THE INDIAN PRESS
INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS
A BRIEF HISTORY
TOLD IN A SERIES OF BLOG POSTS
JULY 12, 2011
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 Heraldin 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 Patrikawas 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.
JULY 14, 2011
It is ironic that after Edward Lytton's insufferable personality and policies provoked a pan-Indian political consciousness, the next jump in national awareness was prompted by the liberal policy of his successor, George Ripon. With a personality and attitude towards Indians in stark contrast to those of his predecessor, Ripon won much applause, especially after he repealed the Vernacular Press Act in 1881. Two years later, he had a member of his council, Courtney Ilbert, propose that Indian judges be allowed to hear criminal cases against Europeans if there was no British judge in a district. (The ban had been introduced after the founding of the Indian Civil Service a decade earlier.)
The “Ilbert Bill” as it came to be called, infuriated the British community in India, which was by then steeped in the concept of European “Aryan” superiority to the degenerate “natives.” A “White Mutiny” broke out. British-owned newspapers vented rabid contempt for Indians and there was ever-angrier invective in public forums. The British community in Calcutta ostracized Ripon socially, and a group that included civil and military officers even plotted to kidnap and ship him back to Britain. There was widespread talk of his assassination.
The mounting wave of racist anger forced Ripon to back down; he agreed that in case an Indian judge should preside over the trial of a European, half the membership of the jury should be European, As that condition was unlikely to be met in any district without a British judge, the mutineers declared victory. However, their self-congratulatory celebrations blinded them to the impact the whole affair had on Indians. Their racism had fostered a new and energetic nationalism. In Bengal, the most politically advanced region of the country, there followed an unprecedented cultural and political awakening that spread across the land in the subsequent decades.
As nationalist sentiments found voice in patriotic song and soul stirring novel, as Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s stage plays advocated widow remarriage, as college students evinced an avid interest in European revolutionary history, Indian society began to undergo the slow but inexorable change that eventually made British rule an unsupportable anachronism. The Indian Press was never the same after the Bengal Renaissance; protestations of loyalty to the Crown which were regularly tacked on to articles as a way to avoid charges of sedition sounded ever more hollow and the critical perspective grew ever sharper.
The next big steps in Indian journalism were technological. In the second half of the 19th century, the telegraph and the railways transformed the process of gathering and distributing news, and Reuters ushered in the era of agency reporting. In 1862 it took mail nine days to reach Calcutta from Bombay and Madras, six from Delhi, seven from Karachi; by boat, dispatches from London took five weeks from London, and from China it took an incredible two months. By 1870, the transmission of headline news took only minutes between India’s major cities.
Meanwhile the railways shortened mail carriage times to four days between Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The 1870s saw several important trends: the publication of the first illustrated journals; a growing number of daily newspapers; the diversification of content in regional newspapers, and emergence of a national audience. As commercial houses took to advertising, the resources of successful publications grew significantly, and so did their readership. From the 1880s, commercial advertising became the major source of newspaper revenues.
The leaders in this period continued to be anti-national British publications, most with missionary roots. In Bombay the merger of the Telegraph, the Standard, and Bombay Times created The Times of India in 1861. In Calcutta, John Bull became The Englishman. In the South, The Madras Times founded in 1860 engendered the Madras Mail eight years later. All these publications were heavily dependent on government subscriptions. Madras also had several small weekly papers edited by British officials who argued that being “non-covenanted” (non-contractual) employees they could do so without breaking the rule against such work.
A covenanted officer who did break the rule was Robert Knight, perhaps the most influential Englishman of his era. He was the founding editor of the Times of India and of The Indian Statesman, which later merged with Friend of India to become in 1877 The Statesman of Calcutta. As an official he had participated in the discussions about the need for the regime to have its own media organ that led to the founding in Lahore of The Pioneer (1869) and The Civil and Military Gazette (1872). He advocated a more pro-active role to influence editorial opinion, urging the creation of a Press Bureau and the use of financial incentives through government subscriptions and advertising to encourage the loyalist Press.
In 1871, there was only one Indian owned daily newspaper in the country, The Indian Mirror edited by Keshub Chandra Sen in Calcutta. Sen also directed the Hindu-reformist “pice journal” Sulaba Samachar in Bengali, which had the then enormous paid circulation of 4000. (The Times of India had a print run of 3000 into the 1890s.) In Bengal the zamindar-supported English weekly Hindu Patriothad an influential readership, as did Shome Prakashin Bengali. The centre of gravity for the Indian-owned media remained Calcutta, where more than half of the country’s 38 publications in 1876 were located.
