Saturday, 17 May 2014

Which is the oldest surviving newspaper in India?

Which is the oldest surviving newspaper in India? WhichIndian 
newspaper started publication at least three years before‘The Times’, 
London, and still continues? The answer to bothqueries would surprise 
many: ‘The Calcutta Gazette’, whichcompletes 200 year of publication 

The 1780s witnessed the birth, and unprecedentedadvancement of 
journalism in India. And Calcutta, as the capital ofBritish India, naturally 
took the lead. Though PortugueseMissionaries had brought the first 
printing press to Goa as early as1557, there was no newspaper or 
journal in India until January 29,1780 – whenJames Augustus 
Hickyventured to bring out hiscontroversial ‘Bengal Gazette’ from 

Hicky's two sheets of paper, about twelve inches by 
eight,contained enough advertisements for Hicky to prosper, but 
hisvitriolic columns caused so much indignation among the East 
IndiaCompany's ‘New Nabobs’ that the survival of India's first paper 
(andits proprietor) became a matter of considerable speculation. 
Theadministration of an exasperated Hastings finally clinched the issuein 
March, 1782, by seizing and closing down Hicky's press. Hickyhimself 
found his lodgings shifted to the Calcutta Jail. 

The Company's authorities were in favour of a Press thatwould be 
less ‘scurrilous’ and a trifle more understanding. BeforeHicky's Bengal 
Gazette completed 10 months, a rival paper calledthe ‘Indian Gazette’ 
was started by B. Messink, who was connectedwith the theatre, along 
with a salt merchant of Calcutta called PeterReed. India's second 
newspaper was promptly rewarded by WarrenHastings for its sobriety 
and loyalty with the privilege of circulationthrough the Post Office free of 
postage. The India Gazette did not,however, survive for long. 

The newspaper that did survive, and still does, was thethird –
thoughin its present form, it can hardly becalled a newspaper. The 
‘Calcutta Gazette’ was the brainchild of abrilliant individual; Francis 
Gladwin. A pioneering Orientalist andlexicographer, Gladwin was a civil 
servant who thought far ahead ofhis time. He was the first Professor of 
Persian at the Fort WilliamCollege in Calcutta, which Lord Wellesley had 
founded for theproper training of the Company's ‘griffins’ as soon as 
they reachedIndia. 

Francis Gladwin's translation of the Ain-i-Akbari reserved forhim a 
secure place among the assembly of Orientalists, while hisother 
translations from Persian, like the ‘Memories of KhojehAbdualKurrern’, 
the Tuti-Namah, Sheik Saadi'sGulistan, to name a few,continue to 
enthuse scholars. Gladwin's dictionary, the‘Compendious Vocabulary of 
English and Persian’, his ‘Ceremoniesof the Eastern Nations’ and his 
‘Vocabulary, Persian, Arabic andEnglish’ displayed his complete mastery 
over Persian Arabic,Hindustani and Bengali. 

Gladwin had to, of course, apply his genius to more 
mundanematters pertaining to revenue administration, and in this 
spheretoo, he has left ample evidence of his grasp, insight and 
labours.His contribution to, and his association with, the Asiatic Society 
– founded, incidentallyin the same year as the Calcutta Gazette – ispart 
of the Society's folklore. 

Gladwin had applied formally to "The Hon'ble GovernorGeneral & 
Council" on 2nd February, 1784, seeking sanction for thepublication of 
"A Authorized Gazette, under the ImmediateSuperintendence of a 
Covenanted Servant". The administrationmoved amazingly fast and 
within four days, the Secretary of theRevenue Department issued a 
notification declaring "Letter from Mr.Gladwin. February 2, agreed to in 
terms of his application". Theorder further enjoined upon the "the Heads 
of Offices to Issue allsuch Advertisement or Publication as may be 
ordered on the part ofthe Company, thro' the Channel of his Paper." 

Thus was born the Calcutta Gazette, on the 4th of March,exactly 
200 years ago, in Calcutta. Like its two forerunners, theCalcutta Gazette 
was also a weekly, but whereas the other twoGazettes were published 
on Saturday, this Gazette was publishedon Thursdays, and till today, the 
major publications of the CalcuttaGazette are bought out on Thursdays. 
One reason for this could bethat Muslim Assistants were difficult to come 
by on Fridays,whereas most Christians refuse to work on Sundays. This 
made thepublication of a paper that used Persian and English 
letterssomewhat difficult between Fridays and Mondays. But this is 
merelya supposition. 
‘The Calcutta Gazette’ or ‘Oriental Advertiser’ as it was 
called,started publication from 37 Larkins Lane, an off-shoot of Old 
CourtHouse Street in the Dalhousie Square area. Though Gladwin was 
acivil servant, "the official department of the paper was kept 
quitedistinct from the editorial, and the Company's authorities were in 
noway connected or identified with the management or politics of 
thepaper, but only used it as a medium for making known 
generalorders, requisitions, and official notices of all sorts". 
TheGovernment never regarded (until 1832) the Calcutta Gazette as 
itsofficial organ and often took umbrage at some of its comments. 
Infact, such displeasure was often made public through themedium of 
the same paper. On the 10th of February, 1785, anannouncement was 
made in the Gazette that the Governor-Generaland Council had 
expressed their entire disapprobation of someportion of the Gazette 
dated September, 30, 1784. 

