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other such laws imposed by the British in the colonies, after its law commission recommended abolition in 1977, Britain repealed sedition in 2009.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.