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The Unpublished True Story of the Indian Press

It was the only available tool we had to resist the English “gang of public robbers” that ruled Bengal. However, we did not support the press, because Indian political tradition had never developed independent institutionalized moral check on the rulers.

One of the strangest facts in the history of the Indian Press is the reluctance of paying due tribute to the pioneering contributions of the Serampore missionaries in founding and developing Indian journalism whose standard was set by their papers.

Sunil K. Chatterjee
William Carey and Serampore,

Colonial despotism and a free press

The first newspaper in India, the Bengal Gazette, was established in 1780, by James Hickey. Many people assume that “freedom of the press” was such a normal part of British life that it had to come to India with the English, as naturally as the language of the English people. The Bengal Gazette was meant for the European community, but its target readership had not come to India to struggle to establish institutions of freedom. They were there only to make money – as much and as quickly as possible – by fair means or foul. A free, investigative press, which sought to serve as a public conscience, endangered the private mission of the average European, as much as the diabolical adventures of a Warren Hastings.

The fact is that not one British voice was raised in defence of a free press in the 1780s when Hastings aborted the very first attempt to establish it in India. The Indians ought to have defended the free press. It was the only available tool we had to resist the English “gang of public robbers” that ruled Bengal. However, we did not support the press, because Indian political tradition had never developed independent institutionalized moral check on the rulers. The “divinely sanctioned” Hindu social order, with the hereditary philosophers and kings (Brahmins and Kshatriyas) on top of the social hierarchy, was no different from other systems of social engineering – from Plato’s Republic to Marx’s Communism. No system, which claims to be “ideal,” “utopian,” or “perfect,” can at the same time develop institutions that are intended to continuously expose its imperfections. The modern press and its predecessor, the Jewish prophet, were products of the pre-supposition that sin, unless checked, corrupts all human endeavours. Therefore, the aspects of culture that most affect our public lives, such as the government, require public accountability by institutions, such as the press, that are free from government control.

The Indian territories ruled by our own Maharajas had no press. After the closure of the Bengal Gazette, for thirty-six years, the periodicals born in British India were primarily mercantile papers whose purpose was to report the arrival of European ships and their cargo. Some of these papers also summarized news from “home,” brought by those ships.

Missions and the passion behind the press

It was at the Serampore Mission in 1818 that we see the beginning of the modern Indian press, with the launching of Friend of India in English, Sumachar Darpan in Bengali, and the short-lived Dig Darshan in Hindi. The three periodicals under the general editorship of Joshua Marshman, a colleague of William Carey, were inspired exclusively by a Christian presupposition that liberating power comes not from the barrel of a gun but from the Truth. The birth of the free press in India, thus, was a non-official and non-commercial initiative.

The timing of the enterprise could not have been better. In England, Charles Grant had begun to consolidate the Evangelical influence in the headquarters of the East India Company, boosted by Wilberforce’s 1813 success in getting Parliament’s approval for the humanizing of the Company’s charter. Carey’s name was becoming a legend in the missionary-minded British churches who pressurized Parliament to vote for Wilberforce’s proposal, that the commercial interests of the Company must be balanced by the Christian call to serve one’s neighbours. It would, therefore, have been very difficult for anyone, including a Hastings, to oppose the launching of a paper not only called Friend of India, but spontaneously and widely believed to be such both in India and in England. Missionaries in other parts of India began to follow the Serampore initiative. In Calcutta, for example, the Bengal Auxiliary Missionary Society started the bilingual (Bengali and English) monthly, The Gospel Magazine, in December 1819. Later Alexander Duff established Calcutta Christian Observer.

The Indian intelligentsia was intrigued by the phenomenon that it was possible for a group of non-officials to critique a powerful government through the medium of the press, and that the Government, instead of getting offended, would actually listen to criticism. For example, when William Bentinck’s reforms reduced the military allowances (batta), he was openly denounced. The existing law allowed him to crush a critical press, but Bentinck whose grandfather, Hans Bentinck, had helped William III consolidate freedom of the press in England, declared in a Minute (which was to influence Lord Metcalfe later) on 6 September 1830:  “I retain my former opinion, that the liberty of the press is a most useful engine in promoting the good administration of the country …”

The realization by the Indians, that though they had no power militarily, they could fight back morally and demand a government better than they had ever given to themselves, was a fascinating discovery. The government, however, was not the only institution in need of reform. The very first issue of Friend of India took up the cause of widows in India.  More than a decade had already passed since Carey successfully convinced Governor-general Lord Wellesley of the need to rid Indian society of the evil of widow-burning (sati).

The missions were not burdened by the contemporary belief that no culture, however corrupt, should be critiqued. In contrast, although the utilitarian humanists were involved in working towards the “happiness” of Indians, they nevertheless opposed a free press for India, because their “scientific” system of social engineering (like all other such systems) relied on political power, instead of the power of ideas, to effect change. They reasoned that a free press would undermine the very political authority that was required to bring about social change. The Utilitarians could not support a free press because they lacked the Christian confidence in the power of Truth to set the oppressed free. Very understandably, this became the standard argument against press freedom for the Utilitarians and the otherwise liberal humanists – Mill, Munro, Malcolm and Elphinstone. Sir Thomas Munro, an excellent governor of Madras from 1820–1824, was one of the first to write an extensive Minute against a free press in India on the 12 April 1822.

The effects of Munro’s opposition to a free press in Madras continued throughout the 1820s, until Christians, such as William Carey, stood up for a free press. In 1830, soon after Lord Bentinck banned sati, Carey wrote an extensive defence of the free press in an anonymous editorial in Friend of India. One immediate result of this particular editorial was that the press finally took off in Madras. Historian Michael Edwardes writes, “In south India, a monthly magazine in Tamil was started by missionaries in 1831. Most of the papers and periodicals in existence in south India in 1858 had, in fact, been founded by missionaries.”

