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The journey of the Indian press

In the preface to his latest book, Mohandas Namishray traces the history of the modern Indian press starting with its founder, James Augustus Hicky. While lamenting today’s page-3-type reporting, he hails the path-breaking journalism of Dr B.R. Ambedkar that awakened and educated the oppressed, he himself included

When James Augustus Hicky first brought out a printed sheet more than 200 years ago, little did he realize that he was laying the foundation of the modern Press in India. Hicky,

an English clerk in the East India Company, was sacked by Governor Warren Hastings for his “foolish and unfounded reports” about the Empire.


Hicky actually wanted to malign Warren Hastings on many issues including his sexual aberrations through his report that appeared on 29 January 1780.

That Hicky was jailed for publishing the report is another matter. What he left behind unknowingly was a glorious legacy, the first modern press in India.

The Bengal Gazette, which Hicky edited later, developed into a newspaper – first a fortnightly and then a daily. Though, in the early stage of development, newspapers in India served as an organ of the British Government, they would later be used by their subjects to throw the colonials out of power. Thus, the press – an illegitimate child of the British clerk – was adopted and deployed as a powerful tool by the nationalist forces. It became the most adored and feared weapon, depending on which side one’s loyalty lay. Hicky will always be remembered as the founder of the press in India, whom threats and punishments could neither bend nor break. He died in poverty, valiantly fighting for the freedom of the press until his last breath.

Dr Ambedkar & Press

Hicky was a British-born subject who came to india, like many others, to try his luck here and make a fortune. He worked as a surgeon’s mate and a merchant in Calcutta but success evaded him.

Although jailed in October 1776 for being unable to pay off his debts, Hicky acquired a printing press and types of his own there itself and began printing business in 1777. On 29 January 1780, Hicky launched the Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser with a motto that read “A weekly political and commercial paper open to all parties but influenced by none”.

Hicky published the gazette mainly for the British residents and targeted the corrupt officers of the East India Company.

In the 19th century, British India witnessed several revolts of Adivasis demanding social justice and protests of depressed classes, besides the first war of independence of 1857.

However, the Indian newspapers, except a few murmurings, didn’t sympathize with the fighting masses, let alone boldly raising issues of political and social exploitation. The bourgeois influence on the press was responsible for this indifference. They were the products of the new regime.

The commercialization of the press attracted big industrialists like Birla, Goenka and Dalmia.

Though these owners were said to be nationalists, the reality was quite different. They belonged to the following categories: pro-British, pro-Congress, pro-Hindu, pro-Muslim, pro-Nizam, pro-kings/nawabs. Besides, they were published in different languages and belonged to different provinces. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had his own paper, Dawn, and there was Star of India and Morning News.

Information is power and the most informed man is also the most feared. The sweeping changes in eastern Europe and the collapse of the Old Order were caused by the information “explosion”. If it were not so, how could so much of change be achieved without a battle being fought and people being killed? Dr Ambedkar could not have achieved so much for the upliftment of the Dalits without the unending thirst for knowledge, which he pursued relentlessly.

All through his life he compiled information, analyzed them and produced writings, which awakened the Dalits. It was unlike anybody else in the past or present has done. Armed with knowledge, he was a one-man army who dealt a crushing blow to the brahmanical order and transformed India from a feudal society to a modern society.

While serving as a professor of political economy in Sydenham College, Bombay (11 November 1918 to 11 March 1920), he felt the need to launch a newspaper. The shortage of capital though  was a major constraint, so Dattoba Pawar introduced him to Shahu Maharaj.

Dattoba Pawar belonged to the Chambhar community (known in Uttar Pradesh as Chamar and Jatav). He was one of the colleagues of Shahuji Maharaj in the movement to uplift the oppressed community that the latter launched in the year 1917. This year was important in the history of social revolution. It was the year Russian revolution triggered a worldwide debate. It was also the year Ambedkar returned from Columbia University, where for his thesis, “National Dividend of India: A Historic and Analytical Study”, he had obtained his PhD.

Shahuji Maharaj himself was interested in the press. In 1919, Pawar arranged Ambedkar’s meeting with Shahuji Maharaj. At the meeting, Shahuji agreed to provide financial assistance for Ambedkar’s newspaper. And Ambedkar launched Mooknayak.

The 1920s witnessed major changes and challenges. The oppressed community got a new sense of self. Claiming that they were the original inhabitants of the land and the sons of the soil, radical Dalits came to the forefront. During the period 1919 to 1935, new titles and phrases were coined to denote the Untouchables. The existence of the Depressed Classes was recognized in the text of the Government of India Act of 1919.

Mohandas Namishray

Robert Deliege tells us that “caste theories, in particular the earliest ones, [were] based largely on textual sources, often in Sanskrit”. Colonial anthropological writings focused on a separate Chamar religious world by identifying it as independent from Hinduism. The studies such as G.W. Briggs’s 1920 work, The Chamars, and William and Charlotte Wiser’s Behind Mud Walls (1932) characterize the religious and cultural world of the Chamars.

