The love-hate relationship between the British administration and the owner-editors of the first newspapers in India changed dramatically in 1799 when the Marquess of Wellesley, the then Governor General, introduced the first rules to regulate the press.
These rules, which are referred to as Wellesley’s Regulations impacted the growth of free press for almost two decades. They can be described as the forerunner of efforts made by British rulers to muzzle the press in India.
The key points of Wellesley Regulations were:
- Every printer of a newspaper was required to print his name at the bottom of the paper.
- Every editor and proprietor of a newspaper was required to provide his name and address to the Secretary to the Government.
- No paper was to be published on Sunday.
- No paper was to be published unless it had been inspected by the Secretary to the Government.
- The penalty for violating any of the rules was deportation to Europe.
The Wellesley Regulations, as expected, stifled the press, and there was no noteworthy activity till 1815. It was only in 1816, that a new chapter began when an Indian set up India’s first English newspaper. The weekly newspaper, Bengal Gazette, was published by Gangadhar Bhattacharjee.
The newspaper did not last long. It shut down within a year, but during that brief time it represented the first stirrings of Indian thought in public domain.
The Indian who dominated the public thought during this period was Raja Ram Mohun Roy. He started three publications in three different languages. The first was Sambaud Kaumudi, a Bengali weekly. It was started in 1821 thought there is a school of thought that says it began publication in 1819.
In 1822, Raja Ram Mohan Roy started Mirat ul Ukhbar, a Persian weekly, whose audience was primarily those Indians who neither knew Bengali nor English. Roy also launched Brahmunical Magazine in English in 1822. The purpose of this magazine was to present the Indian thought and to counter the writings of Serampore Missionaries, who had set up Samachar Darpan in 1818 to propagate Christian views. There is little doubt that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a liberal Hindu, and a great social reformer.
The other leading light of this period was James Silk Buckingham, a fearless British editor who had travelled extensively and was very modern in his views. He became the editor of the Calcutta Chronicle of Political Commercial and Literary Gazette, a newspaper that he edited with great finesse.
A key contribution of Buckingham to journalism was the opening of the paper’s columns to local writers. This enriched the paper considerably, and the Calcutta Chronicle started mirroring the life and times of Calcutta. Buckingham also criticised Indian customs such as Sati, and was quite critical of the local British government. The paper’s circulation soared under his editorship. By 1820, the paper’s circulation touched the 1,000 mark, becoming the largest circulated paper in India. However, it was not long before Buckingham ran foul of the British authorities and was deported in 1823.
History of Indian Press – I: The first newspapers in India