SATURDAY, JULY 16, 2011
By the end of the 19th century Indian journalists were active all over the country. Among the most notable was the impassioned Vishnushastri Chiplunkar in Pune; his Nibandh Mala founded in 1874 turned its satirical attention on Indians who believed the British were in India for the good of its people. He was a formative influence on two college students in Pune, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, who went on after their studies to found (1881) the first openly nationalist weeklies in Western India. One was Kesari (Lion) in Marathi; it explained complex issues in simple language to an Indian readership. The other was The Mahratta, in English; it sought to reach the political elite in India and Britain.
The measure of British opposition to these initiatives can be judged by the fact that the very next year Tilak and Agarkar, both in their early idealistic twenties, were charged with defaming a loyalist Indian, tried by a kangaroo court, and sentenced to four months of “rigorous imprisonment.” For no more than reprinting a report from another paper they were punished harshly, made to break rocks, twist coir and live with hardened criminals. While they were in prison, Chiplunkar died suddenly at the age of 32, one of the many victims of the early-death syndrome that affected Indian nationalists. (Murder as British policy will be the subject of a later post in this series.)
The harsh punishment of Tilak and Agarkar made them nationalist heroes and Kesari became the widest circulated publication of its era. When the Congress split between "moderates" led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale and "radicals" under Tilak's leadership, the British sought to aid their allies: in 1908 they trumped up a charge of sedition and sent Tilak away from India for six years, the entire time spent in solitary confinement at Burma’s Mandalay Prison. He emerged unbroken and unbowed, declaring at the 1914 session of Congressthe sentiment that became the battle cry of the nationalists: “Swaraj is my birthright and I will have it.”
Journalism in Gujarat got off to an early running start with the hugely influential writings of Dadabhai Naoroji, the scholar/businessman/leader who first documented the colonial draining of Indian resources; but regular publications focused primarily on social and religious issues. B. M. Malabari’s Indian Spectator pushed stridently for social reform, as did the Indian Social Reformer, a weekly in English founded in Madras and moved to Bombay in 1897.
Two decades later Gujarati, and indeed, Indian journalism as a whole, felt the revolutionary impact of the most prolific writer of his generation, Mahatma Gandhi. His weekly Navjivan in Gujarati (Young India in English) became the lodestar of the nationalist movement. With Harijan, which Gandhi began publishing in 1933, the topic of caste reform was made an issue of central importance. Gandhi's publications were unique in that he did not accept advertising, believing that dependence on any revenue beyond reader subscriptions corrupted editorial integrity. Gandhi spent over six years in British prisons but he was seldom charged with specific offenses; his conviction and imprisonment in 1922 was an exception: the regime cited four of his articles to accuse him of promoting sedition. At his trial, Gandhi not only accepted the charge of sedition but said it was the only option left to Indians in the existing circumstances.
In South India, journalism independent of missionaries was slower to develop than in the north because society was innately more conservative in a region that had not experienced the repeated shock of foreign invasions. The British tried not to inflame the South by specifically excluding Madras Presidency from the jurisdiction of the Vernacular Press Act. But the North-South gap did close with several new publications in the last quarter of the 19th century.
A group of new graduates in 1878 founded The Hindu, issued first as a weekly, then thrice a week and from 1888 as a daily. One of the group, Subramania Iyer, broke away to establish the Tamil weekly Swadeshmitran which became a daily in 1899. Both were sedate in their political views. A more radical publication was the Madras Standard, established by missionaries in 1877 but taken over by 21-year old Parameswaran Pillai in 1892.
The tiny French colony of Pondicherry (now Puducheri) saw a rare journalistic flowering in Arya, the monthly magazine Sri Arobindo founded there in 1914 after fleeing police harassment in Calcutta following his acquittal in the infamous "Alipore Bomb Conspiracy." He used the magazine to interpret and comment on the Upanishads and serialize the epic poem Savitri, exploring the mythic and philosophic aspects of the Mahabharata story of wifely devotion that conquers death. Aurobindo was one of India's great visionaries, looking beyond nationalism to a time when humanity would evolve a universal spiritual civilization.
In Telegu the first weeklies were founded to promote -- and oppose -- social reform; it was not until 1886, after the founding of the Indian National Congress, that the politically oriented Andhra Prakasika began publication. Srinivasa Shastri’s Desabhimani in Kannada did not endure long because it offended the Dewan of Mysore who confiscated its printing press. Four other publications, two in English and two in Kannada – Mysore Herald, Mysore Standard, Vrittanta Chintamani and Nadgannadi – were founded in Mysore and later transferred to Bangalore.
