These vernacular newspapers made the people aware of the political affairs and they slowly started asking questions for their rights. Thus, keeping the best interests of the British Government in mind, Lord Lytton, the then Viceroy of India proposed the Vernacular Press Act, which was unanimously passed by the Viceroy’s Council on 14th March 1878.
History of Vernacular Press Act of 1878
After the establishment of the British East India Company in the early 18th century, there was a shift in control and many important things started to come under the Company’s regime. The first periodicals in India came under their control and since the press sometimes created a problem for the interests of the company, it resulted in the first two papers being banned, Bolt and the Bengal Gazette.
Lord Wellesley regulated the press again in 1799; according to which press had to show and get approval of the government before the publication of any manuscript including advertisement. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the "Gagging Act" had been passed by Lord Canning which sought to regulate the establishment of printing presses and to control the type of content that was being published.
It was during this time that the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was passed and at that time there were about 35 vernacular papers in Bengal, including the Amrita Bazar Patrika, whose founder and editor was Sisir Kumar Ghose. He was summoned by a British diplomat named Ashley Eden, who offered to contribute to his paper regularly if he gave him final editorial approval. Ghose refused, and it is said that it was this incident that made the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 to grow.
Conditions Posed by the Vernacular Press Act of 1878
The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 stated that any magistrate or Commissioner of Police had the authority to call upon any printer or publisher of a newspaper to enter into a bond, undertaking not to print a certain kind of material, and could confiscate any printed material it deemed objectionable. The Act provided for submitting to police all the proof sheets of contents of papers before publication. What was seditious news was to be determined by the police, and not by the judiciary. Under the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, many of the papers were fined and their editors jailed. Thus, they were subject to prior restraint. The affected party could not seek redress in a court of law. The general threats to the Indian language press included:
• Subversion of democratic institutions
• Agitations and violent incidents
• False allegations against British authorities or individuals
• Endangering law and order to disturb the normal functioning of the state
• Threats to internal stability
Repercussions of Vernacular Press Act of 1878
Within a week of the passing of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, the Amrita Bazar Patrika in erstwhile Calcutta had converted itself into all English weekly. Since the British Government was in a hurry to pass the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, the news of it was not published in the usual papers in Calcutta and the North-Western Provinces were the slowest in obtaining information. Thus¸ the papers in the north were wondering what the exact provisions of the act were, even after two weeks of its existence. All the prominent leaders of India condemned the Act as unwarranted and unjustified, and demanded its immediate withdrawal. The newspapers themselves kept criticizing the measure without end.
The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was repealed in 1881 by Lytton’s successor, Lord Ripon who governed from 1880 to 1884. However, the resentment the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 produced among Indians became one of the catalysts giving rise to India’s growing independence movement. Among the act’s most vocal critics was the Indian Association founded in 1876, which is generally considered to be one of the precursors of the Indian National Congress which was founded in 1885.