Monday, Oct 03, 2022

A pre-Independence history of press freedom in India

How the Indian Press tried to fight severe censorship imposed by the British Government in pre-independent India, starting from the 1850s.

The Gagging Act of India (snapshot), Lyttelton. Source: National Library of New Zealand Times, Volume VIII, Issue 529, 28 November 1857

During the reign of the British empire there were several Acts passed as stringent curbs over the Indian Press. Prior to the rumblings of the 1857 mutiny, the Press was fiercely involved in rallying the masses, and inevitably, the British government was increasingly becoming apprehensive about the Press’ freedom. Through the newspapers, a nationalistic rebellion was slowly being pieced together through words and symbols. In view of this, the “Gagging Act” was passed by Lord Lytton, which was driven to curtail and control the Indian publications’ content. The Act compelled all Indian publications to apply for a license from the government, while also ensuring that nothing was written against the British government, nor was the government challenged in any measure.

Unfortunately for the government, the Press was impervious to the “Gagging Act”, working its way around disseminating news. It pushed the government to design far more stringent measures. For instance, in the 1870s, it panned its focus onto the regional vernacular publications that were individually inspiring the masses to partake in the fight against the British empire, by informing them about the dire situation of the Indian people. One such publication was the Bengali weekly, Amrita Bazar Patrika (established in 1868 in Jessore district, now in present-day Bangladesh). Amrita Bazar Patrika caught the authorities’ attention when it reported on the exploited indigo farmers.

Sir Ashley Eden, a British official, approached the editor of Amrita Bazar Patrika, Sisir Kumar Ghose, and asked him to hand over the final approval of editorial content to Eden. Ghose bluntly refused. As did several other Indian editors of regional papers across the country. In the light of this, the Vernacular Press Act was passed on March 14, 1878, where the British government claimed stronger control over the vernacular newspapers in the interest to curb “seditious writing” in “publications in oriental languages”. This Act was not imposed on English-language publications. Amrita Bazar Patrika, a bilingual, adapted to the circumstances and became solely an English weekly, going on to play an important role in the development of investigative Indian journalism, rooting its politics in the freedom struggle. It was fierce, politically vocal and unputdownable. The weekly once even described the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, as “Young and a little foppish, and without previous training but invested with unlimited powers.”

Amrita Bazaar Patrika, 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1880s, the Nationalist movement gathered momentum and that gave a stronger push to the Indian Press. Inevitably, the government, wary of the Press and passed several laws to control it and suppress political agitation. Reba Chaudhuri writes in The Story of the Indian Press (published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 1955), “A number of Press Laws and restrictions were enforced and placed on the statute book from time to time. After the establishment of the Indian National Congress, there were sections 124A and 153A of the Penal Code enacted in 1898. There was also section 565 of the Indian Penal Code. Four new measures were enacted between 1908-191;, namely, the Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act of 1908, the Press Act of 1910, the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act of 1911 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908. There was also” the Official Secrets Act as amended in 1903.”

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Lord Curzon, Hunting, 1901. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Press Act of 1910, hit the Indian papers hard. Chaudhuri gives an insight: “The Press Association of India in a memorandum on the operation of the Press Act of 1910 stated that nearly 1,000 papers had been prosecuted under the Act. The total amount of securities and forfeitures which went into the hands of Government during the first five years of the Act was nearly Rs 5 lakhs according to another official return made in 1918. Over 500 publications were proscribed under the Act.” Several editors were charged with sedition for publishing anti-government editorials. The Amrita Bazar Patrika, for instance, had to pay, a security of Rs 5,000 to the government.

The tension between the Press and the Government was slowly mounting. The Press Emergency Act of 1931 further heightened the tension. During Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha, he used the press to advocate his feelings and rally the masses to protest against the British.

An expert on South Asian history, Judith M. Brown, writes in her book, Gandhi’s Rise to Power: Indian Politics 1915-1922, “Satyagraha lasted from 22 March until 6 June. According to the press, the peak was reached by 21 April, when there were 2,337 signatories to the pledge. Gandhi himself worked on two main lines, external publicity and internal consolidation. As far as the rest of India was concerned, he did his utmost to capture public sympathy, writing to friends, speaking in Bombay, and courting the press…with letters to the editors and numerous public statements. In his own words, ‘It is not the money they want so much as the voice of a strong, unanimous and emphatic public opinion.’”