Cut to the present

Andalib Akhtar writes, “Frankly, in my brief experience in journalism, I noticed that we the people in the media are not doing full justice to the cause of socially backward and underprivileged class, who constitute a major part of our population. In our reports, articles and features, we always ignore this vast majority of society.”

The role of the media during the implementation of Mandal Commission in 1990 is well known. More recently, in 2015, the media predictions on the outcome of the Bihar Assembly elections went awry. I think this happened because of the inability of the mediapersons to comprehend the psyche of the deprived class. There are many examples of media bias against the downtrodden sections of society. But why does this situation exist in the media? One of my journalist friends, Tabish Khair, once quoted journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, who effectively said: “Though we are opposing reservation in jobs we must also look at our own profession. How many people from backward classes are working in the media?” Clearly, the representation of the underprivileged class in the media is almost negligible. Can somebody tell me how many editors in Delhi or anywhere else belong to the backward classes or is a Dalit? The situation in the electronic media is even more more appalling. Here, you will find it difficult to locate even one reporter from this class.

The revered and founding fathers of the Americans press, Pulitzer, Hearst and McCormick, never claimed sainthood or infallibility, nor did James Augustus Hicky, the founder of the Indian Press. But the modem Indian media persons seem to say that they don’t make mistakes. Actually this is the beginning of the new wave in journalism, which has made news and fiction indistinguishable. It marginalizes issues relating to social justice and highlights cinema, sex and so on.

Government largesse, such as free house, free trips abroad, cash gifts and jobs for the near and dear ones, has corrupted the press beyond belief. Corporate houses maintain

their public relations units to keep journalists off their unsavoury dealings. The central and the state governments have their offices with oversized and well-paid staff, along with the embassies, who bribe journalists in various “subtle” ways. No wonder many spies were newsmen.

While unethical conduct becomes their hallmark, these newsmen ignore their important responsibility to keep the public and policymakers well informed, which is the crying need in country like India. Why, for instance, does the press not raise the ever-increasing instances of atrocities against Dalits, which is threatening the social cohesion of the nation?

Ambedkar could see the role the press could play in the upliftment of the masses

Dr Ambedkar challenged the hegemony of India’s religious, social and cultural establishment. Since he knew that he would not have any allies in the media, he launched Mooknayak, or the “Leader of the Dumb”. Through this newspaper, he exposed the tyranny of the Hindus over the Untouchables and educated, for the first time, the Untouchables about their rights.

Ambedkar found a peculiar charm and magnetism in the appellation “Bharat”. He named one of his weeklies, Bahishkrit Bharat. His printing press was called Bharat Bhushan

Printing Press. Great men have sprung from palaces as well from shacks. They have risen from the humble dwellings of shoemakers, tailors, butchers, bricklayers, and blacksmiths.

But Ambedkar had the unique distinction of rising from the dust. “If I fail to do away with the abominable thraldom and inhuman injustice under which the class, into which I was born,

has been groaning, I will put an end to my life with a bullet.” This was the glorious vow taken by Ambedkar. The vow was fulfilled, the dream realized, the bondage ended. Thus the unique life of Ambedkar has become perennial source of inspiration for Dalits.

I have divided the book in two parts. The first part covers the history of the press in India and the Dalit press, including the work of Dr Ambedkar as editor and journalist. The second part contains the articles that I wrote in the last century, inspired by Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar. During that time I toured Lucknow, Aligarh, Kanpur, Nagpur, Shimla, Jaipur, Bombay, Nashik, Poona, Chandrapur and Hyderabad, and met stalwarts such as Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale and Daya Pawar (Bombay); Dr Jatav (Jaipur); J. Eshwari Bai (Hyderabad); Dr Chhedi Lal Sathi and D.P. Varun (Lucknow); Baburao Bagul, Bhausaheb Gaikwad Texas and Arjun Chavan (Pune); and Thomas Mathew, Ashok Bharti, Rajni Kothari and Surinder Pratap (Delhi).

Once again, I salute our saviour Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar:

You opened my eyes,

Offered me a chance to see,

I saw,

I cried,

Then I faced the grim situation,

Accepted the challenge

And started to write.

Title: Dr Ambedkar & Press

Author: Mohandas Namishray

Publisher: Neelkanth Prakashan, 4760-61, 2nd Floor, 23 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002

Year of Publication: 2018

Price: Rs 695 (hardback)

Copy-editing: Parmanand Baiga/Anil

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

About The Author

Mohandas Namishray

Editor of well-known Dalit magazine 'Bayan', Mohandas Namishray is counted among the top Dalit litterateurs. Besides poems, stories and novels, he has written many books on literary criticism.