• Sharmeen Zariwala

Press Freedom in Colonial India

Updated: Feb 15

Press has always had a broad influence on us, it is a forum of information, distribution, education, and critical analysis. We often find ourselves at the editorial column reading through the expert's opinion but have you wondered what the press was like in the British raj.

Early Newspapers


James Augustus Hicky paved the way for Indian Journalism when he started the Bengal Gazette from Calcutta on 29 January 1780.

The newspaper largely covered advertisements. However, Warren Hastings who was the then Governor-General of Bengal fined Augustus Hicky for printing sensitive information about him, he was asked to pay a heavy fee; later he was imprisoned as he was unable to pay the fine. This can be called the First Censorship account of the Indian Press.



The second person was Silk Buckingham with Calcutta Journal. The newspaper published articles on several policies of the British government. As a result, he was asked to leave the country. After the two incidents, a licensing system for the press was made compulsory.


A new wave of newspapers arose with Calcutta Journal, Bengal Journal, Bombay Courier, Oriental Magazine, Madras Courier, Bombay Herald.


Vernacular Press


After the wave of English Newspapers, Indians were influenced by the press and started publishing newspapers and journals in vernacular languages - Samachar Darpan, Sudhovani Vichar, Mirat-ul-Akbar, Sambad Kaumudi to name a few.


The main purpose of the platform was propagating ideas and beliefs, educating the masses, forming public opinions on social issues and the British government.

As journalism bloomed first from Calcutta, many magazines and journals were getting published - one such early example was Bangadarshan, a magazine that educated people about the importance of Hindu religious scriptures along with Vedas and Puranas.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy invoked a new spirit to vernacular press with his bilingual newspapers Sambad Kaumudi (1819) a Bengal weekly, Mirat-Ul-Akbar (1822) a Persian weekly. He criticized the Christian missionaries and spoke about social reforms like widow remarriage, the abolition of Sati, and child marriage due to which his newspaper remained in controversy.


As Indian National Movement commenced, Indian leaders used newspapers to garner support and make people aware. The freedom to write was compromised as the vernacular press faced restrictions. One such newspaper was Amrita Bazar Patrika., it printed for the cause of peasants in Indigo plantation highlighting the condition of the workers, the newspaper succumbed under The Vernacular Press Act 1878.




Press Legislations


1. Censor Act of 1799

The act was passed by Lord Wellesley who made it mandatory for publication to print the names of editors, printers, and proprietors. The newspapers should submit it to the secretary of censorship before printing the copy. Later on, Warren Hastings abolished it in 1818.


2. Licensing Regulation Act of 1823.

In a standard format, printers or publishers would obtain a license, this act however also mandated the editors of the journal to get licensing from the government. In this manner, the British government kept a check on the newspapers, any anti-British articles, the editors would be charged with Rs 400, they also had the sole right to cancel the license. The most affected were the vernacular press, Raja Ram Mohan Roy's Mirat-Ul-Akbar publication was stopped. The act was abolished by Charles Metcalf.


3. The Licensing Act of 1857

After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the government imposed restrictions on newspapers, journals, and magazines. There was a strict check into publication and editorials. The governor had the authority of revoking the new license.


4. The Registration Act of 1867.

The act avoided any restrictions on publication but governed how the issue will be published. The name of the printer and publisher, along with the place of publication should be mentioned and after a month, a free copy of the literature would be supplied to the local government.


5. Vernacular Press Act of 1878

The telegrams passed in March 1878 startled the Indian audience and News writers. The British officials read a good amount of vernacular press. The vernacular press criticized the government measures and officials, after reading around sixty-nine newspapers widespread from Bombay Presidency, Bengal, and North India. The peeved British officials decided that it was time they censor the vernacular press to such an extent that any disaffections against the government are not printed. The law was passed by Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, in 1878 due to the uprising of the regional newspapers. The bill was of a great deal of significance to the British government that they introduced it without a customary notice and all stages were completed in a single sitting. The Act provided -

  • Printer or publisher of any vernacular press to enter a bond as an adviser by the magistrate in the form of money or security. The bond required the publication to avoid printings anti-British news.

  • The first strike upon violation would lead to a warning however if the act was repeated the newspaper would be seized and the security money would be confiscated.

  • No proceedings could be conducted under the act. The decision couldn't be questioned in the Civil or Criminal Court.

A few newspaper article which the government read said -


The eyes of our government will be open only when this country will be reduced to poverty, when the government will be unable to realize its taxes when the land will be left uncultivated, and when the country will be fearfully attacked by pestilence. While two decades have scarcely passed over the great mutinies, the seeds of discontent have already commenced being sown. This state of things is not credible to the political foresight of our sagacious rulers”

- Swadesh Mitra, 1877


“The English government has, by its policy, deprived this country of its wealth and reduced it to such abject poverty, that its ryote are not able to cope with even one year's failure of the rain. The government is asked to take measures to enable tot ryotes to grow prosperous so that they might be able to pay its taxes.....”

- Kiran, 1877


6. Indian Press Act of 1910

The government got some amount of fee as security from the publisher during registration. If the publisher wrote against the government it would be deregistered.


7.Newspaper Act of 1918.

The magistrate was empowered to confiscate the property of the press if they published objectionable material in Newspapers, journals, magazines.




Indian Penal Code, 1870 and

Criminal Procedure Code, 1898.

