Vernacular Press Act: The Power Of The Press And Speech

The term ‘vernacular’ gets derived from the Latin word vernaculus, which means “native” or “indigenous.” Ideally, vernacular is the way ordinary people communicate with one another.

A vernacular language is a native dialect spoken by people who live in a specific country or region. Such languages are also called ethnic languages because they are unique to distinct civilisations and are more spoken than formally written.

What is the Vernacular Press Act?

The Vernacular Press Act 1878 was enacted in British India to limit the freedom of the Indian-language (non-English) press.

Lord Lytton, then viceroy of India (reigned 1876–80), proposed the act to prevent the vernacular press from criticising British policies, particularly the opposition that had grown since the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80).

The act sparked strong and sustained protests from a large segment of the Indian population. So, it also got to be known as the Gagging Act and only intended for vernacular/native language newspapers, not English-language publications.

Story Behind The Vernacular Press Act

During Lytton’s reign, India was in the grip of a widespread famine brought on by crop failure in 1876. Meanwhile, Lord Lytton entirely focused on the Delhi Darbar.

Lord Lytton decided to hold an Imperial Assemblage for the “Queen of Great Britain and Ireland” in Delhi on January 1, 1877. He proclaimed Queen Victoria to be the “Empress of India.” Despite millions of deaths, Lord Lytton’s inaction resulted in 6.1 million to 10.3 million people deaths.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) put a considerable strain on the economy, and the government got heavily criticised in multiple publications across India.

Despite this, the European press consistently backed the government in political controversies, while the vernacular press remained critical of British policies.

So, to control the strong public opinion and seditious writing causing dissatisfaction with the government, the government enacted the Vernacular Press Act 1878 to repress the indigenous press.

Although laws against sedition already existed in the form of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which was introduced in 1870 to deal with any form of sedition (a very subjective term then and still today).

The introduction of such critical acts as the VPA led to further restrictions on freedom of speech and press freedom in British India.

Provisions Of The Vernacular Press Act

  • The District Magistrate had the authority to order the printer and publisher of any Vernacular newspaper to agree with the government. It ensured that they did not publish anything that may incite public feeling, create dissatisfaction with the government, or create enmity based on caste, religion, or race.
  • The publisher was required to deposit the security, which could be forfeited if the act’s provisions got violated.
  • If the offence were committed again, the press equipment could get seized.
  • Before publication, newspaper and magazine contents proof sheets must get submitted to the police rather than the judiciary.
  • The Magistrate’s decision was considered final in such cases, and there can be no legal action against it.
  • If the vernacular language newspaper could provide proof to a government censor, it could be exempt from the act’s application.
  • The most criticised aspect of the act was that there was no provision for appeal and discrimination between European and vernacular newspapers.

Indians And The Vernacular Press Act

To avoid the provisions of the Vernacular Press Act, the Amrit Bazar Patrika converted from its original Bengali to an English language newspaper.

The publication of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Som Prakash fell to a halt, but after receiving written assurances of allegiance to the government, it resumed in 1880.

Dacca Prakash, Halisahar Patrika, Sulabh Samachar, Bharat Mihir, Sadharani, and Bharat Sanskarak, among others, were accused of leading a seditious movement against the government, and many of the papers got fined and the editors imprisoned under the provisions of the act.

All native associations and prominent leaders in Bengal and India, regardless of religion, caste, or creed, condemned the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and demanded that it get repealed immediately.

Phased Removal Of Restriction Of Press

Cranbrook, the Secretary of State, as opposed to the pre-censorship clause, was later repealed, and a press commissioner got appointed to provide authentic and accurate news to the press.

Later, Lord Ripon repealed the entire Vernacular Press Act of 1878 in 1882.

Press Laws In India

India has the world’s longest constitution. However, there’s no discrete set of laws governing press freedom. The freedom of the press comes from the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to citizens under Article 19(1)(a).

  • Press laws govern the licensing of books and the freedom of expression in all printing press products, particularly newspapers. Political writers have always held press freedom to be of the utmost importance.
  • Much legislation got enacted in this regard in India. Most governments believe they have the authority to enact such Acts and Laws in the interest of the state, concerning friendly relations with:

    • foreign states,
    • public order,
    • decency or morality,
    • or contempt of court,
    • defamation, or
    • incitement of an offence.
  • When it comes to press freedom restrictions, the first thing to remember is that the right to press freedom is simply an extension of the citizen’s right to free speech and expression.

    As a result, all laws restricting citizens’ right to freedom of expression also apply to the press. It has no particular advantages that citizens do not have in this area.

    Given that a company typically publishes a newspaper, one might wonder if the rights of citizens could get extended to the company as well.

  • The constitution and the general laws of the countries set the limits for the exercise of press freedom in all Western societies and India.

HISTORY OF PRESS LAWS IN INDIA

Until the British East India Company took over a portion of India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, there existed no press regulation in India.

When only Europeans published newspapers in India, the expulsion of the editor (printer) was the ultimate punishment.

