Whatever happened to Bihar’s bold local press?

Newsstands today are dominated by state editions of national giants.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Take a cursory glance at the newspapers and magazines stacked at any of Patna’s newsstands. You’ll realise that among the several publications on display, no major newspaper or magazine is headquartered or fully based in Bihar.

All the important news dailies in the state are outposts of national media giants in Hindi and English: Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, the Times of India, and Hindustan Times. The only regional newspaper with a sizeable readership in Bihar, Prabhat Khabar, is based in Ranchi, Jharkhand.

But it wasn’t always like this.

It’s a pity in more ways than one. To begin with, it marks a hiatus in Bihar’s native imprints on the dissemination of news and views. Since the second half of the 19th century, Bihar has had a presence in the steady growth of the Indian press. News publications founded and owned by motivated and enterprising men from Bihar, and run from the province, were part of Bihar’s journey under British rule. It continued to be so even a few decades after Independence.

Scholars and researchers have tried to trace some strands in the long history of Bihar’s press. Two official studies, under the aegis of the Bihar government and the central government respectively, are useful sources of information on the evolution of news publications in Bihar: N Kumar’s Journalism in Bihar (as a supplement to the Bihar State Gazetteer, Government of Bihar, 1971) and J Natarajan’s History of Indian Journalism (part two of a report of the Press Commission, Publications Division, 1954).

In recent years, historian Sumita Singh (Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 73, 2012) and media critic Sevanti Ninan (Headlines from the Heartland, 2007) have also dug up useful material on the early phases of news publications in Bihar.

From various sources, an outline of the landmarks in the development of the press in Bihar emerges.

The first newspapers

In modern history, the first known news publication in Bihar can be traced to as far back as 1856. Before that, as noted in The Journal of Bihar Research Society, a printing press was set up by Shah Kabiruddin Ahmed in 1850. However, it wasn’t used for publishing a newspaper.

This first newspaper was an effort by the British government, published for administrative purposes. William Taylor, the commissioner of Patna at the time, took the initiative to get an Urdu newspaper, Akhbar-e- Bihar, to start its publication on September 3, 1856.

It took 16 more years for Bihar to see its first newspaper with considerable readership among the region’s educated people. In 1872, Bihar Bandhu, a Hindi newspaper founded by Balakrishna Bhatt and Keshavram Bhatt, started publication from Calcutta but moved its press to Patna in 1874. Munshi Hasan Ali was its first editor. After becoming a proper Bihar-based paper in Patna, Bihar Bandhu started a successful campaign for the introduction of Hindi in the law courts. Under different editors in the following decades, the paper continued its journey till the second decade of the 20th century.

The year which saw the birth of Bihar’s first Hindi newspaper also witnessed the advent of its first English newspaper. Bihar Herald was founded in 1872. It was edited by Guru Prasad Sen and he continued in that role till his death in 1900. However, the paper focused on the interests of the Bengalis living in Bihar and, therefore, wasn’t wide-ranging in its coverage.

During the next two decades, three new English newspapers in Bihar began their journey in different years: the Indian Chronicle (1881), Bihar Times (1894), and Bihar Guardian (1899). Among them, Bihar Times made its mark as a steady advocate of the separation of Bihar from the Bengal province.

Bihar Times was set up in 1894 by Sachidanand Sinha, once he returned from England after completing his university education, along with his contemporaries, Mahesh Narayan, Visheshwar Singh, Saaligram Singh, Mahavir Sahay, and Nand Kishor Lal. Mahesh Narayan was its first editor, and he edited it until his death in 1907.

Sachidanand Sinha was an important intellectual voice from Bihar at the time, and he ably supported the paper. A highly respected figure in the national movement, he went on to hold the temporary responsibility of the first president of India’s constituent assembly before another eminent Bihari, Dr Rajendra Prasad, replaced him as the full-time president of the constituent assembly. Bihar Times launched an editorial campaign for Bihar’s separation from the Bengal province, and its role in the journalistic articulation of this demand has been cited by historian Sumita Singh in the study Role of the press in the creation of separate Bihar (2012).

