Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee*
The Statesman is one of India’s oldest English newspapers. It was founded in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1875 as a weekly. It directly descended from The Friend of India (founded 1818). The Englishman (founded 1821) was merged with The Statesman in 1934. The Delhi edition of The Statesman began publication in 1931.
The Statesman has had the distinction to be regarded as an objective and unbiased newspaper even when it was a British newspaper. It continued to be so after Independence and after the ownership changed into Indian hands.
The Hindu wrote in 1985: “The Statesman is singularly free from prejudice and its sincere advocacy of the Indian cause is well and widely known. The pro-Indian attitude of our contemporary enhances the value of its opinion.” Thirty years later this is what britanica.com says about the paper: “The Statesman has a liberal-independent editorial stance, and it is respected for the fairness of its coverage of differing points of view. Its audience includes opinion leaders and intellectuals from throughout Indian society. Like other major Indian dailies, it allots a relatively high proportion of its space-about one-fourth-to foreign news.”
The Statesman had the good fortune of having a solid beginning. Robert Knight, who founded The Statesman in 1875had also founded The Times of India in Mumbai. Knight was one of the early British journalists, who encouraged critical review of government’s actions and policies which set him apart from other British-owned papers which while supporting the government steadfastly also indulged in denunciation of Indians and specially the nationalists. Knight welcomed the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The Congress needs no other justification than the truism that “if the people of India are ever to enter upon a course of real progress, it can only be by their learning to govern themselves,” he wrote.
“No people can make any solid or enduring progress under any system of government which does not devolve upon them more or less completely the responsibility for their own advancement. In India, we have unwittingly and unfortunately set up what is perhaps the very worst form of the government that the civilised world has yet seen….. But the time for reform has come and while India will, we hope and believe, escape the sufferings and sacrifices by which the American colonists achieved their freedom, it is the primary duty of her educated sons – a duty to Englishmen as well as to themselves – that they should use every means in their power to awaken their rulers to the fact that no people can ever make solid or lasting progress under a system of government such as that exists in India… It is not revolution that the Congress asks for but reforms that is as urgently needed in our own interests as theirs.” Knight passed away in 1890.
The Statesman which was described as the Manchester Guardian of the East, has had a long line of able and dedicated editors who have left their mark on it. There were many occasions when it got into trouble with the government.
As Rangaswami Parthasarathy writes in his book History of Journalism in India , “The Statesman in the twenties represented what we now call the rightist point of view. It was both conservative and liberal: conservative in the sense that it wanted the country and people to conserve their best traditions and liberal in the sense that it reflected an attitude free from dogmas and prejudices. To the nationalists and fighters for freedom, however, it was the mouthpiece of British imperialism and of the British community in India. Even so, there were few nationalists and freedom fighters who did not read it daily. Its editorials were scrutinised and analysed by people holding diverse political views”.
During the long freedom movement, when the media world of India was sharply divided into two camps, known as Anglo-Indian pro-British Press and Nationalist Press, The Statesman, though British owned and edited, was an amazing exception. As Somen Sengupta writes in his blog, “… on one hand it was doing exactly what an English managed and English funded newspaper should do, on the other hand it was taking side of the Indian when it mattered most. The Statesman editorial board did not think twice before deciding to publish a strong and harsh letter written by Rabindranath Tagore to the Viceroy of India, informing his desire to disown the most coveted British title as a protest against the Jaliwanala Bagh massacre in 1919. The management of the paper did not find any audacity in it but a spirit of true patriotism. Before this in 1911,The Statesman wrote a praising editorial on the occasion of the historical victory of Mohan Bagan football club over a British military football team named East York in the IFA shield final. The same year, it crticised the government ruthlessly for its decision to shift the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi. The steel of Statesman was visible from every corner.”
During the turbulent days of 1930 and later when the freedom struggle was at its height, The Statesman came under fire from the nationalists. Describing the situation, James Cowley wrote: “An attempt on the life of the editor, Sir Alfred Watson, was made. They were turbulent times. The Swadeshi campaign was rapidly gathering momentum, bullets flew, and home-made bombs exploded, disturbingly often with lethal effect and the toll of heads broken by the ubiquitous iron-shod lathi was beyond count. The Statesman had incurred the activists’ ire partly because of its allegedly unhelpful attitude to nationalist aspirations and partly because in those days that paper was British-owned which made its stance doubly offensive to many people.”
There were two great editors of The Statesman, Arthur Moore and lan Stephens, who earned the admiration and gratitude of the Indian people by their sympathy and support for their political aspirations and for highlighting their legitimate grievances. Ian Stephens who succeeded Moore in 1942, was an unconventional editor. He cycled to his office in khaki shorts, singlet and chappals, followed on another bicycle by his bodyguard with a change of clothing.
Stephens’ greatest achievement was to expose the horrors of the Bengal famine in 1946 through revealing pictures and gruesome stories day after day in The Statesman which made him unpopular in government circles. He did all a man could do to assuage human suffering on a massive scale and certainly brought the government of India to its senses. The story is told that once when seeking an interview in the capital he wrote his name on the back of a particularly revolting famine picture and sent it in as his visiting card. In 1950, Stephens was under threat of assassination for some weeks and was guarded day and night by police in plainclothes. “It was an occupational hazard for a Statesman editor,” he said.
On August 15, 1947, The Statesman wrote: “Now is the appointed day. Now is the day of salvation. If we start right, we can continue right. For every one of us who live in India, be it in the Indian Union or Pakistan, there is a personal responsibility to start this day with our thoughts right….” Stephens resigned in 1951 as he disagreed with the Kashmir policy of the government of India.
The Statesman progressively changed into Indian hands on mid-1960s. The first editor under the new management was Pran Chopra.
When The Statesman celebrated its centenary in 1975, it wrote: “The Statesman has seen every development towards Indian Independence, the Minto-Morley reforms, the Montague-Chelmsford ones, the movements of Tilak, Gandhi, Subhas Bose and others. Its opinions have not always been popular, though it was the first paper which Nehru used to read in the morning. But it has almost always been respected. Its technical standards have been high: for many years, for instance, either the Calcutta or the Delhi edition annually carried off the president’s award for printing; several of its features, including the correspondence columns, have been rated by many competent judges as the finest in the country.”
The Statesman was one of the papers which suffered during the Emergency for its anti-government postures. It was and continues to be a vigorous independent paper, fearlessly voicing its views on all questions affecting the common man and some of its investigative stories have achieved national prominence.
The Statesman has introduced several new ideas and innovations in the media world. It was The Statesman and Indian Express which raised the bar of investigative journalism in India.
It is a founding member of Asia News Network, a grouping of 14 Asian newspapers that have joined hands for the coverage of Asian events through Asian eyes.
It has trained several generations of journalists who have later worked in other newspapers and other media with distinction. In fact, The Statesman has long been a training ground for journalism in India, especially for English language journalism.
The Statesman started its North Bengal edition from Siligudi on 18 June 1998. On 23 September 2002, The Statesman launched an edition from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odishsa.
However, the 1990s and the new millennium saw a decline in the financial health of the paper. A prolonged labour unrest, mismanagement and failure to live up to the competition gradually ruined its financial health. So much so that it is now struggling to survive.
As it completes its 140th year, may The Statesman regain its past glory under the leadership of the present editor Ravindra Kumar.