History is a strange thing. Sometimes it is unkind to a hero, albeit quite unwittingly. And sometimes historical facts are shrouded in a haze of mystery, making it quite difficult to tell the truth from myth.

One of the heroes of 1857 war of freedom was Moulvi Muhammad Baqir (1780-1857). Executed by the occupying British troops on charges of being a ‘rebel’, Baqir is largely forgotten and his role as a journalist in the struggle against the British is, generally, not acknowledged in the way it should be.

Not only is the account of Moulvi Baqir’s death incorrectly described in several books and articles but Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904), the famous Russian painter known for his war paintings, too, contributed his bit to spreading the inaccurate acco­unt of Moulvi Baqir’s death.

One of Vereshchagin’s realistic paintings portrays a scene in which Moulvi Baqir is seen tied to a cannon’s barrel before being blown up. Many believe, thinking that it is a photograph, that it is exactly how Moulvi Baqir was executed, though it is not true.

For a correct account of Moulvi Baqir’s life, his achievements — and his death — one may refer to two articles by Gurbachan D. Chandan, well-known Indian journalist and scholar.

Chandan Sahib, who died this year on April 7 at the age of 95, was known as the ‘walking encyclopaedia of Urdu journalism’. He was of the view that Urdu journalism had played a vital role in the 1857 war of freedom and then the struggle for independence from the British rule in India.

In his article published in Nuqoosh, Lahore (issue 141), Chandan also describes the event of Moulvi Baqir’s death. The other article, included in his book Urdu sahafat ka safar (Delhi, 2007) gives other details about Moulvi Baqir’s life, his works and his struggle against the British. The following account is largely based on these two articles.

The only son of Maulana Muhammad Akber, a religious scholar from Delhi, Moulvi Baqir knew Arabic, Persian and English as well as Urdu, since he had received both religious and modern education.

Though he taught at Delhi College initially and then worked in the office of the British India government, it was his penchant for literature and journalism that resulted in his buying a lithographic press in 1834.

In 1837, Moulvi Baqir launched an Urdu newspaper that was to have different names and was to become famous as Dehli Urdu Akhbar. It was Urdu’s first litho-based weekly. Since Moulvi Baqir was close to Ibrahim Zauq, a famous poet, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s courtier and a rival to Mirza Ghalib, his newspaper used to take pleasure in running some news items that might not have been palatable to Ghalib and his friends.

For instance, when Ghalib was arrested in 1841 on charges of running a gambling den, the newspaper published a news item in its Aug 15, 1841, issue, stressing that the ‘honest’ police officer responsible for the raid must be protected since the poet arrested, named ‘Mirza Nausha’, was quite influential.

Soon, Dehli Urdu Akhbar began criticising the British rulers for different reasons and, as G.D. Chandan has put it, played a vital role in preparing the ground for the 1857 war.

When the freedom war, dubbed as ‘ghadar’, or ‘sedition’, by the British, broke out on May 10, 1857, Moulvi Baqir was in the front line and he devoted himself and his newspaper to the cause of Indians fighting to reclaim their country from the foreign power.

He not only worked as a reporter and editor but also as a loyal assistant to Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was leading the fight. He even renamed his newspaper as Akhbar-uz-zafar on July 12, 1857, and its last 10 issues appeared with the new masthead.

The new name paid tribute to Zafar, but it was also an allusion to victory, as zafar literally means ‘triumph’. But the victory was elusive and Zafar, too, was arrested later.

When the British authorities posted bills on the gate of Delhi’s Jam’e Masjid and other prominent places, threatening the “British subjects of India” and questioning their religious beliefs, Moulvi Baqir published a rejoinder in his newspaper, challenging both moral and religious perceptions of the British.

Some notions about the 1857 freedom war and Urdu journalism of the era as described by William Dalrymple are simply ‘strange’. In her article ‘Rebel journalism: Delhi Urdu Akhbar, May-September 1857’, published online in the April, 29, 2007, issue of ‘People’s Democracy’ (http://archives.peoples democracy.in/2007/0429) Shireen Moosvi has wonderfully countered these faulty assumptions.

She has amply proved that Dalrymple’s many remarks are misleading. Space and time do not permit me to comment on Dalrymple’s works on the history of the subcontinent, but in a nutshell, some of what he has written is not only disappointing, it is misleading too.

During the course of events of the 1857 war, Frances Taylor, the principal of Delhi College, was running for his life and Moulvi Baqir let him hide in his home for a day. But ultimately he had to send Taylor out in the disguise of a native Indian, since the unruly crowd was looking for him. Taylor was known for converting Muslims and Hindus from their religion to Christianity.

The crowd found Taylor and beat him to death. Some feel that Taylor’s death was the reason behind the death penalty for Moulvi Baqir after his arrest. But the fact is, Moulvi Baqir was so much involved with the forces fighting against the British that Taylor or no Taylor, his fate would have been much the same.

According to G.D. Chandan, during the mass arrests after the British overpowered the Indians, Moulvi Baqir was arrested on Sept 14, 1857, and on Sept 16, 1857, was produced before Captain Hudson, who ordered his execution.

On the same day, Moulvi Baqir was shot to death, in the ground outside Delhi Gate (Nuqoosh, issue 141, page 143). Some scholars, including Jameel Jalibi, have written that Moulvi Baqir was hanged, which is incorrect. Similarly, the view that he was blown up with a cannon, popularised by Vereshchagin’s painting, is incorrect, too.

G.D. Chandan lamented that the role of Moulvi Baqir’s Urdu journalism in the independence movement has not been properly researched. He wrote that even in his own city, Delhi, no museum or auditorium is named after him. At least, we in Pakistan should do that to pay him tribute.


Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2015

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