A different type of publication, based on caste affiliations, also could be seen in Bihar by the last few years of the 19th century and the early 20th century. However, they were essentially community newsletters, not newspapers, and included Kayastha Gazette (1889) from Patna, Kayastha Messenger from Gaya, Kshatriya Samachar, Bhumihar Brahman Patrika, Teli Samachar, and Rauniar Vaishya.

Searchlight, and more

In 1906, Bihar Times renamed itself as Beharee. In the same year, Bihar Guardian renamed itself Behari. Interestingly, both these papers settled the different spellings of their new names following the court orders. The newly renamed Behari could not last for long and closed down within a few years.

Beharee was published under editorial stints by Sachidanand Sinha himself, along with stints by Syed Hasan Imam. Its editor was Maheshwar Prasad when it became a daily in 1913. But it lasted only four years in this form and closed down in 1917.

However, only a year later, Sachidanand Sinha quickly filled the void by starting another news publication from Patna, the English news biweekly, Searchlight. It became a tri-weekly in 1920 and then a daily in 1930.

Many people supported the efforts to start Searchlight, anchored by a forward nationalist editorial outlook, including Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was one of the founding members of the paper. While Syed Hyder Hussain and Maheshwar Prasad were Searchlight’s first two editors, the following years saw the paper edited by a succession of editors like CR Soumayajulu and S Ranga Iyer.

In its first few decades, Murli Manohar Prasad was its longest-serving editor. Later, K Ramarao, M Sharma, DK Sharda, TJS George, SC Sarkar, SK Rao, and RK Makkar were other notable figures heading its editorial office in Patna.

Three years ago, journalist and political commentator Surendra Kishore shared an anecdote about the paper’s position in its pre-Independence days. Here’s what happened.

Searchlight had printed several articles that interpreted various observations made by judges of the Patna High Court as derogatory and hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community. The high court, with Sir Courtney Terrell as its chief justice, held such articles as being in contempt of the court. In defence of Searchlight, eminent lawyers like Motilal Nehru, Sir Tej Sapru, and Sarat Chandra Bose even came to Patna to argue against the charge. The paper lost the case and was fined Rs 200.

But later, at Sachidanand Sinha’s residence, Terrell met Murli Manohar Prasad, the editor of the paper at the time, and was impressed by his stand and views. Terrell assumed an Indian pseudonym and began contributing articles to Searchlight. In his writings, Terrell supported the cause of India’s freedom movement.

Along with its flagship English paper, Searchlight also tried to diversify itself into the Hindi press. In 1947, it had a Hindi counterpart with the launch of Pradeep from Patna.

In 1930, Bihar got a new English newspaper in the province, Indian Nation. It was founded by the Maharaja of Darbhanga, which partly explained the newspaper’s greater focus on the Mithila region of Bihar. That was evident in the composition of its staff too, as a major part of the staff belonged to the Mithila region. In 1941, Indian Nation also got a sister Hindi publication in the form of the daily Aryavartha.

For almost four decades after Independence, these dailies held their own against the wider reach and resources of the bigger national papers. Particularly, the reports in Searchlight were talked about for taking on corruption in high places, sometimes even going too far. In the 1960s, its reports on corruption in Bihar’s KB Sahay-led government, and reports against what it thought were government excesses, landed its editor TJS George in jail.

Even its Hindi publication, Pradeep, was the most sought-after source of news during the anti-corruption JP Movement of the early 1970s.

Collapses in the 1980s-90s

The scene, however, changed in the latter half of the 1980s.

At this time, the Birla Group had already acquired Searchlight and Pradeep. However, it didn’t tinker with their editorial functioning and content creation in Patna. Then in 1986, the Birla Group decided that it was time for their national papers — Hindustan Times and Hindustan — to enter the Bihar media market. To pave the way for its national papers, Searchlight and Pradeep were shut down altogether.

The market leader in the English newspaper segment, the Times of India, soon followed suit, starting its Patna edition in the late 1980s.

At the same time, Indian Nation and Aryavartha were having issues due to their limited focus, dipping readership, and union strikes. Compounding their woes was their failure to invest in the technological upgradation of print production. Stagnant, or even falling, ad revenues were a cumulative effect of such factors.

