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Press and Politics


Press and Politics information media in print popularly known as press, is generally credited with having unseen power to mould public opinion. There is no historical evidence that the press as such existed before the East India Company rule in the subcontinent, except for the mention of waqianavis who primarily acted as an official news recorder and secret informer of the Mughal rulers. Reports have it that one British settler (William Bolts) dared to venture to bring out a paper covering the internal contradictions of the Company activities in or about 1768, but he was soon forced to leave India. In 1780, James Augustus Hicky brought out the Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, a two-sheet weekly, ostensibly for the British residents. The paper was soon confiscated for its critical reporting on Warren Hastings, his wife and the English judges. The editor of the Bengal Journal, William Duane, also suffered a forcible deportation for his 'licentiousness' in reporting. In 1799, Lord Wellesley introduced the press censorship in Bengal in the aftermath of developments leading to the deportation of Dr Charles Maclean for his anti-establishment reporting in Bengal Harkara of which Dr Maclean was the printer.

Ganga Kishore Bhattacharya, a teacher and reformist, started the first Bangla weekly Bengal Gazette in early 1818 assisted by Raja Rammohun Roy. Thereafter, in April 1818, the Baptist missionaries published the Bangla monthly Dig-darshan from Serampore. Samacher Darpan' was published on 23 May 1818, a week after the release of Bengal Gazette. James Silk Buckingham, a British citizen, in his Calcutta Journal introduced honesty and decency in contemporary English journalism in India. Raja Rammohan set up Sambad Kaumudi in Bangla, Brahminical Magazine in English and the Mirat-ul-Akbar in Persian, and united with both the Indian and European editors to force Lord William Bentinck to liberalise the existing press laws. Governor general John Adam introduced in 1823 the system of obtaining a license for printing in pursuance of the Bengal Resolutions issued in the same year, but Sir Charles T Metcalfe repealed the Regulations of 1823 and passed the Act of 1835 under which the editor, printer and publisher were to give only a declaration about the place of the publication. When in 1835 English replaced Persian as court language, the Jnananneshan protested and pleaded for use of Bangla instead. The weekly Rangpur Bartabaha in 1847 propagated progressive views and started writing against local officials. Lord Ellenborough therefore restrained the officials from disclosing any official secrets.

Wahabi rising, rise of Titu Mir, Faraizi Movement, the Santal Rebellion of 1850s and the 1857 Sepoy Revolt were indicative of simmering discontent in India. The newspapers, instead of sympathizing with these, warned the government of the impending danger. But when the Sepoy Revolt broke out, the newspapers, especially the Urdu press, were blamed for it. The Persian papers the Durbin, the Sultan-ul-Akhbar and the Hindoo Patriot of Calcutta published the famous proclamation of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah asking the nation to prepare for a revolution. The Samachar Sudhabarshan, a bilingual daily in Bangla and Hindi from Calcutta, printed news and views about the progress of revolt and the atrocities of the British army, which prompted Lord Canning to reintroduce in 1857 the restrictive provisions of the Bengal Resolutions of 1823 to regulate the press and to restrain the circulation of printed books and papers. The Friend of India and the Dacca News, renamed later as the Bengal Times, were warned and the Rangpur Bartabaha was closed. The law was however withdrawn in 1858.

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar launched in 1858 a Bangla weekly Som Prakash. In 1859 the first printing press under the signboard 'Banglajantra' was set up in Dhaka from where the Dacca Prokash was published in 1861. The same year The John Bull in the East (later renamed as The Englishman) became the powerful spokesman of the Europeans and of the interest of planters in India. In 1865, The Pioneer at Allahabad earned repute for exclusive news. In 1868, the Ghosh brothers launched Amrita Bazar Patrika from a small village of Phulua-Magura in Jessore as a Bangla weekly (later shifted to Calcutta). In 1875, Robert Knight founded The Statesman. In 1879, Surendranath Banerjee purchased the ownership of Bengalee to make it more popular. In 1881, Jogendra Nath Bose launched the widely circulated Bangabashi. The Bangla drama Neel-Darpan by Dinabandhu Mitra, published in 1872, depicted the tyranny of the European indigo planters. The government reacted sharply by enacting in 1876 the Dramatic Performance Act to protect the interests of the planters. The Amrita Bazar Patrika (Jessore) including some other local press also took up the cause of the indigo cultivators.

The Indian National Congress (INC) was born in 1885. The Statesman and Friend of India and the Amrita Bazar Patrika' lent their weight to the cause of the INC. The Anglo-Indian press, especially the Pioneer, discouraged the Muslims joining the Congress. S.N. Banerjee, the pillar of the Congress and the editor of the Bengalee, solicited the cooperation of the Muslims of Bengal, but there was no response. Syed Ameer Ali of Bengal kept silent. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, in Lucknow, warned that a representative government proposed by the Congress would bode evil for the Muslims. The Pioneer published Sir Syed's Lucknow speech. The Aligarh Institute Gazette implored the Congress to drop its claim of representing the nation. The Englishman identified Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Nawab Abdul Luteef and Syed Ameer Ali as the true leaders of the Muslims.

