Do words have the power to effect change when they become more than just a thought? The power to instigate and influence the masses, and when put to good use, even revolutions?
These questions are at its most relevant in contemporary India. Because press freedom and unbiased journalism has always been on rocky roads here, but few futures have looked quite as treacherous as the present. As we struggle to find trustworthy sources of news in the age of out-and-out propaganda and illicit whatsapp mis(information), the threat of media censorship and political control is more real than ever but there’s no denying we’ve been through these slumps before. One such instance would be during the period of National Emergency. It was an incredibly tumultuous time for the country, a period when political control decided what was being published and presented to the masses and was highly scrutinised. But in times of great struggle, the bravest shine and times like these have also become synonymous with those publications (and people) who dared to risk it all to get the truth out there.
Countless journals, magazines and quarterlies were (and are) birthed during periods of strife, as more and more people turn to media and arts to find an avenue of self-expression. A small space where their voice matters. Some used writing to fight censorship, others created a space for gender equality, and others took it upon themselves to start entire literary movements. Today, we look at some of the incredible independent publications, newspapers and magazines that have existed in India (some even till today) that have truly left a mark on Indian journalism, media and literature as we know it.
Scroll on to acquaint yourself.
Satyavani came into existence as an alternative source of information, as mainstream media failed at reportage of daily life under the Emergency reign, and that of jailed activists. Mahesh Mehta, a keen follower of the RSS from its early days in 1947, found himself quickly drawn into politics as he hosted various underground leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kidar Nath Sahani and Makarand Desai. But the most significant achievement came in the form of the launch of Satyavani: Defenders of the Truth by the group, including Dr. Subramanian Swamy.
‘Smugglers Of Truth,’ a book by BJP leader Makarand Desai, contains selective articles and drawings from Satyavani as he charts out the early history and origins of the monthly magazine. “The purpose of Satyavani and its news service was to conduct two-way smuggling of news about India. News was brought out and fed to world media. Reactions were collected, published and, together with news from India, carried back into India,” narrates Makarand in the book, as its Index reveals some of the most fascinating accounts reported in Satyavani. From Ram Jethmalani’s interview with Newsweek while in exile in the US, to LK Advani’s Tale Of Two Emergencies as well as various reports by foreign journalists, archives of Satyavani today are a historical goldmine.
Read more about how Satyavani thrived in this tense climate here.
II. Manushi—A Journal about Women and Society
Bridging the gap between analysis, activism and action, the Manushi journal has survived in its print edition since 1978, and has since become digitised in English and Hindi. Founded and edited by academician, activist and writer Madhu Kishwar, Manushi came to exist when a group of female teachers and students from Delhi university came together.
“The Journal Manushi was born out of the belief that most of us among the English educated elites of India know precious little about the life conditions of our own people, especially those living in rural areas,” states their website. Manushi’s spotlight is on gender, society and communities that often get sidelined by mainstream media. Their articles are read, referenced and cited amongst academicians, students, writers and readers alike. But they are more than just words. The constant researching, study and analysis led to the establishment of Manushi Sangathan, a partner organisation, through which they enact initiatives and pursue solutions rather than just collecting information, “endeavouring to go beyond offering critiques and suggestions for reform to actually helping to put in place worthwhile solutions,” as they write.
Having survived for over last 35 years, Natarang’s a unique quarterly that held a special focus on regional theatre, a first for its time. Poet Nemichand Jain started this journal from his desk in a bedroom in Jangpura. In its nascent stages an annual subscription would cost you INR 100, and people from towns all over the country would send in photographs and information of their plays for features.
Nemichand managed to connect the theatre community across the country – of all ages, class and region. It established itself as a place for dialogue, debate and dissemination of theatre movements and information, way ahead of its time. As The Indian Express puts it, “In Hindi theatre between 1965 and the mid-’80s, Natrang’s brand of high-brow theatre journalism was a harbinger of modernism.”
When Emergency was declared under the leadership of Indira Gandhi it was an incredibly tumultuous time for India as we have stated before. Himmat, an English weekly magazine, was founded and edited by Rajmohan Gandhi during this period. It’s ironic that a publication started by a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi was just as critical of the National Emergency and its terrible follies, as declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975.
Although it shut down in 1981, Himmat made its mark when it joined the league of media outlets that fought against the stringent media censorship that was being imposed. For two editions, following the Emergency declaration, Himmat left their editorials blank as protest, taking a silent, wordless stand, refusing to bow down. It did lead to the editor’s arrest and a fine of INR 20,000, but it was a risk they were willing to take to speak the truth, write the truth, and bring about change to a country that was in a terrifying period conflict.