Indian Nation somehow hobbled through the Nineties but after appearing intermittently, it closed down by the end of the decade. So did Aryavartha. Ten years ago, journalist Shivnath Jha, a well-known name associated with Aryavartha, indicated that the paper would be revived — but it’s still missing from Bihar’s newsstands.

In the early 1990s, scholar Arvind N Das mentioned these changes in his work, The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992).

He wrote: “The city has for long boasted a flourishing press. Now although major local newspapers like Searchlight and Pradeep have been incorporated into the national media establishment in the shape of [the] gargantuan Hindustan Times and Hindustan, others like Indian Nation, Aryavartha and Bihar Herald are beset with rigor mortis, new and large publications like the Times of India have appeared in the state.”

However, there is also the question as to what attracted national media players to Bihar from the late 1980s onwards. Books by Das and media critic Sevanti Ninan tried to answer it.

Das remarked, “It isn’t surprising that the combined circulation of newspapers in Bihar, a state with a very low per capita income, should be far more than that in states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.” Das remarked.

Fifteen years later, Ninan recognised the same potential in her line of reasoning about big media players’ investment in Bihar’s newspaper market. In Headlines From The Heartland, Ninan wrote: “Despite its image as India’s most backward state, Bihar was a good investment for a newspaper. It had a population that was politically aware even if literacy was low. And because of remittances and because of agricultural wealth, there was a lot of money in the state waiting to be tapped.”

Here, it is also interesting to see how Das hinted at a vicious cycle that might have financially enervated the major Bihar-based papers in the 1980s and 1990s. The stagnant ad revenue left them with little money to invest in print production technology, and the outdated technology of their operations didn’t make them attractive to the potential advertisers. Das also argued that the low purchasing power of readers accounted for the lukewarm approach of the advertisers.

“While the circulation has grown, advertising has not grown proportionately...Consequently, there has been little upgradation of either printing technology or publishing quality. Thus, for instance, there is no facility for colour printing — an essential requirement for high-grade advertising which provides the required subsidy for publishing,” Das argued.

Recents attempts

Scattered attempts to start a newspaper on a fresh note, like Patliputra Times, also could not survive long. There are still a number of Hindi dailies and periodicals like Avinash Chandra Mishra’s political newsmagazine, Samkaalin Taapmaan (set up in 1997), which are trying to carve their niches in the regional news space. A few Urdu news publications based in Patna continue to find their limited readership in the state.

However, these Patna-based Hindi and Urdu publications are nowhere near the reach and influence that the Bihar-based news publications once had. The media enterprise efforts from the state have clearly shifted to either local television news channels or the digital space. The digital presence can be seen in the proliferation of exclusively-online news platforms based in the state capital.

One can argue that states like Odisha continue to have an effective home-grown local press because their main language is external to the lingual canvas of the national media players. The national media giants, except the Times Group in its approach towards Maharashtra and West Bengal, have generally focused on English and Hindi readership. As part of the Hindi readership, though home to four different dialects and one different language, Bihar falls under their lingual catchment area. That explanation, however, doesn’t fill the void at newsstands.

In the mid-1990s, when the fodder scam was unearthed in Bihar, it wasn’t the Patna editions of national newspapers that pursued it with dogged interest. It was the Ranchi-based regional daily, Prabhat Khabar, that pursued different stages of it, including the Central Bureau of Investigation probe. It was a much sought-after paper to read back then. One wonders whether a major Bihar-based daily could have told that sordid tale of venality. No major Patna-based newspaper survived to tell the story.

Can a major local presence in the Bihar press now tell the news stories of the state differently? Far more immediately, for instance, could that have added another dimension to how the Covid-19 pandemic and migrant crisis has been covered in the press? To what extent do the local inputs in state editions of the national dailies go beyond the defined formats and editorial templates?

These are some questions that one has to grapple with while leaving the newsstands in the state capital.

Also see
article imageHindi journalism and the emergence of modern Hindi: Part 1
article imageStories of suffering and state response: How Bihar’s newspapers are covering the migrant crisis

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