In 1780, James Augustus Hickey established The Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, India’s first newspaper. It got seized in 1872 as a result of its outspoken criticism of the government.

Licensing, like censorship, was a European institution for controlling the press. It was first implemented in Bengal in 1823 as part of Adam’s regulations. The East India Company also stated that no company employee should have any contact with a paper.

Metcalfe’ Act, which applied to the entire East India Company territory, required that every newspaper’s printer and publisher declare the location of the premises of its publication, replaced licencing regulations.

On the other hand, Lord Canning reintroduced licencing in 1857 and applied it to all publications. The Indian Penal Code got passed as a general law in 1860, but it established offences that any writer, editor, or publisher must avoid, namely defamation and obscenity.

INDIAN PRESS ACT 1910

The Press Act was legislation enacted in British India that imposed strict censorship on all publications.

The measure limited the influence of Indian vernacular and English language in promoting support for what was perceived to be radical Indian nationalism.

The act came after two decades of the increasing influence of journals such as Kesari in Western India, Jugantar and Bandematram in Bengal, and similar publications emerging in the United Provinces.

The mentioned publications were thought to have influenced an increase in nationalist violence and revolutionary terrorism against Raj’s interests and officials in India, particularly in Maharashtra and Bengal.

Due to the growing influence of local youth journals such as Kesari, Jugantar, and Bandematram and events such as the attempted local judge assassination in Bengal in 1908, this act revived the extreme repressive provisions of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878.

According to the act’s provisions, the local government was empowered to demand security from the printer or publisher at the time of registration and could forfeit it if it discovered the newspaper publishing any objectionable material.

So, with a deposit of more than 1000 rupees, new registrations got permitted.

The printer was required to provide the local government with two free copies of each issue.

The confiscated newspaper got the right to appeal to a special tribunal of the High Court.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION.

In India, freedom of the press gets legally protected by the Amendment to the Indian Constitution. In contrast, sovereignty, national integrity, and moral principles generally get protected by Indian law to maintain a hybrid legal system for independent journalism.

To safeguard the democratic way of life, people must have the freedom to express feelings and make their opinions known to the general public.
As a powerful medium of mass communication, the press should be allowed to play its role in developing a viable and robust society.

Citizens’ press freedom would get undermined if they got denied the ability to influence public opinion, anti-democratic.

The press’s freedom is not explicitly mentioned in article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which only says freedom of speech and expression.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, Dr Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, made it clear that no special mention of press freedom was required because the press and an individual or citizen were the same in terms of their right to express themselves.

The framers of the Indian constitution saw press freedom as an essential component of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution.

RESTRICTIONS ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN INDIA

In India, media bias and misleading information get prohibited by certain constitutional amendments outlined in the country’s constitution. The Indian Penal Code, which applies to all substantive aspects of criminal law, addresses media crime.

Nevertheless, In India, press freedom is restricted by defamation, a lack of protection for whistleblowers, hindrance to information access, and constraints due to public and government hostility toward journalists.

The press, including print, television, radio, and the internet, is nominally amended to express their concerns under selected provisions such as Article-19, which states freedom of “occupation, trade, or business” and “freedom of speech and expression” without naming “press” in clauses “a” and “g”.

The government has implemented several countermeasures to combat the spread of fake news and restrict objectionable content across multiple platforms to protect citizens’ intellectual, moral, and fundamental rights.

The law in India prohibits the dissemination or publication of fake news via social or mass media, resulting in a journalist’s imprisonment or the closure of a newspaper.

CENSORSHIP OF PRESS ACT 1799 UNDER THE VERNACULAR ACT

  • Lord Wellesley (Governor-General of India (1798 1805)) imposed censorship on all newspapers in anticipation of a French invasion of India and as part of the struggle for supremacy in India.
  • The idea was to prevent the French from publishing anything that could be harmful to the British in any way. This act subjected all newspapers to government scrutiny before publication.
  • The Censorship of Press Act, 1799, imposed almost wartime restrictions on the press.

    It included pre-censorship, as the regulations required the newspaper to print the printer’s name, the editor, the proprietor, and the publisher in every issue, and submit all material for immediate deportation.

  • The Censorship Act expanded in 1807 to include all magazines, journals, pamphlets, and even books.
  • In 1818, Lord Hastings relaxed some of the restrictions, and the pre-censorship provision got abolished.

A BRIEF ON GAGGING ACT

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Lord Canning enacted the “Gagging Act,” which sought to regulate the establishment of printing presses and restrain the madness of printed matter.

  • All presses required to obtain a government license, with distinctions made between publications in English and those in other regional languages
  • The Gagging Act also stated that no printed material should impugn the motives of the British Raj, inciting hatred and contempt for it and inciting unlawful resistance to its orders.
  • When the British government realised that the Gagging Act was insufficient to suppress all nationalist sentiments, it enacted the Vernacular Press Act. Sir Alexander John Arbuthnot and Sir Ashley Eden, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, designed the act.
  • Lord Lytton enacted the Vernacular Press Act in 1878. Lord Ripon overturned it later in 1882.