Early journalism in Hindi and Urdu was neither nationalist nor reformist; it was devoted to the defence and promotion of religious orthodoxy. Not until Bharatendu Harischandra founded the Kavi Vachan Sudha in 1867 was that tradition broken. Other literary weeklies appeared, among them Ram Krishna Varma’s Bharat Jivan and Harischandra’s own later publications, including Chandrika. Only some, like Balkrishna Bhatt’s Hindi Pradeep were strongly political. Few of these publications survived for long. In 1884 the publication of Hindustan (initially in Britain and then in India) finally provided Hindi readers with a daily newspaper; it appeared also in English and Urdu.
A press in Ludhiana established by missionaries to print religious tracts during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule produced in 1854 the first printed publications in gurmukhi. To counter the mission publications, Munshi Hari Narayan began issuing the pro-Hindu (and pro-British) Akhbar Shri Durbar Sahib. Following the rise of the puritanical “Kuka” movement under Baba Ram Singh and the 1873 founding of the Singh Sabha in Amritsar, there were other publications. They included the Sukanya Samodhini, the Kavi Chandrodaya, the Gurmukhi Akhbar and the Khalsa Akhbar, all of which began publication in the early 1880s.
The decimation of the Muslim intellectual and cultural elite following 1857 resulted in Urdu journalism getting off to a slow start. Hindus issued the first Urdu publications after the uprising, and they were generally non-political. Then the writings of the loyalist Syed Ahmed Khan (a former employee of the East India Company), brought about a revival. Some of the new publications were inspired by the desire of the orthodox to counter his reformist views.
In the following decade numerous weekly and some fortnightly journals appeared at Agra, Aligarh, Delhi, Lahore, Lucknow and Meerut. Although mostly politically moderate, they were not shy of commenting on the regime's rampant discrimination against Muslims. However, they were not nationalist in spirit. Reformist publications in Urdu were heavily influenced by Jemal ud Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), who propagated pan-Islamism and a return to Islamic purity as part of a seductive anti-imperial cocktail. He came to India in 1881 after being expelled as a troublemaker by the Islamic rulers of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Egypt; in India, he spent two years, most of the time lecturing in Hyderabad.
Another strong influence was the Deoband Dar ul Uloom (House of Learning) established a decade after the post-1857 destruction of the great liberal institutions of Islamic learning at Delhi. The Deoband ulema were stridently anti-British without being nationalist, for they promoted a retreat into the theocratic Arabian past. It is interesting to speculate on the course of Indian history if Deoband had set out to revive the liberal legacy of Akbar the British destroyed.
JULY 19, 2011
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 Indiaand 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.
JULY 23, 2011
After independence, as British-owned newspapers passed into Indian hands, they moderated their overtly anti-national agenda, but retained a manifestly alien worldview. It is important to understand why and how this happened, for the English-language Press became the dominant “elite” of Indian mass media, a primary force in shaping the country’s political life.
Three factors constrained the development of an indigenous worldview in modern India’s mass media “elite.” One was the nature of the Indian renaissance. Rooted in the Bhakti movement of the 15th and 16th Centuries, it defined a sensibility capable of political engagement but – as exemplified in the string of nationalist leaders from Rammohun Roy to Gandhi – essentially spiritual and cultural, it was ideologically inchoate. The second factor has been the nature of those who have controlled the development of Indian mass media. With the exception of the Kasturi family that owns The Hindu, they have been business people with no background in journalism. None has had the combination of intellectual capacity and political acumen necessary to understand and define a particularly Indian perspective. The third factor has been a continuing effort by Britain to maintain and promote its colonial era influence over the Indian intelligentsia and political system. In the rest of this post I look at the first of these three factors.
A decade after independence, Susheela Nayar, the young doctor who was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s small group during his final internment under British rule (1942-1946), published her prison diary. Among the conversations she noted was one initiated by Pyarelal (her brother, who became Gandhi’s secretary in 1942 after Mahadev Desai’s sudden death). Pyarelal asked Gandhi why he did not “write a treatise” explaining his political philosophy and activism.
“The trouble is that I have to be Marx as well as Lenin,” Gandhi replied. “I have it all in my head. When the occasion comes I take out what is applicable to the situation.”
Pyarelal pressed him. “You can see the situation and decide as to what should be done. ... But who will give lead to the people when you are gone?”
