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Bicentenary of Journalism

Bicentenary of Journalism

If you see a copy of The Statesman ,  go straight to the editorial page and you will find right under the masthead on the left side a mention that the newspaper is a descendant of The Friend of India , founded in 1818. This is the 200th year of the founding of the paper. It is a great event and, yet, the media — both print and electronic — have not even made a passing reference to the proto-newspaper.

You may wonder why I call it the first newspaper, when historians record the publication of James Hicky’s The Bengal Gazette from Calcutta in January 1780 as marking the advent of journalism in India. True, it was the first newspaper, though the people read it more to know when a ship would arrive from London or when a ship would leave for London.

Of course, the Gazette also titillated the readers, for it carried news about which white man slept with an Indian woman or which Indian slept with a British woman. In short, it was a scandal-monger, the kind for which the adjective “yellow” is used these days. It is a different matter that the term “yellow journalism” came into vogue only a century later!

Students of journalism are familiar with the war of words between two American editors William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It was Pulitzer who found in cartoons a powerful medium to make fun of those whom he did not like. With this aim in mind, he created a cartoon series with the title The Yellow Kid. Interestingly, the cartoonist who drew the Kid was spirited away by Hearst who offered him a fancy salary.

Pulitzer and Hearst continued their attack against each other using the columns of their newspapers. Thus was born Yellow Journalism, an adjective for unscrupulous journalism.

Actually, the pioneer in yellow journalism was Hicky. The East India Company officials could not tolerate the liberty the Gazette took when it also touched upon the corruption prevalent among them. Small wonder that Hicky was forced to close down the paper within two years of its publication.

For over three decades there was no newspaper to replace the Gazette. It was during this interregnum that a Britisher came to India, not to advance the cause of his brethren who were beginning to control the Indian subcontinent and, also, lining their pockets. In fact, he came to India in wanton violation of the British policy of not interfering in the cultural and traditional practices of India.

No, he was not by any stretch of the imagination an elite. He was a cobbler by profession who had amazing abilities to learn languages and master them. He was William Carey. When the powers that be in Calcutta heard that a Baptist missionary was coming to India to question certain cultural traditions in the country, the British establishment alerted the Calcutta Port authorities not to let him and his family land in India.

The British acted like the Sangh Parivar when Carey and Co. were asked to return to London. Is it any surprise that the RSS never took part in the freedom struggle? In fact, it wanted the British to continue for some more time because it would have made its task of “uniting Hindus” easier.

Of course, Carey had not expected a bed of roses in India. He knew that he would have to “attempt great things” for his Master. So when he was prevented from entering India, he took a boat from Calcutta to Serampore, which was ruled by the Danish at that time.

The British law was not valid at Serampore where Carey and his two colleagues — Joshua Marshman and William Ward — put up their tent. Serampore was a marshy place at that time with little attraction for Carey and his family. No, he had not come as tourists. The first thing he did there was to set up a school where he allowed children, irrespective of their religion and caste, to study together.

In no time Carey learned Sanskrit with the help of a Pandit. And when the British set up a college at Fort William in Calcutta, where the Eastern Army Headquarters are now located, to train young British administrators, they did not find anyone who could teach the young recruits Sanskrit, other than Carey. The British knew that Sanskrit was the key to Indian culture!

Carey got a fabulous salary which he used to advance the cause for which he came to India. He and his colleagues established the first modern printing press in India. Even the all-powerful East India Company did not have a press of its kind. All government notifications were sent to Serampore for printing.

Bengali was at that time a language that did not command respect. An educated person was one who could master Sanskrit and the one who spoke the colloquial dialect was considered uneducated. Carey learnt the language so well that he was considered an authority.

Even as he continued his linguistic activities like translating books into Bengali, he realised the need for a newspaper to propagate his views. After all, he had the Puritan blood in him. Who were the Puritans? They were the more extreme Protestants inside and outside the Church of England who found the Elizabethan religious settlement unacceptable and wished a further “purification” of religion. 

They looked more and more to the Bible as the sole authority, rejecting all traditions in matters of public worship and were mainly Calvinist in outlook and theology. The Puritans judged the corruption in the church. The state-church retaliated by banning them from the pulpits. They, therefore, took to writing. The pamphlets they brought out holding the church accountable were the precursors of the modern-day newspapers. 

Gradually, the institution acquired the status and mustered up the courage to begin to hold the rulers accountable, in their public as well as in their private lives. The Press followed the prophetic dictum: public responsibility curtails personal liberty; leaders have to be models for the rest of the community.

What made it possible for the Press to become the Fourth Estate, to earn the right not merely to be tolerated, but also to be respected by the very rulers whom it condemned publicly could not have happened without the Puritans’ missionary spirit of martyrdom, rooted in the resurrection faith.

The pioneers of journalism were missionaries. Therefore, they were willing not only to forgo their pulpits, but also have  their ears cut, their noses slit, their faces branded and the noose hung around their necks. One such Puritan who suffered torture was John Bunyan who wrote the famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Long before Carey reached India, many Puritans who found that they could not practice their religion in Britain went to the US, known as the New England, and they settled in various areas which eventually became great cities like Washington, Boston and Chicago. Wherever they went, they started a newspaper and a school. One such institution they set up is the Harvard University, considered the greatest educational institution in the world.

