SIKH JOURNALISM, tracing its beginnings to the latter half of the nineteenth century was influenced in its founding and evolution primarliy by two factors : institution-building in Sikhism with a view to defending itself and restating its principles, and the Sikhs' confrontation with the aggressive Ārya Samāj over the question of whether the Sikhs were just another sect within Hinduism. It was a period when the Sikhs faced a crisis of identity occasioned by a strong sense of militancy among the numerous sects and religions and a concomitant set of pressures arising from the demands of modernization. The consequent attempts at revitalizing the community resulted in the evolution of Sikh journalism, besides several other institutions such as the Siṅgh Sabhās, schools, orphanages, theological study groups and ultimately, in 1902, the Chief Khālsā Dīwān, which defended Sikhism and reaffirmed Sikh beliefs. Thus the impetus for starting newspapers and magazines came from the need to circulate news and opinion within the community, and they did serve, apart from playing an important role in communication and mobilizing Sikh resources, as an instrument of warning the Sikhs of any danger and as a means of combating the claims of opponents. Although not the first to appear, the Sikh periodicals soon outnumbered those sponsored and patronized by other groups, and by 1912 approximately thirty journals and newspapers owned by and/or concerned primarily with Sikh affairs had appeared.
Most of the Sikh periodicals were written either in Punjabi or Urdu. They were weekly or monthly papers with sporadic bulletins and supplements. All of them had almost a similar format ---a page of scripture, an editorial, a signed article on a subject of importance, local news and a column of letters from the readers. Those sponsored by an institution served, generally, a social and/or religious cause whereas those financed and sponsored by an individual reflected, alongside, the immediate concern of the patron. For example, the Khālsā Dharam Parkāshak Shuddhī Pattar (1896), a monthly paper in Gurmukhī script sponsored by the Lahore Shuddhī Sabhā, focussed on conversions and missionary efforts. The Dukh Nivāraṇ (1906), another monthly paper in Punjabi, was sponsored by Mohan Siṅgh Vaid and served as a means of advocating the use of Gurmukhī. Similarly, Bhāī Takhat Siṅgh started Pūnjābī Bhaiṇ (1907) to propagate women's education and improvement of family life ideas so dear to his heart. Several Sikhs rulers owned or heavily subsidized some newspapers, journals, and these papers paid particular interest to news relating to the patron's state and projected his viewpoint. Nānak Prakāsh Kapūrthalā (1887), a monthly edited by Bāwā Arjan Siṅgh and financed by the Mahārājā of Kapūrthalā, was one such paper. Paṭiālā Akhbār (1880), a weekly which ran until the early 1900's and actively supported the Council of Regency of Paṭiālā state, is another illustration of the close link between newspapers and princely politics.
Financial uncertainty accounted for the rapid fall of Sikh periodicals prior to 1900. Except for a few notable papers, journals usually disappeared within two or three years. Newspapers ran on slim budgets and since the number of educated Sikhs was relatively small, they had limited circulations ranging between 100-500. Accordingly, when interest in the cause waned or when circulations dropped off, the papers suspended operations, to reappear again if circumstances permitted.
The first major journal which devoted itself to the Sikh cause was Āftāb-i-Pañjāb, a bi-weekly publication in Urdu begun in 1866 by Dīwān Būṭā Siṅgh, later vice-president of the Lahore Siṅgh Sabhā, who encouraged reform efforts and Sikh creative writings. Although the regularity of publication and circulation of the paper fluctuated, it reached an audience of around 500. The Āftāb-i-Pañjāb had numerous editorial changes, with Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims at one time or another heading the staff. A Muslim editor, Faqīr Muhammad, gave leadership at an early stage in the paper's history (1872-1880). The editorial policy of the newspaper remained reasonably consistent. It supported cow protection, mildly criticized British administration, called on Sikhs to be loyal to the government, and usually sided with attempts to remove Hindu accretions from the Sikh faith. Much of its news came either from cuttings from English and other vernacular journals, or from a string of district correspondents. The newspaper's experience points to another feature of Sikh journalism ---the interlocking nature of publishing enterprises. In addition to printing the paper, the Āftāb-i-Pañjāb Press produced an assortment of Gurmukhī books on various Sikh matters and eventually a second journal, Khālsā Prakāsh (1891), a weekly Gurmukhī paper, with approximately 250 subscribers, which ran until 1899. The Āftāb-i-Pañjāb was followed by Akhbār Srī Darbār Sāhib which was started from Amritsar in 1867 by two Sahajdhārī Sikhs, Munshī Harī Naraiṇ and Phirāiā Lāl. This fortnightly paper was perhaps the first newspaper to appear in Punjabi. Besides giving the Sikh and the national news, it carried advertisements from big commercial establishments, too. Since Gurmukhī type was still not available in Amritsar, it was printed from hand-written copy.
