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Harijan: The Mahatma’s journalistic crusade to improve the life of “untouchables”

 

While working as a barrister in South Africa, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi wrote numerous letters to newspapers in order to promote civil rights for Indians. His efforts led to a parallel career as a journalist, beginning in 1903 with the launch of ‘Indian Opinion’. He was ultimately associated with six journals during his lifetime, and his work is remarkable for both its reach and integrity.

 

Harijan (‘children of God’) was Mahatma Gandhi’s famous English-language weekly launched in 1933 to promote his crusade against untouchability, “to liberate some 40 million human beings from an intolerable yoke” and “to purify Hinduism”. The newspaper continued until 1948 and was also published in Hindi and Gujarati translations, Harijan Sevak and Harijan Bandhu.

 

Harijan had an enormous impact on Hindu society, deliberately pricking the conscience of the orthodox community. Each issue exposed the evils of segregation practiced against untouchables with regular updates under such headings as: Temples Thrown Open, Educational Facilities, Medical Aid, Wells and Tanks Opened, and such like.

 

Many articles were written by the Mahatma himself (e.g. “Dr Ambedkar & caste” in the very first issue), or his associate Charles Freer Andrews. Rabindranath Tagore provided poems on untouchability for most issues, including The Cleanser, The Sacred Thread, Sweet Mercy, Love’s Gold, and The Great Equality. Other contributors included B.R. Ambedkar, himself an untouchable, and later author of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the rights of all minority groups, and C. Rajagopalacharia.

 

Harijan represents the culmination of the Mahatma’s remarkable career as a journalist, and his emphasis on using the power of the press to sway public opinion and to discomfort government and society. As he remarked in 1946: “If I were appointed dictator for a day in the place of the Viceroy, I would stop all newspapers—with the exception of Harijan, of course.”

 

Harijan embodied Mahatma Gandhi’s belief that “the sole aim of journalism is service”. He believed that newspapers were meant as a form of education for the people and that they should never be too beholden to advertisers. He wrote: “In my humble opinion, it is wrong to use a newspaper as a means of earning a living. There are certain spheres of work, which are of such consequence and have such bearing on public welfare that to undertake them for earning one's livelihood will defeat the primary aim behind them. When, further a newspaper is treated as a means of making profits, the result is likely to be serious malpractices.”

 

I acquired these issues of Harijan from a British follower of the Mahatma whom I met some 30 years ago. This acquaintance had first visited India in 1932, and subscribed to Harijan from its beginning. He was again in India from September 1933 to February 1934 and had those issues delivered to him on the spot, which is why they are missing from our set.

An eminent Indian academic recently told me that some of these newspapers can be encountered on the market in India. Though they are certainly available as reprints, I believe these first editions of the earliest issues are extremely rare. Despite their large circulation, newspapers are rarely kept and preserved properly.

 

We are offering the first thirty-two issues of Harijan, together with twenty-one issues from its second year of publication.  

 

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