In discussions, seminars and in private parleys when we talk about the great Indian politician Mohondas Karamchand Gandhi, we regard him as a social reformer and a crusader against social injustices. He is also regarded as the foremost leader of freedom movement in India. His most important role was against the British Raj in the subcontinent. He unleashed a non-violent war against the Raj and wanted the British to quit India. He wanted to achieve this goal through a struggle that is non-violence in nature. He firmly believed that one can achieve one’s goal through peaceful movements.
If we study Gandhi’s life, we will find that as a communicator, he needed to stay in contact with the masses constantly. He brought out several journals right from his South Africa days when he was struggling to establish the rights of Indians against the White rulers. He established “Indian Opinion” in South Africa in 1903, which closed after his return to India.He was the undisputed leader of the Indian community, who united his people and launched movements to force the British Government to quit India. Mahatma Gandhi as he is popularly known worldwide was also involved in journalism, which was little known. I came to know about his active role as a journalist and as an editor when I read a book published by the Kolkata Press Club.
During my recent visit to Kolkata in April this year, I was invited by Mr Snehasis Sur, president of Kolkata Press Club, to join him at an informal gathering on 21 April 2019. He said Dhaka Press Club General Secretary Farida Yasmin was also there.
Among the few books that Mr Sur gave me was an 170-page book titled “Mahatma Gandhi A Journalist and Editor”. The book is published as a mark of respect to the Father of the Nation in India on his sesquicentenary by the Club in its Pre-Platinum Jubilee Year.
“This humble effort will look at Gandhiji as a journalist, an editor and as a communicator in general. It will also have a close look at his views on journalism and attempt to analyze why and how most of his views are still relevant,” according to the foreword of the book. Apart from being a freedom fighter and crusader for socio-economic reforms, Mahatma Gandhi had close association with several publications as an editor or contributor, and he understood the power of the press in spearheading any socio-political movement. In fact, his association with journalism pre-dated his active political movements in India’s struggle for freedom.
The book titled “Mahatma Gandhi a Journalist and Editor”, contained 22 articles. Celebrity columnists/journalists including Tushar Arun Gandhi, Nikhil Chakravarty, Sailen Chatterjee, Ramchandra Guha, Barun Das Gupta, Subir Ghosh and Snehasis Sur and many others contributed articles on Mahatma, projecting him as journalist/editor and his association with journalism.
Gandhi occupied a central place in the media history of India, and in a significant way of the world. First, he reported society. Second, he created a template that others followed—in terms of content and presentation style.His approach to journalism was totally devoid of ambitions. To him it was not a vocation to earn his livelihood; it was one of the means to serve the public. Through the columns of the newspapers, Gandhi tried to educate the readers about sanitation, self-discipline and good citizenship. How important the journal was to Gandhi is seen from his own statement in his biography, My Experiments with Truth, in which he writes, “Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego”.
It was strange that Gandhi had never read a newspaper before he went to London in September 1988 at the age of 19 to study. This was stated by Gandhi himself in his autobiography. Gandhi became a serious reader of the newspapers published in Britain at that time like The Telegraph, Daily News and Pall Mall Gadget, etc.
In 1933, Gandhi started “Harijan”, “Harijanbandhu”, “Harijansevak” in English, Gujarati and Hindi respectively. These newspapers were the vehicles of his crusade against untouchability and poverty in rural areas. “The sole aim of journalism, he said, is service.”
In April 3, 1924 issue of Young India (the predecessor of Harijan), Gandhi candidly admitted, “Young India and Navajivan are my delight. I like to write weekly to the public through this medium.” He used journalism as a medium of communication with the masses.
“He once told his secretary Pyarelal that he felt a kinship with the pressmen,” wrote Barun Das Gupta in his article in the book.
A lawyer by training, he went to South Africa to practice. The circumstances in which the people, particularly the Indians live, prompted him to take up their cause. Initially, he used friendly newspapers as a forum to express his views through letters to the local dailies and interviews. However, given the magnitude of the tasks, he decided to take to journalism by launching his first newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1903. The first issue of Indian Opinion was dated June 4, 1903, but it was released on June 6. The journal came out from Durban. Indian Opinion served as Gandhi’s training ground in journalism.
He was a man of the masses and wrote about their problems, feelings and aspirations. His human approach gave his writings a unique character. His idea was to educate people through his writings about the significance of independence.
In Young India, Gandhi once gave a glimpse of the exacting code he had set up for himself. “To be true to my faith, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion.”
Gandhi had been frequently writing on various aspects of journalism. To him, editorial independence, adherence to truth and self-restraints were the three overriding considerations for journalism. In his message for the editor of the newspaper, The Independence, on 30 January 1919, he wrote: In wishing you success in your new enterprise, I would like to say how I hope your writings would be worthy of the title you have chosen for your journal.
On receiving advertisement support for running a newspaper, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: It is now an established practice with newspapers to depend for revenues mainly on advertisements rather than on subscriptions. The result has been deplorable. The very newspaper which writes against drink evil, published advertisements in praise of drinks. In the same issue, we read of the harmful effects of tobacco as also from where to buy it.
Gandhi commented on the content of advertising in Young India (25 March 1926), “I hold that it is wrong to conduct newspapers by the aid of immoral advertisements. I do believe that if advertisements should be taken at all, there should be a rigid censorship instituted by newspaper proprietors and editors themselves and that only healthy advertisement should be taken.” He wrote in Harijan (24 Aug 1935): “My plea is for due regard for truth in advertising. It is a habit with people, especially in India, to treat the printed word in a book or a newspaper as gospel truth. There is need, therefore, for extreme caution in drawing up advertisement.”
“The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so and uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy,” Gandhi said.
(Source: “Mahatma Gandhi A Journalist and Editor” a commemorative book published by Kolkata Press Club)
The writer is a senior journalist and columnist.