First Vernacular Newspaper

Carey and Marshman of Serampore published the first vernacular newspaper in India, Samachar Darpan, on May 31, 1818. It began during the reign of Lord Hastings.
The ‘Bengal Gazette,’ founded in 1780 by James Augustus Hickey, was the first Indian newspaper.

(The Bengal Gazette)

Case Study Involving Vernacular Press Act

Amrita Bazar Patrika

During India’s freedom struggle, the media played a critical role.

Though there weren’t many publications around at the time, and the media was still in its infancy, some newspapers openly criticised the British government’s policies through their defiant editions. Their editors recognised the power of the pen and used it to spread awareness among the masses. Amrita Bazaar Patrika was one such publication.

Amrita Bazar Patrika- played a significant role in the evolution and growth of Indian journalism.

(Amrita Bazar Patrika, India’s one of the oldest newspapers, was at the forefront of the common people struggle against oppressive colonial policies. )

Sisir Kumar Ghosh and Moti Lal Ghosh (wealthy merchant sons in Bengal province) founded Amrita Bazar Patrika in 1868. Their family had built a Bazar and named it after Amritamoyee, Sisir and Moti Lal Ghosh’s mother.

Amrita Bazaar Patrika began as a weekly newspaper. When the plague struck Amrita Bazaar three years later, in 1871, the newspaper relocated to Kolkata and began operating as a bilingual weekly, published in English and Bengali.

The Patrika was outspoken in its opposition to government policies that were unjust to the common people.

When Subhas Chandra Bose and a few other students got dismissed from Calcutta Presidency College, the newspaper intervened and got them re-admitted to the University.

Sisir Kumar Ghosh also launched aggressive campaigns against civil liberties restrictions and economic exploitation. He desired that Indians should get important positions in the administration. Both he and his brother Motilal had strong feelings for Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

When Tilak got charged with sedition in 1897, Calcutta raised funds for his defence. They also published a scathing editorial criticising the judge who sentenced Tilak to six years in prison for ‘presuming to teach true patriotism to a proven and unparalleled patriot.’

(Back then, indigo planters exploited peasants, and the newspaper was fighting for their rights. The paper operated out of a wooden press which got purchased only for ₹ 32. In 1920, Lenin, the Russian communist leader, outlined ABP as the best nationalist paper in India. )

Naturally, the British government wasn’t pleased.

As a result, the journal got charged with sedition, and in an attempt to crackdown on the media, the Viceroy of India(Lord Lytton) enacted the Vernacular Press Act in 1878.

The act primarily aimed at Amrita Bazar Patrika and allowed the police the authority to seize any printed material considered offensive. Many newspapers got fined heavily, and many editors were imprisoned.

The publication kept up its fearless reporting and passionately opposed Bengal’s division in 1905.

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India at the time of Bengal’s division, was described as ‘young and a trifle foppish, and without previous training but invested with boundless authority.’

Such editorials led to the Press Act of 1910, and ABP was required to post security of Rs 5,000. Motilal Ghosh also got charged with sedition, but his oratory skills won him the case.

Even after Motilal Ghosh died in 1922, the Patrika maintained its nationalist zeal.

During the Salt Satyagraha, a demand for higher security of Rs 10,000 was made from it. Tushar Kanti Ghosh (son of Sisir Kumar Ghosh), the magazine’s editor, was imprisoned.

The Patrika contributed to the success of its freedom movement, led by Gandhi, and suffered due to its views and actions at the hands of the British rulers.

During India’s partition, the Patrika advocated for communal harmony. In the course of the great Calcutta killings of 1946, the Patrika went three days without publishing an editorial. On August 15, 1947, at the time of declaration of freedom, the Patrika editorialised:

Even though it’s cloudy, it’s dawn. Currently, the sun will break through.

CONCLUSION

This legislation educated Indians to advocate for themselves. Even when they were mercilessly persecuted and tortured, they refused to give up without a battle against the Britishers.

This law was a major driving force behind Indian independence. It also taught us a lesson for the future by emphasising the importance of press and media freedom in developing a nation that values press and media freedom.

FAQs Regarding Vernacular Press Act

Which act was the revision of the vernacular act?

The Press Act of 1910. It was legislation promulgated in British India that imposed strict censorship on all publications; to curtail the influence of Indian vernacular and English language in promoting support for radical Indian nationalism.

How did the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 authorise the government to get more authority over publishing?

The Vernacular press act got passed in 1878—the act intended to silence those who were critical of the government. The act sanctioned the government to confiscate the assets of newspapers along with their printing presses if the newspapers published something "objectionable".

Who abolished censorship of the press act?

Charles Metcalf (Governor-General of India 1835-36) abolished the press act. Sir Charles Metcalfe enacted it in 1835.

What role did the vernacular press and literature play in the rise of Indian nationalism?

Newspapers in English and vernacular languages played a significant part in the development of nationalism in Indians. The press facilitates the exchange of thought on a mass scale within a short time. The publications with nationalist and democratic views awakened the spirit of nationalism in India.

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