Few people realise how around 1920, the creation of a hugely effective public fora in the form of two Indian language publications in Hindi and Gujarati, was given a huge boost by a man called Mohandas K. Gandhi. The year was 1919 and Gandhi had arrived in India from South Africa years ago, ready to launch his civil disobedience movement. Gandhiji had had a long and close association with English language newspapers in South Africa. In India he saw merit in bringing out publications in local languages to address the masses who had no access to English. Gandhiji’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, tells the readers (Chapter 157) about the circumstances that led to his launching two papers, Young India in English, and Navajivan in Gujarati.
To expound the theory of Satyagraha to the Indian public in a language they could follow, Gandhi looked around for publications he could take over and edit. Three friends, Umar Sobhani, Shankarlal Banker and Indulal Yagnik of Sabarmati, who Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi describes as, “three of the Sabarmati’s covenanters,” offered that he take over the editorship of their English journal Young India and the Gujarati monthly Navajivan Ane Satya, as twin vehicles for communication in vernacular and turn them into weeklies. The original title for the vernacular Navajivan Ane Satya was now changed to just Navajivan. The same year witnessed the massacre of civilians at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar.
Gandhiji wished to visit Punjab immediately but was held back. This strengthened his resolve to go public with his ideas of a Satyagraha as a collective ‘digging in heels’ to defy untruth. “I was anxious,” writes Gandhi, “to expound the inner meaning of Satyagraha to the public…I therefore readily accepted the suggestion made by these friends. But how could the general public be trained in Satyagraha through the medium of English? My principal field of work lay in Gujarat. Indulal Yagnik…was conducting the Gujarati monthly Navajivan which had the financial backing of these friends. They placed the monthly at my disposal. This monthly was converted into a weekly…To have published two weeklies from two different places would have been inconvenient to me…so as Navajivan was being published from Ahmedabad, Young India was also removed (sic) there at my suggestion…such journals needed a press of their own...the existing printing presses…would have hesitated to publish them…and this could be conveniently done at Ahmedabad… “These journals helped also to some extent to remain at peace with myself…I feel that both the journals rendered good service to the people in this hour of trial and did their humble bit to lighten the tyranny of law.”
Within a year of becoming a weekly, the circulation of the Gujarati Navajivan went up to 20, 000 writes veteran editor Vijaydutt Sridhar (Bharatiya Patrkarita Kosh, p 625). This further convinced Bapu that more publications were needed in Indian languages. So, two years later on August 19, 1921, when Swadeshi Andolan was well entrenched and imported clothes were being burnt in public, Navajivan Mudranalaya (press) also began publishing a Hindi version of Navajivan. Once Gandhi had established and underscored the power of the media for public awakening, other stalwarts of India’s freedom movement (Tilak, Madan Mohan Malaviya), also launched Hindi papers and periodicals to reach out to the masses in northern and central India. Gandhi’s Navajivan was a pugnacious paper since its inception. The notorious Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was used by the government to confiscate a book (Hindi Reader by one Pandit Ramdas Gaur) on charges of sedition. The Navajivan criticised the move as illegal and unacceptable. On April 10, 1930, Bapu announced in Navajivan that ‘Poorna Swarajya (Total Swaraj) is our birthright. All it needs is a change of heart’. Two of Gandhiji’s widely read books, Satyagraha in South Africa and My Experiments with Truth (autobiography) were first serialised in Navajivan in Gujarati and then in Young India between 1925-29. From 1926 -27, the discourses Bapu gave on The Gita, were also serialised in Navajivan. In the mid-1930s, the Vernacular Press Act was used to close down his papers while Bapu was in Yervada jail.
The Navjivan press was seized by the government and both Young India and Hindi Navjivan were closed down. Bapu then asked Jawaharlal Nehru to ensure that the English, Hindi and Gujrati publications continued. The expansion of the public space facilitated by Gandhiji also helped trigger the birth and growth of other vernacular publications. Interestingly, in 1930, the Chennai-based Gandhian BS Murthy, took Gandhi’s vision for Indian languages forward down south and brought out a Telugu journal named Navjivan priced at one anna per copy with the annual subscription of Rupees four. The socially subordinate middle classes in the Hindi area that these publications addressed was substantially different from the self-confident and upwardly mobile anglocentric bhadralok that only read English dailies and periodicals and looked down on other Indian languages. But the Hindi newspaper revolution that Gandhiji ushered in and promoted, signalled a coming of age of a modern publishing industry for India’s vernacular languages. This opened up journalism to a diversity of tastes and opinions among the common citizens of India between 1920 and 1940. And also, for the first time, it also made Hindi writers and journalists, aware of their public voice and authority in national life.