Salt Satyagraha, led by Mahatma Gandhi (center). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following Gandhi’s arrest in 1930, in the aftermath of the Salt Satyagraha he started, the Press Emergency Act of 1931 was firmly put in place. In her article, Chaudhuri explains, “Throughout this period, however, the Press Emergency Act of 1931 remained in force and was applied with greater or less severity according to political circumstances. The record of prosecution in the 15-year period exceeded the one under the 1910 Act. Well over a 1,000 newspapers were victimised in Bombay, Bengal, Delhi, Madras, Punjab and UP.”

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, inspired far more acute rumblings within the Press. When the British government dragged India into the war, it sparked a protest from the Congress Party. Fearful of unwanted rabble-rousing, the government took stringent measures to counter the party’s rebellion. It lashed out at the Indian Press – even though the Indian Press (Emergency powers) Act, 1931 was already in place, the government demanded stiff censorship. It controlled and filtered international news that was coming in, and consciously, simultaneously manufactured news rooted in propaganda. At the same time, it stifled several publications in terms of content. For instance, in November 1939, it prohibited newspapers from publishing the hunger strike held by prison inmates across the country, which involved the detainment of at least 15 people who went on the strike.

Indian National Congress meeting, 1885. Source: Wikipedia

Fearing a threat to freedom of expression, newspaper editors’ new concern was to ensure that the rights of the press be safeguarded. In the midst of this, emerged the All-India Newspapers Editors’ Conference, which was conceived to function as a protector of press rights. It fought for the British government to lift the restrictions off the Press, and advocated for the formation of better relations with the government. In 1941, Gandhi wrote against the restrictions imposed. He said, “In the name of the war effort, all expression of opinion is effectively suppressed unless an enterprising editor or publisher risks the loss of his press”.

The government, however, continued to crack down, ensuring pre-censorship on editorials like the Amrita Bazar Patrika, particularly because it reported on the Bengal famine. Another newspaper, Hitavada (established in 1911) was asked to reveal the name of one of its reporters, while Hindustan Times’ office had an unexpected raid from the government. It imposed the Defence of India Regulations on the Press, prohibiting it from announcing to the masses that the press had been banned from writing on the Bengal famine or the sorry state of affairs in India.

The Defence of India Regulations Act was originally introduced in the 1915, by the government as a stringent, emergency law to prevent retaliatory, rebellion-driven activities from emerging within the country. Chaudhuri explains, “The Defence Act Rules in India were not merely used for war purposes, but also for all political purposes so as to carry out the policy of the Indian Government in regard to repression of political agitation or free public criticism of its normal acts and methods of administration in India.”

Chaudhuri further writes that when World War II erupted, “the Government of India under the Defence of India Act armed itself with the power of pre-censorship of material published in the Press relating to certain matters. The penalty of imprisonment was extended to five years; the Official Secrets Act was amended to provide a maximum penalty of death or transportation for the publication of information likely to be of use to the enemy. The Press Emergency Powers Act was also similarly amended.”

As Congress’ retaliatory activities mounted, particularly the Quit India Movement (1942) organised by Congress, the Press was demanded not publish party-related news. Eventually, the All-India Newspaper Editors’ Conference – the protector of Indian Press’ rights – gave a word of confidence to the government that the newspapers will observe caution and voluntarily refrain from releasing information regarding Quit India Movement.

Quit India Movement. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Where there is a will, there is a way, of course. And the Press always found a way. During this period, leaders disseminated news through secret radio messages and also illegally shared information through cyclostyled news-sheets. Messages were also shared and graffitied on the walls; underground publications worked simultaneously. When the movement turned violent, it pushed the government to silence any resistance. It convicted the rebels in thousands.

Eventually, in September 1946, an interim government was formed, which would help in the transfer of power from the British, as well as assist in both India’s as well as Pakistan’s independence. At that moment, the British government had to abdicate its powers that earlier controlled and curtailed the freedom of the Press.

However, the Press would go on to witness divisiveness, as the Hindu Press and the Muslim Press would go at war. And that would be far murkier than the clash with the British government.

First published on: 03-05-2017 at 04:47:45 pm
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