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Mahatma Gandhi’s Views On Journalism

Sita Ojha

Mahatma Gandhi was a staunch believer in the power of the word and wrote very cautiously in his newspapers to mobilize public opinion.  The subjects he chose to write on were varied and variegated, which depicted his honesty, integrity and transparency, touching the hearts of the readers cutting across generations and even nations.  As M V Kamath has aptly pointed out, “……he wrote in a manner that anybody could understand.  He was writing for Everyman so that Everyman could understand him easily.  He had no literary pretensions but what he wrote was literature.” 

Each time we put Gandhi behind us as a historical icon, he surprises everyone by bouncing back with ever increasing relevance.  Through his writings, especially his autobiography My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi candidly disclosed his shortcomings, his weaknesses, and his vulnerability like any other ordinary human being.  The difference lies in his overcoming his drawbacks through his indomitable will power and continuous effort to evolve as a man of the millennium, winning over friends and foes by his spontaneous flow of love and compassion.  The impact of Gandhi can be discerned in leaders and cultures, astonishingly diverse. 

The following passages contain Mahatma Gandhi’s original writings on journalism: 

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 countryside 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 lice of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test?  But who would stop those that are useless?  The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice (An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, p. 211). 

What should an editor do when something he has published displeases the Government or is held to violate some law but is none the less true?  Should he apologize?  We should say, certainly not.  True, he is not bound to publish in such matter, but once it has been published, the editor ought to accept responsibility for it (Indian Opinion, Gujarati edition, April 23, 1919). 

Indeed the journal (Indian Opinion) became for me a training in self restraint, and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts.  In fact the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen….For me it became a means for study of human nature in all its casts and shades….It made me thoroughly understand the responsibility of a journalist (An Autobiography, p. 286). 

The Journal Indian Opinion….was a powerful weapon in the armoury of Passive Resistance and continues to be the only recorder of accurately sifted facts about our countrymen in South Africa and of Passive Resistance movement.  It is in no sense a commercial enterprise (Letter to Mr. J. B. Petit, Secretary, South African Indian Fund, June 16, 1915). 

I have devoted to the continuance of Indian Opinion and the establishment of Phoenix all my earnings during my last stay in South Africa that is nearly 5000 pounds (Letter to Shri Gokhale, April 25, 1909). 

We hope the readers of this journal Indian Opinion will read their lives (biographies of great men and women of the world) and follow them in practice and thus encourage us.  We have suggested earlier, that each one of our subscribers should maintain a file on Indian Opinion (The Indian Opinion, August 9, 1905). 

The Indian Community in South Africa is a recognized factor in the body politic, and a newspaper, voicing its feelings, and specially devoted to its cause, would hardly be considered out of place: indeed, we think, it would supply along felt want. 

It is within the knowledge of most of our readers that our publication is not a commercial concern, but our capacity for the service of the community…..(Indian Opinion, January 1, 1910). 

We now feel that we should also discontinue the practice of publishing advertisements.  We believed then that advertisements were a good thing to have but on reflection we see that the practice is wholly undesirable.  Advertisements are inserted by people who are impatient to get rich, in order that they may gain over their rivals.  They are also much in fashion these days that any and every kind of advertisement is published and paid for.  This is one of the sorriest features of modern civilization, and for our part we wish to be rid of it.  If however, we published non-commercial advertisements, which serve a public purpose, free of charge, they would fill the entire number each time, so we shall only accept them against payment.  Other advertisements, we shall stop publishing forthwith (Indian Opinion, September 4, 1912). 

I believe that a struggle which chiefly relies upon internal strength cannot be wholly carried on without a newspaper—it is also my experience that we could not perhaps have educated the local Indian community, nor kept Indians all over the world in touch with the course of events in South Africa in any other way, with the same ease and success as through the Indian Opinion, which therefore was certainly a most useful and potent weapon in our struggle (M.K. Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1950, p. 142). 

To the English voters their newspaper is their Bible.  They take their cue from newspapers which are often dishonest.  The same fact is differently interpreted by different newspapers, according to the party in whose interests they are edited.  Our newspaper would consider a great Englishman to be a paragon of honesty, another would consider him dishonest.  What must be the condition of the people whose newspapers are of this type?  …..These people change their views frequently.  It is said that they change them every seven years.  These views swing like the pendulum of a clock and are never steadfast.  The people would follow a powerful orator or a man who gives them parties, receptions, etc.  As are the people, so is their Parliament.  They have certainly one quality very strongly developed.  They will never allow their country to be lost.  If any person were to cast an evil eye on it, they would pluck out his eyes.  (Hind Swaraj, p. 30 & 31). 

I believe that an editor who has anything worth saying and who commands a clientele cannot be easily hushed so long as his body is left free.  He has delivered his finished message as soon as he is put under duress.  The Lokmanya spoke more eloquently from the Mandalay fortress than through the columns of the printed Kesari…..the restoration of free speech, free association, and free press is almost the whole Swaraj (Young India, October 6, 1921). 

The editor of a daily newspaper when he begins writing his leading article does not weigh his words in golden scales.  He may be betrayed into a hasty word.  Must he pay for it even though he did it obviously in good faith without malice and in the public interest?  These libel actions are calculated to demoralize Indian Journalism and make public criticism over-cautious and timid.  I am no lover of irresponsible or unjustifiably strong criticism.  But the caution to be beneficial must come from within and not superimposed from without (Young India, August 7, 1924). 

I have taken up journalism not for its sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life.  My mission is to teach by example and precept under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of satyagraha which is a direct corollary of nonviolence and truth….To be true to my faith, therefore, I may not write in anger or malice.  I may not write idly.  I may not write merely to excite passion.  The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary.  It is a training for me.  It enables me to peep into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses.  Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective.  It is a terrible ordeal by a fine exercise to remove these weeds (Young India, July 2, 1925, p. 232). 

As for giving ideas, I have some originality.  But writing is a bi-product; I write to propagate my ideas.  Journalism is not my profession (Harijan, August 18, 1946, p. 270). 

What is really needed to make a democracy function is not the knowledge of facts, but right education.  And the true function of journalism is to educate the public mind, not to stock the public mind with wanted and unwanted impressions.  A journalist has, therefore, to use his discretion, as to what to report and when.  As it is, the journalists are not content to stick to the facts alone.  Journalism has become the art of ‘intelligent anticipation of events’ (M K Gandhi, See Tendulkar: Mahatma, ed. 1953, p. 247). 

We must devise methods of circulating our ideas unless and until the whole press becomes fearless, defies consequences and publishers ideas, even when it is in disagreement with them, just for the purpose of securing that freedom.  An editor with an original idea or an effective prescription for India’s ills can easily write them out, a hundred hands can copy them, many more can read them out to thousands of listeners.  I do hope, therefore, that Non-cooperation editors, at any rate, will not refrain from expressing their thoughts for fear of the Press Act.  They should regard it as sinful to keep their thoughts secret—a waste of energy to conduct a newspaper that cramps their thoughts.  It is negation of one’s calling for an editor to have to suppress his best thoughts. (M K Gandhi, See S. Natarajan: A History of the Press of India, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1962, p. 195). 

The weekly “Indian Opinion” was launched by Gandhi in four languages in June, 1903.  For him, the single aim of Journalism was service of truth.  It was printed at the farm, where Settlers learnt all aspects of press-work, and hand power was preferred to mechanical power. 

Source: Anasakti Darshan, Vol. 4, No. 1, January-June 2008