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Press and Registration of Books Act 1867: Its history and impact

The current Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act 1867 was squarely aimed at curbing what the British Government thought was the role of the press in the 'revolt of 1857'

Vivek Mehra 

Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Photo: www.shutterstock.com

The Act 1867 is a result of many previous draconian laws being repealed and or being merged into one. It has been in existence for 151 years! In many ways it has outlived its utility. But its existence continues to plague Indian academic publishing. The biggest sufferer has been Indian Journal publishing.

A brief history of the act

The legacy begins with the Censorship of Press Act, 1799 which was imposed by Lord Wellesley to gag the press ahead of a French invasion of India. This was retracted in 1818 by Lord Hastings.

Acting governor-general John Adams enacted the Licensing Regulations (ordinance), 1823. It had a draconian provision that no one could start or continue to use a press without registration. Rammohan Roy’s, Mirat-ul-Akbar had to cease publication thanks to this act.

Governor General Metcalfe abolished the obnoxious 1823 ordinance to replace it with the Press Act of 1835. This act required a printer and for the first time a publisher to give a precise account of the premises used for printing and publication. This was also the first act that allowed a declaration of ‘cease to function’ thus absolving one of any future wrong doing. Between 1835 and 1857, Indian vernacular press saw rapid growth across India. The Licensing Act of 1857 brought newspapers, printed matter and all books under the purview of law. The freedom of the press only grew worse with the uprising later that year.

The act and its fallout on book publishing

The current Press and (PRB) Act 1867 was squarely aimed at curbing what the thought was the role of the press in the “revolt of 1857”. But it was clever in its enactment because it only pertained to presses in English. It was seen as being regulatory in nature because a more stringent act, the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, was waiting in the wings. Thankfully the VPA was annulled in 1882.

It is strange that since India got its freedom, the was never abandoned by successive governments. It is evident that the act helped governments control the press, regulate book publishing and inadvertently curb the freedom of speech and expression. The act by itself appears to be fairly liberal and clearly designed to ‘help preserve news’. This is what is apparent from the introduction of the act which

“…To achieve this purpose a bill was introduced in the legislature for the regulation of printing presses and newspapers for the preservation of copies of books and periodicals containing news printed in the whole of India and for the registration of such books and periodicals containing news.”. These words clearly point to NEWS in any printed form and were designed to get access to every type of writing that was targeting the government.

With successive amendments, the act has been modified but its overall effect remains a problem in several quarters. Book publishing has not really been. While there have been stray cases of ambitious officers pursuing publishers, compliance has been simple. It has been restricted to identifying the publisher by name, the press where the book is printed. There is another critical provision – depositing copies with the Libraries across the countries. A visit to two such has revealed that most often than not books received, rarely make it to shelves. (Do we know what happens to these copies? If yes, that could be added here for a more complete feel to the sentence).(No I don’t want to hazard a guess because someone will have a different take on whatever I say). This is primarily because publishing in India has exploded making it an estimated Rs 25000 crore business but space at the libraries, hasn’t kept pace. So much for a law that wants its citizens to comply.

The impact on Journal Publishing in India

The provisions for registering and publishing periodicals, however, has had a direct and negative impact on Indian Higher Education publishing when one examines the publishing of Academic Peer Reviewed Journals. These journals are NOT defined as carrying NEWS or any sort of as envisioned and enshrined in the PRB Act (along with its various amendments). And yet all academic journals are subject to the same lengthy, bureaucratic process that is needed to approve a weekly or even a fortnightly NEWS magazine. The law, the lawmakers and the law enforcers don’t make any allowance for any distinction between academic journals and magazines.

The Act, when applied to publishing an academic journal, follows the process defined below:

1.Title approval by RNI (Registrar of Newspapers in India) – sometimes these are benchmarked against non-academic publications.

2.The publisher, the editor and the printer of the journal are subject to multiple levels of verification including police verification.

3.The police verification entails visiting the house of the publisher and the editor. Here the following documents are required to be submitted:

a.Proof of Indian citizenship (non-Indians cannot be editors)

b.Address proof

c.Certificate (almost akin to a character certificate) from at least 2 neighbours who live within the same locality (sometimes even within a specified distance from the house)

4.Printer has to be verified using an archaic form which lists the type of press he uses for printing the journal. Residence verification of the printer too is required.

Any changes in the editorial board, publisher’s name, printer’s name have to perforce follow the same process, to comply with ‘The Act’. None of these processes need to be followed for a non-print, also known as, online only journals. Another disturbing aspect of this act is the obtaining of an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) for an academic journal. The Science Library under CSIR-NISCAIR has been tasked with allocating this number. It’s application guidelines clearly state that to obtain an ISSN, the journal must be registered with the RNI (thus conforming to the PRB Act). But the publishing of say a medical journal is NOT within the purview of the RNI so what should a journal publisher do?

Research is measured by the amount that is published. With the paucity of Indian journals available for Indian researchers there is no real way in finding out if true research happens or not. The obsession with foreign journals is justified because that is where credible journals are published; there just aren’t enough journals in India for Indian researchers to publish in. Period.

A consequence of the PRB Act and its continuance is that reputed global publishers don’t have a meaningful publishing program in India. But India has now obtained the dubious distinction of having the largest number of predatory (or fake) journals in the world.

How did a nation that is classified as doing very little research have the largest number of fake journals and thus the largest number of questionable articles published in the world?

I don’t claim that the lack of Indian journals is the only reason why Indian research is not published in large numbers. It is true there are other factors such as language, research methodology and even citations, which prevent Indian research from being published in global journals. However, all these factors can be addressed by private entities and mechanisms found to help Indian research get better publishing opportunities. It is only the Government that can scrap the law that is currently limiting quality journal publishing in India.

In 2011 the then government introduced The Press and and Publications Bill on 16 December. The key amendment was renaming the act itself. It was referred back to the standing committee on 5th January 2012. A revised version of the draft bill was presented back in 2013. There was an attempt to revisit the provisions of the law but in reality, nothing substantially changed in the intent of the law. And as many bills do, this one never made it to becoming an Act. The with its amendments stands even today.

This is the age of information overload and the PRB Act in all its avatars has long outlived its purpose. Today it is a hurdle that prevents quality journal publishing in a print dependent country such as India. Its removal would help the government understand how best to expand quality publishing by focussing on the content being published and not the archaic thought of controlling the mechanism of publishing. With more publishing moving online and becoming digital the act only helps deprive print dependent researchers from accessing content. It is time the government worked on removing this act permanently.

First Published: Wed, December 12 2018. 12:43 IST
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