Vernacular Press Act, 1878 was enacted to curtail the freedom of Indian press & limit the expression of criticism towards British policies

The Vernacular Press Act, 1878 was enacted to curtail the freedom of the Indian press and limit the expression of criticism towards British policies notably the opposition that had grown with the outset of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80).

Lord Lytton, the then Viceroy of India, proposed this Act. He was unanimously passed by the Viceroy’s Council on 14 March 1878.

The Act excluded English-language publications as it was meant to control violent writing in ‘publications in Oriental languages’ everywhere in the country, except for the South. Thus the British discriminated against the (non-English language) Indian Press.

The Act allowed the government to impose restrictions on the press in the following ways:

  1. Based on the Irish Press Act, the act gave the government powers to censor reports and editorials in the Vernacular Press.
  2. Henceforth the government kept a regular track of Vernacular newspapers.
  3. When a report was published in the newspaper, it was termed as a traitor, the newspaper was warned.

History of Vernacular Press Act

In 1782, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was the first newspaper to be banned because of criticism of the East India Company. Later, a newspaper editor  William Duane (journalist) was deported. 

Due to the press’s criticisms, Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley regulated the press in 1799, according to which the press had to get the approval of the government before the publication of any manuscript including advertisements. 

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the “Gagging Act” had been passed by Lord Canning which attempted to regulate the establishment of printing presses and to control the tone of all printed matter. 

All presses had to have a license from the government, with the distinction between publications in English and other regional languages. The Act also held that no printed material shall question the motives of the British Raj, tending to bring it hatred and contempt and exciting unlawful resistance to its orders. 

When the British Government found that the Gagging Act was not potent enough to control all nationalist sentiments, it created a more forcible law, designed in part by Sir Alexander John Arbuthnot and Sir Ashley Eden, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.

At the time the Vernacular Press Act was passed, there were thirty-five vernacular papers in Bengal, including the Amrita Bazar Patrika, the editor of which was one Sisir Kumar Ghose

Sir Ashley Eden asked him and offered to contribute to his paper regularly if he gave him final editorial approval. Ghose refused, and remarked that “there ought to be at least one honest journalist in the land.” 

The Vernacular Press Act might be said to have grown from this incident. About the time the Act was passed, Sir Ashley said in a speech that forty-five seditious writings published in fifteen different vernacular papers were presented to him before the Act was finalized.

Reception

Because the British government was in a hurry to pass the bill, without encouraging responses, the bill was not published in the General Papers in Calcutta and the North-Western Province was the slowest to receive information.

Amrita Bazar Patrika in Calcutta had turned into an all-English weekly within a week of the passage of the Vernacular Press Act. Papers in the north were questioning what the exact provisions of the act were, even after two weeks of its existence.

The following years saw the presence and removal of many Bengali magazines, which failed to gain support with their language and poverty of thought.

Once the publishers came to know of the provisions, the oppressive measure faced stiff opposition. All native associations, irrespective of religion, caste, and creed, condemned the measure and kept their opposition alive.

All the prominent leaders of Bengal and India condemned the act as unfair and unjust and demanded its immediate withdrawal. 

The successful administration of Lord Ripon reviewed the developments resulting from the Act and eventually withdrew it (1881).

>>> Read about Lord Ripon in India

Provisions of Vernacular Press Act

  1. The district magistrate was allowed to call upon the printer and publisher of any vernacular newspaper to enter into a bond with the Government undertaking not to cause hatred against the Government or antipathy between persons of different religions, caste, race through published material; the printer and publisher could also be asked to deposit security which could be forfeited if the regulation were contravened, and press equipment could be seized if the offense re-occurred.
  2. The magistrate’s action was final and no appeal could be made in a court of law.
  3. A vernacular newspaper could get an exemption from the operation of the Act by submitting proofs to a government censor.

The Act came to be nicknamed “the gagging Act”. 

The worst features of this Act were:

  1. discriminator between English and vernacular press
  2. no right of appeal.

In 1883, Surendranath Banerjee became the first Indian journalist to be imprisoned. In an angry editorial in The Bengalee Banerjea had criticized a judge of Calcutta High Court for being insensitive to the religious sentiments of Bengalis in one of his judgments.

In 1898, the Government amended Section 124A and added another Section 153A which made it a criminal offense for anyone to bring into contempt the Government of India or to create hatred among different classes, that is, vis-a-vis the English in India. This also led to nation-wide protests. During Swadeshi and Boycott Movements and due to the rise of militant nationalist trends, several repressive laws were passed.

>>> Read about History of Newspaper in India

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