Gandhi replied, “I cannot do what you want me to do. It is beyond my power. ... I am not the man who can write a treatise. I speak under inspiration. I cannot decide as to how I shall tackle a particular situation until I am faced with it.”
Gandhi was being overly modest. He had outlined his beliefs and action plan as early as 1910 in the small book, Hind Swaraj, and in the decades since then had explained his actions tirelessly in articles and speeches. However, what he had to say – that Indians should be guided by the verities of their own civilization and not be seduced by Europe’s deadly way of life – was so far from the political mainstream of the day that “practical” men dismissed it as moonshine. The Congress Working Committee refused even to discuss the proposals in Hind Swaraj – and that was after Gandhi had become the undisputed leader of the nationalists.
Was there no one within Gandhi’s own following that could have propagated his political legacy? There were three, but sudden and premature death claimed them all.
Maganlal Gandhi, who suggested the word Satyagraha when his uncle was searching for a term to describe his nonviolent activism in South Africa, was the mainstay of the Sabarmati Ashram. He died at the age of 45 in 1928, after a sudden high fever, the cause of which was undiagnosed. It happened as preparations got under way for the declaration of Purna Swaraj, and was a staggering loss to Gandhi, for Maganlal was the one person who had intimate knowledge of his thinking and the full range of his political contacts. The two other sudden deaths occurred within months of each other in 1942, just before and during the critical Quit India Movement.
Jamanlal Bajaj, who established Sevagram Asharam at Wardha to which Gandhi moved after quitting Sabarmati, was a business tycoon who would have been an invaluable apostle. He died suddenly at the age of 53, supposedly of "hemorrhagic stroke" but there was no autopsy, so the cause remains in doubt.
Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest aide for 25 years, was the one after Maganlal’s death upon whom the Mahatma rested his hopes for the continuation of his political legacy. He was arrested at the beginning of the Quit India Movement in 1942 and died a week after moving (with Gandhi) into the makeshift prison in the malarial confines of the Aga Khan’s palace in Pune.
All three deaths could have been caused by poison; they eliminated the men most capable of carrying on Gandhi’s political legacy after his assassination in 1948.
Ironically, Jawaharlal Nehru, who declared eloquently at Gandhi’s death that his light would endure, was primarily responsible for dimming it in India. He set the country on a course emulative of European modernity that Gandhi had explicitly warned against; it became fashionable under him to consider India's traditions and civilization as problems to be overcome. Under such circumstances, the failure of the Indian Press to articulate a national worldview is excusable. However, it is not entirely comprehensible, for the intellectual vigor characteristic of Indian civilization seemed suddenly to desert the country’s intelligentsia. Sri Aurobindo, writing of the Renaissance in India in 1918, described that earlier energy:
“When we look at the past of India, what strikes us next is her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy … her almost unimaginable prolific creativeness. For three thousand years at least – it is indeed much longer – she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly … republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts … palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts wordly, trades, industries, fine crafts – the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity. …
“This supreme spirituality and this prolific abundance of the energy and joy of life and creation do not make all that the spirit of India has been in the past. … the third power of the ancient Indian spirit was a strong intellectuality, at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. Its chief impulse was that of order and arrangement, but an order founded upon a seeking for the inner law and truth of things and having in view always the possibility of conscientious practice. … [India] searched for the inner truth and law of each human or cosmic activity, its dharma; that found, she labored to cast into elaborate form and detailed law of arrangement its application in fact and rule of life. …
“There is no historical parallel for such an intellectual labour and activity before the invention of printing and the facilities of modern science; yet all that mass of research and production and curiosity of detail was accomplished without these facilities and with no better record than the memory and for an aid the perishable palm-leaf. Nor was all this colossal literature confined to philosophy and theology, religion and Yoga, logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics, poetry and drama, medicine and astronomy and the sciences; it embraced all life, politics and society, all the arts from painting to dancing; all the 64 accomplishments, everything then known that could be useful to life or interesting to the mind, even, for instance, to such practical side minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants, each of which had its Shastra and its art, its apparatus of technical terms, its copious literature.
“In each subject from the largest and most momentous to the smallest and most trivial, there was expended the same all-embracing opulent, minute and thorough intellectuality. On one side there is an insatiable curiosity, the desire of life to know itself in every detail, on the other a spirit of organization and scrupulous order, the desire of the mind to tread through life with a harmonized knowledge and in the right rhythm and measure. Thus an ingrained and dominant spirituality, an inexhaustible vital creativeness and gust of life and, mediating between them, a powerful, penetrating and scrupulous intelligence combined of the rational, ethical and aesthetic mind each at a high intensity of action, created the harmony of the ancient Indian culture.”