Meanwhile the Viceroy Lord Dufferin dubbed the Congress as a 'microscopic minority'. The Bangabashi, unhappy at the taunt, the New India and the Amrita Bazar Patrika, the two pro-Congress papers, exhorted the party to avoid the nuisance of persistent begging for reforms. Dufferin's comments drew more 'sympathy' and support for the Congress even from the Muslims in the absence of any other political platform. The government perceived this shift and Syed Ameer Ali was appointed a judge.

After the Allahabad congress of the INC, a sizable section of the press, mostly the vernacular ones, supported the Congress, while those opposed it could roughly be divided into four groups. Firstly, the ultra-nationalists headed by the popular Bangabashi thought that the English educated Congress leaders were working under an illusion about the true character of British rule in India. Secondly, the Muslim press also opposed the Congress but was itself divided into two mutually recriminating groups, one subscribing to the Aligarh School and the other not subscribing to Sir Syed's policy of giving a carte blanche to the British. Thirdly, the Anglo-Indian press, mainly the Pioneer, was creating skepticism among Muslims about the intention of Hindus.

Lastly, a section of the press aimed at pleasing the authorities only. The vernacular press published news of the INC's meetings, but believed in the Irish type of agitation backed by physical force preached by Sir Syed. With this backdrop in 1878 the Vernacular Press Act was passed to bring publishing of newspapers in the local languages of the subcontinent under better control. In 1897, Sections on treason or sedition and class hatred had been inserted into the Indian Penal Code. The Criminal Procedure Code of 1898 relating to investigation and trial of criminal offences and forfeiture of seditious books and pamphlets was introduced. The Congress and the pro-Congress papers protested.

The role of the Sanatan Dharma Patrika in favour of suddhi movement of Arya Samaj, Al Hakam of Mirza Gulam Hussain Kadiani claiming divine revelation, the Dar-ul-Saltanat and Urdu Guide of the Shiites in creating mutual recriminations between the Hanafi, Mohammadi, Wahabis and Sunni sects, and added to that the Amrita Bazar Patrika's remarks offending the Muslims, all these factors sent Sir Syed again to prominence among his followers who began to reassess his policies. When his Aligarh college flourished into a university, and the All India Muslim League commenced preaching isolationism and separatism, a historical basis was discovered for separatism of India.

The partition of bengal announced in 1905 came unexpectedly handy for the Congress. Bankim Chandra's song Bande Mataram became suddenly an eloquent voice as Bengal was dismembered. The Dacca Prakash covered stories that the partition of Bengal would not be acceptable to the Muslim community. But Lord Curzon declared that the partition would secure for them a Muslim majority province.

The All India Muslim League was formed in Dhaka in 1906. Two other movements originated as a result of partition, the boycott of government posts and the swadeshi movement. Meanwhile the Congress was divided into two distinct forces, the moderates and the nationalists, popularly called extremists. Most of the newspapers took a moderate line led by Surendranath while Bipin Chandra Pal and Arabinda led the extremists. The Bande Mataram of Arabinda and Bipin Chandra advocated the policy of total boycott while the Yugantar preached terrorism to eliminate the British colonial rule. The Muslims of Bengal supported the Swadeshi movement through the Persian papers, namely the Rojnama-e-Mokaddas-Hablul and the Sultan.

As a sequel, in 1908 the Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act was passed resulting in the closure of a number of newspapers sympathetic to terrorist activities. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1913 and the Defense of India Regulations were used to silence any agitation and criticism. In the then East Bengal, the first English daily the Herald was published in 1916 from Dhaka. The Jyoti, probably the first Bangla daily of the eastern part of Bengal, coming out from Chittagong in 1921, had to suffer a closure for its involvement in the non-cooperation movement. In 1931, the Indian Press (Emergency Power) Act was passed in which the local governmental authorities were empowered to forfeit the security of the press. From 1923 to 1939 the Jagoron of Kusthia, the Desher Bani of Noakhali, the Barisal Hitaishi, the Bagurar Katha, and the Faridpur Hitaishini earned the wrath of the British ruler for their writings. The mass uprising in 1945 and 1946 against British imperialism encouraged the press to be more vocal and free.

After the partition of India in 1947, there was practically no national newspaper in Dhaka and elsewhere in the province of East Bengal. The azad and the morning news, the only two papers supportive of the Muslim League, were still in Calcutta. A weak faction of the Muslim Leaguers in Calcutta ran the Ittehad. These three papers were gradually shifted to East Bengal. The Jindegi discontinued publication from Dhaka and the Sangbad came out in the early 1950s. The Pakistan Observer came out in 1949. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, the leader of the newly formed Awami Muslim League, published the weekly Ittefaq the same year as an ardent critique of the Muslim League government. The weekly soon became popular. The left leaning political activists found sanctuary in the daily Insaf in 1950. By this time the daily Paigam of Chittagong and the daily Naobelal of Sylhet were assuming the role of the national dailies.

