Mahatma Gandhi and Journalism

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Practice | 02/10/2005
The sole aim of a newspaper for the Mahatma was service. Conscious of the power of the medium, he believed in control and restraint.

B.P. Sanjay

Contemporary discourse on media, especially journalism, is imbued with debates and discussions on practices and the nature of the enterprise. Polarised positions are perhaps not tenable given the changes and circumstances we all live in. Yet, there was one individual who formulated and practiced what Journalism should be about to realise certain objectives. Mahatma Gandhi whose birthday we all celebrate and observe by paying tributes to him believed in mission and service as twin goals of Journalism.

A lawyer by training he went to South Africa to practice. The circumstances in which the people, particularly Indians lived, prompted him to take up their cause. His work, approach and commitment in trying to alleviate their problems are well known. Initially he used friendly newspapers as a forum to express his views through letters to local dailies and interviews. However, given the magnitude of the daunting tasks he decided to take to journalism by launching his first newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1903. The weekly newspaper was to serve the interests of British Indians in South Africa.

The power of language familiar to the people was an obvious realization for Gandhi. The newspaper was published in four languages, English, Gujarati, Tamil and Hindi. The sole aim of a newspaper for the Mahatma was service. Conscious of the power of the medium he believed   in control and restraint. The guidelines on policy that he published in the first issue on June 6, 1903 enunciated the advocacy principle in working for the community by asserting their rights and invoking a sense of responsibility among them.  ?It would persistently try to endeavour to bring about a proper understanding between the two communities which Providence has brought under one flag.?

News in their own languages, local and general information, ?epitome? of happenings in India, commercial intelligence, and contributions by competent writers-Indian as well as European-on moral, social and intellectual aspects formed the basis of content guidelines. The paper, he felt, would give the Europeans, an idea of Indian thought and aspirations. He believed that True Imperialists cannot ignore such (Indian) matters that are not commonly known to it. The guidelines on policy for Indian Opinion suggests that the paper would serve as the best advertising medium for Indians and Europeans ?in those branches of trade in which Indians are especially concerned.? His later stance on not wanting to accept advertising support is explained by the view that, ?advertisements are inserted by people who are impatient to get rich, in order that they may gain over their rivals.? He believed in accepting non-commercial advertisements that serve a public purpose.

In his own words he has summarized the importance of the journal. ??Was a mirror of part of my life.? Pouring his soul in its columns he expounded the principles and practices of Satyagraha. The journal was to him a training in self restraint and ?for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts.? Asserting that the sole aim of journalism should be service. Comparing the power of the press to ?unchained torrent of water? he was concerned that like the unchained water which can devastate crops, an ?uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.? Restraint was another guiding principle: ?if the control is from without, it proves more poisonous that want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.?

Indian Opinion in a significant way laid the foundations for Gandhi¿s contributions to Journalism after his return to India in 1915 to take up the larger cause of Indian Independence.  Seeking time from Gokhale, his mentor, he decided to travel to familiarize himself with his homeland. The Indigo farmers¿ plight in Champaran became a starting and rallying point for his first Satyagraha in India.

Indian press, by then, had gone through its birth pangs and was considerably vitalized by a reformist and nationalist zeal. The leadership had gained certain international stature. Observers of the era state that the polarization between the Anglo-Indian Press and the Indian press was well defined by this time. The role of the press and news services in carrying the then Indian reputation was clear and the Government had grudgingly began to accept the reality and was beginning to respond.

It was in this context that Gandhi¿s forays into Journalism in India began. The deportation of B.G. Horniman, then editor of Bombay Chronicle who was also a formidable supporter of Satyagraha, provided an opportunity to Gandhi. Fuelled by encouragement of his well-wishers and friends he decided to the take up the Editorship of Young India, which was then published by the management of the Bombay Chronicle.

His overarching concern for addressing the communication needs of the General Public became evident when he expressed that English alone could not be a medium of the newspaper. Therefore along with the editorship of Young India he also took over the editorship of Navjivan, a Gujarati monthly that he converted into a weekly. Harijan (English), Harijansevak (Hindi) and Harijanbandhu (Gujarati) are some of the other papers he started in his crusade against untouchability and poverty, especially in rural areas.

