Legacy of Publishing; Toward an indigenous Publishing in the Context of NE India

Mar Atsongchanger


India is known to have some kind of writing since the early centuries however; there is no evidence of their attempt to promote neither literature nor religious teaching to this region. The development of printing and the literature come to this region with the expansion of the colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. When an invitation was extended to American Baptist Foreign Mission Society by Captain (later General) Jenkins, then an Agent to the Governor General in the North East Frontier. Thus, when the missionaries arrived in 1836 from Calcutta they came with a printing press.

Brief Profile of North East India (NEI)

The North Eastern Frontier   region of India is today consists of seven states. It is often refered as North East India (hereafter as NEI) or Seven Sisters, administered under North East Council (NEC) within the Government of India. Before the British Colonial rule, this region was not known properly by the India, and therefore clapped them as Assam. Today it has the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura with distinct identities. This landlocked region represent 7.97% of the Indian land mass and in terms of population it shares 3.73% as per 1991 Census. Commenting on the NEI and its people, A.C.  Sinha wrote, “as an Indian territory its destiny is intimately linked with the larger Indian Union. However, its regional characteristic are so pronounced that the scholars find it convenient to emphasize its closeness to the South East Asian countries” (1994:13),in terms of social, culture and linguistics . Racially, the people of this region are Mongolian in contract to others Indian.

British administered the NEI tribal region indirectly under their paternalistic care. It was for their convenient, that they divided this region into different province, rather than by homogeneity. Thus today, there are linguistic differences in the same state as well variation in the socio-cultures even within the same state. This is not change even today. The region symbolized everything for ‘a distant frontier ‘.

Politically, NEI is notorious for different types of dissenting and insurgency movement vis-à-vis the Indian States. 

Printing came to India for the first time on Sept.6, 1556. However it took over nearly three centuries to reach NEI with a printing press. It was first started with the missionaries, in 1836.The first ever known publication was a local news paper named as Arunodoue edited and  printed by Rev. Miles Brownson  it was not only a newspaper as such but it was more than a mere news paper, but  later it became the champion of Assamese literature.(Downs 1978:23) This was followed by other religious/catechism and other reading materials both into local languages.

Publishing Situation in the NEI today

Because of multi-linguistic environment, it poses a problem for a viable publication. At the same time, for policy makers ignored publishing for a long time, mainly concerned with immediate problems of socio-economic development. Recently, the importance of book has been increasingly recognised and consequently, getting more importance on this area.

They can be mainly divided into three main area of publishing; Firstly, School Books.

Although school business is the largest book publishing business, there are no publishers who publish school text books in the region .It is dominated by the main land publishers, like Delhi /Kolkata (Calcutta) based publishers. These multi-nationals dumped thousands of complimentary copies to various schools and often with coercion, most of the schools are compelled to use their publication. In brief, the school business publications are wholly dominated by the Delhi/Kolkata publishers, making it too hard to inter into this publication. This is supported by a few policy makers in the local state governments.

As a result, the smaller publishers in the region has no accessibility to school text books lucrative business , while the tail part of school books; vernacular text books are being controlled by each local state government, often printed in Government press. Therefore publishers has no chance in school book market, this is one of the economic draw-back in money cycle in the regional publishing business.

Secondly General and children books  As much as languages are there in the region, publications carries its own distinct cultures or stories to tell .However, make those books available to readers its not very easy. The local publishers are not expert in the professionalism, while all the good printers are far from the region at Delhi. Most of these publishers are not concern with a small quantity print runs, because they are not economically viable.

Under such circumstances, there are a few authors-publishers in the region, who published   their own works. Yet this lack in proper publishing, these are people who wants to keep inform or educate the people. The impediment of such publication is many, resulting in economic, marketability and promotion as well.

Where there were a few books published by Delhi based publishers with author’s commission basis were proved to be futile. Author was never informed how many copies were printed. For example:  The  Ancient Ao - Naga Religion by P .L .Imchen  was published  by a Delhi based   publisher in 1994 with an agreement that he will get 10% royalty, but it never came true. An initial  payment was made but he was not told how much he was to get. Another book  was printed the  same  understanding  The Traditional Attires of NEI by Mepu Yongdang.He was told that total print run was 1000,againt which  he was paid a portion, he did not lived  to get the second instalment.