The Britishers used both administrative and legislative provisions to govern the newspaper. An example of legislation can be termed as the Press Act while the sections in IPC and CRPC can be termed as administrative provisions. In 1870, Lord Mayo introduced the Indian Penal Code to keep a check on anti-British sentiments, it includes sections 124A and 153A.


Section of 124A of IPC by letter to letter states that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by singing, visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by the law of India, shall be punished with transportation of life or a shorter term to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment of either description which may extend to three years to which fine may be added.”

The term “Disaffection” proved to be of crucial importance, it was defined by the government as ‘disloyalty' or ‘feelings of enmity’. It was widely used by the Britishers to silence the action and uprising.


Section 153A of IPC was used for only classes, it stated that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by signs, visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizen of India, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine or both.”


Another tool was Section 505, the frequency of use of this section was between 1920 to 1933 against the congress members. “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor, or report, which is known to be false, with intent to cause army officer, soldier or sailor in the army or navy of the queen to mutiny or with intent to cause fear or against the tranquillity shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years on with fine or with both.”


The Madras presidency used other methods including prosecuting prominent editors. The Swaraj, a Telugu journal, criticized the government in the issue of June 1908. As a result, journalists G Harshvartham Rao and B. Narayan Rao were prosecuted. G Harshvartham was sentenced to three years under Section 124A of IPC, Narayan Rao was imprisoned for nine months under Section 153A of IPC. Lakshmana Rao, a journalist from Swaraj was prosecuted under section 124A, 153A, and 505 of the IPC


The government of India then passed new press legislation, The Indian Press Act of 1910 to control the Indian press, it came into effect in 1921. During this period, the usage of sections 124A, 153A, and 505 were avoided. However, the press act was repealed in 1922, which again caused the Britishers to use IPC sections to tackle the civil disobedience movement.


The government of British India enacted Press Ordinances in 1930 and 1932. The Indian Press (Emergency Powers Act of 1931) was used by the government to forfeit the nationalist literature published such as newspapers, journals, books, pamphlets, etc.


Indian Press Act


The Times Of India's Reading Room, shot on 1898


From 1908 to 1935, the British government imposed rigorous checks and legislation on newspapers to curb the growing anti-British sentiments among the public. One such was the Indian Press Act of 1910. Lord Risley, the then home member, introduced the act on 4 February 1910 to arrest the anti-government literature. The objective of the act was as follows :

  • To increase government control over the Indian press.

  • To extend control over import and export, transmission over vernacular political literature.

  • To authorize the local government to declare forfeit any newspaper or printed document containing seditious matter.

  • Section 12 (1) authorized the Britishers to issue a warrant against any book, newspaper containing seditious matter.


The press act was passed on Feb 8, 1910, and hence the British government started exercising its authoritative role by controlling the press and publication, suppressing seditious or objectionable matters. If the objectionable matter was found in the issue, the publication would pay a certain amount of fee as a security which was undoubtedly very high but failing to pay the security would lead to forfeit of the newspaper. The Swaraj, a newspaper based in Allahabad was charged with sedition, a sum of thousand rupees was asked as the security fee, a failure to pay led to the end of the newspaper. Maharashtra wrote extensively upon the mishaps and poor conditions of the immigrant coolie's the newspaper was also charged. India, The Suryodayam were some of the many newspapers facing the same fate.


The year 1915 saw the flames of the uprising, the newspaper published more nationalist materials and asked people to call for an action to end the British tyrannical rule. The Hindu, Swadesamitran, New India, Deshbhakti, and Dravidian reported the national movement. After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the anti-British publication increased more, on the contrary Britishers were getting more impatient and banned/charged any publication which was the critique. During the Khilafat Movement, the British government resorted to using the press act and charged several newspapers including Awarang-i-Khilafat, Tarana-i-Khilafat, Indian Muslim Swaraj.


The Bombay Chronicle was a newspaper that came into the limelight because of the coverage on Indian National Congress sittings. A letter was passed on by Mr. Lionel Curtis and Mr. Phillip Kerr, where they discussed that India will be made subordinate in her external and internal affairs to the Imperial council. The copies of the letter were printed at government press at Allahabad and also came upon the hands of The Bombay Chronicle, the publication of the letter saw an uproar, the sensation and public emotion were high, Indians voted for rights and paid more impetus to home rule movement. After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, B.G.Horniman, the editor and journalist of The Bombay Chronicle started writing against the hierarchy, as a result, he was sentenced to two years in prison along with a suspension of the publication, later he was deported to Britain but he smuggled photographs of the massacre to Daily Herald.


The Indian Press Act was severely criticized as a weapon of suppression. A report was studied on the act, a press law inquiry committee reviewed the working of the act. The act was repealed due to its suppressive nature but some of the provisions from the act were incorporated in the criminal procedure code.

Nearly after 74 years of independence, we have noticed a development in the press. The press has garnished more freedom and worked towards voicing the people whether it is the election, riots, pandemic, economic crisis. A new wave of digital journalism is noticed where more creative content and emphasis on video editing and animation is provided, the development of press has introduced us to the concepts of Editorials, Letter to the Editor, Feature Article, Opinion Piece, and last but everyone's favorite Comic Strip. According to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2019 data, the most read newspapers in India are vernacular, Dainik Jagran, a Hindi newspaper is topping the chart followed by Dainik Bhasker (Hindi), The Times of India is the only English newspaper in the top 10; which only suggests that Indians are still rooted to the vernacular press.

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