The Amrita Bazaar Patrika and Press Act of 1910

The Press Act of 1910—Jagatshi Asram Affairs—Patrika’s Comments
Security of Rs. 5,000 Demanded from Patrika—British Press Opinion.

Security taken from the Patrika

The majority of the non-official members of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council led by the late Mr.Gokhale supported the Press Bill of 1910 inspite of the extremely wide and arbitrary nature of its provisions because they thought—and wrongly thought—that the anarchist movement was the result of violent writings in the Indian Press. The two or three papers in Bengal of the “Yugantar” type which preached the cult of violence and assassination had ceased to exist or had been already suppressed by the authorities when the Press Bill was introduced. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and the late Babu Bhupendra Nath Basu opposed the Bill; but it passed into a law only to aggravate the smouldering bitterness in the Indian Press by placing it under what may be called a Martial law.

Amrita Bazaar Patrika

The real plague-spot of the Press Act of 1910 was Section 4. It was the operative section of the Act which armed the Executive Government with absolute powers over the liberty of the Press.  The section provided that the local Government could hang a mill-stone round the neck of the keeper of a printing press in the shape of a security of Rs. 5000, if the newspaper printed or published “Any words, signs, etc., which are likely or may have a tendency, directly or indirectly, whether by inference, suggestion, allusion, metaphor, implication or otherwise bring into hatred or contempt any Government established by law or any class or section of His Majesty’s subjects in British India”.

Sir Lawrence Jenkins, Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court had said in his judgment in the “Comrade” case that the provisions of this section were “very comprehensive and the language was as wide as human ingenuity could make it. They would certainly extend to writings that might even command approval.”

Warnings Under the Press Act

Motilal had to carry on his paper with this sword of Damocles constantly hanging over his head. He received warning after warning from the Government to remind him that there was such a thing as Press Act lest he should forget it. The first warning came to him within a few weeks of passing of the Press Act. Sir Edward Norman Baker was then the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. Moti Lal inquired of him as to the matter and the nature of the offence for which the warning had been given. His honour replied that it was a mere formal warning, which had been sent to some other papers also and that its object was to remind the Bengal Press of the existence of the new Press Act.

The Government of Lord Carmichael had also sent some warnings to Babu Moti Lal Ghose. In one of these warnings which was in the form of a letter it was pointed out to Babu Moti Lal Ghose that certain mistakes had crept into an article on Madras case and he was asked to correct them in the light of the facts supplied by the Government of Madras. This was done with an explanation that the article in question was based on the reply of the Madras Government to an interpellation on the subject, which was very vague and so the writer was not to blame in the matter.

But the wolf at last did come. It was in May, 1913 and it came without a warning. The keeper of the Amrita Bazar Patrika printing press was served with a notice by the Government of Bengal asking him to deposit Rs. 5,000—the maximum amount provided by the Act—with the Chief Presidency Magistrate of Calcutta as security under the Press Act. But why? That was of course not explained. The Government was good enough to state that it was in connection with an article on the notorious Jagatshi Police case in Assam that this action had been taken. No light was however thrown on the passage or passages or words to which objection had been taken by the Government. The article in question contained some comments on the report of a Divisional Commissioner of Assam on the Jagatshi Ashram affairs. In the opinion of some eminent lawyers there was nothing in the article which could be construed as preaching “hatred or contempt of any Government established by law.”

About the middle of 1912 sensation ran high throughout Bengal on account of certain incidents that happened at the village of Jagatsi, four miles away from Maulvi Bazar in Sylhet. In this village was an abode of some religious people, names “Arunachal Asram” whose head was a Sannyasi named Dayananda Swami. Here Sankirtans (mass songs) were held on a lavish scale by the guru and his disciples in accompaniment with khol, kartal, mridang and other musical instruments. Men and women freely took part in these religious performances, which was seriously objected to by some people in the neighbourhood who thought that such mixed dances and sankirtans were not sanctioned by the Hindu religion and society and so if they were allowed to develop they would tell upon the morals of the local people. With this end in view they tried to stop these practices and took to various devices for doing so. On the 23rd march, 1912 one of these persons filed a petition before the Sub-Divisional Officer of Maulvi Bazar complaining against Dayananda Swami and some other leading members of Asram. It was alleged that the singing of songs, the beating of drums and the playing of instruments day and night which went on in the Asram were interfering with the sleep and causing injury to the health of the local public. Processes were issued against Dayanand Swami and others who put in a defence. In their written statement they said: —

