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Bombay’s freedom trail: The press and editors

Mumbai city news: Though Bengal is regarded as the pioneer of the Indian press in the 18th century, but the press in Bombay, in English and Indian languages, expanded and deepened the freedom movement

mumbai Updated: Jul 19, 2017 20:45 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai city news,freedom trail,press
Mahatma Gandhi himself edited, printed and published the Indian Opinion, Young India, Navjivan and Harijan, and was a popular, uncompromising editor(Getty Images)

“The press is in one sense a custodian of public interests, any attempt to hamper its freedom by repressive legislation is bound to affect their interests prejudicially, and cannot fail in the end to react upon the position of the Government itself,” thundered Gopal Krishna Gokhale in the Imperial Legislative Council in 1879.

The titan was responding to the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 which the British government had enacted to curb the growing influence of the press in the mid-19th century. The influence of the pro-Raj English press among the masses was limited but the anti-Raj independent press was popular. It was the catalyst in shaping pro-freedom opinions. Indeed, the history of the freedom movement cannot be read without stepping into the domain of the press.

Bengal is regarded as the pioneer of the Indian press in the 18th century, but the press in Bombay, in English and Indian languages, expanded and deepened the freedom movement. “Bombay was the citadel from where the Indian press launched its social reform movement…and then the political movement,” noted Rangaswami Parathasarathy, journalism history chronicler, in his book Journalism in India.

The Bombay Herald was the first newspaper launched in the city in 1789; it was later called the Bombay Gazette. The Courier was launched in 1789-90. But these were early experiments without a nod to nationalism. The Bombay Darpan started by the stalwart Bal Shastri Jambhekar as an Anglo-Marathi fortnightly in 1832 carried the torch for socio- political reform. Dadabhai Naoroji, among the first pan-Indian nationalist leaders, was the editor of a daily, Rast Goftar, launched in 1851 and later launched his own monthly, Voice of India, in 1882.

The journalist-editors then reflected the popular unrest in their publications, they also fuelled it. When the Indian National Congress was formed in Bombay in 1885, a third of the members involved were journalists or editors. “The story of Indian journalism is a saga of adventure, patriotism, sacrifice and dedication…an exciting tale of the pen fighting along with ahimsa…of journalists leaving their homes, facing bullets, lathi blows and being locked up in prison for long years, of editors and proprietors who wrote with undying faith in the cause of freedom and (often) lost everything,” remarked Parathasarathy.

Among those who led this charge in the early phase was Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. An ideological hardliner, Tilak fused the nationalist cause with religious symbols and strenuously argued for freedom in his newspapers Kesari (Marathi) and Mahratta (English), both launched in 1881. In its first editorial, Kesari compared newspapers to “night watchmen of the country”. Tilak was convicted of sedition and “spreading disaffection” in 1897 and 1909.

The Gujarati, Kannada and most of the Urdu papers in Bombay were also fiercely pro-independence. The Mumbai Samachar (Gujarati) launched in 1822, ran with commercial-trade news but found space intermittently for socio-political issues of the day.

A beacon of the English press was the Bombay Chronicle, started by Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and edited by an Englishman, BG Horniman. He championed the cause of freedom so aggressively that he was deported and the paper placed under censorship in 1919. But Horniman returned to continue the good fight. It motivated Mahatma Gandhi to say: “Mr Horniman is a very brave and generous Englishman”. Gandhi frequently spoke to and through the newspaper; his friends there tipped him off about his arrest in August 1942.

Gandhi himself edited, printed and published the Indian Opinion, Young India, Navjivan and Harijan, and was a popular, uncompromising editor. He too was prosecuted for “spreading disaffection” through his writing, convicted and imprisoned most notably in 1922. Another crusader was S Sadanand who started the Free Press Journal which, historians noted, became a rage in the 1930s. The paper was persecuted and Sadanand penalised a number of times.

In the roar of their nationalism, the pro-Congress papers ignored the voices of the down-trodden, said Dr BR Ambedkar. He launched three publications: Mook Nayak (weekly newspaper), Bahishkrit Bharat (fortnightly), and Janata (weekly magazine). They championed the Dalits’ cause and argued for meaningful freedom, not just independence from the British.

First Published: Jul 19, 2017 20:44 IST