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  • The “Vox Populi,” or the Infernal Propaganda Machine, and Juridical Force in Colonial India
  • Sukeshi Kamra (bio)

The prosecution of cultural text and its producers has to be one of the more bizarre, if not unexpected, episodes in the history of the Indian freedom movement. From 1891 to the 1940s, authors, newspapers, editors, printers, and proprietors were charged with producing seditious texts. Poetry, song lyrics, fiction, drama, essays, gramophone records, posters, broadsheets, and even garments such as dhotis were subject to confiscation.1 According to Gerald Barrier, between 1907 and 1947, approximately two thousand newspapers were censored some repeatedly) and between eight and ten thousand individual titles were seized (160). The actual number was no doubt much larger. As Graham Shaw and Mary Lloyd, a central source for information on proscribed materials, have noted, such lists, including their own, are far from exhaustive (xi).

This paper deals with one of the many prosecutions of newspapers that took place across British India, but in disproportionately large numbers in Bengal.2 The Pallichitra was a Khulna district Bengali monthly with a circulation of five hundred, according to government figures. It was classified as a magazine until articles considered to be objectionable in their “political tone” (Proceedings P/8431, October 1910, prog. no. 146) were brought to the attention of the Bengal government.3 Reconsidering its initial classification, the government concluded that the Pallichitra was really a newspaper and initiated proceedings against it under the 1908 Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act.4 The trial was conducted by the district magistrate of Khulna, R. C. Hamilton.

My aim in this paper is to introduce the courtroom engagement between popular, nationalist literature, which in bureaurcratic literature [End Page 164] is described as seditious propaganda, and the law.5 Arguably, the courtroom is where the contest for symbolic power is prominently staged, a fact that Robert Darnton notes in his discussion of the Pallichitra trial.6 It is also the place in which an army of writers, editors, printers, and proprietors, members of an expansive middle class with little of the visibility that attended the actions and writings of leaders such as Ghose, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, becomes visible.7 This makes political trials, and the texts at their center, a valuable archive on which to draw when considering the development in the reading public of a political resoluteness and shared political vocabulary.8 Our sources for the Pallichitra trial are Home Department (Public) Proceedings, in which certified copies of the judgments filed by the presiding judge, the district magistrate, are recorded, and to a lesser extent the Indian Law Reports, in which a summary of the initial trial precedes a detailed report of the appellate hearing and decision. The judgments, the place in which the trial is most substantially reported, give us much to chew on. The first judgment records Hamilton’s decision to make the provisional order of confiscation of the press absolute (prog. no. 152). The second pronounces sentence on the editor and printer (prog. no. 155).

While the trial focuses on a poetic text, “Come O Mother,” involving communities of reading and acts of literary interpretation, as Darnton has pointed out in “Literary Surveillance in the British Raj,” the district magistrate’s judgments contextualize the courtroom wrangling over the legal status of the poetic text by offering tantalizing glimpses into the weight of a formidable array of knowledge by which the defense was read for its participation in the legal system by the judiciary. Equally tantalizing are the glimpses the same documents provide of an Indian public that is fully prepared to play the part required of it in the courtroom—maximizing legal loopholes, subtly playing with the body of knowledge through which it was fully aware it was read, and so on. In other words, there was a lot more to the trial than the hermeneutical act at its ostensible center, although by saying this I do not mean to dismiss the importance of the latter to a history of political trials of British India. Then, of course, there is the poetic text itself to consider. Until seized, and later banned, it had a life outside the courtroom...