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Gandhiji's Weeklies : Indian Opinion, Young India, Harijan

Jitendra Desai

Here is a tale of a journalist for whom life was devotion, sadhana. The newspaper to him was a means of his pursuit of life. His writings were the quintessence of experiences in the life of a sadhaka. It was an attempt to explain to his readers his pursuit of truth which he called satyagraha. He never wrote a word without proper thought and scrutiny or to humour anyone. There was not the slightest overstatement anywhere in his write-ups. They did reveal to the readers the true picture of satyagraha in South Africa and the freedom struggle in India. But besides that, it also conveyed the glimpses of the collective experiment conducted by a seeker of truth.

He had hardly any acquaintance with the newspapers whatsoever until he was 19, when he went to England to study law. But as soon as he developed the habit of reading newspapers there, he also imbibed the urge to communicate so natural in a journalist.

But, I had found my feet now. I had not yet started upon my regular studies. I had just begun reading newspapers, thanks to Sjt. Shukla. In India I had never read a newspaper. But here I succeeded in cultivating a liking for them by regular reading. I always glanced over the Daily News, The Daily Telegraph and, The Pall Mall Gazette.

To begin with, he bought the custom-made clothes from the Army and Navy Stores in order to pose as a perfect English gentleman. His evening suit was bought from the Bond Street. He also purchased a tall Chinese hat and golden chains hanging out of both the pockets. He learnt to wear a neck-tie. As all of this was not enough, he joined the classes to learn dancing and playing violin. Besides learning French, he paid a guinea to learn public speaking___ He bought The Standard Elocutionist by Bell. But it woke him up from his three-month old craze :

I had not to spend a lifetime in England, I said to myself What then was the use of learning elocution ? And how could dancing make a gentleman of me ? The violin I could learn even in India. I was a student and ought to go on with my studies. I should qualify myself to join the Inns of Court. If my character made a gentleman of me, so much the better. Otherwise I should forego the ambition.

This was the first major change in his attitude to life as well as life-style. Of all these changes the major ones included simplicity of living, the experiments of diet and religious reading. He joined the vegetarian society of London, and wrote a series of articles on the food habits and festivals of India in The Vegetarian. Thus a great journalist was born.

Although born at Porbandar in India his life was largely shaped abroad particularly at Durban and Phoenix. During two decades of his stay in South Africa this Barrister-at-Law was transformed into a seeker of truth.

In 1893 Gandhiji, the young Barrister, sailed to South Africa to assist Sheth Abdulla's litigation. The day after his arrival there Sheth Abdulla accompanied him to see the Law Court down there. Gandhiji went there wearing his own Indian turban. According to the convention of the court he had to take it off while he was in. But he did not do so for that meant to him compromise of his self-respect. On the Magistrate's order to take off the turban he preferred to quit.

This incident awoke the journalist in Gandhi. He wrote to the editor of a newspaper a letter on the right to wear the turban and the humiliation involved in taking it off.

I wrote to the press about the incident and defended the wearing of my turban in the court. The question was very much discussed in the papers, which described me as an 'unwelcome visitor'. Thus the incident gave me an unexpected advertisement in South Africa within a few days of my arrival there. Some supported me, while others severely criticized my temerity.

After settling Sheth Abdulla's case through compromise as he was about to sail for India Gandhi saw in the Indian franchise bill the first step towards the ruin of the Indian community there. He explained to the businessmen who came to bid him farewell "it was an insult and hurt our self-respect". The whole situation took such a turn that Gandhiji had to cancel his journey home and stay on in South Africa to serve the cause of the Indian community.

Of his associates in South Africa there was Madanjit who ran a press called the International Printing Press. He sought Gandhiji's help and guidance in launching a newspaper called the Indian Opinion. Gandhiji gave his consent. Mansukhlal Nazar was appointed its editor, but the major editorial burden devolved on Gandhiji's shoulders.

I had no notion that I should have to invest any money in this journal, but I soon discovered that it could not go on without my financial help. The Indians and the Europeans both knew that, though I was not avowedly the editor of Indian Opinion, I was virtually responsible for its conduct. It would not have mattered if the journal had never been started, but to stop it after it had once been launched would have been both a loss and a disgrace. So I kept on pouring out my money, until ultimately I was practically sinking all my savings in it. I remember a time when I had to remit 75 each month.

Thus the Indian Opinion did emerge as the organ of defending the right and welfare of the Indians living there. But financially it was a deficit venture. Against the loan advanced by Gandhiji, Madanjit gave away the International Printing Press to him. Thus Gandhiji owned the press. He deputed his associates Mr. West and Shri Chhaganlal Gandhi to take charge of the press. In his first dispatch Mr. West reported : "This venture does not yield any profit as envisaged by you. I see clear loss. The accounts are in a bad shape. There are considerable dues but of no consequence. It will necessitate many changes. But please don't be alarmed by the report. I will do my best. I would not give up my work simply because there is no profit."

On reading this report, Gandhiji set out for Natal. Meanwhile he came to be acquainted with Mr. Polak, the editor of the Critic, who accompanied him to the station to see him off. While parting he handed over Ruskin's Unto This Last to him saying, "It is good reading during the journey. Please go through it; you will like it."

As Gandhiji observed, the book had a magic effect on him. Once he started reading the book, he could not put it aside. It cast a spell on him. The train took 24 hours to reach Durban. During these twenty four hours Gandhiji discovered a new instrument for his pursuit of meaningful life - it was "ashram" life, the austere living based on the principle of universal emancipation, Sarvodaya.

On the surface, Gandhiji might appear to be a social reformer or a politician. But essentially he was a seeker of truth. He aspired to realize God and attain salvation right in this life if he could. His writings occasionally reveal this, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. He has recorded this in one of his articles in the Navajivan in 1924.

