The printing press as an agent of political change in India

Freedom’s just another word . . .


The first printed newspaper in India, the weekly Bengal Gazette, established the tradition of ridiculing the government in power right from the get-go in 1780. Its publisher-editor James Augustus Hickey, known for his sarcastic contempt of the authorities, was at every step thwarted and persecuted by the British. Irishman that he was, Hickey did not back down, but he did go out of business in less than a couple of years.

Literacy itself is a freedom movement. As both grew, in 1857, newspapers such as Payam-e-Azadi, Samachar Sudhavarashan, Doorbeen, and Sultan-ul-Akhbar spoke out against the British continuing to divide Hindus and Muslims to perpetuate their rule.

However, the traditions amplifying freedom and the right to democratic expression generally find a way around censorship. Freedom of expression no longer belongs only to those who own a printing press. It is exercised through every public act – speeches, kindness, fashion, samizdats (manuscripts, typescripts, cyclostyled or digitally printed pamphlets), stand-up comedy, plays, sculpture, painting, cartoons, peaceful demonstrations, graffiti, films, and more recently – social media. An early instance of this circumvention of censorship was Nil Darpan, a play published in The Hindoo Patriot that helped to inspire the Indigo revolt in 1859.

The British censored Indian dailies from the start, and in 1870 introduced the sedition act to stem ‘disaffection’ that remains in free India as Section 124A of Chapter VI of the Indian Penal Code. After the famine of 1876, the Vernacular Press Act was issued in 1878. In 1898 the law was made more stringent to include contempt, hatred, and disloyalty under the ambit of ‘disaffection.’

The Press Act of 1910 prosecuted and fined more than 1,000 Indian newspapers. The Press (Emergency Powers) Act was passed in 1931 and strengthened during World War II, in which thousands of Indians served in the British forces. The All-India Newspapers Editors’ Conference was formed at this time to defend the freedom of the press.

In free and democratic India, there have been numerous judgments on sedition, freedom of expression, and unjust arrest and imprisonment. The British themselves have done away with what is considered antiquated or bad law. Even the Indian courts have said this, but sometimes democracy takes time. As with many other such laws imposed by the British in the colonies, after its law commission recommended abolition in 1977, Britain repealed sedition in 2009.

Printers are not bystanders in the struggles for freedom. Their livelihood depends on the freedom of expression, and equally, when governments crackdown, printers too are hauled to jail for libel, slander, and sedition. It has been the tradition of printers in free India to practice their profession in the defense of freedom of expression when governments have threatened publishers and authors. They have dared to print – often with or without the benefit of consulting a lawyer they have printed what the publisher brought to them, understanding their ethical and responsible role in giving voice to new ideas, even scientific ideas not in vogue, and to political dissent.

In some cases, printers declined to print – for instance, when government paper and resources were delivered to their presses for the illegal production of election materials by the government in power. Publishers and printers have to exercise their ethical judgment in favor of science and truth and against hatred and unconstitutional discrimination. They are partners in the democratic and knowledge realms and must stand by authors, artists, journalists, educationists, and political dissidents.

Ultimately freedom and democracy are not static – these have not been presented to us in a finished form by the constitution. The democratic idea and a written constitution imply evolution – of continuous improvement. Printers are privileged to play a role in this constant discussion of science, knowledge, and right and wrong.

Even if they disagree with the content, they have to be as tolerant as doctors or lawyers who cannot decline to treat or fight an unpleasant disease or case. Printers are obliged to expand the rights and freedoms of citizens against outmoded conventions, prejudices, injustices, and restrictions of artistic, scientific, and political expression. Do let me know if you disagree.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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