By VN Narayanan
As a journalist, Gandhi could have taught a few lessons in mass communication. An effective communicator, fearless and eloquent with his words, he reached out to millions of people and convinced them of his cause
Mahatma Gandhi was the most effective mass medium of the 20th century. His journalism belonged to an era when there was neither radio nor television. Such was the power of his ‘soul communication’ that whatever he said and wrote reached the farthest corners of this country within days and to the entire world thereon.
Mahatma Gandhi, in a journalistic career spanning nearly four decades, edited six journals. None, including Harijan and Navajivan, could boast a circulation of more than a few thousand copies. But such was Gandhi’s grasp of the basics of mass communication that he ensured that his daily ‘outpourings of heart and soul’ reached all.
If one were to ask the question as to who came first-Gandhi-the-freedom-fighter or Gandhi-the-media-crusader-the truth would be that Gandhi-the-journalist pre-dated Gandhi the freedom fighter by at least 20 years.
In less than a few months’ stay in South Africa, Gandhi realized the need to become a journalist to fight for the rights of the Indian community. And he brought the highest qualities the profession could boast of-courage in the face of adversity, unswerving adherence to truth, pursuit of public causes, and objectivity in presentation.
His letters to the editors of South African dailies are a lesson to all journalists on how to fight injustice in a country where the laws are loaded against one section of the people, without giving offence to the rulers themselves.
A telling example of this trait was his letter dated October 25, 1894 to the Times of Natal, which 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 .”
Gandhi adds: “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 crusade, 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.
Writing on satyagraha in South Africa, he said: ‘Indian Opinion was certainly a most useful and potent weapon in our struggle.’
The journal was to Gandhi ‘a mirror of his own life’.
In My Experiments with Truth, he wrote: ‘Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns and expounded the principles and practice of satyagraha as I understood it. I cannot recall a word in these 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.’
Indian Opinion lasted for 11 years. It more or less forced the South African provincial regimes to modify their repressive laws against Indians. One day Gandhi got a call from Bihar where the Indigo farmers of Champaran were subjected to the same kind of indignity and exploitation as the indentured labourers in South Africa.
He promptly went there and investigated the issues, and produced a report that would be the envy of the greatest investigative journalist anywhere in the world. After Champaran it was only a matter of time before the Mahatma took to journalism as his most potent weapon of satyagraha.
As coincidence would have it, Gandhi was persuaded to take over the editorship of Young India. Simultaneously, he started to edit and write in Navajivan, then a Gujarati monthly.
Gandhi’s writings in it were translated and published in all the Indian language newspapers. Later Navajivan was published in Hindi, as Gandhi was convinced that Hindi would be the national language of free India.
The Mahatma’s crusade for the repeal of the Press Act of 1910 was a unique piece of journalism. He was telling the rulers that it was in the best interests of the government to repeal the law.
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’.
In South Africa his writings often made the white racists look ridiculous: ‘The white barber refused to cut my black hair’, extending colour prejudice to not only non-Christian skin but non-Christian hair as well. In March 1922, Gandhi was charged with spreading disaffection by writing seditious articles in Young India.
In his own inimitable manner Gandhi said: ‘I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government, which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British rule than she ever was before. Holding such a belief, I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system.’
The burden of leading a nation towards freedom and the contingency of having to face trials followed by jail terms, did not stem the flow of writings from Gandhi’s pen. There was not a day when he was not writing on some issue or the other in Young India and Navajivan.
To these he added Harijan, Harijan Sevak, and Harijan Bandu, which became the Mahatma’s potent media for carrying his message to the weakest sections of India. Young India and Navajivan folded up in January 1932 when Gandhi was imprisoned for a long spell.
Between 1933 and 1940, Harijan (English), Harijan Bandu (Gujarati) and Harijan Sevak (Hindi) became the Mahatma’s voice to the people of India. These newspapers found the Mahatma concentrating on social and economic problems.
Caste disparities and such instruments of social deprivation as untouchablity and ostracisation were the targets of the Mahatma’s crusade. Gandhi’s assessment of the newspapers of the day was not complimentary.
He found them 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 June 19, 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.’
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