Social Scientist. v 10, no. 115 (Dec 1982) p. 47.


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What the Bihar Press Bill Means

THE BIHAR PRESS BILL denotes such a fierce onslaught on the freedom of expression by the entrenched ruling class in power that it has justifiably evoked one of the strongest mass responses in recent times. Ever since it was passed by the Bihar Assembly on July 31, 1982, in the course of just five minutes, the response against this Bill has been strong, popular and prompt and is still continuing. The opposition to the Bill, first begun by journalists, has by now substantially broadened to include almost all the Opposition parties, trade unions and organisations of teachers, lawyers, students, youth and middle class employees. Newsmen themselves, both journalists and non-journalists, together struck work on September 3, 1982, in protest against the Bill; it was the most successful strike that the newspaper industry has ever witnessed and that, too, on a nation-wide basis on a non-economic demand. This was followed on September 10 by a massive Bihar bandh. Both preceding and following these actions there have been a number of bandhs in individual cities and towns and innumerable demonstrations, processions and meetings, with journalists in a number of States as well as in the Capital walking out of the Assemblies and Parliamentary reporting galleries in an act of boycott of the proceedings.1 On October 21, the first ever march to Parliament was staged by journalists against the Bihar Press Bill.

The question that arises is: in the face of such a massive protest why has the ruling Congress (I) party in Bihar and at the Centre sought so indefatigably to defend the Bihar Press Bill? What moreover are the reasons for the broad-based upsurge against it? In this note an attempt will be made to answer both these questions as also to discuss the implications of the Bihar Press Bill. But before we proceed further, a brief historical account of the evolution of censorship laws in India may be in order.

The first act of interference in the functioning of the press dates back to 1782 when an English editor, Hickey, came into clash with and was imprisoned by Warren Hastings in Bengal. By 1823, the nascent Indian press began to earn the ire of the British rulers and from then till Independence the evolving censorship laws became increasingly coercive, with only brief periods of reprieve during this long spell of colonial rule. Following the partition of Bengal, the Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act 1908 was enacted; there was a further tightening in 1910 in the form of the Indian Press Act which made criticism of the Government virtually impossible, besides labelling as seditious writings against the princes, judges, former officers



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