Gandhi's journals: How the Mahatma shaped a nation's ideas through Young India, Navjivan and Harijan

Many, before Gandhi, had employed the press to further their cause. Many did so after him. Few have been as effective as he was in the early 1920s when Young India and Navjivan were at their zenith.

Karthik Venkatesh October 02, 2020 10:03:36 IST
Gandhi's journals: How the Mahatma shaped a nation's ideas through Young India, Navjivan and Harijan

(L) MK Gandhi circa 1942. (R) Front page of an edition of Young India journal. Images via Wikimedia Commons

The Class 10 CBSE history textbook has an interesting chapter titled ‘Print Culture and the Modern World’. Among the interesting examples it cites as proof of how print influenced the course of world events has to do with Martin Luther’s critique of church malpractices in 1517. It emphasises how Luther posted a printed copy of his document, the much-studied ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ on the church door and by doing so, sparked off a flurry of events which ultimately resulted in the division of the church and the birth of the Protestant sect. In another section in the same chapter, French writer Louise-Sebastien Mercier’s quote, ‘Tremble, therefore, tyrants of the world! Tremble before the virtual writer!’ is cited as further evidence of the print medium’s ability to bring powerful individuals to heel.

To stress on the power of the press is a clichéd thing to do. But that cliché was created by political leaders like Gandhi who used the press to bring about change.

It is unlikely that Gandhi had heard too much about Luther and his printed pamphlet or about Mercier’s pithy celebration of the power of the press when he arrived in England in 1888. While he had certainly read printed books in Gujarat, by his own admission, it was only in England that he first read a newspaper. The Daily News, the Daily Telegraph and the Pall Mall Gazette were among the newspapers he began to read.

Gandhi’s early trysts with the printed word

In February 1891, Gandhi contributed an article entitled ‘Indian Vegetarian’ to the journal of the London Vegetarian Society, the Vegetarian. The article was a kind of rounding-up of the food habits of vegetarians throughout India and also sought to dispel the myth that all Indians were vegetarian. A few more articles followed in the next couple of years.

Upon moving to South Africa and becoming involved in the struggle for the rights of Indians in the country, Gandhi became something of a go-to person for all matters concerning Indians in South Africa. His views were sought by several newspapers from the home country and for a time, he also served as the South African correspondent for Dadabhai Naoroji’s Indian that was being published from England at the time. During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), he wrote accounts of his involvement in the Ambulance Corps for the Times of India.

All this involvement with the print medium stood him in good stead when in June 1903, Gandhi with the help of other Indians in South Africa began the weekly Indian Opinion. The journal’s name was suggestive of its focus and that it chose to publish in Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil besides English even more so. In its inaugural issue, he wrote: "... the Indian community in South Africa is a recognised 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 a long felt want.’ As the editor, Gandhi’s influence on the journal’s tone and tenor was huge and over the next decade, the publication, despite its creaky infrastructure — its press frequently broke down — did much to serve as the voice of the Indian community and relay its views to the powers-that-be.

Gandhis journals How the Mahatma shaped a nations ideas through Young India Navjivan and Harijan

Editions of Young India and Indian Opinion. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Young India and Navjivan

In 1919, amidst the nationwide disillusionment that instead of ‘Home Rule’, something that the British had vaguely promised the Indians in exchange for support in World War I, the British government had foisted the draconian Rowlatt Act on the Indian public, two young associates of Gandhi — Umar Sobani and Shankarlal Banker — offered him the editorship of Young India. In his own words, Gandhi was “anxious to expound the inner meaning of Satyagraha to the public, and also hoped that through this effort I should at least be able to do justice to the Punjab situation. For behind all I wrote, there was potential Satyagraha, and the Government knew as much. I therefore readily accepted the suggestion made by these friends.”

Gandhi’s words are a clear pointer to how he was planning to use the journal. He used it to devastating effect in the years that followed by expounding on a wide range of issues and thereby creating the momentum for a nationwide climate of dissent against the British. This translated to widespread support for the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921-22.

Parallelly in 1919, another associate of Gandhi, Indulal Yagnik offered Gandhi the editorship of his Gujarati monthly Navjivan ane Satya. This particularly appealed to Gandhi since he was keen on communicating in an Indian language to the public. He accepted. The journal was renamed Navjivan and the Satya dropped. Navjivan was being published from Ahmedabad and the Bombay-based Young India was also moved there to enable Gandhi to edit both. Young India was also made a weekly from a bi-weekly since Gandhi now had the onerous responsibility of editing two journals.

Circulation soon soared and the journals became a thorn in the side of the government. In 1922, following the publication of three articles critical of the government in Young India, Gandhi was charged with sedition.

On the day of the trial (18 March), security was tight in Ahmedabad as Gandhi arrived at the courtroom with Banker and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to stand trial. Unusually, the entire courtroom including the judge stood up to greet him. The judge then proceeded to ask him how he could “preach disaffection towards the Government and hold it up as a treacherous Government” and his reasons for “openly and deliberately” seeking to “instigate others to overthrow it”.

Gandhi then proceeded to promptly turn the tables against the establishment. He reminded the judge of his services to the Empire in South Africa as a member of the Ambulance Corps and cited other instances of his support for the administration. He had done so, he said, in a bid to gain equality for Indians. In return, the Rowlatt Act had been foisted upon the people and then the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. He said he saw no good in the Empire. He then unpacked his killer punch by stating, “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good” and placed on record his wish for the “highest penalty” since he saw it as “a sin to have affection for the system”. To top it all, he also stated that it had “been a precious privilege for me to be able to write what I have in the various articles...”

It was a resounding slap heard around the world!

And Gandhi’s writings had sparked it off — thereby underlining Mercier’s words of warning to tyrants.

The fortunes of both journals see-sawed over the course of the decade. Navjivan serialised Gandhi’s autobiography between 1925 and 1929.  Both journals finally shut shop in 1932 when Gandhi was imprisoned post-Salt Satyagraha.

Gandhis journals How the Mahatma shaped a nations ideas through Young India Navjivan and Harijan

Front page of an edition of Harijan. Image courtesy gandhiheritageportal.org

Harijan and thereafter

In February 1933 Gandhi started Harijan, Harijanbandhu, Harijansevak in English, Gujarati and Hindi, respectively. These were intended to further his struggle against the scourge of untouchability and also disseminate his economic ideology of national development through enhancing the prosperity of every Indian village.

Harijan’s effectiveness as a journal, unlike Gandhi’s previous publications, is debatable. His crusade now touched upon a very sensitive nerve of orthodox Hindu society. Also, how much the Dalits of the day accepted Gandhi as their leader is also up for questioning. By the 1930s, the Dalits had found a formidable voice from among their own — Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Ambedkar, educated in England and the US, was equally alive to the power of the printed word. He started his first newspaper, Mooknayak, on 31 January 1920. Later, he founded three more newspapers — Bahishkrut Bharat (1927-1929), Janata (1930-56), and Prabuddha Bharat (1956).

On Firstpost — Mooknayak turns 100: How Babasaheb Ambedkar's Marathi weekly for Dalits came into being

In 1941, Gandhi’s other political rival, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, began Dawn to press for the demands of the Muslim League leading up to the partition of the subcontinent. It is the only journal from that pre-independence time that continues to run (Harijan closed in 1948). In fact, it is among Pakistan’s leading newspapers.

Many, before Gandhi, had employed the press to further their cause. Many did so after him. Few have been as effective as he was in the early 1920s when Young India and Navjivan were at their zenith.

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