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Development of Indian Press During British Rule in India

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  • Difficulty Level : Expert
  • Last Updated : 25 Mar, 2022

All the Revolutions in the modern world have stood firm on strong foundations of information sharing. Indian National Movement in this sense was no different from the others. Press became the voice of leaders, a medium of information sharing, and a tool of criticism of the incumbent government and its policies. Portuguese introduced the Printing Press in India in 1550 and published a book in 1557. James Augustus Hickey in 1780 came out with the first newspaper in India named Bengal Gazette also known as Calcutta General Advertiser, earning him the title of ‘Father of Indian Press’. Among the Indians, Gangadhar Bhattacharya brought out the English version of the Bengal Gazette, thus he became the first Indian to publish a newspaper.

The emergence of newspapers was not favourable for the British as these newspapers could expose the tyranny of the British Officials who were serving in India to the European world. Raja Rammohan Roy has considered the Pioneer of Indian Journalism and in 1822 he started Samvad Kaumudi and the Persian weekly Mirat-ul-Akhbar. The policies of the British were consistently under attack by the educated Indians through various publications. Hence arose the need to sanction, censor and scrutinize the publication of various newspapers, journals and newsletters.

The Development of the Indian Press can be largely traced in Three Distinct Phases:

  1. Pre 1857 War of Independence
  2. 1857-1914, Till the beginning of the First World War
  3. 1914-1947, Till the enactment of the Indian Independence Act, 1947

1. Pre-1857 War of Independence:

The various regulations via which the British burdened the Indian Press during this phase were:

  • Censorship of Press Act, 1799: Lord Wellesley anticipated a French invasion of British India and imposed various restrictions on the publications of that time via pre-censorship.
  • Licensing Regulations, 1823 (Adams’ Regulations): This brought the license raj to the Indian Press environment where a license was needed to establish or use the press. This was majorly directed towards the Indian language publications as they had grown critical of the British policies.
  • Press Act or Metcalfe Act, 1835: Proclaimed as the ‘Liberator of the Indian Press’, Charles Metcalfe did away with the Adams’ Regulations. The liberal approach of Metcalfe led to rapid strides of the Press in India.
  • Licensing Act, 1857: The government in the wake of the Revolt of 1857 reserved the right to suspend any publication from printing or circulation as and when it deemed fit.

2. 1857-1914, Till the beginning of the First World War:

British Government during the pre-1857 phase was largely focused on regulating the materials being published to maintain its image. Though censorship prevailed, it was largely limited. However, the Revolt of 1857 was a jolt to the British. They quickly took corrective actions to prevent such a massive agitation again. Reactionary policies of the British antagonized the educated section of Indians which began open criticism of the government via various publications. This did not go down well with the British authorities and up until the First World War, the British suppressed the Press severely in India. Various steps taken by them to undermine Press were:

  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code: Also known as the Sedition, this law prohibited individuals from causing dissatisfaction against the government via any means. However, nationalist leaders subverted these sanctions.
  • Vernacular Press Act, 1878: It was the highly imperialistic policies of Lord Lytton, the then Viceroy which prompted Indian leaders to criticize him vehemently. However, Lytton struck back with limitations imposed on the Vernacular Press. It was nicknamed the “Gagging Act”.
  • Newspaper Act, 1908: This law specifically aimed at the Extremists who incited the public for violent activities. Tilak was charged with Sedition and was sentenced to Burma which saw great protests across India. This marked the entry of the working-class into the Indian National Movement.
  • Indian Press Act, 1910: This Act was identical to the Vernacular Press Act, of 1878 and augmented some of its worst features. Security Fee was demanded the registration of a publication that could be de-registered if it violated any provisions

3. 1914-1947, Till the enactment of the Indian Independence Act, 1947

With the increasing social base of the Indian National Movement especially posts the Partition of Bengal, Press became a key weapon of dissemination of information. Hence since 1914, the Government began to crack down on the publications. Various measures taken during these times were:

  • Defence of India Rules, 1914: Under the garb of curbing misinformation during the war the British choked the Press to put an end to the public criticism that it had been facing.
  • Indian Press Act, 1931: This Act was brought into action against the backdrop of Dandi March. The peace that prevailed between the government and the Press for about a decade ceased. Severe repression of the Press took place which affected the Press across the country.
  • During the Second World War: Various Acts such as the Indian Press Act, 1931, and Defense of India Acts 1915 were amended to suit the political climate in the country which was filled with turmoil. At that time, any publication related to Congress was declared illegal.
  • During the Interim Government: Interim Government practically freed the Press from the British clutches. However, communal riots in the country forced them to take the route of Ordinance in order to put out the fires caused due to partition.

Early Nationalists like Sisir Kumar Ghosh, G.Subramania Iyer, etc. fought tooth and nail against the British to secure Press its voice and freedom. Fearless Journalism with no regard for the restrictions and punishments was the trademark of the Press of the British era. Though a small section of the Press rallied behind the government, a large section helped in exposing the true nature of British Rule. From Surendranath Banerjea to Bal Gangadhar Tilak everyone followed the words of James Augustus Hickey, “I take a pleasure in enslaving my body in order to purchase freedom for my mind and soul.”

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