Cho Ramaswamy had a different take when it came to the Emergency – satire. Through his Tamil weekly magazine, founded in the 1970s, called Thuglak, he too took a stand against the ongoings of the country with blank editorials. Having suspended the publication of two Thuglak issues following the new rule of law, he restarted the press with a black cover. This has happened on only two occasions, the second was after Babri Masjid was demolished.
Directly and indirectly Cho would find a way to criticise the Emergency and governance. To the point when Thuglak became the only publication to have had even its advertisements censored! “When I did these things, they started censoring even the advertisements. In the name of advertisement, I was sending messages. Ours was the only journal in the whole country for which even censorship of advertisement was clamped. I was a regular visitor, with my magazine, to Sastri Bhavan, where the censors sat. I even took my salary to him telling, ‘This belongs to you. You are the editor!’” he said in an interview with Shobha Warrier.
Started in 1868 by brothers Sisir Ghosh and Moti Lal Ghosh in the Bengal Presidency of British India, Amrita Bazar Patrika (ABP) is one of the oldest Indian newspapers as well as the first Indian owned English daily. ABP was described by Vladimir Lenin himself as “the best nationalist paper in India,” and he wasn’t wrong. It started as a Bengali weekly that worked hard for the rights and struggles of Indians against oppressive colonial policies, initially against exploitation of workers by indigo planters.
ABP was always very vocal in its views against colonial rule, and that didn’t sit well with the British. During Lansdowne’s tenure as Viceroy of India, an ABP journalist came across pieces of a torn up letter that detailed plans to annexe Kashmir. ABP pieced together the letter and went on to publish it on its front page, which was then read by the Maharaja of Kashmir who took action against the move.
Propagating nationalist sentiments, ABP was seen as a threat and an attempt was made to slam them down with the passing of the Vernacular Press Act in 1878, which was against local language newspapers. It gave law enforcers the power to confiscate any ‘objectionable material’, and how did ABP react? Well, they didn’t take it lying down, and over night they turned into an English newspaper. It’s not just a figure of speech, it was in just one night that they completely changed their mode of functioning, and more so, their language. They were fearlessly outspoken when it came to the British government’s mistreatment of their countrymen and stood as a voice for the people during tumultuous times such as the partition of Bengal and through India’s freedom movement.
ABP has made a striking contribution towards Indian journalism, and what true journalism and freedom of speech entails.
Founded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the ‘Father of Swaraj’, this Marathi newspapers was used by multiple freedom fighters to rouse the masses and to raise political awareness; Mahratta was the English publication, also by Tilak. Being a vernacular publication it reached a large audience and was even said to have been the most read Indian newspaper at one point in time.
Kesari found its foothold in the mass consciousness with its personal, ‘real’ style of writing, that moved beyond being reports that stated facts. On May 12, 1908, Tilak published a biting issue, having titled his editorial ‘The Misfortune Of The Country’ chastising the colonial bureaucracy. Times Of India reports that the irked British police even charged Tilak with sedition.
Tilak’s words and ruthless pen gave strength to those involved in the national struggle, and proved that fearless journalism can make difference, bring people together and bring about change that’s worth fighting for.
Kallol was more than just a journal or magazine. It was one of the most influential modernist literary movement that changed Bengali literature in the 1930s. It all started with a club – Gokulchandra Nag, Dineshranjan Das, Sunita Debi and Manindralal Basu set up the Four Arts Club at Hazra Road, Kolkata in 1921. Here they discussed and practiced music, literature, fine arts and drama, and soon they began to attract more and more people.
It was in 1923 that the first monthly paper was published by Dineshranjan and Gokulchandra, and Kallol soon grew to become the mouthpiece of young writers that were ready to shake up the literary scene.
Bengali literature was at a crossroads at this time. On one side was the more traditional humanist writing, who were now being contested by the modernist young writers who’d gained a platform through Kallol. The debated grew more and more heated until Rabindranath Tagore, a respected literary personality by both sides, had to intervene – the topic of debate? The future direction of Bengali literature. While Tagore proposed a middle ground, there was no compromising. A new stream of thinkers and writers had emerged, as well as a space for young creative minds to grow. The Kallol era give rise to some of Bengali literature’s greatest writers and poets, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, Buddhadeva Bose and Premendra Mitra. A lot of other journal too came into existence following the path treated by Kallol, but the magazine itself came to a halt following the demise of its editor, Gokulchandra. While physically, it may be over, but the mark of modernism that Kallol left in the history of Bengali culture and literature will always remain.
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