Written by Suhasini Ganguly. Edited by Joscelin Woodend.
On 29thJanuary 1780, the first Indian newspaper came into being. Founded by James Augustus Hicky, it never ran for more than two years and its circulation never crossed two hundred. It was known as the ‘Calcutta General Advertiser’, or as it is more popularly known these days – as ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’. The gazette claimed that it was ‘a weekly political and commercial paper open to all yet influenced by none’ – a statement that strongly echoes its independence from any colonial influence.
The gazette consisted of two pages, about twelve inches by eight inches which were printed on both sides. There were three columns of printed material on each side, most of which were advertisements. There was a corner for poets, called ‘Poet’s Corner’. The paper occasionally acted as a tabloid, with articles about scandals, local gossip, affairs about the life of the European Community at Calcutta.There were also articles taken from English newspapers, letters from local and rural readers, and most importantly a column which Hicky kept to communicate directly with the readers himself. His paper would come under direct scrutiny by the administration.
At the time in question, the advent of the media and journalism had not been felt in India. Before Hicky came forward with his dynamic idea, the ‘newspaper’ had never taken off in the country. The East India Company never quite liked the idea of a free press – they were inherently against any kind of criticism. Hicky would, through his newspaper, openly criticize members of the Company and claim that they were corrupt. In this way, he drew the enmity of important officials such as Governor-General Warren Hastings and Chief Justice Elijah Impey. Added to this was when he got personal and started criticizing Lady Hastings, he would soon find himself in jail, from where he continued to write, until his movable types were confiscated on the order on Lord Hastings.
The administration was infuriated with him – he would report on the private lives of higher ranking officials, sometimes even the soldiers. He once linked the name of Elijah Impey with a contract for a bridge that had gone to his cousin; he criticized Hastings about his policies, such as the Regulating Act, which attempted to overtake the management of the East India Company. This Act saw Warren Hastings becoming the ‘Governor-General’ of Bengal from simply ‘Governor’.
That Hicky was not someone scared of voicing his opinions, and that he held the
conviction to follow this through, saw him going to jail twice for making Hastings irate. The first time was when he imposed a ‘mocking attack’ on Lady Hastings. The East India Company would not deal with this matter lightly, and he was imprisoned for four months. He also had a fine of Rs. 500 imposed on him. Undeterred, he would go on with these attacks even after he was released, this time landing up in prison for a year, with a fine of Rs. 5000 imposed on him. This was when the financial burden finally overpowered his resources.
In the same year that the Bengal Gazette was first published, another newspaper also made its way into the Calcutta market. This was known as the ‘Indian Gazette’ and could very easily be called Hicky’s greatest rival in the field. A four page newspaper, sixteen inches big with better type, three columns and well printed – this newspaper saw Hicky complain that his readers were deserting him, much preferring the other newspaper. In a fit of anger, he would attack the Swedish missionary John Zachariah Kiermander claiming that he was supplying types to his rivals; the proprietors on the Indian Gazette, Peter Reed and B. Messinck, would also fall prey to his scorn. What made things more difficult for him was the partial treatment the authorities granted to the Indian Gazette. They would grant the newspaper with postal facilities, an advantage that was denied Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.
Though it was not an Indian, but rather a British man who started the first newspaper in India, its importance in beginning the trend that culminated in modern day journalism can hardly be underestimated. Even though the newspaper was printed in India, it is not really possible to call it an ‘Indian’ newspaper per say, not when it talks about the European elite and focuses almost exclusively on that ethnicity. A large number of the paper’s readers were also the Europeans themselves. However, it cannot be denied that this endeavor was the first to bring the newspaper to India, and to push forward an evolution that slowly redefined how the country saw, reacted and believed in its journalism and media.