Gladwin could not resist a swipe or two against some ofhis own 
government's actions. Mere government advertisingsupport can hardly 
sustain a newspaper and the "Gazette'sgentlemanly sense of fair play" 
and reporting must have contributedconsiderably towards its longevity, 
though certain students of thehistory of journalism tend to dismiss the 
‘Calcutta Gazette’ (even inits prime period between 1784 and 1832) as a 
mere organ of thegovernment, which is rather unkind. 

From 1832, however, the Calcutta Gazette did become theofficial 
publication of the Government – ofboth the Government ofBengal and 
the Government of India till 1864, and only of theGovernment of Bengal 
after 1864. But for the first thirty one yearsof publication, the Gazette 
guarded its independence with pride anddignity. Even for the next 
seventeen years, till 1832, the Gazettecontinued to publish news and 
views as any other independentnewspaper, though its name was 
temporarily changed to theGovernment Gazette. In fact, the first forty 
eight years ofindependent publication and free selection and reporting of 
newsgave the Gazette its prestige and historical importance. 

Historians, research-scholars and journalists continue to poreover 
the musty volumes of the Calcutta Gazette of this period tocross-check 
the authenticity of events as well as for testing theveracity of their 
findings. So important is the historical value of thepublication of the 
Gazette (as source material, up to 1832) that inthe 1860s, the Records 
Commission took upon itself the task ofsifting all available material  
published in the Calcutta Gazette andbringing out volumes of ‘Selections 
from the Calcutta Gazette’. Fivevolumes were published by W.S Seton 
Carr and Hugh Sandemenn,covering the period up to 1823. Another 
volume of the ‘Selections’was published in 1959 by A.C. Dasgupta of the 
Bengal GovernmentPress. 

In March, 1832, the Calcutta Gazette resumed its originalname, 
but became purely an official publication of the Government,in which 
form it continues till today. Its historical importance andlegal value, 
however, remains all though the Gazette’s subsequent onehundred and 
fifty two years of uninterrupted publication. 

The Calcutta Gazette has naturally seen many changes in 
size,dates of publication, ownership, content and publication 
addresses,but these are only natural for any publication or any 
organisationthat outlives two centuries. 

When it started, British power in India was in its relativeinfancy. 
The Gazette witnessed the growth and consolidation of theRaj; the 
spread of an Empire over which the sun never set; theexciting 
transformation of India; the growth of nationalism; thepoliticaland legal 
crises of an alien administration desperatelytrying to cling onand the 
pangs of the birth of a free nation. Notonly did the Gazette witness it all, 
it mirrored all it saw – veryfaithfully so till 1832, and within the limitation 
of a Governmentpublication after that. 

As a mirror of Indian affairs, the Calcutta Gazette was at itsbest up 
to 1832, when independent reporters and diversecorrespondents filled 
the newspaper with letters, dispatches, songs,poems, news, trade 
bulletins and essays (which may interest thecasual reader even today), 
while the Company and the citizens ofthe Settlement of Calcutta 
published notices, notifications andadvertisements in it. 

"Run Away - A slave boy, called J - belonging to Lt Col C..." 
This notice, published on 20th July, 1786, in the Gazette, alongwith 
many similar contemporary notices and items about "Coffreeboys for 
sale", clearly reveals what most history books fall tomention – 
thatslavery was an open practice in Calcutta, evenamong the British, till 
the middle of the 19th century. 
Another notice that appeared on the 11th of December, 
1788,announced that Mr.Tiretta was organizing a lottery and 
wasoffering as first prize a plot of land valued as Rs.1,96,000 for 
theconstruction of a bazaar. It was this plot that was to later 
becomefamous as the Tiretti Bazar of Calcutta. The Gazette's 
reportsabout Vauxhall and fireworks, nautches and banquets, 
festivitiesand poojas give us valuable glimpses into 18th and 19th 
centurysociety in Calcutta. Items regarding Sutteesand infanticide, and 
thereports of Ram Mohan Roy's crusade, can make us visualize 
vividlythe events of the age of transition and the struggle 
betweenobscurantism and reform. 

The present condition of the Calcutta Gazette – its 
delayedpublication and lack of organization – calls for immediate 
anddrastic action. The Administrative Reform Committee of the 
WestBengal Government reported last year on the sorry state of 
thishistoric journal and suggested positive steps for its improvement.The 
public at large has almost lost interest in this Governmentpublication, 
but a researcher may yet discover items of interest(and sometimes) of 

A government notification (not of West Bengal) that appearedin 
the Gazette of 7th December, 1978, contained this passage: 
"Thepresent Central government consisting of a bunch of 
lunatics,comedians, ludicrous comic actors and actresses, nincompoops 
ofthe first waters, greedy power mongers & clinging on the seats 
ofpolitical privileges for their own personal gain, are not only utterlyunfit 
to guide the destiny of this disintegrating country, but arepositively 
traitors to the country and deserve to be thrown behindprison bars if not 
publicly executed for high treason against theState of India." 

It was only after a second and third look that one discoveredthat 
this extract was meant to be proscribed under Section 124A ofthe Indian 
Penal Code, and not for wide publicity in the officialorgan that it 
inadvertently received!

Published in ‘The Sunday Statesman’, Literary Supplement, 4th March, 1984


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