New Delhi: In 1878, the British enacted a draconian law called the Vernacular Press Act in a bid to curtail criticism of the government in the local language press. One Bengali bilingual publication, the Amrita Bazar Patrika, refused to be cowed down. As the Act applied to publications in Indian languages, the way out would be to publish the paper exclusively in the English language. And that’s precisely what it did.
The day after the Act was promulgated, the newspaper started publishing only in English and continued, with no change in content or stance, to challenge and critique the colonial government.
The legendary Amrita Bazar Patrika and its journalists were at the forefront of India’s struggle for Independence, and early proponents of the concept of press freedom. Many even claim that the Vernacular Press Act was mainly targeted at the Amrita Bazar Patrika since its sharp criticism of the British was making the colonial government uncomfortable.
The English language press, by and large, would favour the British Raj.
Amrita Bazar Patrika was first published on 20 February 1868 by two brothers in undivided Bengal’s Jessore district, now in southwestern Bangladesh.
Sisir and Motilal Ghosh belonged to a rich Bengali merchant family. They first published Amrita Bazar as a weekly and the paper began to roll out from a wooden press that, at that time, cost the brothers Rs 32.
According to a report in ScoopWhoop, one of the first issues the newspaper took up was the struggle of the indigo farmers against the oppressive fiscal policies of the British.
In 1871, the paper had shifted its base to Kolkata from Jessore and started to publish as a bi-lingual Bengali and English weekly. From 1891, Amrita Bazar became a daily.
In 1937, it launched a daily Bengali newspaper — the Jugantar.
After the retirement of Sisir Ghosh, his son Tushar Kanti Ghosh took over. He began to oversee the running of the paper from 1931 and was its editor till the very end — till 1991. An editor for 60 years, Ghosh is known as the ‘dean‘ of Indian journalism.
The newspaper’s coverage of the Partition of Bengal, the Bengal Famine, and the nationalist movement got it into the crosshairs of the colonial regime.
During the first Partition of Bengal in 1905, the newspaper described Lord Curzon, then the Viceroy of India, and the architect of the division, as “young and a little foppish, and without previous training but invested with unlimited powers”.
In 1935, editor Tushar Kanti Ghosh was jailed for questioning the impartiality of British judges.
According to Bengali writer and sports producer Joy Bhattacharjya, the Patrika‘s reporters once found a letter in the British Viceroy’s dustbin that exposed a plot by the British to remove the Dogra kings from their throne in Kashmir. The following reports raised such an outcry, Bhattacharjya claims, that the British were forced to abandon their plan.
In addition to this, the paper raised money to fight sedition cases against Bal Gangadhar Tilak and strongly objected to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s expulsion from then-Calcutta’s Presidency College, Bhattacharjya said.
Mahatma Gandhi was a strong backer of the Patrika‘s brand of journalism. He had reportedly said the ‘Patrika is really Amrit’.
In 1946, the newspaper left its front page blank for three days, to oppose the horrific communal violence that had engulfed Calcutta in the months ahead of the Partition of India.
The Amrita Bazar Patrika story
Exactly 153 years ago, Sisir and Motilal Ghosh started a Bengali weekly originally to support the Indigo farmers in their fight against exploitative planters. pic.twitter.com/gvQsyoOama
— Joy Bhattacharjya (@joybhattacharj) February 20, 2021
During the Emergency, the paper’s coverage was comparatively tepid. “Though I can’t recall what the newspaper’s stance was, it was an out-and-out Congress newspaper, so I doubt they did anything noteworthy during the Emergency. In fact, they must’ve supported it. At this point of time, The Statesman‘s coverage really caught the fancy of Bengali readers,” said veteran journalist Manojit Mitra, who worked with the paper for five years — from 1981 to 1986.
The paper’s tragic end
The paper finally shut its press in 1991 after a run of 123 years.
Mitra said he had issues with its editorial policies. “Bad management killed the newspaper. I was also not very happy with their editorial policies while I was working there. They didn’t have clear notions about what they wanted to do with the newspaper in sharp contrast to what the newspaper stood for during the freedom struggle. In the late 80s, it used to toe the line of the government of the day,” he said.
He further said that The Statesman and The Telegraph “ate into the readership of the newspaper. By the 90s, the management didn’t even have the appetite to put up a fair fight and save their publication”.
A report in India Today, published in 1991, says the paper had a debt of Rs 21 crore that year. “Unable to pay even salaries, the owners fled, leaving the 1,100 employees to feed on memories of the newspaper’s rich history,” the report reads.
According to the report, the newspaper was already in its death throes sometime around 1986. The office, too, had moved by then from Ananda Chatterjee Lane in the Baghbazar area to Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Read in central Kolkata.
Around this time, the paper’s ad revenue slumped to Rs 20 lakh a month from Rs 1 crore. The Telegraph ate into the newspaper’s readership, which at its peak was estimated at around 1.5 lakh.
Staffers still hoping to be paid their salaries would reportedly go to work every day, sign the attendance register, hang around in clusters, and talk of what lay ahead. The final days of the once firebrand publication were indeed heartbreaking. And then one day, Chandi Ghosh, a proofreader, hanged himself in office.
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)