Media resistance in British India
In my previous article, ‘Discursive paradigm of resistance’ (August 8) published in these pages I discussed two major approaches of resistance: the coercive approach and the discursive approach.
The coercive approach uses force and the discursive approach employs discourse for resistance. The discursive approach makes use of some social institutions including educational institutions and media. Before we actually look at the role of media in putting up resistance against the British Empire in India it is pertinent to realise the significance of media as a social institution.
Social realities are constructed by social institutions. These social institutions traditionally included family, schools, religion, and judiciary and use certain discourse to construct social reality. With the help of these social institutions it is possible to construct stereotypes.
In the past, school (maktab or madressah) was considered the most powerful social institution to construct social realities. In the past, the institution of school used to enjoy the support of two other social institutions – religion and family. With the changing times two important developments took place that changed the whole scenario of power.
First, the institution of school – which used to be the strongest social intuition – lost its strength as the social institutions of religion and family parted ways. This development weakened the strength of the school. The second development was equally important as a new social institution – the media – emerged on the scene and dwarfed all other social intuitions. The strength of the media lies in efficiency that is acquired through the means of access, speed, and palatable mode of communication.
Let me elaborate on these three aspects. A message can be communicated to a much wider audience across geographical boundaries. Similarly, the message can be communicated to a much wider audience in much less time. The third distinguishing feature of the media is that the message is generally communicated in an entertaining manner.
With these distinguishing features, the media has an edge over other social institutions – eg family, schools, judiciary, etc. The media, with its significant potential for construction of reality, has always been used as a potent tool to hegemonies others. But historically the media has also been used to put up resistance against hegemonic structures.
Having established the central role of the media in the construction of social reality with the help of discourse, now we will look at the role of the print media in putting up resistance against British hegemony in India.
In the pre-1857 period Grish Chandra Ghosh’s ‘Hindi Patriot’, Dadabhai Noroji’s ‘Rastiguftar’, and Ram Mohan Roy’s ‘Bangadoot’ played an important in inculcating political awareness in the masses.
In 1857 ‘Payam-e-Azadi’ (in Hindi and Urdu) challenged the hegemonic British Empire and was banned because of its radical stance. ‘Sultan-ul-Akhar’ which was a Persian journal published the firman (decree) of Bahadar Shah Zafar, urging the people of India to stand up against the British Empire. ‘Siraj-ul-Akhbar’ was a Persian newspaper edited by Abdulqadir that was banned and its press was confiscated because of its criticism of British policies.
It is interesting to note how editors of journals played their role in active politics. They included Subramanya Iyer, ‘The Hindu’; Chiplunkar, ‘Maratha’; Dadabhai Naoroji, ‘Rastiguftar’; Ferozshah Mehta, ‘Bombay Chronicle’; Pandit Madan Malaviya, ‘Hindustan’; Moti Lal Nehru (‘The Leader’); Jawaharlal Nehru founded ‘National Herald’; Lala Lajpat Rai’s ‘The Punjabi’, ‘Bandematram, The People’; Gandhi, ‘Young India’, ‘Navjeevan’, ‘Harijan’, ‘Harijan Sevak’, and ‘Harijan Bandhu’; Hasrat Mohani, ‘Urdoo-e-Mualla’; Subash Chandra Bose, ‘Forward’, C R Das, ‘Advance’.
The ‘Zameendar’ newspaper, which was founded by Zafar Ali Khan’s father Sirajuddin Ahmed in 1903, was later taken up by Zafar Ali Khan who used it for resistance against the British rulers. Similarly, Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar took out ‘Comrade’ in English and ‘Hamdard’ in Urdu. Mulana Abulkalam Azad founded Alhilal which was a popular magazine with critical analyses.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan edited ‘Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq’ which focused on the sociopolitical awareness of people. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the patron of two publications, Dawn (English) and ‘Manshoor’ (Urdu). Majeed Nizami’s ‘NawaiWaqt ‘and Mir Khalil ur Rehman’s ‘Jang’ were organs of the Muslim voice.
The role played by the print media in challenging the hegemony of British rule was phenomenal. It is important to note that this media resistance was launched by Hindus and Muslims alike. The newspapers and journals were not only published in English but also in the major local languages of India, ensuring their mass access. The primary objective of the media resistance was to challenge some of the stereotypes constructed by the British Raj and to expose the despotic nature of the British rule through editorials, poems, and cartoons.
The British government used repressive tactics including the Gagging Act by Lord Canning and later the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 by Lord Lytton to prevent the vernacular press from opposing British policies. To silence the dissenting voices the British used various tyrannical devices including banning the publications, withholding the securities, confiscating the printing presses, imposing heavy fines, and arresting the owners/editors.
The voices of freedom, however, could not be silenced as the editors/owners would not give up. They would go to jail, pay the fines, bear the loss of security money and printing machines but would restart their publications with a different title or in a different city.
The story of the resistance in British India would be incomplete without the mention of courageous journalists who, at the risk of their lives, upheld the dream of freedom and played a major role in the process of decolonisation, and helped the masses to reclaim their freedom.