IN his Hindustani akhbaar naveesi, Muhammad Ateeq Siddiqi has mentioned that during the Mughal era, some officials, appointed for keeping the rulers informed of the general situation and public opinion, used to send handwritten reports. These officials, posted in almost every district of India, were named akhbar navees, or ‘news writers’, literally. It worked as an intelligence-gathering system, too.
Though these officials were no journalists, it was an informal beginning of journalism and news reporting in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. During the East India Company’s rule, the institution of akhbar navees gained more importance in India and it sort of served as a feedback system for the company directors as well, since some company employees used to convey their grievances through that system. Among them was William Bolts (1739-1808), an Amsterdam-born trader living in Calcutta (now Kolkata), much wary of the policies of the company and its directors. He is also remembered in the history of journalism in the Indo-Pak subcontinent because he was the person who tried to take out India’s “first-ever printed newspaper”, wrote Ateeq Siddiqi. Bolts advertised that anyone willing to know of the public affairs and the problems of the country could come to his house and read the news and pieces of information that he had in written form.
But his views were frowned upon and he was ordered by the company to leave India and go back to Europe. He left India but did not back down and in 1772 from England he published a book titled ‘Considerations on India affairs’. The 500-page, two-volume book uncovered the “wrongdoings” of the East India Company and its directors, especially their policies to exploit Bengal. The book is considered an important source for scholarly research on the history of Bengal and the East India Company.
Bolt’s deportation discouraged others and the print journalism in India was nipped in the bud. But on Jan 29, 1780, James Augustus Hicky, an Irishman, launched the English weekly named Bengal Gazette from Calcutta. It was India’s first printed newspaper and was also called Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. According to Ateeq Siddiqi, it was also known as Calcutta General Advertiser. But Hicky, too, criticised the company and commented on the private life of Warren Hastings. As a result, Hicky was imprisoned and ultimately his press was impounded.
But print journalism had arrived in India to stay and in the next few years a number of newspapers began publishing. Among them were India Gazette, Calcutta Gazette (1784), Madras Courier (1785), Calcutta Chronicle (1786), Bombay Herald (1789) and Madras Gazette (1796). But these were English-language newspapers and the first-ever vernacular newspaper was Bengal Gazette, a Bengali-language newspaper launched in 1816.
The first Persian newspaper published in India was Mirat-ul-akhbaar, launched by Raja Ram Mohan Roy on April 20, 1822. The first Gujarati-language newspaper Bombay Samachar was also launched in the year 1822. Hindi’s first newspaper, Udant martand, or the rising sun, began publishing in May, 1826, from Calcutta. In 1831, Tamil Magazine was launched, the first Tamil-language newspaper, followed by the launching of a Malayalam-language newspaper in 1840.
Jaam-i-jahan numa was the first Urdu-language newspaper. Munshi Sada Sukh Mirzapuri was its first editor. It was a weekly and later it began publishing a supplement in Persian as well. Its precise date of launching is a bit disputed. Ateeq Siddiqi wrote that Jaam-i-jahan numa was launched in May 1823. But Imdad Sabri in his book Rooh-i-sahafat says that ‘Jaam-i-jahan numa’ was launched on May 16, 1822. Abdus Salam Khursheed opined, on the basis of an issue of Calcutta Monthly Journal, that Jaam-i-jahan numa began publication on March 27, 1822.
Dr Tahir Masood in his book Urdu sahafat unneesveen sadi mein agrees with the date mentioned by Khursheed. But Gurbachan D. Chandan has a slightly different opinion. Chandan Sahib, the veteran Indian journalist who died in 2015 at the age of 95, was known as the walking encyclopaedia of Urdu journalism. He spent years on researching the history of Urdu journalism in India and wrote Jaam-i-jahan numa: Urdu sahafat ki ibtida, the only book ever written in any language on Urdu’s first newspaper. He writes that Jaam-i-jahan numa, Indo-Pak subcontinent’s first-ever printed Urdu newspaper, was launched from Calcutta on March 21, 1822. Hari Har Dut, the owner, was an entrepreneur from Calcutta. Chandan Sahib has written that some critical views expressed by Jaam-i-jahan numa, especially about the financial matters of princely states such as Deccan, was the real reason behind India’s first Press Act, enforced in December 1823, by John Adam, the then governor-general of India.
Later, many Urdu newspapers were launched, including Aaeena-i-sikandari, which began publication in 1822 from Bombay as a Persian-language newspaper and added an Urdu supplement in 1834. Moulvi Muhammad Baqir launched weekly Dehli Urdu akhbaar, the first litho-based Urdu newspaper, in 1837.
Soon many Urdu newspapers and magazines began publication from different cities across India. After 1857, Urdu periodicals and newspapers mushroomed, many as commercial ventures. But there were some who were more worried for the well-being of their fellows than their own. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was among them. In fact, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s role in promoting and establishing Urdu journalism was monumental. He launched Syed-ul-Akhbar (1836), Risala khair khwah-i-musalmanan (1860), Aligarh Institute Gazette (1866) and Tehzeeb-ul-akhlaq (1870).
Prof Dr Asghar Abbas, former head of the Urdu department at India’s Aligarh Muslim University, has spent decades researching Sir Syed’s life, works and his journalistic achievements. Prof Abbas’s book Sir Syed ki sahafat is based on his research dissertation and a thorough study of the Aligarh Institute Gazette. The magazine had a life span of 32 years and the total number of pages it printed must have been around 32, 000. To analyse different aspects of Sir Syed’s journalistic acumen and his role in Urdu journalism, Prof Abbas had to sift through those huge piles of material. The result was the book, which has now run into its third edition.
Karachi’s Idara-i-Yadgar-i-Ghalib has now published, with permission from the author, its Pakistani edition. It is a must-read for the students of journalism and, maybe, for those who teach journalism.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan died on March 27, 1898.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2016