These are some of the practices facing by the authors from this region, and as it is now its very discouraging to the young writers to undertake publishing, because often ended up with another problems.

Thirdly Religious publishing (Christian books publication) by comparison with the above two types of books religious publication are doing better in most parts of the region. Each religious groups has inherited the publication works from the missionaries, hence, either in translation or devotional books, they are doing more successful. A brief case study below will tell more about religious publishing in the region.

Christian Literature Centre (CLC), a religious publishing society at Assam is fairly doing   very well. It was originally founded by the former missionaries and handed down to churches. Today is has become a registered society under Indian Societies Act XXI of 1860.

The mission statement tells: to propagate and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through the printed word; to print and encourage in promoting literacy, culture; to organise seminars and workshops and finally to encourage and identity local authors and writers.

Today CLC published both in regional as well in English language. Some of the popular publication are A Corner In India by Mary Mead Clark an historical account of how Christianity came to Nagaland in a novel form has printed over  more than 15,000 copies since 1978.In the context of the region this is one of the most successful titles so far. Other notable books are The Mighty Works of God by F.S. Downs, it’s under third reprint. The Church Hymnal is one of the most profitable publications, although the profit is low, it has its market all the time.

The other area of concerns does under this publishing house is, training the young writers. CLC conducts writer’s workshop or seminars from time to time. The region where there are literacy rates of 50-60 % in different states, they are involved in promoting literacy too.

However, CLC is not above the regional problems. The books published from them are limited within their area in terms of contents; product and market .This is a great challenge to be answered.

Problems of the indigenous publishers in the region

The indigenous publishing house in the region faces various problems   such as language, oral culture, finance and distribution. Language: The Constitution of India officially recognized fifteen languages as national languages and from the region represented one. But this does not show, that this is lingua franca   in the region. There are over fifty different spoken languages and these can not be just ignore for market sake. The cultural values associated with each language are important. As advocated by Chinua Achebe ‘denial of mother tongue is a dreadful betrayal’ (cited in Ngugi 1986:7)

Oral culture: The region is pre-dominantly oral based cultural people. Their stories, traditions and cultures were passed from generation to generations by oral means of communications. Therefore, in spite of introduction of literature in the middle of the nineteenth century, the seriousness of literature was not given, and as such today, even among the literate people, habits of buying books are far from satisfaction. The traditional type of learning from father to son and mother to daughter dominates an important role till today.

Finance: The indigenous people are hard pressed with the financial situation. Therefore, to be an author, publisher or the readers, all are under the similar situation. Such will create low payment to author, negligible incentive for better creativity, while for publisher, as there are very few readers, less print run, and making more costly at unit level. This process automatically fixed the unit cost much higher making more problems for the customer to buy. This multi chain of financial activities suffers the NEI native people.

The problem of indigenous publisher is therefore a very big in order to get enough money to published books at lower rate at more affordable rate for the general masses. This is an unanswered question.

Distribution: Publishing is to make money. Distribution will determine the success or failure of a published product. In terms of marketing, the book business is still treated as uncommon. Therefore, the business of proper distribution is often ignored or neglected or poorly appreciated in terms of book publishing. For example, there is no sales rep. culture in the region today nor direct mail. Communication system is another factor to that. While 20% of population are in the towns, where there are railways connections, 80% lives in the rural areas without proper road communications.

Why Indigenous publishers?

A publisher in a tribal context plays an important role as stated by Altbach he says; a publisher is a ‘gate keeper’ who has considerable control over the kinds of knowledge that are available in a society. (1975:14).

In an answer to why indigenous publishing Per.I.Gedin stated that; an indigenous publisher is a part of the culture of his country. He will always be prepared to invest the profit he makes on best selling books in new talent and ideas. Not because he is an idealist… but because he always wants to invest in the future. He compared the above statement with Trans national publishers as different. He says, they are no doubt part of the culture in their own countries, where they can support a number of important non-profitable books. Their maim attention is making profits. While their profits will be sent back to the parent company but never reinvested in the native people. (Altbach (ed) 1992:44).

