The origins of The Statesman lie with the Friend of India, a newspaper started by a Baptist missionary, William Carey in Serampore (West Bengal) in the early 19th century.
While a streak of evangelical zeal was evident in some of the positions taken by the Friend of India (founded 1818), its role in denouncing the practise of sati and its fierce attacks on the custom of infanticide – which involved children being thrown into the sea at the time of the annual Ganga Sagar mela – were notable. It found an ally in Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, who took up the battle and first outlawed sati, and then deployed special officers to the mela to ensure that no children were thrown into the sea.
In January 1875, Robert Knight, had already established The Indian Statesman with backing from 24 merchants. By that time, the Friend of India was facing severe distress. A sum of Rs 30,000 changed hands, and Knight bought the Friend of India. He then shifted its publication from Serampore to Calcutta. For nearly eight years, the two newspapers were published simultaneously until in 1883, the Friend of India was incorporated with The Statesman and for many years, the newspaper called itself “The Statesman and Friend of India.”
While British owned until the 1960s, The Statesman endeared itself to readers with its objective coverage of the famines of 1877 and 1943, But more than anything else, it was Robert Knight’s affinity with Indian aspirations which led to his – and the paper’s – vociferous support for a movement called the Indian National Congress that began in Bengal and later spread all over India.
As was recorded after Knight’s death, his contribution to the Congress cause was two-fold; he “admitted into the correspondence and other columns of his paper a continuous series of letters and articles on the reform of the administration and he followed these up with one magnificent leading article after another.” The Indian-owned Press was effusive in his praise when he died and called it a public calamity.
The Knight family owned The Statesman until 1927 when it was acquired by Sir David Yule. The paper was then headed by Alfred Watson, who was to be knighted in 1932, and it was he who was responsible both for the shift of The Statesman’s operations to its office at 4 Chowringhee Square, Calcutta and the launch of the New Delhi edition of the paper, an innovation that gave the paper a more extensive geographical spread than any newspaper in the world.
The Statesman remained British-owned until the 1960s. When the Cabinet resolutions on the Press were taken up in 1955, it was described as the “honourable” exception to the new rule adopted under Prime Minister Nehru that barred foreign-owned publications from operating in India.
The Statesman has remained committed to its liberal values for well over a century. Its policy enjoins editors to resist all forms of tyranny and to support the Constitution, especially the chapter on fundamental rights. This policy was cited by the paper to justify its opposition to the internal Emergency of 1975 and it was one among a handful of publications that refused to either bend or crawl in the face of severe restrictions placed on the Press.
Over the many decades of its existence, The Statesman has led efforts to organise and modernise institutions of the Press. It was a founding member of the Indian Newspaper Society, and even lent the Society space in its Delhi building for more than 15 years and until the INS Building was inaugurated in 1956.
It played a major role in the setting up of industry bodies such as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Press Trust of India and United News of India and has played a key role in the Media Research Users’ Council.
The Statesman is a founding member of Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 Asian newspapers, set up in 1999. The Statesman has had an active web presence since the late 1990s and its website – www.thestatesman.com – is followed by hundreds of thousand followers around the world.