By Adity Choudhury

While people of the state may have heard about U Babu Jeebon Roy (1838-1903), the pioneer educationist and journalist who established the Ri Khasi Press in 1896, little is known about his eldest son, U Sib Charan Roy (1862-1952).

In celebrated author, Bijoya Sawian’s words, “He was a man of few words. While my great grandfather was articulate, my grand uncle was a doer…reason the British feared him greatly.”

But why did the British fear him so much? To trace the answer, one must go back to the notorious Vernacular Press Act (1878), a law enacted in British India to curtail the freedom of non-English Press. It came to be known as the “Gagging Act”, intended only for vernacular press.

U Sib Charan played a very important role in shaping vernacular press in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills.

What were his early years like? Let’s find out.

A World of Ideas

Being born on April 4, 1862, just as the British ruthlessly suppressed the Jaintia rebellion, was not just a mere coincidence. Later experience would shape him in a profound way.

Both parental figures instilled in him a deep reverence for Khasi values, culture and traditions. Education, in fact, was foremost in the family; writing ran in the blood.

His grandfather, U Ram Sing Jaid Rani studied at Mission School at Serampore (West Bengal) and worked as an interpreter with the English East India Company.

Because the British did not consider education beyond class VI, it was difficult for U Babu Jeebon to open a school. Nonetheless, he persevered and inaugurated the Zillah School on September 2, 1878, paying Rs 900 from his own pocket.

The Zillah School merged with the Mission Minor School, birthing the Shillong Government High School in Mawkhar. U Sib Charan became the first Khasi student to pass out of this school.

Though he went to Kolkata (then Calcutta) for his higher education, he could not complete his graduation, owing to ill health.

He was encouraged to join the British government as a good learning experience upon his return. U Sib Charan joined the police in the Jaintia Hills… a turning point for the dauntless young man!

Early Brush with Colonialists

One day he came rushing back to Shillong and asked his mother for some money, citing his decision to help the people of the Jaintia Hills. When his father reminded him that as a working man he shouldn’t be asking for money, he shared the horror story of how the British extracted tax from the poor people, who had to sell everything they owned to the British.

“He told his mother that if money is what she wanted, he could bring sackful of money,” Sawian recalled.

With his mother’s help, U Sib Charan returned to the Jaintia Hills and helped as much as he could, before resigning from his post. In order to overcome his trauma, he was sent to Sylhet, to manage one of the family estates.

Here, with the help of a Sanskrit scholar, he translated the Bhagavad Gita in Khasi – the book had a profound influence on him – at the same time, he was concerned about his own culture, at odds with the society in transition.

Back at home, his younger brother, U Chandranath Roy looked after matters. U Babu Jeebon’s eldest daughter, Ka Lakheitmon (grandmother of the late Sumar Sing Sawian) became the first woman to step outside the house, at a time when women were not encouraged to work.

Together the brother-sister duo worked at the press. Soon, their elder brother would join them.

Another unpleasant brush with the British involved the deeds of the infamous Harry Inglis… perhaps, the Robert Clive of the Khasi Hills.

Inglis did not want the natives to own limestone quarries and resorted to nefarious measures to ensure his monopoly remained. As a result, U Babu Jeebon’s family suffered. It took the 1897 Great Assam earthquake for the family to recover what they lost – only their quarry survived.

In this context, is it too difficult to understand why U Sib Charan chose the pen to fight the British?

U Sib Charan vs Colonialism

While the first Khasi secular news daily, U Khasi Mynta (The Khasi Today), circulated in March 1896, two vernacular newspapers would change things for the better.

U Sib Charan launched U Nongphira (The Watchman) in 1903, exposing the propaganda machinery of colonial rule. He wrote about the unlawful subjugation of the people, violation of land rights, Swadeshi Movement and global political events of the day.

In this context, it’s important to remember that the British signed treaties with the Syiems (or chiefs) of the Himas, therefore, it was not a direct rule – reason the British government exercised caution, and threatened him with dire consequences, but were hesitant to take action. While the Vernacular Press Act was particularly stringent in other parts of the country, the British were careful not to provoke people in the Khasi Hills.

That said, it was clear, they disliked his confrontational stance.

Sawian noted, “U Sib Charan printed what was considered sedition. They would tell him to carry on with his paper, but not write anything against British rule. But he had other plans in mind. He would come back home to do exactly what he wanted to do.”

Eventually, the paper was banned in 1915. The British observed how like-minded people understood the importance of vernacular press. Exchanging ideas would foster a culture of intellectualism, so why not nip it in the bud?

U Sib Charan, meanwhile, joined the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1920 and became the first Khasi to attend the 1929 Lahore session – important because the INC gave its clarion call – “Purna Swaraj”.

“My grand uncle met leaders like Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru in the conferences he attended in Calcutta and New Delhi. He listened to them speak, observed and read about them, taking back what he thought was best for his people,” Sawian said.

1928 marked a significant shift. He launched U Nongpynim (The Awakener), which the British immediately banned. He re-launched the paper in 1930. It ran for 10 years before being banned again in 1940.

Sawian said, “True to his style, U Sib Charan’s tone was virulent in his criticism of the Simon Commission for instance. He published Gandhi’s letter to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin (March 2, 1930). As an ardent admirer of Gandhi, he not only supported the Non-Cooperation Movement, but published his writings in U Nongpynim.”

Sawian shared how he had contacts in Calcutta and New Delhi. “His sources in Calcutta relayed the important events of the nation and the world to him.”

The Khasi intellectuals who understood what was going on admired U Sib Charan. U Soso Tham and Radhon Sing Berry expressed their support as did the Brahmo Samaj. But there were also people who could not understand how their culture was changing… one that would eventually lead to an identity crisis.

Father and Son

Both father and son agreed on education of the people. “By education, they referred to spiritual, ethical and emotional development, with all senses awakened. Only that would make a person complete. Both believed in the power of the word,” Sawian shared.

U Babu Jeebon and U Sib Charan knew that the British had lessons to teach but their rule must end at all cost. Foremost in their minds was cultural preservation. “A tree cannot exist without its roots, no matter how well one looks after this,” the author pointed out.

Were they to come back for a day, what would they think of journalism now?

“Both were fearless men during their time. There are some journalists and media people they would admire but they certainly would be most unforgiving with the rest. Being open-minded and welcoming towards other cultures, they weren’t against any religion as long as it did not make the natives ashamed of their culture and in the process, create a cultural vacuum. If they were to come back for a day, they would be disappointed with the current journalism and the degeneration of the mind, with its constant fear mongering and sensationalism,” Sawian said, smiling.

Remembrance

She shared a beautiful memory of her grand uncle. “He was the eldest member of the family while I was the youngest. One morning in 1951 when I was barely one-and-a-half-years old, we were put in the morning room in our ancestral house at Umsohsun. I crawled towards him, touched his soft, furry Kashmiri shoes and uttered ‘meow meow’. He then looked at me and smiled. I will never forget the warmth and love he exuded. He was impressive looking with his dhoti and turban, and was always deep in thought.”

Aged 90, U Sib Charan passed away in April 1952.

As we ponder on press freedom now, it’s interesting to note how contexts change where provocation is concerned.

As Sawian emphasised, “Ri Khasi Press was provocative without being disrespectful. Now, there is constant fear of the other. The objective is different.”