bonds that would be forfeit if they should be judged seditious. The Act also provided for the confiscation of printing machinery, paper and other materials, allowed the search of any media establishment, and other summary action, all without going to court. In Ireland publications subjected to such high-handed treatment had the right to sue for damages; in India that right was reduced to the right to appeal to the Viceroy’s Council – in other words, to the same officials responsible for the Act.

The first result of the new law was to silence one of the most strident Bengali voices, Motilal Ghose’s Amrita Bazaar Patrika, but not the way the British expected. Convinced that he was a particular target of the Act and would not long survive under it, Ghose switched his paper overnight from Bengali to English, avoiding its jurisdiction altogether. Other Bengali papers were unable to avoid the law, which was implemented on the basis of material they had published in the past. The most prominent victim was Shome Prakash which closed after it was served with a notice.

The Vernacular Press Act must have seemed to the emerging Indian intelligentsia to mark the depth of their defeat and helplessness under foreign rule. However, in retrospect that was when they lit the nationalist fuse. The effort to muzzle the expression of Indian opinion occurred under the viceroyalty of Robert Edward Lytton, one of the two most hated British regents in India (the other was George Curzon at the turn of the century).

Lytton affected an air of distant hauteur towards all Indians and with studied inhumanity organized amidst the worst famine of his time an obscenely gluttonous Durbar at Delhi to celebrate Victoria declaring herself “Empress of India.” He also spent a great deal of money on what he grandiloquently called his “forward policy” on Afghanistan, a foolish and futile bid to bribe and intimidate its Emir into becoming a British vassal – after a war had failed to do it. The enormous cost of these follies he passed on to Indians by raising the Salt Tax, the most painfully regressive of all British imposts, for it lay most heavily on the poorest people.

It was in that context that Indian editors took the momentous decision to form the Native Press Association. It shaped a new sense of solidarity among Indian editors, publishers and readers opposing the Vernacular Press Act, and laid the foundation for a pan-Indian political awareness. These developments were unplanned, but not altogether fortuitous; the need to promote a common Indian consciousness and counter British propaganda had become clear to a growing number of people. In Lahore, Dayal Singh Majithia founded The Tribune to balance the The Civil and Military Gazette, where Rudyard Kipling cut his teeth as imperial propagandist.

More to come

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