The 1910 Press Act and the Power of Imagery

Around the year 1910, the Cow Protection movement led to the imposition of the Press Act of 1910 by the British administration. This was in obvious response to the ever-increasing demand for Independence and the growing movement that this idea had garnered around itself.

The intended effect, it was hoped, would be to curtail freedom fighters from publishing things considered anti-colonial. This impulse towards curtailment of free speech grew even more powerfully during the outbreak of the First World War. As British rule seemed to be being questioned everywhere, including its colonies, the response could only be that of extreme banning.

In 1907, a British official stated that they were “overwhelmed with a mass of heterogeneous material, some of it misguided, some of it frankly seditious.” This was the response that the imagery from the Cow Protection movement had led to. A similar response was what the 1910 Press Act or rather the curtailment of freedom of the press led to.

Certain images and elements within an image were considered inflammatory for steady British governance were proscribed. But that proscription on certain types of images provided them wit a power of representation on a hitherto impossible scale. In other words, banning some images was like an acknowledgement of the power that those images possessed. In an act of trying to curtail power, power was granted to certain forms of representation.

Moreover, the means and ways of communication of anti-colonial feeling also changed along with the Act. It was no longer direct due to the proscription, but symbolic, veiled and allegorical. To solidify this claim with an example, the power of the words “Ban British Goods” written on a stamp would otherwise have been treated as just another stamp, but here acquired a power that was unprecedented. Similarly, lyrics of a song in praise of freedom fighter Khudiram Bose printed on a dhoti were enough to inspire on a mass scale anti-colonial sentiment.

The prohibition that followed the Press Act had the effect opposite to what was intended: like all prohibitions, it, firstly, had to acknowledge the subversive power of that which it sought to ban; and, second, it led to innovative ways in which anti-colonial interventions took root in the country.

With the curtailment of rights of free press and free speech, other forms of intervention evolved, innovative to a degree that they sought ways around the curtailment. Banning, which seemed like the perfect solution for the colonialists, gave way to an increase in subversive anti-colonial interventions.