Vernacular Press Act
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The Vernacular Press Act was passed in 1878 under the Governor Generalship and Viceroyalty of Lord Lytton, for better control of Indian language newspapers. The purpose of the Act was to control the printing and circulation of seditious material, specifically that which could produce disaffection against the British Government in India in the minds of the masses.
A “Gagging Act” had been passed following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 which sought to regulate the establishment of printing presses and to restrain the mad of printed mater. All presses had to have a license from the government with no distinction between publications in English and other regional languages. The Act also held that no printed material shall impugn 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 repress 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 summoned 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 remarked in a speech that forty five seditious writings published in fifteen different vernacular papers were presented to him before the Act was finalized.
The Vernacular Press Act stated that any magistrate or Commissioner of Police had the authority to call upon any printer or publisher of a newspaper to enter into a bond, undertaking not to print a certain kind of material, and could confiscate any printed material it deemed objectionable. The Act provided for submitting to police all the proof sheets of contents of papers before publication. What was seditious news was to be determined by the police, and not by the judiciary. Under this Act many of the papers were fined, their editors jailed. Thus, they were subject to prior restraint. The affected party could not seek redress in a court of law. General threats to the Indian language press included:
- Subversion of democratic institutions
- Agitations and violent incidents
- False allegations against British authorities or individuals
- Endangering law and order to disturb the normal functioning of the state
- Threats to internal stability
Any one or more of the above were punishable by law, but no redress could be sought in any court in the land.
This repressive measure encountered strong opposition. All the native associations irrespective of religion, caste and creed denounced the measure and kept their protests alive. All the prominent leaders of Bengal and India condemned the Act as unwarranted and unjustified, and demanded its immediate withdrawal. The newspapers themselves kept criticizing the measure without end. The succeeding administration of Lord Ripon reviewed the developments consequent upon the Act and finally withdrew it.
- History of Indian Journalism, J.Natarajan, p. 81, 100-102, 108-112.
- Mass Media Laws and Regulations, C.S.Rayadu and S.B.Nageswar Rao, p. 1, 3-6,8-11.
- Sirajul Islam, "Vernacular Press Act, 1878", Banglapedia. On line.
- Vernacular Press Act", Encyclopedia Britannica. On line.