Similar idea is advocated in the speech of Benjamin William Mkapa, when he says;”…without the publication of textbooks, reference books and supplementary reading materials, no indigenous publisher can survive…(Development Dialogue 1997:1-2:9).He continues from a continuity societal values as “…the acquisition of knowledge about the environment and other societies and the systematic instruction given to members of the society in their different age groups to better prepare them for their survival and adaptation to their environment and the performance of their work and roles in society. This is one of the reasons why publishing should first and foremost be indigenous” (ibid: 10) 

The published product is a key to the creation as well a diffusion of knowledge, created by a writers and publishers as well. Indigenous publishing is therefore an act of liberation, because it breaks the control, indeed the monopoly.

( Altbach 1975:19)Although the needs of indigenous publishers are being trade felt, there are certain factors to be taken into consideration as the basis for self survival.

Factors for a viable Indigenous publishing

Literary is closely related with any kinds of publishing, and this is more so with the neo-readers. The new readers need to improve in higher literary rate, only then it will assist in publishing for a viable market. It is found that low literary is knitted with poverty and no habit of buying books or reading habit.

Alec Gilmore put a question as ‘Do we really have to teach people to read? Can we not go straight to radio and television and cassette (1996:181).The answer seems to lay on with a language: mother tongue and there seems no alternative to literacy for a successful publishing works. In support of indigenous language and literary value, Hasan wrote, that indigenous language are vehicles of one’s cultural heritage and instruments of social communication and life long education. Without a sound foundation of books is national language a nation is doomed to an ‘observer’ status and will continue to depend on outside elements for its intellectual sustenance.(1989:11).

Training   for the native writers is an essential issue. This is an area where this region needs attention. In spite of the potentials for publication and marketability, unless there are proper train personnel in publishing, the quality of product will not serve in the market .In thinking about the training, the native can be even train as an apprenticeship in a more advance working environment. Gilmore advocated the idea, that if the training  for the native/indigenous is costly, spend a few weeks or months working in a British publishing house.(1996:407).Training for editing, production, marketing and publishing economics are a must for a viable and successful indigenous publishing.

Local authorship, though there are authors in their own rights, they are yet to be developed .The reasons could be varied, rather than lack of talent. The problems could be the economic cycle in publishing set-up. This is one of the reasons some authors wish to published in other parts rather than locals (but the problems mentioned above).

Of lately, there are some other positive signs that, in some of the NEI states, the local Government has constituted a pension schemes to local authors. This is a good sign for the up-coming writers.

Author’s Guild is another area to be formed in the region. In India it was formed in 1974, which promoted and protect the professional and economics interest of authors. In 1987, there were 1200 members all over the India, while there were only four members from the region (Hasan 1989:15)


Indigenous publishers need the support of its own people, while at the same time those publishers need to create, more writers and better market.  Per I. Gedin’s words provide a realistic conclusion, when he says:” publishers are businessman and must be so, but they are also part of the culture of their country. The indigenous publisher and no one else will invest in the writing of his country which eventually will result in a national literature as important for his country as for the rest of the world. This is to change cultural imperialism to cultural pride” (Altbach 1992:52).

Altbach, Philip G (1975)Publishing in India: An analysis
    Delhi: Oxford University Press
    (1992) Publishing and Development in the Third World
    London: Hans Zell Publishers
Christian Literature Centre (pamphlet, n. d/n .a
Downs, F.S    (1978)Mighty Works of God
    Guwahati: Christian Literature Centre
Gilmore, Alec (1996) Agenda for Development :The Future of Third World Christian
    Publishing London: SPCK
Hasan, Abul (1989) Book Publishing in India :An Overview
    Patna: Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library
Mkapa, Benjamin William “Cultural Context of Publishing in Africa
    In Development Dialogue, 1997:1-2
Priolkar, A.K(1958)The Printing Press in India:  Its Beginnings and Early Development
    Bombay:Marathi Samshobhana Mandala
Sinha, A.C    (1994)North East Frontier of India
    New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company
Thiongo,Ngugi Wa (1994)Decolonising the Mind :The Politics of Language in African Lit.
    London: James Curry/Nairobi: Heinemann

Dr Mar Atsongchanger worked for Christian Literature Centre (CLC) Guwahati over a dozen years and took special interest in promotion of indigenous literatures from a Christian perspective. He is the Editor of the Nagaland Theological Journal the Vision, also teaches Naga History & Christian Education in Reformation Bible College, Dimapur, Nagaland.  Contact:atsongchanger@yahoo.com.