Assam newspaper: From Brown's Arunodoi to Sankar Rajkhewa's The Sentinel

Dhruva Saikia *

 15 August, 1948 issue of Dainik Asomia, an epoch making Assamese daily.  Price 1 and half anna
15 August, 1948 issue of Dainik Asomia, an epoch making Assamese daily. Price 1 and half anna. Picture courtesy: Journalist Hiranya Kumar Barman's facebook post dated 26 August 2019

Assam, a prolific publishing place for newspapers, magazine and journals, has its own tradition in dissemination of news and information since the days of Ahom, Koch and other kings when the royal house assigned a person to move along streets and markets, beat a drum to draw people's attention and then make the relevant announcements so that the king's subjects become aware of the development.

The practice was not confined to the capital but all localities and villages copied the norm to deliver a news to people in general. The Ahoms ruled Assam from 1228 to 1826 and they had introduced a system of compiling history. So a knack for assembling and disseminating news is integral to the society and rulers in Assam.

Albeit Assam's perpetual contact with India since Mahabharata Days, the modern age India-Assam administrative association was consolidated when the British Empire annexed Assam in 1826 via Yandaboo treaty, and later in 1947 India's independence and partition too uphold Assam's role in India.

The advent of British in Assam ushered in, among things, the printing press and Assam saw the light of its first ever newspaper published by Christian Missionaries. The Missionaries devoted themselves to the development of the Assamese language and besides the newspaper, series of books including grammar was brought out.

Thus a modern age in printing and publication took off and the hallmark was Arundoi, the inaugural news magazine or journal in Assamese. Tag line of the newsmagazine was "The Orunodoi, monthly paper, devoted to religion, science and general intelligence".

Name: Arundoi
Published: January 1846
Place of publication: Sivasagar
Frequency: Monthly
First editor: Dr. Nathan Brown
Publisher: Oliver Thomas Cutter
Company: Baptist Missionary Printing Press
More editors: Dr. Nathan Brown
A.H. Denforth
Miles Bronson
William Ward
Ms Susane
Circulation: 700
Categories: Current affairs & Literature
Final issue: 1883

So the printing, publication and distribution of Assamese newspaper as an enterprise saw the light of the day in this part of the world at a gap of centuries (the first printing press was invented by a Chinese man named Bi Sheng. In 1440, while Johannes Gutenberg of Germany improved upon the original printing press in 1445 and the German scientist is commonly credited as the inventor of the movable printing press).

This invention changed life in Europe and eventually all over the world. The first man who introduced printing press in India was James Hicky. He was an Irishman and was a bit eccentric. In 1780 he introduced the printing press and released the first printed newspaper in whole of India. The name of the newspaper was Bengal Gazette.

Newspapers was the key material that was uploaded in this newly invented machine and thus the blessings of a printing machine spread faster across the globe. Hickey's Bengal Gazaette, the first newspaper in India, hit the stand on 29 January 1780, and Assamese newspaper joined the stream in six decades later, courtesy Baptist Missionaries led by Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson.

As this news magazine heralded a new era in the world of Assamese newspapers and literature, a galaxy of Assamese writers were born, creating a new society of literary connoisseurs. The notable writers of Arundoloi who lasting impact on Assamese newspaper and literature are Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Hemchandra Barua, Gunabhiram Barua, and Nidhi Levi Farwell.

Arunodoi commands a significant place in establishing the autonomy and originality of the Assamese language. After annexation of Assam by the East India in 1826, the Briitsh administration facilitated large scale immigration from Bengal to Assam and they faced a dearth of competent personnel to run the administrative machinery in this newly acquired territory.

The void was to be filled by Bengali immigrants who took up government jobs and performed suitably as they had been quite familiar with British norms due to earlier annexation of Bengal by the British. However, this class of new comers somehow suffered from a delusion that Assamese was not an independent language, but a derivative from Bengali and the immigrants succeeded in convincing the alien British rulers to replace Assamese with Bengali as the language for official work as well as medium of instruction. Assamese society at large was dumbfounded.

A struggle for reinstating the mother tongue ensued and it was after a long four decades that the British realized their folly and Assamese was restored in offices, schools and colleges. The Christian Missionaries had discovered the uniqueness of Assamese language earlier than the British rulers and they too, like other Assamese stalwarts Anadaram Dhekial Phukan, Gunabhiram Barua and others, argued with the British for restoration of the vernacular.