The fervour and dedication surrounding the Lahore Siṅgh Sabhā generated a major series of newspapers closely associated with the local organization. Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh (1849-1898), a Sikh reformist and Professor of Punjabi at the Oriental College at Lahore, founded Vidyā Prachārak and Gurmukhī Akhbār (1880) in order to foster Sikh education and Punjabi as a literary language. While the former collapsed soon, the latter ran till 1895 and widely influenced the Sikh intelligentsia. In 1883, Gurmukh Siṅgh joined with Bhāī Jhaṇḍā Siṅgh and Bhāī Ditt Siṅgh to establish the Khālsā Press and Khālsā Akhbār (1883), a weekly newspaper in Punjabi. With Ditt Siṅgh and Bhāī Mayyā Siṅgh as editors, the paper became the chief spokesman for the reformist elements within the community. After suffering a temporary setback resulting from a libel suit, the paper rebounded and built up a loyal following of around 1,000 regular readers. The paper ceased publication in 1905. Some of the other papers of this period were Siṅgh Sabhā Gazette in Punjabi (1892), Lyall Gazette, Vidyārk in Punjabi (1881), Gurmukhī Akhbār (1880), Hamdard-i-Khālsā (1899), Khālsā Akhbār (1883), Khālsā Bahādar in Urdu (1897), Khālsā Samāchār in Punjabi (1899), Pañjāb Darpaṇ in Punjabi (1885), Siṅgh Sabhā Gazette in Punjabi (1892), and Srī Gurmat Parchār in Punjabi (1892).
By the turn of the century, literary efforts and news coverage had become an essential part of the public life of the Sikhs. The fiery prose and sensitive issues highlighted by Ditt Siṅgh, who was a noted scholar and revelled in argument, never yielding to anybody a point in polemics, directly affected a new generation of leaders such as Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh and Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā who took up the mantle of reform and moved forward to strengthen Sikh institutions.
The Sikhs were now moving into a highly dynamic phase of institution-building, in which education, militant defence of their faith and extensive publication received prominence. Experience gained by the editors and proprietors and increase in the audience which incidentally also meant increase in income as a result of the efforts made in the past for the spread of education were two other variables which influenced press activism. Besides, several fresh developments occurred almost simultaneously. Amritsar joined Lahore as a nexus for Sikh institutions and publication. Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh influenced many of the events which underlay the evolution of the Amritsar enterprises. Apart from providing leadership to the Chief Khālsā Dīwān, he set up, in 1892, the Wazīr-i-Hind Press which became the primary source for Punjabi literature during the coming decades. The Press took up the publication of innumerable books and tracts on Sikhism many of which were written and edited by Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh who, in 1894, helped found the Khālsā Tract Society in order to produce small, cheap volumes on theology and social topics. Statistics from the Society's 1902 report indicate that it had published almost 200 titles and distributed half a million copies. The final building block in Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's effort to revitalize Sikhism involved the creation of an Amritsar-based newspaper. His Khālsā Samāchār (1899), which has survived to this day, soon became a rallying point for pan-Punjab Sikh activities. Its editorials and detailed news reports played a major role in spreadingi Sikh programmes on a unified, regular basis. Another important Sikh newspaper was Panth, a fortnightly in Punjabi, issued from Gujrāṅwālā by Lāl Siṅgh. Two more newspapers of note were the Bār (1907), a Punjabi weekly published from Lyallpur and edited by Kirpāl Siṅgh, which gave news on agrarian problems, besides lobbying for patronage of rural Sikhs, and the Ramgaṛhīā Patrīkā, a Punjabi weekly published from Lahore, which contained caste news and general commentary on social reform and local issues.
