Vernacular Press Act, 1878:
A bitter legacy of the 1857 revolt was the racial bitterness between the ruler and the ruled. After 1858, the European press always rallied behind the Government in political controversies while the vernacular press was critical of the Government. There was a strong public opinion against the imperialistic policies of Lytton, compounded by terrible famine (1876-77), on the one hand, and lavish expenditure on the imperial Delhi Durbar, on the other.
The Vernacular Press Act (VPA) was designed to ‘better control’ the vernacular press and effectively punish and repress seditious writing.
The provisions of the Act included the following:
1. The district magistrate was empowered to call upon the printer and publisher of any vernacular newspaper to enter into a bond with the Government undertaking not to cause disaffection against the Government or antipathy between persons of different religions, caste, race through published material; the printer and publisher could also be required to deposit security which could be forfeited if the regulation were contravened, and press equipment could be seized if the offence 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 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—(i) discriminator between English and vernacular press, (ii) no right of appeal.
Under VPA, proceedings were instituted against Som Prakash, Bharat Mihir, Dacca Prakash and Samachar.
(Incidentally, the Amrita Bazar Patrika turned overnight into an English newspaper to escape the VPA.)
Later, the pre-censorship clause was repealed, and a press commissioner was appointed to supply authentic and accurate news to the press.
There was strong opposition to the Act and finally Ripon repealed it in 1882.
In 1883, Surendranath Banerjea became the first Indian journalist to be imprisoned. In an angry editorial in The Bengalee Banerjea had criticised a judge of Calcutta High Court for being insensitive to the religious sentiments of Bengalis in one of his judgements.
Balgangadhar Tilak is most frequently associated with the nationalist fight for the freedom of press. Tilak had been building up anti-imperialist sentiments among the public through Ganapati festivals (started in 1893), Shivaji festivals (started in 1896) and through his newspapers Kesari and Maharatta.
He was among the first to advocate bringing the lower middle classes, the peasants, artisans and workers into the Congress fold. In 1896, he organised an all Maharashtra campaign for boycott of foreign cloth in opposition to imposition of excise duty on cotton. In 1896-97 he initiated a no-tax campaign in Maharashtra, urging farmers to withhold the payment of revenue if their crop had failed. In 1897, plague occurred in Poona. Although Tilak supported government measures to check plague, there was large-scale popular resentment against heartless and harsh methods such as segregation and house searches.
The popular unrest resulted ‘in murder of the chairman of the Plague Committee in Poona by the Chapekar brothers. The government policies on tariff, currency and famine were also behind this popular resentment.
The Government had been looking for an opportunity to check this militant trend and hostility in the press. They decided to make Tilak a victim to set an example to the public. Tilak was arrested after the murder of Rand on the basis of the publication of a poem, ‘Shivaji’s Utterances’, in Kesari, and of a speech which Tilak had delivered at the Shivaji festival, justifying Afzal Khan’s murder by Shivaji.
Tilak’s defence of Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan was portrayed by the prosecution as an incitement to kill British officials. Tilak was held guilty and awarded rigorous imprisonment of eighteen months. Simultaneously several other editors in Bombay presidency were tried and given similar harsh sentences. There were widespread protests against these measures. Overnight Tilak became a national hero and was given the title of “Lokmanya’ (respected and honoured by the people)—a new leader who preached with his deeds.
In 1898, the Government amended Section 124A and added another Section 153A which made it a criminal offence 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 rise of militant nationalist trends, several repressive laws were passed.