The press – A tool of the reformers

The Indian intelligentsia, however, was quick to grasp the press’ potential in reforming Indian society and English government. It was understood that the Indian press could not expect to reform the colonial government, unless it was also seen as crusading against the evils of Indian society. Therefore, in December 1821, when Raja Rammohun Roy launched his paper, Sambad Kaumudi, sati was an important issue for him. His attempt to use his paper to create a climate against sati so angered one of his Hindu colleagues that he left Roy to start a rival paper. The success of another rival paper Samachar Chandrika forced the closure of Roy’s paper in 1822 for a whole year. Yet a non-stoppable chain reaction had begun.

Some students of Roy’s Hindu College started The Reformer. Since then every major social and political reformer in India has either had a paper of his own or has been connected with one. G. Subramaniyam Iyer started The Hindu, Bal Gangadhar Tilak edited the Kesari and the Mahratta, Surendranath Banerjea bought the Bengalee, Sisir Kumar Ghosh and Motilal Ghosh ran the Amrita Bazar Patrika, G. K. Gokhale had the Sudharak, N. N. Sen the Indian Mirror, and Dadabhai Naoroji, the Voice of India. The list goes on, but the point is simple. Most of the socio-political discourse and reforms in India were carried on through the media of the press, until the Montagu Resolution of 1917 made it necessary for political parties to prepare for democracy through mass meetings, movements and agitation.

The British opposition to the free press

The authority and the freedom of the press were compromised often by the journalists and the editors themselves. During the 1820s they frequently crossed the line dividing liberty and license, causing the rulers to enact legislation intended to threaten, if not to actually restrict the press.

Raja Rammohun Roy, condemned by some Hindu scholars as a stooge of the British, was the first Indian to stand up against the British for restricting press freedom. In 1824 he submitted a memorandum to the Supreme Court, arguing that every good ruler “will be anxious to afford every individual the readiest means of bringing to his notice whatever may require his interference. To secure this important object, the unrestricted liberty of publication is the only effectual means that can be employed.”

The rulers, however, continued the policy of keeping the press under strict control for another decade. As noted above, even Lord William Bentinck during his reform-minded regime (1828–35), did not abolish the restrictive, intimidating legislation. He ensured that the laws were not used, but kept on the statute books as swords hanging over the heads of the editors and printers. Bentinck was criticized openly by no less a heavyweight than Elphinstone, who invoked the authority of Munro’s minute. Munro had foreseen that, even if the free press did not have an immediate dramatic effect, it would inevitably prepare India against foreign rule. The choice was clear: either a restricted press or a free press. The first meant a continuation of the colonial Raj, the second implied a free India. At a deeper level, the choice lay between England’s political interest and Christian morality.

It is not a coincidence that the Englishmen, and the school of thought that had opposed the entry of missions in 1813, were also the ones opposing a free press twenty years later. The opponents of press freedom acknowledged that the European Christians were “instigating” Indians in favour of a troublesome free press.

The on-going debate reached a critical point when Mr. T. B. Macaulay (later “Lord” Macaulay) arrived in India. He weighed the conflicting testimonies and minutes and then submitted his own Minute to Sir Charles Metcalfe on 16 April 1835. In it he concluded: It is acknowledged that in reality liberty is, and ought to be, the general rule, and restraint the rare and temporary exception. Why then should not the form correspond with the reality?

Sir Charles Metcalfe, then Governor-general, brought the debate to an end by recording his Minute, in which he expressed his entire agreement with Mr. Macaulay’s reasoning. Through the Act No. XI of 1835, Sir Charles Metcalfe’s Government abolished the restrictions on the Press and institutionalized freedom for the Indian press, both European and Indian.

It was only in the aftermath of the Mutiny that on 18 August 1857, the legislative council of India passed Act No. 15 of 1857, “for the RESTRICTION of the LIBERTY of the PRESS, applicable to the European portion of the population as well as to the Native.”

Who opposed this British Act and who was prosecuted under it? Neither a Hindu paper, nor a humanist paper, but only Serampore’s Friend of India. The details of the charges against the Friend of India and the editor’s response are illuminating reading. It is sufficient to say that this incident demonstrates that press freedom is Christian concept, and that it came to India with the Gospel.

Prejudice prevents many people today from seeing the obvious fact: to be a true ‘Friend of India’ meant to simultaneously oppose the sinful actions of the British rulers as well as those of Indian society. Not many people remember that throughout the nineteenth century, the Christian press was almost the only voice the Indian peasants had. Prof. Tripti Chaudhuri, a Reader in History at Rabindra Bharati University at Calcutta, writes:

. . . in the nineteenth century when the interests of British Capitalists and planters were ‘adequately represented’ by their organisation like Indigo Planters’ Association, and the British Indian Association ‘vigilantly watched over the welfare of the Zamindars’, the ‘cultivators of the soil’ had no organ of their own to present their history and points of view. The British officials and trading groups were completely indifferent to their misery and the rising Bengali Intelligentsia, with a few exceptions, were struggling for their own recognition in the field of education and administrative sphere in the colonial set up. In this background only the Protestant missionaries in Bengal in the late nineteenth century came forward to voice the grievances of this ‘destitute’ class. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that they became almost the sole spokesmen of the ryots tied to the iniquitous land system.

Published in the January 2012 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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About The Author

Vishal Mangalwadi

Vishal Mangalwadi is the author of Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations. This is an article in progress and the full version will be available online soon.

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