English language journals also became quite popular in Sikh circles. The Khālsā (1899), a weekly newspaper in English, founded by Bhagat Lakshman Siṅgh, demonstrated within its brief span of a little more than two years the Sikhs' determination to reach not only the Western-educated members of the community but also other Punjabis and Englishmen who did not read Punjabi. In 1903, a group of Sikhs headed by Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh established another English weekly, The Khālsā Advocate (1903). Acknowledged as one of the most important English medium newspapers, it gained a circulation of over 1,000 and served as a spokesman for the Chief Khālsā Dīwān, leading discussions on current Sikh issues. Another English weekly, published by Bhāī Sohan Siṅgh from Gujrāṅwālā, was The Sikhs and Sikhism (1903).
The major concerns of the period, beginning with 1860's when Sikh journalism had its humble beginning and ending with the turn of the century, were rebuilding Sikh identity and further developing Sikh style of life and organization. During this period Sikh journalism moved from experimentation, uncertainty and the survival of only a handful of newspapers to a new plateau characterized by sustained publication and an accepted role in the Sikh life. This process produced an effective news and propaganda network for the Sikh community.
One final trend appeared in the early 1900's which foreshadowed a major redirection in Sikh journalistic efforts. Until than, Sikh commentators had generally been loyal to the British. Newspapers sometimes criticized specific official actions, but always in a subdued tone. Constitutional reform and the spectre of separate electorates based on sectarian affiliation raised questions of how to organize and gain political influence. Immediate issues such as control of Sikh institutions (most importantly the internal operation of the Khālsā College and supervision of gurdwārās) brought them into conflict with a government hitherto considered benevolent. The natural consequence was political commentary and a crescendo of hostile writing on British administration. Leaving aside the shrill call to revolution of Ghadr writers in America, the shift in emphasis and tone of Sikh journalism did not occur suddenly. The time tested network of tract societies and newspapers stood ready, and when the dual explosion of Jalliāṅvālā Bāgh and Gurū kā Bāgh thrust Sikhs into a new era of political experience, Sikh journalism came to the forefront making a decisive shift from self-criticism and socio-religious discussion to active political participation .
A new breed of newspapers arose in response to the needs and demands of the community. Between 1922 and 1933, at least 20 radical Sikh periodicals waged verbal war against the British government and opponents within the community. Many were prosecuted, banned, or driven out of circulation by heavy security demand. Others managed to survive, primarily because of their widespread popularity and also because of management's ability to keep one step ahead of the censor and the judicial system. The Akālī, started in 1920, and its various associated newspapers, symbolized this phase of militant journalism.
A handful of Sikh activists founded a series of newspapers in late 1922 and early 1923. The Urdu Akālī, with circulation ranging from 2,000 to 10,000, received financial aid from the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee and published a crescendo of denunciations against both the British and anti-Sikh forces. Several of its 1924 numbers were banned and, in the following decade, its various editors and registered proprietors underwent as many as twelve trials for publishing sedition or creating public disturbance. Master Tārā Siṅgh, a prominent Akālī, was acknowledged as a major force behind the paper. He also was associated with a Gurmukhī version of the Akālī and its sister concern, Akālī te Pardesī. Almost no year passed without at least one fresh prosecution of the Akālī te Pardesī staff and, although security demands frequently led to its temporary suspension, the paper kept emerging with new registered proprietors and the same militant message. Sikhs demanded control of their institutions and political future. The Akālī and similar papers such as Panth Sevāk, political spokesman for Sikhs, opposed the Chief Khālsā Dīwān's moderation. The anti-Akālī forces developed their own chain of journals, such as the Sanātan Sikh, (a Gurmukhī weekly from Amritsar), and the Sikh Sudhār, an Urdu journal from Amritsar that supported organizations opposed to the Akālī Dal. The relatively short lives of such papers, however, mirrored the inability of publications to continue indefinitely without substantial support from the Sikh public.
