Why This Book About India’s First English Newspaper Is Relevant Now - Homegrown

Why This Book About India’s First English Newspaper Is Relevant Now

As the socially conscious youth of the nation take to alternative websites, social media accounts and even meme pages to bring matters of concern to the public’s attention, mainstream newspapers are fading from their glory days. But the marginalized who need awareness regarding the incidents in the country are often those without access to internet or broadcast media. Newspapers are the medium that can reach the most number of people and ethical reportage is more important than ever right now. The fact that established journalists who speak the truth have come under attack for doing so, is also a matter of concern that turns away many an aspiring journalist from working with newspapers. With the state of flux that India is in, it is essential to reach out to as many as possible.

During a similar state of flux that India faced, two hundred years ago, in 1780 the first Indian English newspaper- Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, was facing attempts at being shut down by Warren Hastings, the governor general of the British ruled provinces. For raising questions that shook the British rule in the nation, James Augustus Hicky was said to have acted with “unparalleled insolence” against his social betters. Although this newspaper only lasted for two years, it went through more trouble than success. According to Andrew Otis, the author of the book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper, it was a lesson in the role of free press in the society and what the press should and should not do.

Original scan of India's first english newspaper bengal gazette or calcutta general advertiser
One of the surviving copy of Hicky's Bengal Gazette from 1781

As a young boy growing up in a small town with a penchant for history even at that age, newspapers were Otis’s window into a wider world. During a visit to the British library in 2011, Otis came across an edition of Hicky’s Gazette and knew it was a story that deserved to be looked further into and he said, “I think some people think it’s strange that an American would have such interest in Indian history. But I think there’s some shared cultural heritage between India and America. We both were colonial subjects at one point, and I find it fascinating that at the time of the American Revolution there were also revolutionary rumblings in India.”

While doing the research on the Hicky’s Gazette, Otis faced his share of difficulties because there were no real procedures in place for this purpose in India. During his time in India, he spend time in the Supreme Court of India, looking through documents and record rooms and recalls, “I wandered around the Courthouse for an hour poking my head into rooms. I think it was weird for people to see a random white guy walking around the Court’s bowels. I finally went to the room but was told that the Court disposes and digitizes its records every year, and that they had no records before 1935. I left convinced that the records I was looking for, if they still existed, were not at the Supreme Court.”

Signature of James Augustus Hicky on a bill for a printing job
Signature of James Augustus Hicky on Bill to a Company for a printing job

After many years of in depth research, the book that emerged was one that painted a comprehensive picture of the inception, duration and closure of Hicky’s Gazette. The story was more intriguing than fiction – Indian princes posing danger to the East India Company’s plans of commerce and domination, a power hungry Governor- General attempting to consolidate his power in the Company, a Swedish missionary looking to convert heathen souls far away from his home while still lining his pocket for doing ‘God’s work’ and a wild Irishman seeking fame and fortune deciding to establish the nation’s first newspaper. In less than two years, the attempts by Hicky started to irk the British for laying bare the corruption and scandals and could probably shake their stand in the colony.

The resultant of Otis’ five years of research backed by a Fulbright Nehru Fellowship in India, UK and Germany culminated in the book and has been received well. He went on to say, “I think it’s reminded people of the importance of a free press that’s willing to speak truth to power. Without a free press democracy can’t survive.”

When asked about his thoughts on journalism in the nation right now, Otis mentioned the high regard with which he considers the investigative journalists in the nation and went on to mention about the need to protect reporters in the nation from violence by political and criminal groups as well as the need to overturn the sedition laws in the nation. He went on to say, “Fearless journalism is important now more than ever. This is an unstable time in India. The most important thing journalists can do is to keep doing their jobs, keep digging into investigations, and keep educating the public about the country’s real state of affairs. In this regard we can look to Hicky as an important symbol of standing up to abuses of power.”

While talking about other relevant stories in the history of Indian Journalism that need to be told, Otis mentioned his interest in learning the story about the first Indian owned newspaper Bengal Gazette printed by Ganga Kishore Bhattacharya in 1818. No matter which aspect of Indian journalism history that Otis decides to look into, it is sure to be a riveting tale much like the story of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.

You can learn more about the book and the author on his website.

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