In 1948, Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared Urdu to be the only state language of Pakistan and East Pakistan's chief minister Khwaja Nazimuddin made a supportive speech in the provincial assembly. Maulana Mohammad Akram Khan, the president of the East Pakistan Muslim League and his paper, the Azad, challenged Khwaja's contention editorially. The Urdu daily Pasban from Dhaka, the Assam Herald and the Jugabheri of Sylhet followed suit, although they also gave some news coverage favouring Urdu. The police firing in Dhaka on a procession demanding Bangla as state language killed a number of people including students on the 21 February 1952. The editor of the Azad,' Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, a member of the treasury bench, resigned from the provincial assembly in protest. He inaugurated as well the Shaheed Minar built by the students on the site of police firing.

It should be noted that the movement for Bangla to be recognised as a state language actually began soon after Pakistan was created. The Insaf, the Jindegi and the Desher Dabi supported the stance of the council for language movement formed in March 1948. The Morning News was set ablaze sometime in March of the same year for its pro-Urdu role; the pro-government Sangbad was somehow spared. The Pakistan Observer was closed on 13 February 1952 for its support to the movement. The Millat, the Insaf and the Amar Desh, the weekly Sainik of Dhaka and the weekly Chashi of Mymensingh supported the cause.

During the 1954 provincial elections, the Azad, Sangbad and the Morning News supported the Muslim League. The Ittefaq, started as a daily on 24 December 1953 with Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia as its editor, supported the united front. The owner of the Pakistan Observer, Hamidul Haq Chowdhury and the editor Abdus Salam returned as elected members to the assembly from the Front. The front government however could not survive for long. After the fall of the government, the Ittefaq and the changed management of the Sangbad supported Awami League of Suhrawardy, while the Pakistan Observer and the Millat supported Krishak Sramik Party of AK Fazlul Huq. This discord became intense by January 1956 during the enactment of the first Constitution of Pakistan. The Ittefaq raised the issue of East-West economic disparity and demanded complete regional autonomy for East Pakistan.

After the kagmari conference of Awami League on 6 February 1957 and the creation of National Awami Party by Maulana Bhasani, the Sangbad and the weekly Ittefaq became supporters of National Awami Party, while the daily Ittefaq supported Awami League. With the United Front torn and the deputy speaker Shahed Ali fatally wounded on the floor of the East Pakistan Assembly, the press took positions of mutual recrimination on political lines. The state of disquiet was followed by an army takeover in October 1958 by General Mohammad Ayub Khan. The press came under strict martial law regulations till their withdrawal in June 1962. The Ittefaq, the Pakistan Observer and the Sangbad were blacklisted for covering political commotion including protests of students against Justice Hamudur Rahman report suggesting restrictive education.

The National Press Trust was formed in 1964 as a sequel to the opposition faced from the press. It owned the Morning News and created a Bangla daily the Dainik Pakistan on 6 November the same year. In 1966, Awami League demanded the full autonomy of East Pakistan under a six-point programme. The Trust papers and the Azad opposed while all the other papers supported. The editor of the Ittefaq was once again arrested forcing the closure of his paper. In the 1967 agartala conspiracy case for alleged secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan with the help of India, the Awami League chief Bangabandhu sheikh mujibur rahman was implicated and was arrested with other suspects. Maulana Bhasani called a countrywide strike on 7 December 1968. The Democratic Action Committee (DAC) was formed to spearhead the anti-Ayub movement, which culminated in a mass upsurge particularly after 20 January 1969, when the police killed a front ranking student leader Asaduzzaman. All the papers came out boldly in condemning the killing. The Ittefaq re-appeared in February 1969 and joined the movement. The intensity of the movement and supportive role of the newspapers forced President Ayub Khan to hand over power to General Aga Mohammad Yahya Khan.

Awami League's victory in 1970 general elections of Pakistan, the delay in handing over power to the elected representatives, and finally, the call by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for an all-out non-cooperation movement in his historic seventh march address were extensively covered by the newspapers of East Pakistan. All the papers defied the military regulations of 1 March 1971 that made any prejudicial reports punishable with rigorous imprisonment of 10 years. Then came the fateful night of army crackdown on 25 March 1971. Thereafter the press in East Pakistan remained captive till the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state on 16 December 1971.

Although due provisions guaranteeing the freedom of the press have been included in the Constitution of Bangladesh, this freedom seems to have not secured easily. The Printing Press and Publication (Declaration and Registration) Act of 1973 as well as the Special Powers Act of 1974 substantially constricted this freedom, and the fourth constitutional amendment in January 1975 led to the one-party presidential form of government providing, inter alia, to the banning of all newspapers except the 'four' brought out under state ownership. The curbed press freedom was restored in stages after the change of government on 15 August 1975. But the 9-year dictatorial rule of Hussein Mohammad Ershad kept the press under strict control of government. A full restoration of the freedom had to wait until the Caretaker Government of Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed substantially amended the Special Powers Act and Printing Press and Publications Act before the general elections in 1991. [M Tawhidul Anwar]