JULY 30, 2011
JOURNALISM AS BUSINESS
Indian-owned newspapers were a key factor in promoting and spreading the nationalist perspective under colonial rule. Ironically, after independence, when control of the "elite" British-owned publications passed into Indian hands it did not lead to significant change in their anti-national agenda. This was not a failing of Indian journalists but of the owners of newspapers. Drawn from a class that had collaborated with the British and grown rich under them, the new owners proved to be money grubbers with little sense of their nationality or the importance of a free Press.
Nothing exemplifies that distressing reality as much as The Times of India, the most widely read newspaper in the country. Perhaps its most obvious failing has been of political awareness. As noted earlier, the current ownership of TOI even prides itself on its British antecedents. The newspaper traces its roots to publications founded in Bombay as far back as 1838, consolidated under its current name in 1861 by Robert Knight, a former bureaucrat who became a journalist to improve the projection of the regime’s views. He established an energetic anti-nationalist policy that became the paper's "tradition."
An equally important failing has been the multifaceted lack of integrity that characterized the new Indian ownership. In 1946, as Indian independence loomed, the British owners of the TOI sold the paper to Ram Kishan Dalmia, a Marwari bullion trader from Calcutta who had built a conglomerate business empire. He was a maverick who lived by his own rules and hedged all his bets, reportedly maintaining five wives simultaneously in separate households and giving financial support to both Gandhi and Jinnah.
To raise the money to buy the paper Dalmia pillaged a bank and insurance company under his control, a transgression the authorities might have missed had he not launched a scornful campaign against Prime Minister Nehru's policies. (Nehru is said to have dismissed him as "an ugly man with an ugly heart and ugly mind who thinks owning a newspaper makes him an expert on foreign policy.") In 1955, the issue of the gutted companies was raised in parliament by Feroze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law. Dalmia was tried, sent to prison for two years, and ordered to pay back the looted money. He raised the funds by selling the paper to his son-in-law, Sahu Jain, also a businessman with no background in journalism.
Since then three generations of the Jain family have made the Times Group a lucrative business. The parent paper has spawned a number of other publications, and diversified into radio, television and e-commerce. In the process, they have destroyed whatever journalistic integrity the newspaper once had. In the 1980s the family was seized with jealousy at the political influence wielded by the Editor of the newspaper, and there was a deliberate devaluation of the post. The functions of the Editor were distributed among pliable nonentities, and all senior journalists made to eat humble pie. The “we’re no different from a company selling soap” speech from the management became a rite of entry into the editorial ranks. To discourage any idealistic notions of editorial independence the Jains replaced the tenured career tracks of top staff with negotiated fixed-term contracts.
Without proper editorial direction, the paper has fallen into a state of qualitative rot, without gravitas or organizing intelligence. A heavy-breathing self-righteousness has replaced coherent policy on important issues. Editorial content is now a mishmash of agency reports and Press releases, replete with items reflecting a prurient male menopausal sexual interest. Photographs of scantily clad White women are a standard feature of the op-ed page, and readers are offered a consistently ludicrous mix of tabloid-style items, including such news as "Mariah Carey quashes bisexuality rumours" and "Woman bites off husband’s tongue."
In addition to ruining the editorial quality of the paper, the Jains have gutted its credibility by blurring the line between journalism and advertising. In 2004, the paper began signing “private treaties” with other corporations, accepting their equity stock in exchange for “innovative and integrated” promotion of their image and wares in the paper. By 2009, there were over a hundred such agreements, spilling advertising copy into the editorial pages in so-called "edvertorials."
The “sale” of news coverage is not a new phenomenon in Indian media, but it was always in the past confined to the corruption of individual journalists. Instead of cracking down on those who took bribes to provide coverage, TOIinstitutionalized the corruption, making it a source of corporate revenue. In seeking to monetize its news columns, the paper has even gone to the extent of seeking payment from art galleries and restaurants for mentioning their names in reviews. It routinely carries reviews of cultural events without identifying where they are.
Other "elite" publishers have followed the TOIexample. By 2009 the problem of paid news was so prevalent and obtrusive that it led to an investigation by the Press Council of India, a government-supported watchdog body. Its two-member investigative team issued a brief and damning report in July 2010. “The phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has acquired serious dimensions” it said. “Today it goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organized. In the process, it is undermining democracy in India.” Much of the reporting in print and on television prior to the 2009 national and state elections had been paid for, “almost always in a clandestine manner.” Many “media companies irrespective of the volume of their businesses and their profitability,” had sold news coverage. The marketing executives of media companies had even produced “rate cards” or “packages” that offered the option to have news items not only “praise particular candidates but also criticize their political opponents.”
