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