The origin of Nehru's National Herald in pre-Independent India

The origin of Nehru's National Herald in pre-Independent India

The historic newspaper National Herald has been in the news all through the week, but the newspaper also has a storied history behind it, imbricated as it was in India's freedom struggle. This is that story, of how one newspaper challenged British rule.

As historians and experts have pointed out, National Herald was really Jawaharlal Nehru’s newspaper. As historians and experts have pointed out, National Herald was really Jawaharlal Nehru’s newspaper.

The historic newspaper National Herald has been in the news all through the week, with the Enforcement Directorate questioning several leaders of the Indian National Congress, including Rahul Gandhi and Congress’ interim president, Sonia Gandhi.

But amidst all the hoopla about the newspaper that we see of late, it is easy to forget the storied history within which National Herald is imbricated in. And not just as a newspaper, but in many ways as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance and the ever-eternal question of press censorship.

As historians and experts have pointed out, National Herald was really Jawaharlal Nehru’s newspaper. The historian and biographer of Nehru, Benjamin Zechariah, argues in his book that the newspaper really took birth out of Nehru’s political frustrations in the 1930s. As Zechariah says, the 1930s was a heady time for Indian nationalism. On one hand, the Government of India Act, 1935, in many ways upended the political system in India by granting autonomy to many provinces inside British India. On the other hand, the 1930s was also a period which saw the real emergence of reactionary forces both within and outside the Congress party.

“Faced with his own entanglement in the reactionary tendencies that controlled the Congress, in which he was unable to make an impact, Jawaharlal took refuge in journalism. In 1936, he began to consider running his own newspaper; on 9 September 1938, the inaugural issue of the National Herald appeared from Lucknow,” Zechariah notes.

National Herald and Free Speech

Despite the granting of autonomy to provinces by the 1935 Act, issues of free speech did not really go away. It only became more critical, and more complicated. As historians have argued, Govt of India Act, 1935 led to elections in several provinces of British India, of which the Congress won in seven out of 11 such provinces in 1937. After coming to power in these provinces, Congress was compelled to exercise a series of delicate manoeuvres. One such manoeuvre involved a careful balancing act, between showing support to the emerging revolutionary and militant movement, and trying to appear in front of the British authorities as a responsible political party that eschews notions of anarchy, but at the same time, appearing stridently nationalistic. The real irony of the situation, however, was that the real arbiters of what constituted acceptable, and what was construed as seditious, really rested with the British authority.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

The case of National Herald truly exemplifies this situation and there is an interesting anecdote to illustrate this. When the Second World War breaks out, and the British Raj had to draft Indian soldiers into the war, the move met with fierce resistance. As historian Devika Sethi notes, the political atmosphere in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the War was one of defiance. And newspapers became the cauldron of what the British thought to be anti-War propaganda. But there is a complexity. For instance, in October 1940, a report from the Intelligence Bureau quoted Vinoba Bhave, the great Gandhian leader, as having given a speech where Bhave was alleged to have told a gathering of 300 that there really was no choice between “Hitler and the British and that it would therefore be a sin for Indians to join in a fight against people [the Germans] with whom they had no enmity.”

The reaction of the British to this is worth noting in some detail. According to Richard Tottenham, who was the Additional Secretary of the Home Department, these sort of “utterances that are being made will probably have no effect on the conduct of the war, nor is that their object. The object is to invite ‘repression’ by Government so as to stimulate popular indignation throughout the country. Each paper that reproduces speeches made by Vinoba Bhave or any other selected individual, is really indulging in civil disobedience itself.”

And guess which newspaper Tottenham had in mind? Yes, you guessed it right, National Herald. In fact, Tottenham goes on to name National Herald, along with Gandhi’s newspaper Harijan as potential transgressors who are hell bent on swaying the public opinion in India against the War. And because of this, the two newspapers, should they defy the government’s orders any further, would invite severe penalties, including confiscating the press and closure of the newspaper. By 1942 when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement, National Herald again came in the eye of the storm.

National Herald and the Quit India Movement

The launch of the movement led to the arrest of several Congress leaders and National Herald, along with 80 other newspapers, had to suspend publication. Historian Devika Sethi notes that the case of National Herald was an interesting one as it chose to voluntarily suspend publication, heeding Gandhi’s call that a newspaper if it has to comply with government’s censorship orders would cease being a newspaper, becoming a government’s mouthpiece instead. Later, the newspaper’s office premises were raided by the police from the then United Provinces. So severe was the action of the government over National Herald’s defiance, that the newspaper could only begin publication only in November 1945.

But a crucial question arises. What was even the need for Nehru to really start the National Herald? Was it really his disillusionment with the reactionary tendencies within the Congress that led to it? The historical answer is far more complicated. And those heady days of the Quit India movement really illustrates the importance Nehru placed on this particular newspaper. To begin with, for a tall leader like Nehru, a newspaper was the most able medium to not only understand popular sentiment, but to sway it as well, as the British rightly feared.

In fact, even when Nehru was imprisoned, he wrote regular notes to the editor of the Herald, the mercurial M. Chalapathi Rau. These editorial notes – written between 1938 and 1942 – included several suggestions, like for example, how to highlight the ongoing satyagraha movement, that the newspaper should never be ambiguous about its stated objective: to remind readers that the Congress’ sole objective will always be purna Swaraj, or complete independence for India. Also interesting is how Nehru emphasised the name of Mahatma Gandhi should be used. In one note, for example, he asked Rau to make sure that captions like ‘Vote for Gandhi’ should be avoided at all costs, and that the name of the Mahatma should not be sullied by using it for political gains.

Now that we see the same historic newspaper being dragged through several corruption cases, it needs to be remembered that the National Herald was an instrument deeply entrenched in the history of India’s freedom struggle, and its many complex contours.