According to one published expose, a newspaper in Maharashtra during the last general elections was offering to publish a candidate’s profile along with “four news items of your choice,” for Rs.400,000. An entire newspaper “supplement” praising the candidate was on offer for Rs.15 million. Candidates without money got little or no coverage. The Election Commission has taken note of the situation; it issued detailed guidelines in 2010 requiring poll officers throughout the country to look for and take action against “paid news.”
The meanly commercial approach to journalism has resulted also in a gross underfunding of critically important editorial activities. None of the major English language publications even pretends to provide comprehensive coverage of the country, much less of the world. Even the biggest metropolitan papers are grossly understaffed. Specialized beat reporting is practically nonexistent; even when journalists claim to focus on specific areas there is often little evidence of expertise. Reporting capacity drops off a cliff in rural areas and outside the country.
This explains why the Maoist insurrection now recognized by the government as the country’s most serious internal security threat went virtually unnoticed as it grew and spread. Such major problems as the rotting of thousands of tons of grain due to improper storage, and the theft of food meant for the very poor, have surfaced not from routine or investigative reporting but from “leaks” by disaffected bureaucrats and even court judgments years after such crimes. (Media organizations are able to pretend they have "uncovered" these stories because they did not cover the court proceedings.) The dependence on and competition for “leaks,” by journalists who are themselves ignorant of the facts have resulted in the Press being open to gross manipulation.
GROSS MANIPULATION: The most blatant example of that was the so-called “Bofors scam” of the 1980s, a campaign of salacious disinformation that incapacitated the Rajiv Gandhi government at a time it was trying to launch the first wave of economic reforms. More recently, coverage of the scandalous corruption related to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 – which occurred under the oblivious noses of the media organizations in Delhi – was set off by a “leak” from a source within the British government weeks prior to the Games. The hysteria of coverage that followed made it seem that the CWG would be a fiasco; it blackened India’s image around the world and reduced attendance at the Games. After the Games went off successfully, the media organizations did not examine their own failings and offered no apologies. Nor did anyone in the media speculate about the motivation of the leaker.
Such vulnerability to foreign manipulation is hardly surprising, for Indian mass media have very little capability to judge global realities. What appears in print or on television is almost entirely from American and British news agencies, with a tiny bit of PTI reportage providing the “Indian angle” (usually gleaned from the Press Office of the nearest Indian Embassy). At the highest levels of Indian journalism the incapacity to report on world affairs extends from petty ignorance – the Chief Editor of one major television channel pronouncing Haiti as “Haishee” – to profound incomprehension of a broad range of international political realities.
One indication of that incomprehension is that two decades after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a well-documented transatlantic rift, Indian commentors continue to refer to “the West” as a coherent unity. Coverage of China, a country of crucial importance to India, has remained minimal despite a border conflict and a range of unresolved political differences. The Middle East and Africa, also areas of great national importance, are even hazier in our mass media. Indian publishers seem unembarrassed to reprint articles from The New York Times or The Guardian even on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As a result of all this, much of the political analysis in Indian newspapers is confused and confusing. Not a single publication or broadcast organization offers a coherent worldview. Not one of the major weekly newsmagazines reports regularly on world affairs. Typically, all have turned a blind eye on the looming global financial melt-down that threatens both hyper-inflation and deflation. When those crises materialize -- it is no longer a matter of "if" -- Indian society will be as unprepared as it was to meet the challenges of the first Arab invaders of Sind or the stealthy British takeover of Bengal.
AUGUST 19, 2011
THE BRITISH ROLE
In tracing the evolution of newspapers in India from the beginning of the colonial era, I have kept the British role constantly in view. However, the primary focus has been on Indians. That must necessarily change in the following section for it deals with the postcolonial British manipulation of India. I begin with a brief look at the colonial roots of such manipulation because that is essential background – of which most Indians, including journalists, are blissfully unaware.
In 1756, the East India Company factor in Calcutta withheld taxes due to the new Nawab of Bengal, the raw and impetuous 19-year old Suraj ud-Dowlah. The boy sallied out with his army from his capital, Murshidabad, took Calcutta without a fight and occupied Fort William, where he believed the English kept their treasure. Angered at not finding it, the agent reported to London, the Nawab ordered 146 British prisoners thrown into the dungeon at Fort William and kept without water until they divulged the information he sought. The agent described how, in the stifling heat of June, packed into the dark and airless dungeon, 123 of the poor souls died of suffocation and thirst in a single night, bearing bravely the mockery of their cruel captors.