“We are trying to substitute liberal principles for the narrow and illiberal manners and customs of the whole of the present Hindu society. We are encouraging women to join Sankirtan in the proper manner and also trying to uproot the narrowness of caste distinction. The complainant, owing to prejudice, apprehending that our such action might bring about a revolution in the society is trying to oppress us in several ways and for that purpose has instituted this case.”

Dayananda Swami and his disciples were, however, fined Rs. 10 each by the Sub- Divisional Officer. But the Sankirtans went on as usual and the orthodox oppositionists tried by petitions to the authorities and by other methods to stop these.

Arunachal Asram War

On the 20th June a complaint was filed before the Sub Divisional Officer of South Sylhet (Maulvi Bazar) that a minor boy named Sachindra had been kidnapped by members of the “Asram”. A warrant was issued for the production of Sachindra. A constable who went to the Asram to execute the warrant returned to the higher officers and reported that he was threatened by the members of the Asram. On the 6th July, a party of Policemen headed by one Mr. Brown, Assistant Superintendent of Police went to the Asram but failed to recover Sachindra. On the 8th the aid of the Military was requisitioned and the Asram was attacked and what followed has been described in many quarters as the “Arunachal Asram War.” On one side was arrayed a force of Police and the Military armed with rifles and bayonets and on the other side stood the male and female inmates of the Asram known as Sevaks and Sevikas of the Asram with their drums, musical instruments and trisuls (tridents). The result can be better imagined than described. In the Amrita Bazar Patrika and other newspapers were published accounts of the gross atrocities perpetrated. An enquiry was held by the Assam Government in response to the demand by the Amrita Bazaar Patrika. The report of the enquiry, however, exonerated the officers concerned and vilified the Asram and its people. The Asram was sought to be proved as an “impure, obscene, immoral and indecent institution, opposed to public policy and good morals.” The incidents of 8th July, 1912 which created a sensation throughout the length and breadth of the Province were described by the authorities as matters of course. To quote from the Resolution of the Chief Commissioner of Assam on the Report of the Officiating Commissioner:–

“It was impossible without employing force to effect the arrest of so large a number of people who refused to submit when called upon to do so. Only a few days before they had published their declaration of independence of the British Government and had circulated it to the newspapers. Their official historian had chronicled the events of the 6th July as a victory in the Arunachal war and that evening the drums of the Asram were heard in Maulvi Bazar four miles away. The Deputy Commissioner made every attempt to negotiate with Dayananda for a peaceful surrender, but without effect. On the morning of the 8th the deputy Commissioner gave the inmates of the Asram a final opportunity of surrendering.

He told them that he had a strong police force, but that he did not want to use the police, as, if this had to be done the women whom he knew to be in the Asram might get hurt. The only response to this appeal was that, as the small column drew near a party of naked women and almost naked men danced out to meet them. When the Deputy Commissioner and his force entered the Asram, the din was so over-powering that further parley was out of the question. No one would surrender and the arrests had to be forcibly effected. A certain amount of rough handling of those who resisted was unavoidable, and it is unfortunate that two women accidently sustained injuries. Those people within the houses who came out quietly were secured, those who refused to come out being dragged out. The Military Police used the butts of their rifles, but, as the Commissioner has found, the allegation that bayonets were used is absolutely false.”

After the publication of the above report the Amrita Bazaar Patrika pointed out that “it was already admitted that the Police fired without orders” and “it was not denied that the police used buckshots and bullets and thereby wounded so many as seven persons of whom Babu Mahendra Nath Dey, M.A., B.L., died from the effect of a bullet wound.” As to the “certain amount of rough handling” mentioned in the Report the Patrika wrote:- “Why it was only the fracture of a few collar bones, infliction of bleeding wounds with butts and bayonets, dragging by the hair, tying a human being to a bamboo and carrying him like a pig, et hoc genus omne! And all this was of course inevitable!”