Although radical politics and polemics dominated Sikh journalism during the 1920's, two other trends were also apparent. First, the earlier tendency for factions and organizations among Sikhs to publish periodicals continued and even intensified. Niraṅkārīs, Nāmdhārīs, and organizations deemed heretical, such as the Paṅch Khālsā Dīwān of Bhasauṛ, had their organs of propaganda. The latter, for example, sponsored the Pañch Khālsā Samāchār and its successors, while the Central Mālvā Khālsā Dīwān published the weekly Kripān Bahādur. Secondly, the diversity and numerous activities among Sikhs led to the appearance of specialized newspapers. The Gurdwārā Gazette, sponsored by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee, focussed on news, elections, and administrative arrangements within Sikh shrines, while several papers, such as the Gurmat, a weekly Gurmukhī newspaper owned by the Gurmat Tract Society, Lahore, tended to print essentially scriptural and religious articles. Sikh Brāhmaṇs, Khatrīs and other social networks had newspapers, with the most voluminous assortment emanating from the Rāmgaṛhīā community. Between 1922 and 1942, at least ten different Rāmgaṛhīā newspapers and periodicals appeard, sometimes with general news and political commentary, but more often serving as a channel of communication among Rāmgaṛhīā families. A more secular and cosmopolitan approach to journalism could be found in two new publications, Maujī and Phulwāṛī. Maujī (1931), a Gurmukhī weekly published first in Amritsar and later in Lahore, featured satire, humour, commentary, and critical essays modelled after those in the English Punch. Phulwāṛī (1931), a monthly specializing in social, literary and political commentary, evolved from a narrow and essentially political focus to a broad-based journal prominent among educated Sikhs who appreciated its range of concerns. Edited by Hīrā Siṅgh Dard, Phulwāṛī set new standards of Punjabi prose and served as a major sounding board for Sikh intellectuals. Some of the most important essays by Sikh historians and theologians were first printed in Phulwāṛī.
Once the turmoil surrounding the period of reforms subsided in approximately 1920, Sikh journalism entered a relatively calm phase of growth. Although the total number of journals remained relatively stationary, in the range of 40 to 50 annually, the editors and titles of periodicals changed frequently. Many newspapers appeared briefly, developed a subscription list around 300 to 600, stumbled financially, and then either disappeared or merged with another journal. Important papers such as the Khālsā Samāchār, Fateh, Maujī, Phulwāṛī, and the Khālsā Sewak (a controversial daily from Amritsar with the redoubtable editor and politician Giāni Sher Siṅgh at its back) provided continuity, as did specialized ventures such as Nirguṇīārā, Gurdwārā Gazette, and an assortment of college or educational magazines. Most Sikh papers tended to be in Gurmukhī, but Urdu held its own as a major literary language for the community. In 1942, some of the Sikh newspapers and journals in Urdu were Ajīt, Khālsā Vīr, Gaṛgajj, Punjab Gazette and Rājpūt Qaumī Prakāsh. The longest lived and most influential Sikh newspaper in Urdu has been the Sher-i-Pañjāb which after 1947 moved to Delhi and is still in existence. While Lahore and Amritsar served as publication centres for Sikhs as well as for other Punjabis, Sikh journalists and presses were dispersed throughout central Punjab in district towns such as Fīrozpur, Ambālā, Ludhiāṇā and Jalandhar. The content of such a broad network of journals varied with the sponsoring group (or proprietor) and circumstances. For example, major concerns included ongoing political problems (such as defence of Sikh interests in the armed forces, the census, and elections), social issues, and special incidents such as the firing at Sīsgañj and controversy over the Shahīdgañj Gurdwārā. Earlier preoccupation with Hindu opponents tended to be replaced with overt conflict with the Muslim majority in Punjab. In additon, because of the large rural and agrarian composition of the Sikh population, peasant issues received attention either in editorials or in the form of particular journals (for example, Kirtī, a Gurmukhī and Urdu paper affiliated with the Punjab Communist Party). Propagation of Punjabi and enrichment of Punjabi literature also constituted common themes.
Indian independence and consequent partition of the country in 1947 resulted in the dislocation of a segment of Sikh journals and opened yet another era of challenge and change. Sikh newspapermen adjusted to the altered conditions and led both in rehabilitation efforts and the mounting demand for creation of a predominantly Sikh state. The journalists and publications of the community thus had come full circle. Sikh journalism initially had arisen in response to the problems of defining Sikhism and protecting Sikh rights and institutions. After 1947, the same concerns once again came to the forefront in an independent India. The success of Punjabi Sūbā, the further legitimization of Punjabi as an official and literary language, and the strengthened foundation of the Sikh religion owe much to the vigorous leadership and energy of a vigilant press.
N. G. Barrier