The story of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” served to explain and justify the subsequent British attack on the Nawab: in 1757 Robert Clive came up from Madras at the head of 2000 men (1200 of them Indians), and at the “Battle of Plassey” routed the Nawab’s army of 20,000. These tales of Indian infamy and British valor became the founding legends of the British Empire, featured in history books and taught to generations of schoolchildren in India and around the world. However, neither story was true.
The “Black Hole” story was patently absurd, for the dungeon at Fort William measured 14 by 18 feet and 146 Europeans could not possibly have fit into it. All accounts of the atrocity are rooted in a report the Agent wrote six months after the alleged incident as he sailed back to Britain. Clive’s heroic victory in the “Battle” at Pilashi was also a concoction. He had borrowed money from the fabulously wealthy “Jagat Seth” of Calcutta and bribed the leader of the Nawab’s forces to lead his men off the field without a fight. (Only some French gunners, evidently ignorant of the fix, put up even a semblance of a fight.)
In the century after the British took Bengal, as the Company slowly extended its death-grip across India, there was a separate mendacious justification for every aggressive step. One ruler was vicious to his own people; another was mentally incompetent; a third had no legitimate heir; others interfered with trade. These individual explanations slipped easily into the self-righteous narrative of colonial history that excluded such details as the death of several hundred million Indians in the “man-made famines” created by extortionate British policies. The net result was an official record surreal in its dishonesty. Based on it, Winston Churchill could claim (in his 1956-1957 History of the English Speaking Peoples) that the British were a progressive force in India and, in fact, not “imperialist” at all; they had gained control of India “in a fit of absence of mind.”
Britain’s overall colonial record received the same self-congratulatory treatment. Where the other imperial Powers of Europe chose only to engage in what Adam Hoschild in his1999 book King Leopold’s Ghost termed “the Great Forgetting,” the British actively twisted the most brutal of colonial records into a tale of civilizing adventure. School textbooks excised any mention that Britain accounted for more than half of all the slaves taken out of Africa. The Opium Wars in China became a worthy struggle to establish free trade. Genocide became pacification and social progress. (In Australia, that particular delusion allowed the government to continue into the 1970s a programme that – “for their own good” – forcibly took aboriginal children from their parents, for rearing in White families.)
Some British historians have acknowledged the falsification. P. J. Marshall noted with irony in the 1996 Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire how Britain had invested a “great deal of national self-esteem” in the view that its colonial record was virtuous. “Other European countries oppressed their fellow citizens overseas and drove them to revolt; the British, after the American misadventure, learned to nurture links of freedom, which evolved into that unique institution, the British Commonwealth of Nations. In the tropics, while the Spanish and Portuguese imperial regimes were sleazy and corrupt, the Dutch nakedly mercenary, the Germans and Russians brutally militaristic, and the French overbearingly chauvinistic in imposing their own cultural values, the British ruled with a high-minded concern for the good of the ruled. Others tried to resist the pressures of nationalism, only to go down to defeat — for example, the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Algeria; the British entered into partnership with their nationalists and extricated themselves from empire with grace and goodwill.” (Marshall himself was not without fond delusions, for he went on to claim that the British had civilized the world.)
The whitewashing of their bloody past has continued into the 21st Century. Niall Ferguson hailed by The Times of London as the “most brilliant British historian of his generation,” has made a career of arguing that colonialism was beneficial to the world. In his 2002 book, Empire: The rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power, he cited Adolf Hitler to argue that India was lucky to have had the British as rulers. Ferguson claimed that in a conversation with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Halifax in 1939 Hitler was “disarmingly frank in admitting that his version of imperialism would be a great deal nastier than the British version.” If Germany took India, Ferguson quoted Hitler as saying, “the Indians would certainly not be enthusiastic and they’d not be slow to regret the good old days of English rule.”
Among the youngest crop of British historians, the most comically dishonest is Alex Von Tunzelmann, author of Indian Summer, the secret history of the end of an empire (2007). Her book begins with a passage of pure fiction: “On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had ever done before. It gave up. The British Empire did not decline. It simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by the revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had been victorious in the century’s definitive war. … As the chimes sounded and the unexpected blast from a conch shell startled the delegates in the chamber of the Constituent Assembly, a nation that had struggled for so many years, and sacrificed so much, was freed at last from the shackles of empire. Yes, Britain was finally free.”
