Read to discover

Hicky and Aveek Sarkar, Hastings and Mamata Banerjee

Reading about the first newspaper in India reminded me of Aveek Sarkar, the colourful newspaper proprietor.

He is also based in the same city, Calcutta (now called Kolkata), where the Irishman James Augustus Hicky launched the Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser in 1780 (see image.)

Hicky got into trouble for criticizing the governor-general, Lord Hastings.

Aveek Sarkar also dug himself into a hole by criticizing Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal.

Sarkar stepped down as editor of The Telegraph and the Ananda Bazar Patrika after Mamata Banerjee won the West Bengal Assembly elections by a landslide earlier this year.

Criticism of  the popular chief minister can infuriate her admirers. A young woman, who criticized Mamata Banerjee in a Facebook post, ended up being condemned on a giant billboard by the chief minister’s supporters earlier this month. (More here.)

Sarkar was hoist with his own petard, as it were, for he did support Mamata Banerjee in the past. After she came to power in 2011, however, his newspapers began to criticize her.

I remember reading about Sarkar in his heyday in Nicholas Coleridge’s book, Paper Tigers, about newspaper proprietors.

Coleridge wrote, “Aveek Sarkar is India’s most sophisticated newspaper proprietor…From his power base in Calcutta, Sarkar’s sphere of influence is the entire eastern seaboard of India. ‘Aveek can deliver the East,’ a Delhi-based political lobbyist assured me.”

Sarkar, 71, proved powerless, however, against Mamata Banerjee, 61.

Both will be remembered, she as a charismatic, populist leader, he as a successor to old-school, colourful newspaper proprietors like Beaverbrook.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the oldest newspaper in India, was a minnow compared with Sarkar’s mass-circulating dailies, The Telegraph and the Ananda Bazar Patrika.  The Gazette was a weekly publication, typically running to four pages. It was virtually a one-man operation with Hicky acting as writer, editor, and publisher, recalls Slate.

“The first British newspaper in India was a hilarious, irreverent quasi-tabloid,” says Slate.

Hicky mocked people using nicknames such as “Mrs. Bacon-Face”, “Pomposo Brandy-Face”, and “Sir Christian Turkey” in his newspaper reports.

“Despite the paper’s satirical tone, it was widely read by members of colonial society at the time—a fact that eventually proved to be the paper’s undoing,” writes Priyanka Menon in Slate.

“Hicky’s criticism of Governor-General Warren Hastings, and his particularly malicious ridicule of Hasting’s wife, landed him in jail repeatedly,” she adds. “When Hicky defied Hastings by continuing to publish while in jail (an act that elicited an outpouring of sympathy from readers), Hastings decided to take another route to quiet Hicky; he funded a rival publication, the India Gazette. Its comparatively moderate content drove Hicky out of business in 1782.”

Priyanka Menon is a Humanities Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Folger Shakespeare Library. Her article in Slate links to digital copies of the Bengal Gazette preserved by the Heidelberg University Library.

So there we have a slice of history of Bengal on an American website displaying a copy of India’s oldest newspaper kept at a German university library. Scholarship that’s truly international.

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