In this backdrop, the first Assamese news magazine Arunodoi emerged and its pioneers Brown Bronson used the publication as a vehicle to drive the point home and the magazine took the initiative of innovating the then Assamese dialect instead of borrowing words from other languages. The Assamese people got to know about the western world only through this magazine, which opened the gate to the modern literacy in Assam.

It mainly included various news related to current affairs, Science, astrology, history and also trivia although Christianity was its main aim. The magazine's publishing ended when the printing press was sold in 1883. In 1882, Hemchandra baruah published wekkly tabloid "Assam News" in both assamese and english which was in true sense a newspaper. But it was short lived and the publication was stopped within 3 years in 1885.

In 1894 Manik Chandra Barua and Kaliram Barua together published another weekly "Assam". The newspaper got attention of the general public and became popular for some time. In 1895 Radhanath Changkakoty published english weekly newspaper, "Times of Assam" from Dibrugarh. The newspaper continued contributing to the Assamese society for more than five decades till 1947.

In 14th January, 1900, Padmanath Gohain Barua published weekly "Assam Bonti". Later the newspaper was named as "Bonti". It continued publishing till 1944. In 1902 two English newspapers were published from Dibrugarh, "The Eastern Herald" and "Citizen". In 1918, Chandrakumar Agarwala published "Xhadiniya Xhongbaad". In 1927 Kirtinath Sharma published "Xhadiniya Raaiz" and in 1929 Nilamoni Phukan published daily "Dainik Batori" from Jorhat.

In 1932 "Axom Xevak" and in 1935 Ambikagiri Raichoudhury published "Deka Axom". This newspaper continued publication till 1954. After the death of Raichoudhury in 1967, his son Bhagagiri Raichoudhury resumed the newspaper's publication, but didn't continue long. In 1989 the "Deka Axom" was republished as a trimonthly magazine by Skhitish Chandra Phukan. But it was not successful. In 1939 Benudhar Sharma published "Tarun Axom" from from Dibrugarh.

In 1946 Debakanta Barua published "Dainik Axomiya". But it just lasted for only two years. In 1949 Mr Barua published "Natun Axomiya". Later Birinchi kumar Barua, Kirtinath Hazarika, etc took editorship of the newspaper. This daily created a new horizon in Assamese news media.

After Independence, Assam witness numerous daily and weekly newspapers. "Raaiz", "Xaantidoot", "Axom Batori" (Chandraprasad Saikia), "Nilachal"(Homen Borgohauin), "Ganatatra", "Mahajaati" (Purnanarayan Sighna), "Alok", "Nagorik", etc are a few to name with.

With the advent of desk top publishing and offset printing in the 1980s, Assam's newspaper and magazine publication scenario underwent a radical change. Soon arrived the satellite editions of newspapers and this altered the distribution scenario as well. Now the editions of one newspaper were printed simultaneously at several places and transportation of newspapers from Guwahati to other places was done away with.

On this day of writing this article, Guwahati is the publication place for as many as ten Assamese and 4 English dailies. Assamese- Dainik Asom, Dainik Janambhumi, Axomiya Pratidin, Khabar, Niyomiya Barta, Dainik Gana Adhikar, Janasadharan, Agradoot, Ajir Dainik Batori, Amar Asom besides some defunct Assamese dailies such as Aji, Ajir Asom and Edinor Sangbad.

The English dailies from Guwahati include The Assam Tribune, The Sentinel, The Telegraph and Times of India. Hindi and Bengali dailies include Dainik Jugasankha, Hindi Sentinel and Purbottar Prahari. The English daily The Sentinel also accommodates feature articles in Bodo language, once a week.

It must be mentioned that all newspapers have their online editions and they publish their newspapers not only from Guwahati, but simultaneously from some other places such as Dibrugarh, North Lakhimpur and Silchar. This practice boosts the reach of the newspaper.

The modernization of newspaper business in Assam would not have been possible without the emergence of Omega Printers and Publishers Private Limited, who revolutionized the form and content of a newspaper, with its launch of The Sentinel, an English daily with Sri Dhirendranath Bezbaruah as the founder editor in 1983.