A series of trenchant articles followed in the editorial columns of the Amrita Bazar Patrika severely criticising the action of the police in Assam and of the Executive which tried to shield the conduct of the Police. The result, to quote the Patrika again was inevitable.

Press Opinion on Security

The series of articles on the Jagatsi Asram affairs published in Amrita Bazar Patrika in 1912-13 was too much for the authorities to digest. Hence they demanded a security of Rs. 5000 from the proprietors of the paper under the Indian Press Act of 1910. The news about the action of the Government and the security demanded from the Patrika was cabled to England and it created a stir in newspaper circles. Moti Lal’s personality was too well-known to many editors and writers of English newspapers; for journalists of that country on tour in India always made it a point to interview Babu Moti Lal Ghose and they were all impressed with his charming personality.

Wrote the Pall Mall Gazette:– “The Government of India is no doubt amply justified in demanding security from the Amrita Bazaar Patrika, a Calcutta journal printed in English, which has a wide circulation. It is understood to have been publishing some rather violent articles lately. At the same time, we should hardly regard its editor and chief proprietor, Mr. Moti Lal Ghose, as a danger to the community. He is a mild old gentleman with a pleasant smile, who sturdily refuses to adopt European ways or dress. His pen is vitriolic at times…

Motilal Ghose is not a revolutionary. He often writes wildly, but he does not neglect to pay friendly calls at Government House, and when some years ago he was presented to the King, then Prince of Wales, he was overcome with loyal devotion. He publishes his paper in a huge rambling warren of a house in North Calcutta, where he lives with a swarm of relatives and dependents in patriarchal fashion. Babies cling about the editor’s bare legs as, clad in scanty piece of linen, he writes torrents of fierce abuse with a most benevolent smile.”

The Pall Mall Gazette it may be remembered, was not sympathetic or friendly to Indian aspirations. That it could pay such a tribute as the above to Babu Moti Lal Ghose is only explained by the fact that his personality left a lasting impression on those who came in contact with him.

The Manchester Guardian which was well-known for its sympathy towards India wrote as follows:– “There is nothing in India or out of it, like the Amrita Bazaar Patrika, the Calcutta daily which has earned the distinction of being the first important organ of opinion to be dealt with under the coercionist Indian Press Act of 1910. It is emphatically a one-man show, representing its proprietor and editor, Mr. Moti Lal Ghose, and no other party or persons whatsoever.  Ever since the Viceroyalty of Lord Lytton the paper has been recognised as the most characteristic product of Bengali journalism. It is full of curious knowledge and still more curious opinion. Its leading articles, you would say, are all from one hand, and that the inimitable hand of Moti Babu himself, wielding a whip of mercilessly stinging cords.

“What has happened now is that the Government of Bengal demands security, probably of the maximum amount of Rs. 5,000 (333 Pounds), for the future good behavior of the paper. In April it published three articles dealing with a Government enquiry into one of the most singular events of recent Indian history—the suppression of a small sect in Assam, the members of which were accused of combining unseemly rites with seditious propaganda. The military police were accused of various brutalities in carrying out their task; a Government Commissioner inquired into the affairs and found local official blameless, and the Amrita Bazaar Patrika thereupon went for the Government of Assam. The articles, it is said, were a masterpiece of satirical invective, but whether they justify drastic action under the Press Act is, ofcourse, another matter. Moti Babu can quite easily provide the security, though he is understood not to be a wealthy man. He will, however, be quite sure to argue that he has not offended, and that the Government demand is unwarranted.”

It may be observed in passing that though the Government wanted to punish the proprietors of the Amrita Bazaar Patrika by demanding the security they failed to achieve this end. For it only heightened the popularity of the paper and raised it higher in the estimation of the public, who thought the paper had not sinned but had, on the contrary, been sinned against. So, instead of being a punishment the security became a boon.

Extracted from Memoirs of Motilal Ghose by Paramananda Dutt, Amrita Bazaar Patrika Office, Calcutta, 1935.