That 21st century rendition of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” went unnoticed in the uniformly good reviews the book got in the elite Indian Press, a phenomenon that suggests either that none of the reviewers actually read the book, or that its publisher paid for them. The book is reportedly soon to be a “Bollywood” movie focused on the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten.
An important component of the British distortion of history has been a consistently negative presentation of Indian realities. In a continuous stream of “histories,” novels, television and film productions the British have continued to tell the world that India is a cauldron of caste and religious hatreds, of benighted beliefs and twisted oppressions; they have comprehensively trashed the country’s humane and tolerant traditions, which compare well with Europe’s history of oppression, war and genocide.
To sustain this flow of calumny the British have continued the colonial practice of rewarding a handful of “Indians” to join their side. The most prominent of them are Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, all awarded the £50,000 Booker Prize for dankly negative books about India.
The Booker Prize is often described as “Britain’s most prestigious literary award,” but it has no literary antecedents. The Booker Corporation that established it was a right-wing outfit with a decidedly unsavoury colonial-era reputation; it endowed the prize at the suggestion of Ian Fleming, a psychological operations specialist in British Military Intelligence who authored the James Bond novels. Booker juries change from year to year and members are never asked back, an arrangement that empowers the shadowy sherpas guiding the selection process.
Three of the four “Indian” Booker Prize winners grew up outside India and are thoroughly deracinated; the fourth, Arundhati Roy, came from a broken Christian-Hindu home and led a vagabond existence until the founding head of Penguin India, David Davidar (who comes from the same small community in Kerala as she does), “discovered” her. Roy, for her part, claimed initially that she had written The God of Small Things without the knowledge of her husband. (Any writer will tell you, that is an impossibility.)
It is important to note that Penguin and Penguin India dominate the field of India-related publishing. Penguin India published three of the “Indian” Booker Prize winners. Adiga might have appeared under its imprint too if Harper Collins had not hired away two of its senior staffers. The Penguin backlist is replete with books presenting the preferred British view of India, and they tend to stay on the market long after they should have disappeared from sight.
MARK TULLY: A typical example is BBC correspondent Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India (Penguin 1991), still available in Indian bookstores two decades after publication. The book is filled with familiar colonial stereotypes, beginning with its title, which reflects Tully’s “insight” that “India’s Westernized elite, cut off from local traditions, ‘want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops’.” That long-standing imperial theme – that the British understand India better than its own elite – leads easily into the book’s contents which, as another blurb on the cover says, throws “more light on this vast tragicomic country than anything since V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness.”
It is not just Booker Prize winners who represent the British hand in Indian affairs. A measure of Britain’s postcolonial success in shaping Indian opinion is that in February this year, 14 Indians, most of them prominent in their fields, were comfortable calling publicly for the continuation of British propaganda aimed at the Indian heartland. In a letter to The Guardian in Britain “pleading for the continuation of broadcast of the BBC’s Hindi service” they made an argument that should have caused a sensation in the world of Indian mass media.
The letter said that for “nearly seven decades BBC Hindi radio has been a credible source of unbiased and accurate information, especially in times of crisis: the 1971 war, the emergency in 1975, the communal riots after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992. Today India is facing other serious problems: the ongoing conflicts in Kashmir, in the north-east and in vast areas in central and eastern India, where Maoist militants are fighting the state. Ten million listeners in India – most of them in rural and often very poor areas – need BBC Hindi radio and the accurate, impartial and independent news it provides.” The service “cannot be silenced in times when democracy is under threat,” the letter added, as if India were North Korea or Iran.
In addition to Britain's dependable mouthpiece Arundhati Roy, the signatories were Vikram Seth (writer), Ramachandra Guha (historian), Amjad Ali Khan (musician), Kuldip Nayar, Inder Malhotra and M.J. Akbar (all three senior journalists), and Sunita Naraian (environmental activist). Others on the list were Swami Agnivesh the costumed social activist, Kiran Bedi the ex-policewoman, and Prashant Bhushan (lawyer), all members of Team Anna. (There were also a Dilawar K. Singh billed as “financial adviser, defence services, Ministry of Defence”, and Neelima Mathur of the “Foundation for responsible media, New Delhi”.)
There was no reaction at all in the Indian media to the public insult. No one asked any of the 14 for an explanation. Because of that, the leaders of Team Anna are now able to carry on with their deeply mischievous work as if their Indian loyalties were not seriously in question.