Recognising the differences between South Africa and India at that time he was conscious of the fact that there was no dearth of newspapers in India. Admitting that after staying out of India for a long time his understanding of the Indian situation was not formidable he articulated what he could give to his readers. ??Despite these limitations of mine, I clearly see that I have something to give to India which no else has in equal measure. With much striving I have formulated some principles for my life and put them into practice?it is my sincere aspiration to place these principles before India and share my happiness with her. A newspaper is one means to that end.?

His views in these newspapers, according to many Gandhian scholars, ventilated the above perspective. It had its share of detractors too. Anne Besant, for example, stated to the Press laws committee that Gandhi¿s writings in Young India was causing ?hatred and contempt.? Gandhi believed in healthy journalism and avoided ?poisonous? communication: ?My writings cannot be poisonous. They must be free from anger, for it is my special religious conviction that we cannot truly attain our goal by promoting ill-will against the rulers or anyone else?my writings cannot but be free from hatred towards any individual because it is my firm belief that it is love that sustains the earth.?

This view of Gandhi has nurtured a certain tradition of values pertaining to our belief in secularism. It may be pointed out that post Babri Masjid demolition there has been a cause and worry about certain journalistic practices that shake our unique social, religious, ethnic and linguistic composition.  Gandhi believed in this principal objective.  He wrote about the objects of a journal, ??to eliminate the distinctions as between Hindus and Mohammedians and also those among, Gujaratis, Tamilians and Calcuttawallahs.?

Extolling the qualities and expectations of an editor he was clear that even when a newspaper writes something that displeases the government, which is nonetheless true, the editor should not apologise. He was categorical in stating that if a newspaper were to run into difficulties as a consequence of publishing truth it should rather close down than buckle. This he felt was a ?better service to the public.?

Should newspapers be used as a means of earning a living? ?It is wrong to use newspaper as a means of earning a living. There are certain spheres of work, which are of such consequence and have such bearing on welfare that to undertake them for earning one¿s livelihood will defeat the primary aim behind them. When further a newspaper is treated as a means of making profits, the result is likely to be serious malpractices.? The need to educate the people was a primary goal. He reaffirmed this role in different forums.

On obscene literature, about which, there is currently a debate and legal tussle, Gandhi was clear. ?When such literature is disseminated through newspapers of good standing and under the guise of art or service, it is truly horrible.? In this context he invoked a better and discrete sense among the readers.

Facts or what passes as facts was ?only impressions or estimates of things and estimates vary.? Therefore we may get different versions of the same event. To him, journalism meant not to ?stock the public mind with wanted and unwanted impressions.? Journalists have to use their discretion in what to report and when.  Given the context in which there were attempts to muzzle the press, Gandhi believed in Freedom of the Press. This was a matter of giving expression to public opinion.

Responding to the Press Act of 1910, he asserted that newspapers were ideal instruments for giving expression to public opinion and it was all the more important for the Government to recognise this.  ?For want of independent newspapers the Government has to rely upon the C.I.D. if it was anxious to see independent newspapers in India and felt the need for people¿s co-operation, it should not gag the newspapers, which are representatives of public opinion.? Using a metaphor he compared the then government¿s position to that of a meteorologist. ?A meteorologist who has smashed his barometer and would yet measure the atmospheric pressure.?

The power of the government in imposing restriction on printing presses also did not daunt him. He articulated the fact that newspapers could be brought out hand written. He enunciated a situation where if he were to dictate his views to fifty persons at a time and those fifty in turn circulate it the process of duplication and multiplication increases many fold. If necessary and by creating a zeal the contents could in any case reach the masses.

Gandhi lamented about journalism as a profession and he was disturbed by the practices of at least a few journalists of his time.  He pointed out that in India ?whoever fails to find a better occupation takes to journalism provided he can scribble.? These observations, he stated were based on his reading of certain language journals. He therefore, felt that editors had great responsibility and wanted them to confer in order to impose certain restraints on the profession.

Gandhian scholarship is replete with lessons and principles that the Father of Nation has sought to imbibe in us. Journalism is one noble profession whose power and responsibility he firmly believed. Gandhi was formally associated with six journals-Indian Opinion, Young India, Navjivan, Harijan, Harijanbandhu and Harijansevak- and practiced what he believed in. There are lessons, which we can draw particularly with regard to problems pertaining to rising inequalities, unabashed consumerism, and struggles over retaining our secular fabric and consistent introspection and reflection on the profession itself. It may be useful for us  to examine how he perceived and used journalism to communicate certain ideals. 

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