Remembering Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi: The Journalist who sacrificed his life for communal harmony

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was an ideal prototype of activist journalist who used journalism to aspire political engagement and develop critical thinking among the masses

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
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Harshvardhan

The British polymath Thomas Carlyle’s wrote in his much celebrated work ‘Heroes and Hero Worship, (1841) “[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” This observation which often gets translated as, “Journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy”, has become something of a common sense when it comes to describing the role of journalism in democratic society. Journalism is generally understood as a noble profession whose objective is to spread facts, question the powerful and the state and spreading awareness among populace, all deemed instrumental for the development and functioning of a vibrant democracy.

Any analysis of present state of Journalism in the light of Carlyle’s wisdom is bound to characterize state of contemporary mainstream journalism marked by fake news, misinformation and toeing the line of Government etc. as pessimistic. In light of such deplorable and pessimistic present, perhaps we can train our telescope to the past and reflect on the life of a person who literally was the embodiment of Carlyle’s wisdom regarding the noble profession of Journalism.

The name of one such person is Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, founder editor of Hindi newspaper Pratap and restarted the monthly political magazine Prabha. A freedom fighter, friends of Indian revolutionaries and a crusading Journalist cum activist, Vidyarthi was born on 26th October 1890 in Allahabad to a middle class family. After completing his initial education in present day Madhya Pradesh, Vidyarthi came to Kanpur in 1913 from where his remarkable career began. In his early career, Vidyarthi took an interest in the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, and translated two of his novels namely, the Les Miserables and Ninety three.

Vidyarthi was an ideal prototype of activist journalist who used journalism to aspire political engagement and develop critical thinking among the masses. The first Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi in India i.e. the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 began after Vidyarthi started to serially report on the plight of Indigo farmers of the region. Similarly, Vidyarthi’s reporting of Bijolia peasant movement in princely state of Mewer, brought in on national platform.

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was also played significant role in organizing and propagating the famous Awadh peasant-tenant movement and its offshoot the Eka Movement. He was also one of the leaders of the Kisan Sabha in Kanpur. Vidyarthi, apart from organizing peasants and raising their issues was also deeply involved with the working class movement, especially in the city of Kanpur which during his times was an industrial city. Vidyarthi organized the mill workers of Kanpur and established the Kanpur Mazdoor Sangh in 1928 and fought for their rights. The Partap regularly carried the plight of Kanpur millworkers who had to work overtime, were paid less than the minimum wage and had to live under pitiable condition.

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was also a prominent member of the Indian National Congress and he was served as the member of United Provinces Legislative council from 1925-1929. He also elected as the president of the U.P. Congress Committee and was appointed the first 'dictator' to lead the Civil disobedience movement in UP, for which he was arrested and put in Jail.


Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi though a member of the Indian National Congress and an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, wholeheartedly supported the Indian revolutionaries. He published the articles and pamphlets written by revolutionaries, provided financial assistance and helped them to evade the colonial police. It was Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi who gave money to Ashfaqullah Khan when he was on run following the Kakori incident and published the biography of Ramprasad Bismil. Bhagat Singh used to work in Pratap and contributed articles under the pen name of Balwant Singh. Apart from that he also used to publish many socialist writings which helped in the intellectual development of Indian revolutionaries.

He even meet Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt while they were in prison and extensively covered the historic 63 day long hunger strike of Lahore conspiracy case prisoners and mourned the death of revolutionary Jatin Das for over two months while constantly demanding rights for political prisoners.

A brilliant publicist, Vidyarthi consistently published against communal riots and communal politics and criticized Hindu Mahasabha and its leaders like Lala Lajpar Rai and V.D Sarvarkar and also wrote against Muslim communalism. It can only be a coincidence that Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi died on 25th March 1931 i.e. just 2 days after the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Immediately after the hanging of the three revolutionaries, a riot broke out in Kanpur and Vidyarthi took upon himself to claim the communal passions running high and stop the rioting. Unfortunately he became one of the victims of the riots. His death was described by Mahatma Gandhi as “Shandar” (glorious) one which he envied! Praying tribute to Vidyarthi, Gandhi said that “let this noble example stimulate us all to similar effort should the occasion”.

In his almost 20 years of career as a Journalist, Vidyarthi was jailed five times (thrice for carrying publishing ‘objectionable’ content and twice for anti-British activities) faced Lathi charges and had to pay heavy fines, still nothing deterred him from fighting hand in hand with the oppressed, his crusade against communalism and the British rule.

If we draw a contrast between Vidyarthi and our present day TRP hungry mainstream media houses, we can clearly see how the issues of peasants, workers and oppressed communities have taken a backseat while spreading communal hatred and shielding the present Government from criticism has acquired the centre place in their model of Journalism which looks more like theatrics and Gobbelsian propaganda.

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi is primarily remembered today through the awards given under his name and through the places and institutes named after him, but the ideals for which he lived and ultimately died for has been largely forgotten in the field of which he was a pioneer. In his career, Vidyarthi always stood for the workers, peasants and oppressed communities. He was a champion of communal harmony.

Probably the Kumars’, Goswamis’, Shivshankars’ Chaudhris’, Sardanas’, Devgans’ of present day Journalism and their ilk needs to take few lessons from Vidyarthi’s life.

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