My newspapers became for me a training ground in self- restraint and a means for studying human nature in all its shades and variations. Without the newspapers a movement like Satyagraha could not have been possible.
A few days ago Nobel laureate V S Naipaul spoke to media persons at the Centre for Fine Arts, Bozar, in Belgium. He said: 'People in cities are turning their backs to Indian civilization. They want green cards. They want to migrate. They want to go to England. They want to get to the US. There is a fracture at this moment of great hope for India. It is possibly quiet dangerous at the moment. The consequences could be a very radical kind of revolution? Village against city'. At the same time, Naipaul also said that India is a very dynamic, moving culture. During the course of his interview, he dismissed Mahatma Gandhi's book, 'Indian Home Rule' (Hind Swaraj) published in 1909 as an 'absurdity'. I was shocked by this observation and therefore I went back to the writings of Gandhiji, not only as a politician but also as a journalist, starting from 1903 till his assassination on 30 January, 1948.
As a powerful mass communicator and as a fearless journalist, Mahatma Gandhi was unrivalled. Almost everyone knows that Mahatma Gandhi was a Political Leader, but very few know that Gandhi was also a journalist! Yes, Gandhi was an outstanding journalist. For 45 years, starting from 1903, he edited and published weekly newspapers. Journalism was the factor that transformed ordinary Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's work in the field of journalism had a strong influence not only on every newspaper in India but also on the entire literary world of every language in India!!!
Even when he was studying for the Bar in London, Gandhiji wrote articles for the 'Vegetarian'. When his political career in South Africa started in 1893, he wrote letters to the editors of the South African news papers and also of some news papers in India. That is how he came into contact with G A Natesan, the Editor of Indian Review in Madras. G A Natesan became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhiji always stayed at the residence of G A Natesan during his several visits to Madras till the late 1930s.
After a few months' stay in South Africa in 1893, Gandhi realized the paramount public need to become a journalist to fight for the rights of the Indian community. And he brought the highest qualities of the journalistic profession? Courage in the face of adversity, unswerving adherence to truth, pursuit of public causes, and objectivity in presentation? In all his letters, representations and memorials, not only to the government of the day but also to the leading newspapers of the time.
His letters to the editors of South African dailies can serve as a lesson to all journalists even today on how to fight injustice in any country or any public system where the laws are loaded against one section of the people, without giving offence to the rulers themselves. Gandhiji's only aim as a journalist was to achieve illuminating candour in print and to strip away cant. In short he was totally committed to the sacred pursuit of and the heroic effort to state the truth. Gandhiji was fully aware of the fact that the pursuit of the truth and the articulation of it was the most delicate, hazardous, exacting, and inexact of tasks. He was totally committed to the cause of the pursuit of truth, information and enlightenment. A telling example of this trait can be seen from his letter dated 25 October, 1894 to the Times of Natal, which had carried a contemptuously worded editorial titled 'Rammysammy'.
Gandhi wrote: 'You would not allow the Indian or the native the precious privilege (of voting) under any circumstances, because they have a dark skin. You would look the exterior only. So long as the skin is white it would not matter to you whether it conceals beneath it poison or nectar. To you the lip-prayer of the Pharisee, because he is one, is more acceptable than the sincere repentance of the publican, and this, I presume, you would call Christianity. You may; it is not Christ's. Sir, may I venture to offer a suggestion? Will you re-read your New Testament? Will you ponder over your attitude towards the coloured population of the Colony? Will you then say you can reconcile it with the Bible teachings or the best British traditions? If you have washed your hands clean of both Christ and the British tradition, I can have nothing to say; I gladly withdraw what I have written. Only, it will then be a sad day for British and for India if you have many followers.'
After 10 years of relentless struggle, Gandhi realised that the twin tasks of mobilizing public opinion and influencing official decisions required a regular newspaper. Thus was born Indian Opinion in June 1903. He was clear about the nature and content of his newspaper. It would not carry any advertisements nor try to make money.
Instead, he sought subscribers who would give donations. It was while writing in Indian Opinion that Gandhi stumbled on the concept of satyagraha. Indian Opinion became certainly a most useful and potent weapon in the struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa. In South Africa his writings often made the white racists look ridiculous: ?The white barber refused to cut my black hair, extending his colour prejudice to not only non-Christian skin but non-Christian hair as well.
Gandhi served as Editor of Indian Opinion for 12 years from 1903 to 1915. Gandhi often declared that journalism was not a profession or business for him, but an effective medium of communicating with the common people. For this reason he wrote more and more in the Indian languages and spoke to the masses directly. It is not therefore surprising that Indian Opinion was bi-lingual (English and Gujarati) right from the beginning. Later for sometime it had also Hindi and Tamil sections. Indian Opinion more or less forced the South African provincial regimes to modify their repressive laws against Indians. Gandhi himself has confirmed this fact. He says of his Indian Opinion articles: 'There was no padding, no essays given to the readers. I used to reason out for them their difficulties. I had no time to discuss theories. They had weekly instructions as to what they were to do. I have no doubt that Indian Opinion had a vital part to play in moulding and guiding the Satyagrahis.' (1-7-1940).
Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in January 1915. In 1917 he got a call from the Indigo farmers of Champaran in Bihar that they were being subjected to the same forms of indignity and exploitation as the indentured labourers in South Africa. Gandhi rushed to Champaran and conducted an investigation and wrote a detailed report. It was a masterpiece of journalism at its truest and noblest. After Champaran it was only a matter of time before the Mahatma took to journalism as his most potent weapon of satyagraha in India till the attainment of our independence on 15 August, 1947.
Gandhi was the Editor of Young India from1919 to 1931. Young India had a Gujarati edition called Navajivan. Young India, like Indian Opinion in South Africa, was the mouthpiece of the civil disobedience movement during the 1920s. Issue after issue of Young India and Navajivan carried samples of the Mahatma's journalistic genius which blended seemingly earnest appeals to the government to do what was 'just and righteous'. Gandhi was Editor of Harijan from 1933 to 1942 and again from 1946 to 1948. Harijan was the organ of the Harijan Sevak Sangh in the fight against untouchability. Like Young India, Harijan too had both Gujarati and Hindi editions.
In Gandhi's conception of journalism, there was no room for sensational scoops. He said, 'there are occasions when a journalist serves his profession best by his silence'.
His writing was simple, direct and forthright. He was economical and effective in his choice of words and studiously precise in his expressions. His captions would repay careful study.
Professor K Swaminathan, who edited the collected writings of Mahatma Gandhi in 100 volumes said about Gandhiji as a journalist: 'The lesson we learn from Gandhiji as a journalist can br formulated in two ways. To those who love the Ramayana as he did, the lesson is: As you go about your daily task, remember the two monkey messengers, Angada and Hanuman, and carry good tidings from good masters. To those who do not care for poetry, it is Journalism, when practised with a sense of mission, proves readily available means of service to society and an excellent sadhana for self-improvement.' On the eve of our independence, Gandhiji was anguished to find that all the main-line English and language newspapers were commercial, afraid of the Government and not truthful in reporting. His last word on the Indian newspapers came at a prayer meeting in Delhi on 19 June, 1946. He said: 'If I were appointed dictator for a day in the place of the Viceroy, I would stop all newspapers.' He paused and added with a mischievous wink: 'With the exception of Harijan, of course. I can only say that there was no politician more human and no human being more political than Mahatma Gandhi.'
* V Sundaram is a retired IAS officer. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org