“Vernacular” as the word suggest “native” or “indigenous” language or dialect that is mainly spoken by the people belonging to a particular region or country.
In this article, we will discuss the Vernacular Press Act, who passed it, the provisions of the Vernacular Press Act, the reasons for it being known as the gagging act, and its impact on Indian nationalism.
The “Bengal Gazette” was the first Indian newspaper founded by James Augustus Hickey in 1780.
Lord Wellesley, the then Governor-General of India (1798-1805), enacted the Censorship of Press Act, 1799, in India to impose restrictions on the press. It had made provisions for pre-censorship of all newspaper publications, magazines, journals, books, and pamphlets, to print the name of the editor, printer, publisher, and proprietor on every issue of the publication and submit it to the Government for immediate deportation. However, the pre-censorship provisions were abolished and some restrictions were relaxed by Lord Hastings in 1818.
The “Samachar Darpan” was the first vernacular newspaper published by Carey and Marshman of Serampore on 31st May 1818 during the reign of Lord Hastings.
Later, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Lord Canning enacted the Gagging Act to regulate the printing press. It had discriminated between publications in regional language and English language. It had provisions that required all the press to obtain a government license. The publications should not contain any matters against the British Government and its policies. It should not create hatred or discontent or incite any unlawful resistance to government orders.
Nevertheless, the British realized that the Gagging Act had little or no impact on the press, so they enacted the Vernacular Press Act.
What is the Vernacular Press Act?
During British rule, the Vernacular Press Act 1878 (Act) was enacted in India to restrict the vernacular press from criticizing the British Government and its policies. Under this act, the restrictions were imposed only on non-English publications. The main aim of the act was to control the vernacular press and repress and punish seditious publications or writings.
Who passed the Vernacular Press Act?
Lord Lytton passed the Vernacular Press Act; the Viceroy of India had proposed this act to prevent the vernacular press in India from criticizing the British policies and, most importantly, to restrict the opposition from growing since the beginning of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). It was designed by Sir Ashley Eden and Sir Alexander John Arbuthnot, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.
What are the provisions of the Vernacular Press Act?
The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 contained the following provisions:
1. The act had empowered the District Magistrate to call upon the publisher and printer of any vernacular newspaper to enter into an agreement or bond with the Government, undertaking not to cause any disharmony, disaffection against the Government or create any hatred among people belonging to a different race, caste or religions through their published article or materials.
2. The publisher or printer was also required to deposit an amount as a security deposit that would be forfeited in the event of contravention of these regulations. If the offence occurs again, then the press equipment of the publisher or printer would be seized.
3. The action of the District Magistrate would be final and binding, and no further appeal would be made against the magistrate’s action in any court of law.
4. The vernacular press was required to submit a copy of the publication, magazine or newspaper to the police to get approval for publishing the news or article.
5. To get exemption from the act’s application, the vernacular newspapers were required to show proof of government censorship.
Why was it known as a Gagging Act?
The Vernacular Press Act sparked opposition, resulting in sustained and robust protests from many Indians against the act. As the Act was intended to restrain the vernacular language press and not the English language press, and there was no right to appeal against the Act, it was known as the Gagging Act.
Impact of Vernacular Press Act
The Vernacular Press Act had such a grave impact on the publishers that the Amrit Bazar Patrika was converted from its original Bengali language newspaper to English language newspaper within a week when the Act was passed so that it did not violate any provisions of the Vernacular Press Act.
The Som Prakash publications that belonged to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had to halt and were resumed in 1880, only after written assurances from the Government.
Many newspapers, including Dacca Prakash, Sulabh Samachar, Sadharani, Halisahar Patrika, Bharat Mihir, and Bharat Sanskarak, were accused of conducting seditious movements against the Government. Not only this, fines were imposed on many newspapers, and magazines and even the editors of the publication were imprisoned for violating the provisions of the Act.
The provisions of the Act had created disappointment among the people. Therefore, all the prominent leaders and associations in Bengal and other parts of the country, irrespective of caste, religion, or creed, condemned and criticized the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and demanded to repeal of the Act immediately.