While he was at Serampore, Carey saw, to use an Indian expression, with his own eyes how Sati was practised. He saw the relatives of a young widow virtually throwing her into the funeral pyre of her husband. He tried in vain to save her but he could do nothing against the crowd.

The incident made a huge impact on him. When the first issue of The Friend of India came out in 1818, it had a long editorial written by Carey himself demanding abolition of Sati, the cruelest practice man could ever think of. Thus the newspaper made a bold statement that it would not remain silent against cruelties practiced with impunity in the name of religion. For the first time, the common people realised that a newspaper could create public opinion.

Carey made a strong case for the abolition of Sati. Raja Rammohun Roy, who started his own newspaper, later, was greatly influenced by Carey. Roy, who founded the Brahmo Samaj, a synthesis of everything great in the eastern and western traditions of faith, took a cue from Carey’s editorial and argued for the abolition of Sati.

Until then the British were extending support only to Sanskrit education. It was Roy, influenced by Carey, who submitted a memorandum to the British that the people did not want Sanskrit education but English education so that they could have access to the great works in Science, Literature and Mathematics which were in English and other European languages. 

The Governor-General in India at that time was William Bentinck, son of a missionary. He and Carey lived across the Hoogly. They often used to meet and whenever they met, Carey had only one request — abolish Sati. When, finally, Sati was abolished, it was Carey’s job to translate the proclamation into as many Indian languages as possible at the shortest possible time. It is said that was the only Sunday when he did not attend a church service.

Carey feared that under religious pressure, the government might cave in and withdraw the decision. Fortunately, that did not happen. For the better part of the 19th Century, Carey’s Friend of India was the only “voice of the people”, the tagline used by The Tribune , whose founder was also a Brahmo, like Tagore’s father.

True, there were some newspapers like the one edited by Roy, published from the urban centres. Carey’s initiative was followed by many missionaries who started their own newspapers. In fact, almost all the first newspapers in various languages like Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Assamese and other Northeastern languages were brought out by the missionaries.

To return to The Friend of India , it took up cudgels on behalf of the Indian farmer when it published a series of articles, reports and editorials on the British practice of forcing the Indian farmer to go in for cultivation of indigo. The rulers were not amused. They introduced a tough Press law to protect their interests and the only paper that was sealed by the government at that time was The Friend of India . By the way, Carey also published newspapers in Hindi and Bengali.

If Shankar can be called the father of Indian cartooning, William Carey can indeed be called the father of Indian journalism. Far from that, his name does not even figure in many books on Indian journalism. The only place where The Friend of India finds a mention is, as I mentioned at the outset, The Statesman ’s editorial page.

It was the public cause that mattered to Carey’s newspaper. Today’s editor is excessively obsessed with entertaining the reader. Last fortnight, the Hindustan Times in Delhi carried a detailed front-page story, continued in an inside page, about some siblings who had been named after continents like America and Africa. Yes, it was amusing but what public interest did it serve?

Dumbing down has been happening rapidly in journalism. For a whole year the quirky order of a Supreme Court judge that cinema shows should begin with the recital of the national anthem was followed with religious spirit. No major newspaper or channel worth the name brought out the fact that the judge had issued such an order when he was a High Court judge and his order was set aside by the Supreme Court earlier.

Newspapers with resources do not go into incidents like the lynching to death of a person who allegedly kept some beef in his refrigerator. The Friend of India reported the plight of the Indian farmer but no newspaper or television channel would report on how tens of thousands of people who were dependent on the leather industry have been rendered jobless because of the ban on beef.

Again, none of them has the courage to report the plight of the Indian farmer who is forced to support cattle that he cannot afford to support because some persons sitting at Hedgewar Bhavan in Nagpur think that saving the cow was more important than saving the farmer. It is a different matter that none of those worthies has ever kept, fed and nursed a cow till she attained samadhi.

There was mindless protest against the film Padmaavat. The film just perpetuated certain myths. Now a film on Rani Lakshmi Bai is in the making. Yes, she took part in the 1857 “first war of independence”. 

How many people know that all those characters who led the rebellion and who finally chose a doddering poet Bahadur Shah Zafar as India’s Emperor had issued a proclamation that the Dalits would be brought back to the position they held before the British allowed them to use the public road and public transport once they came to power? Do they know that the Queen of Jhansi had promised to reintroduce Sati if the British were evicted?

The flame that The Friend of India lit is being kept alive only by some journals like the Indian Currents . For most others, journalism is an industry that brings in profit. For them it is more profitable to perpetuate myths, promote personalities, gloss over even the murder of a judge and, thereby, encourage the merchants of death, than to educate and enlighten the readers and viewers. The mission that Carey began in 1818 continues to be difficult 200 years later but it is not all that impossible. After all, his dictum was, “Expect great things from God;  attempt great things  for God!”