I do not consider myself worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the race of prophets. I am a humble seeker after truth. I am impatient to realize myself to attain moksha in this very existence. My national service is part of my training for freeing my soul from the bondage of flesh. I have no desire for the transitory kingdom of earth. I am striving for the Kingdom of Heaven which is moksha, salvation. To attain my end it is not necessary for me to seek the shelter of a cave. A cave-dweller can build castles in the air whereas a dweller in a palace like Janaka has no castles to build. The cave- dweller who hovers round the world on the wings of thought has no peace. A Janaka though living in the midst of 'pomp and circumstance' may have peace that passeth understanding. For me, the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and that through of humanity. I want to identify myself with everything that lives. In the language of the Gita I want to live at peace with both friends and foes. Though, therefore, a Mussalman or a Christian or a Hindu may despise me and hate me, I want to love him and serve him even as I would love my wife or son though they might hate me. So my patriotism is for me a stage in my journey to the land of eternal freedom and peace. Thus it will be seen that for me there exists no politics devoid of religion. It subserves religion. Politics bereft of religion is a deathtrap because it kills the soul.

Gandhiji not only sought salvation for self but also desired to help mankind to attain it; and hence his endeavour took a public mode. He wanted the other like-minded persons to join him in his quest of truth. "I have the desire to be associated with as many friends as possible in my quest."

Thus Mahatma Gandhi opened up a new avenue in the area of the pursuit of truth. Moreover, he hoped to spread the principles realized by him in the course of his experiments with truth, and thus give the benefit to the wider world. There were twin instruments : the ashram, which was the centre of the activities of the community as a whole and the newspaper for the propagation of his ideals and experiments with truth.

The newspaper was thus to Gandhiji a vital means of his pursuit of truth. To write for it was to him like the devotional counting of the beads of a rosary. In 1904, the year in which he set up Phoenix Institute, he shouldered the responsibility of editing the Indian Opinion to propagate the ideals of Unto This Last, Sarvodaya. While reading Ruskin's book, he made a remarkable change both in his life and work and shifted both the Indian Opinion and the International Press from Durban to Phoenix. His reflection, on the very first night at Phoenix, came to be remarkably momentary :

It was no easy thing to issue the first number of Indian Opinion from Phoenix. Had I not taken two precautions, the first issue would have had to be dropped or delayed. The idea of having an engine to work the press had not appealed to me. I had thought that hand- power would be more in keeping with an atmosphere where agricultural work was also to be done by hand. But as the idea had not appeared feasible, we had installed an oil-engine. I had, however, suggested to West to have something handy to fall back upon in case the engine failed. He had therefore arranged a wheel which could be worked by hand. The size of the paper, that of a daily, was considered unsuitable for an out-of-the-way place like Phoenix. It was reduced to foolscap size, so that, in case of emergency, copies might be struck off with the help of a treadle.

But the first night was unforgettable. The pages were locked, but the engine refused to work. We had got out an engineer from Durban to put up the engine and set it going. He and West tried their hardest, but in vain. Everyone was anxious. West, in despair, at last came to me, with tears in his eyes, and said, "The engine will not work, I am afraid we cannot issue the paper in time.

But Gandhiji did not lose courage, and endeavoured to keep going the newspaper with the machine needing manual handling by as many as four persons in turn. They were all exhausted. Nevertheless Gandhiji succeeded. Even the tired mechanics and labourers agreed to run the machine. There were already the workers of the Press also. Mr. West's joy knew no bounds. He started off his work singing devotional hymns. Gandhiji himself joined the working team and handled the machine.

The machine still needed repairs.Next morning the engineer put in one more effort to run the machine. It worked. There were shouts of joy all around. At last the newspaper number could be issued in time.

In the words of Gandhiji:

For me the failure of the engine had come as a test for us all, and its working in the nick of time as the fruit of our honest and earnest labours.

That machine of the Phoenix International Press is even today part of its museum. The stool, on which Gandhiji used to sit to do his writing and editorial work for the Indian Opinion until 1914 when he left South Africa, is also preserved for its historical value. For years he had sat on that stool. The Indian Opinion revealed him as a journalist in quest of truth.

So long as it was under my control, the changes in the journal were indicative of changes in my life. Indian Opinion in those days, like Young India and Navajivan today was mirror ofpart of my life. Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns, and expounded the principles and practice of Satyagraha as. I understood it. During ten years, that is until 1914, excepting the intervals of my enforced rest in prison, there was hardly an issue of Indian Opinion without an article from me. I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation, or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please. Indeed the journal became for me a training in self-restraint, and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts. The critic found very little to which he could object. In fact the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen. Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion. The readers lookedforward to it for a trustworthy account of the Satyagraha campaign as also of the real condition of Indians in South A frica. For me it became a means for the study of human nature in all its casts and shades, as I always aimed at establishing an intimate and clean bond between the editor and the readers. I was inundated with letters containing the outpourings of my correspondents 'hearts. They were friendly, critical or bitter, according to the temper of the writer. It was a fine education for me to study, digest and answer all this correspondence. It was as though the community thought audibly through this correspondence with me. It made me thoroughly understand the responsibility of a journalist, and the hold I secured in this way over the community made the future campaign workable, dignified, and irresistible.

This rich tradition was continued and extended to the Navajivan, the Young India and the Harijan in India which not only fostered but also enriched and strengthened the various movements for freedom. Through these journals Mahatma Gandhi explored not merely the scope and power but also the pitfalls of journalism. His perception in this field was clear :

One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.

In the very first month of Indian Opinion, I realized that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.

These words, written as early as seven decades ago, are even today equally relevant.

Source: The Editor Gandhi and Indian Opinion