The word “propaganda” came to be introduced into the English language with the formation of Congregation de propaganda fide (Congregation for the propagation of the faith), an organization set up in the beginning of the seventeenth century by the Roman Catholic Church. But even though the term is of a comparatively modern origin, practice of what it denotes is as old as humanity itself, and has grown more and more refined and sophisticated as means of mass communication have improved and developed. Kautilya, the famous Indian exponent of statecraft, discussing the use of mass communications for military purposes, says in Arthashastra “Astrologers and other followers of the king should infuse spirit into the army by pointing out the impregnable nature of the array of his army; secret agents should circulate among the enemy, spreading rumours of their certain defeat.” Before him, a Chinese tactician discussing the art of war had said, “In night fighting beacons and drums are largely used; in day-fighting a great number of banners and flags and the enemy’s eyes and ears are confounded.” All this is a far cry from the insidious means of psychological warfare warring States in our times bring into use against one another.

The basic connotation of propaganda has always been “advocacy in mass communication” or dissemination of information, arguments or even rumours to influence public opinion. The ways in which this is done have been multiplying with the invention and evolution of new techniques so that the propagandist today has at his disposal a very sizable and varied orchestra consisting of posters, newspapers, films, the radio, television, skywriting, etc. In his utilization of these media for moulding popular tastes and attitudes, the fruits of research in psychology guide him so that he suits the medium to the message and the message to the audience. In order to gain his purpose, he chooses what information to disseminate or withhold, which channels to use or block, where and how to condemn or praise etc. He has developed such skill that for the layman, it has become almost impossible to distinguish between information and propaganda, and he is finding it more and more difficult to mark the border line between enlightenment and incitement. Calculated manipulation of public attitudes has assumed such proportions as to pose a serious threat to freedom of opinion everywhere.

The invention of printing from moveable types was an epoch-making development in mass-communications, and harnessed to the purposes of propaganda, it has played a big role in stimulating profound political, economic and social changes in the lives of men. As the printed word took the place of oral communications, literacy and education came within reach of the common people, and they were exposed to new ideas. Had the printing press been not invented, it is doubtful whether the impact of the French Revolution or of the gospel of Marx and Engles on the history of the world would have been as profound and far-reaching as it has been. The communists have always assigned prime importance to propaganda (which they call indoctrination) in converting the world to their way of thinking. True they have not been universally successful but it has to be admitted that their propaganda has influenced political thought everywhere, and played a significant role in bringing the whole world to reject the concepts of feudalism and colonialism If these things are now considered to be relics of man’s uncivilized past, it is in no small measure due to the spread of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity throughout the world by liberal thinkers. In tact the propagation of these concepts has triggered off profound political changes all over the globe.

Similarly, industrialism owes its growth in the twentieth century largely to propaganda. The only way of utilizing the capacity for mass-production given to man by the industrial and technological revolutions was to step up the demand for goods so produced. And the only means of achieving that was propaganda. In the present century, successful stimulation of consumer demand through advertising has brought about revolutionary changes in the mode of life of a large number of people, particularly in the developed countries of the world. They enjoy living and working conditions much better than their forefathers could ever dream of. They have come to acquire new tastes in clothes, housing, food, transportation, entertainment etc. They spend more because they earn more, and they earn more because other people spend more. Primarily it is propaganda which has started this chain reaction in which demand and supply go on chasing each other and more and more of material prosperity is generated.

This is, however, not to say that the impact of propaganda on modem life has been entirely beneficial. It is common knowledge how systematic indoctrination of people over long periods has helped the growth of totalitarianism which frowns upon all thought that does not conform to accepted ideology, and thus deprives man of his most precious possession—his individuality. Similarly, the rat-race that is denuding affluent societies everywhere of the higher values of life and forcing young people to turn away from them is also an end-product of propaganda which gave the initial impulse for the coming into being of such societies and men encouraged the artificial multiplication of needs which has given rise to so much discontent and frustration. And the baneful influences which propaganda can release are not limited to these spheres either.

Like every other branch of human knowledge, propaganda too is a double-edged weapon. It is no doubt a useful means of promoting worthwhile causes, but it can also be used, with equally telling effect, for securing purposes with dubious merit. Practitioners of the art have so perfected the techniques of calculating and managing psychological impacts that those subjected to their wiles very often do not realize that their minds are being conditioned in a particular direction or that they are being systematically brain-washed. In order to secure their purpose, propagandists adopt many ingenious methods. To popularize a person, they will adopt all means to build up in the public mind an attractive image of the man. In U.S. Presidential elections, engaging advertising agents to do this for candidates is accepted practice. It has become so in our country too. Likewise, if the object is to sully a reputation, propagandists will start whispering campaigns and indulge systematically in character assassination by all available means. In order to attract public attention to causes they are out to promote, they will start public controversies, whip up agitations and in extreme cases and even commit murders, which are called political assassinations.

Nations make use of propaganda as an instrument of statecraft both in times of peace and when they are at war. In peacetime, it is used to secure national objectives just as India is presently doing to popularize family planning. When a war is going on, the adversaries aim it at each other to undermine public morale and put it to use at home for the opposite purpose. This is generally done through radiobroadcasts, by dropping leaflets from aircraft etc Enemy soldiers taken prisoners of war are handed over to trained psychologists who first try to obtain from them whatever information they may be able to give, and then subject them to brain­washing in order to corrode their loyalties. Carefully doctored information is deliberately leaked to the enemy in order to outwit him. Thus, while the soldiers are busy fighting with weapons, the propagandists are simultaneously engaged in battles of wits and make an equally important contribution in furthering the war aims of their country.

Another sphere in which propaganda plays an important part and in which people experience its impact is the sphere of religious and social reform. These crusaders also make use of all sorts of devices from soap-box oratory to making concessions of detail e.g., living and dressing in the manner of the people sought to be converted or reformed, and undertaking auxiliary activities like starting schools, building hospitals and similar social welfare projects, so that the people may be put in a receptive frame of mind to imbibe the message.

From all this, it is obvious mat the influence of propaganda on modem life cannot be exaggerated. Every minute through multifarious techniques, one or more insidious than the other it is being used to influence mass opinion in a thousand ways. It is so much bound up with life in our times than there is a very real danger of freedom of opinion being in jeopardy. The only practicable safeguard against that is freedom of debate in which various points of view find full expression and are subjected to the most critical evaluation before finding acceptance. Obviously, this also implies equal access for all too educational opportunities as well as the media of communication, which are the vehicles of propaganda.