Kheencho Na Kamaanon Ko,
Na Talwaar Nikaalo,
Jab Tope Muqabil Ho,
To Akhbaar Nikaalo
Do not draw your bows and arrows, do not draw out your sword. When faced with a cannon, publish a newspaper.
These lines of Akbar Allahabadi ring true when one reminisces about the history of the Indian press on Press Day today.
It is a history that is as old as the freedom struggle. Technically, even older. However, it is from the times of the freedom struggle that the Indian press came into its own.
It split after 1857 into two broad categories: the nationalist press and the Anglo-Indian press. The first was broadly critical of British Rule, raised questions vis-à-vis colonialism and saw itself consciously as the representative voice of India. The latter broadly believed that British Rule was a good thing for the country.
The nationalist press survived amid trials and tribulations. People had to go to jail sometimes, lose their fortunes, get their equipment confiscated, put their family wealth to run it and also count on philanthropy.
The Hindu, Tribune, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Abhudaya, Kesari, and Mahratta, etc., were examples of the nationalist press.
The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was aimed at hitting the Amrita Bazar Patrika after it spurned offers from the British. It turned overnight into an English publication to avoid coming under the purview of the Act, which aimed at gagging Indian language publications.
Lokmanya Tilak, the extremist leader who strode over the political firmament before the coming of Mahatma Gandhi to India, ran the English-language Mahratta from the profits of his Marathi newspaper Kesari. He used Kesari to reach out to the masses of the Bombay Presidency and Mahratta to reach out to the pan-Indian middle class, thus wedding the province to the nation, as it were.
Some of the pioneering texts of modern India first saw the light of day as newspaper series. These included the iconic Hind Swaraj of Mahatma Gandhi, which was the first influential text to go beyond a mere political or economic critique of colonialism to question modernity itself and uphold Indian traditional practices.
What Antonio Gramsci meant by war of position – the need to take on a modern state by countering its hegemony through alternative ideas – came alive in the nationalist press.
There are anecdotes of philanthropy that make us sense those heady days better. Raja Ram Pal Singh of Kalakankar invited Madan Mohan Malaviya, the founder of Banaras Hindu University, to edit his newspaper for a high salary. Malaviya put forth a condition: you shall not call me to meet you when you are drunk. The Raja agreed. One day, the Raja remembered those words of Malaviya after some drinks and felt a late burst of anger, as happens when one is drunk. He called for Malaviya to be brought before him to ask how he could put such a condition. Malaviya came, saw the Raja drunk and promptly resigned. The next day the Raja felt pangs of guilt. He wrote to Malaviya with a request that Malaviya should accept a cheque from him each month to run his nationalist press activity till the Raja died. Malaviya did not refuse. The cheque came month after month and eased the financial crunch.
Mahatma Gandhi’s Young India was the highest circulated newspaper in its times. It was not aimed at profit but at service and awakening. Gandhi also started the Harijan to focus on social reform.
The template of Harijan wasn’t new. In the 19th century, Raja Ram Mohun Roy used Sambad Kaumudi to build a strong case for the abolition of Sati. The orthodoxy countered him through the columns of Samachar Chandrika. But Roy won the debate and got the British to outlaw Sati – the practice of a widow burning herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband – in 1829.
The press at times also got divided on communal issues. The Punjab press in fact got almost neatly divided into the Hindu and Muslim press, as Gerald N Barrier and Paul Wallace have argued.
Post-independence, the Indian press assumed the second avatara: that of an enterprise. The ownership of British-owned newspapers got transferred in Indian hands. Circulation was sought to be increased to get advertisements. Advertisers and ad agencies put in place ways of assessing the correct circulation and readership of newspapers, and ads began to sustain the leading newspapers.
However, another jolt came during the Emergency of 1975-77, when pre-censorship was imposed. Many newspapers decided to fall in line. But not all. Names like Ramnath Goenka and CR Irani covered themselves in glory by opposing the Emergency.
On the night before the clamping of the Emergency, power was cut at Delhi’s Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, where key newspapers were published. The idea was to prevent the press from announcing the Emergency critically. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to announce it herself.
But the authorities forgot to cut power at Jhandewalan, where KR Malkani brought out an RSS-related publication, Motherland. Power was cut very late there. By that time the newspaper was almost ready. The next day, even as it was shut down, Motherland sold at traffic signals in Delhi, lambasting the Emergency.
The coming decades yet again saw newspapers devise strategies to increase their publication. Matrimonial ads did well. So did schemes to attract readers. Price wars brought newspaper costs down, making them ad-heavy.
The pandemic finally did hit the press, as many people stopped subscriptions during the lockdown. Things, however, may be picking up again, as people have begun to subscribe to newspapers again and the economy is showing early signs of recovery.
Yet, with the digital space growing, the press may no longer be the same again. Journalists will also no longer be simply press journalists, as the digital space redefines the media and society much like the printing press once did.