Surendranath Banerjee was the first Indian journalist to get imprisoned in 1883, for criticizing a judge of the Calcutta High Court, alleging to be insensitive to the religious sentiments of the Bengali people in one of his judgments.
Who banned or repealed the Vernacular Press Act?
Looking at the opposition to the Act, the pre-censorship clause of the Act was repealed, and Cranbrook was appointed as a press commissioner to provide authentic, reliable, and accurate news to the press.
However, there was strong discontent with the provisions of the Act. Later, when Lord Ripon became the Viceroy of India, he repealed the entire Vernacular Press Act of 1878 in the year 1882.
Amrita Bazar Patrika – (evolution and growth in Indian journalism)
Amrita Bazar Patrika was one of India’s oldest newspapers at the forefront of the struggle against oppressive colonial policies.
It was founded by Sisir Kumar Ghosh and Moti Lal Ghosh in 1868. There was a Bazar built by their family, named after their mother, Amritmoyee.
Amrita Bazar Patrika was a weekly newspaper in the beginning. However, in 1871, the newspaper relocated to Kolkata when the plague struck Amrita Bazar. Later the newspaper started operating as a bilingual weekly newspaper published in English and Bengali.
The Patrika had always condemned and opposed unjust government policies.It had always stood for the common people. So when Subhash Chandra Bose and a few college students were suspended from the Calcutta Presidency College, the newspaper supported them and re-admitted them to the University.
Sisir Kumar Ghosh launched a campaign against civil liberties restrictions and economic exploitation. Sisir Kumar wanted Indians to represent the administration. Sisir Kumar and Motilal Ghosh thought that Bal Gangadhar Tilak was suitable for holding a strong administration position.
However, in 1897, Bal Gangadhar Tilak got charged with sedition. The people of Calcutta had raised funds to defend him. The Patrika had also published articles criticizing the judge who had sentenced him to six years of imprisonment.
The Patrika had also criticized the indigo planters that were exploiting the peasants and fighting for the peasants’ rights. In 1929, the Russian Communist leader declared the Amrita Bazaar Patrika the best nationalist paper in India.
However, the British Government was not pleased with the newspaper. Henceforth, the Patrika was charged with sedition. And later, Lord Lytton passed the Vernacular Press Act in 1878. The police officer was authorized to seize any printed articles or materials considered offensive. And many editors were imprisoned, and publications were fined heavily.
But nevertheless, the Amrita Bazar Patrika did not stop and carried on its fearless publication and opposed the Bengal’s division that was carried on in 1905.
Later, the Press Act of 1910 was passed, and the Patrika was made to pay a security deposit of Rs. 5000, and Motilal Ghosh was also charged with sedition but was later released due to his oratory skills.
In 1922, Motilal Ghosh died, but the Patrika did not lose its nationalist zeal and patriotism.
At the time of Salt Satyagraha, the Patrika was fined Rs. Ten thousand to be paid as a security deposit. The magazine’s editor Tushar Kanti Ghosh (son of Sisir Kumar Ghosh), was imprisoned.
However, Patrika did not fail to report Gandhi’s success in the freedom movement. It also supported communal harmony during India’s partition. The Patrika had mourned for the great Calcutta killings in 1946 and did not publish for three days.
Thus, with many ups and downs, the Amrita Bazar Patrika had always been faithful to the country by publishing its bold editorials.
Lord Lytton passed the Vernacular Press Act in 1898 to suppress the press that was criticizing the British Government and policies. The Act required the District Magistrate to summon the publisher and printer to sign a bond with the Government stating that they would not publish anything against the British Government and its policies that would cause any disharmony or hatred among the people belonging to various caste, creed or religion. The publisher and printer were required to deposit a sum of money as a security that will be utilized if there is a breach. There would be no appeal against the magistrate’s action in any court of law. The Act applied only to vernacular or regional language publications and not English newspapers. This Act is also known as Gagging Act. Lord Rippon repealed the Vernacular Press Act in 1882.