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Taking Stock
Mission lost in wilderness
By Rizwan Ullah

Rizwan UllahThe press in India as perceived today had its origin in Bengal in late 18th century as a vehicle for promoting missions – James Augustus Hicky’s Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser set on a mission to expose the corrupt practices of the British officers of the East India company for which he faced punishment and died a pauper. The Christian missionaries of Serampore set up printing press, started three publications for the propagation of Christianity. Their detractors also started publications which were later shifted to Calcutta. Raja Ram Mohan Roy brought out Mirat-ul-Akhbar and later Jam-i-Jahan Numa which dealt with social and administrative evils and critically examined British policies both in India and in Ireland. He emphasized at social reforms within the country especially abolition of sati. These are a few examples from the history of Indian journalism. The seeds of indigenous journalism sprouted in other parts of the country also. But the missionary spirit had permeated in the vernicular press, especially in Urdu papers for which they were penalized in various ways. Some relevant quotes from the History of Indian journalism compiled by J. Natarajan as part of the first press commission’s report published in 1954 may not be out of place. The commission was appointed in 1952.

Rev. J Long a consistent champion of the Indian language press writes in 1859 inter alia: ‘The English newspapers in too many cases cherish the spirit of antagonism of race. Yet during the Punjab war and the Rebellion, the native press, though viewing affairs more from an oriental than an English stand point, has maintained on the whole a moderate tone – very different from the Persian and the Urdu papers’ (pp. 66-67).

‘A scrutiny of newspaper lists compiled and published in 1850, 1853-54 and 1858 reveals some interesting facts. There were 28 newspapers in 1850 of which 15 are extant in 1853. The 1853 list has 35 papers including the 15 carried over from the 1850 list. The 1858 list shows 12 publishing newspapers of which only 6 are survivors of the list of 35 of 1853-54. Only one paper of the 12 is edited by a Muslim’ (p.54).

‘Meanwhile government was becoming increasingly uneasy about the attitude of the press generally and its relations with the government. It was particularly apprehensive of the Indian language press as preparations for the rebellion of 1857 were made with the use of seemingly harmless words and symbols. ‘Long in his 1859 report made the categorical assertion that if the North Western Province’s newspapers had been carefully studied in 1856-57 the rebellion could have been anticipated and prevented’ (p. 80).

Subsequently local officials were strongly instructed to keep a careful watch on the vernacular press. Thus begins an era of acts for regulating printing press and newspapers. But it is obvious that regulations could have slowed down the pace of events but could not kill the missionary spirit of the press.

Following inferences can be made from the foregoing quotations:
1 . Press in India came into existence as a manifestation of missionary spirit.
2 . Editors were penalized for criticizing government polices.
3 . Vernacular press was subjected to discriminatory and harsher treatment by British authorities.
4 . Muslim editors and newspapers were selectively victimized.

Call it a mutiny or the first war of independence in 1857, that was the point where the course of the Urdu press separated from the rest of the Indian press. Persian had already been discarded as the official language around the year 1830. It was replaced by Urdu in Persian script. It caused a great heart burn for those who were the protagonists of Hindu in Devanagari script and wanted it to be adopted as the official language. Thus the Urdu press was hit on the head by the watchful authorities and was pulled down on all sides by the contemporary compatriots. In these circumstances Moulvi Mohammad Baqar, editor of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar offered the supreme sacrifice for his writings. He was hanged at a public place, setting an unparalleled example in the whole history of Indian journalism from day one to this day.

When I mention the Urdu press specifically I mean the Muslim press for the purposes of this writing otherwise the Urdu press has never been restricted to only Muslim readers, writers and editors. Eminent Hindu writers and editors have made valuable contribution in the making and evolution of the Urdu press. However, during the post mutiny period the Urdu press found itself caught in the cobweb of confusion. Any attempt to analyze is like entering into a labyrinth but still an attempt is worth all the trouble in the hope of finding a ray of light that could lead in the right direction in future.

The people were vanquished by the alien rulers but their spirit did not die and continued the search for the vent. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan stood for enlightenment in English style and at the same time picked up the loose ends of social reforms through his writings and publications. Others who preferred to tread on a political path were divided. The Ulama of the Deoband School and their followers were strident and straightforward crusaders. They were the people who suffered most. There were more cautions writers who took to satire, made mockery of government policies without being caught for violating any press laws. Such stalwarts had protective umbrella of the Oudh Punch. But their writings were mere vague voices of protests and could not prescribe a line of action on any particular issue. But still such writings became a regular feature of the Urdu press. The tradition still continues. It can still dodge the bureaucratic watch, which had been referred to by Long.

At the same time far reaching political developments were taking place on the side lines. An Englishman Allen Octavio Hume on his retirement in 1882 devoted himself to propagating liberalism among the educated Indians. A couple of other Englishman and a few Indian intellectuals including Surendra Nath Banerjea held similar views. They met in Calcutta and organized first Indian National conference on July 17, 1883 which evolved into the Indian National Congress two years later.
(To be concluded).
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