These are some of the firsts in an Assam newspaper house initiated by the Omega Printers and Publishers Private Limited. The Sentinel was the first newspaper in Assam that had discarded the prevalent practice of letter compose and quite smoothly, but with a meticulous programme plan and programme devised by the company's one of the directors and de-facto proprietor, a young, energetic and strong-willed Mr. Sankar Rajkhewa.

He is a visionary in the truest sense who added the latest features to an Assam newspaper, and these newer aspects included a new mod of design and page layout, application of computers in composing initially which now has extended to the entire pre-press tasks, late night edition in Guwahati to be followed by satellite editions at Dibrugarh and Silchar, replacement of letter press composition with PTS (photo type-setting) and later DTP in place of PTS, offset printing with colour pages, a Sunday supplement, pages earmarked for city, state, regional, national, international, business, entertainment and sports news (The Sentinel was the first newspaper in Assam with a full page covering sports news) and the editorial page earmarked for comments and columns by eminent dignitaries.

Mr. Sankar Rajkhewa not only looked after the production, distribution and advertisement sections but he synchronized the editorial department's function with the other departments .From the English daily he expanded his publication to Assamese, Hindi and Bengali dailies, an Assamese weekly, and also an Assamese monthly magazine as a supplement to the Assamese daily Ajir Asom (now defunct), while a Khaisi weekly and an advertisement company preceded the publication of The Sentinel.

In 1987, Mr Rajkhewa launched his Assamese daily Ajir Asom with late Radhika Mohan Bhahawati as the editor. For this Assamese daily,Mr Rajkhewa appointed the first Assamese DTP operators in a press in Assam, in 1987. I was a witness to the initiation of Assamese composing work, also guiding the computer giant Apple to launch Assamese font and software for their sets.

He first six computer operators, at the time of time of their recruitment never had worked with a computer and Mr. Rajkhewa knew that anyone with a good typing speed can be a computer operator, if he is introduced to the buttons of PC, it was as simple as that for Mr. Rajkhewa who asked me take a test of typing speed of the application appoint the top six. I did that and thus the computer tying in Assamese took off in an Assam press, thanks to the vision and dream of Sankar Rajkhewa.

The Sentinel house of newspapers and magazines is not the only house to have published newspapers in as many as -- languages, English, Bengali, Hindi, Khasi, Bodo (part of the English daily) and Assamese, this establishment also enjoys the distinction of being the grooming house of a new generation of journalists in the eighties.

When The Sentinel was launched in 1983, the existing publications were Janambhumi in Jorhat, The Assam Tribune, The Assam Express and Newsfront in Guwahati. There were no formal education avenue for journalists except for a diploma course at Gauhati Univeristy, and as the launch of The Sentinel was accompanied by advent newer technology, there naturally was shortage of competent and experience personnel, so imparting of training to the new entrants to make them familiar with a computerized atmosphere was crucial for the employer and thankfully Mr. Rajkhewa with keen eye for talent and integrity, was handsomely successful in building up a team of young and enterprising journalists and non-journalist and the wider circle of journalism The Sentinel House came to be dubbed as a rewarding training house.

A galaxy of successful journalists from Nitin A Gokhale, Rahul Bannerjee, Prasantajyoti Barua, Rupam Barua, Ramanuj Dutta Chaudhury, Manish Goswami, Mrinal Talukdar, Bhupen Bhattacharyya, Chandra Saikia, Sukumar Bagchi, to name a few, had their baptism at the Sentinel premises.

The luminary columnists associated with The Sentinel house, besides Sri D N Bezbarua and Sri Radhika Mohan Bhagawati, include Arup Kumar Dutta, Kuldip Nayaar, MV Kamath, Khuswant Singh, Pankaj Thakur (editor of Assamese monthly supplementary literary magazine) Samir Tanti and Manoj Barpujari.

The Sentinel house, though ceased publication of their Assamese and Bengali dailies and an Assamese weekly, its accomplishments as trendsetter and harbinger of modern technology would go down in the history of Assam journalism as well as propragator a new work culture in media houses.

* Dhruva Saikia wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at dhroovajit(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on August 29 2019.

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