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When Dawn was founded as a weekly in 1941, Delhi was still struggling to recover from its post-1857 Ghadar (Mutiny) trauma. Professor Ahmad Ali’s Twilight in Delhi gave the true picture of a family affected by the event and its home in Bazar Matia Mahal (north of the Jama’a Masjid) just as ours in Mahal Sarai off Ballimaran close to yet another once-royal structure, Masjid Fathepuri.
Mir Nihal, paterfamilias of the Matia Mahal family, was almost a look-alike of my own grandfather, Haji Fazal-ur Rahman, and his two brothers, Khan Sahib Haji Abdul Ghani and Haji Abdul Razaque, the father of the well-known Abdul Khalique Abdul Razaque of Karachi.
Dawn weekly was the first-ever Muslim (Muslim League)-owned and published English-language journal to appear at Delhi. However, unlike the only other English-language Muslim journal, The Morning News of Culcutta, privately-owned and personally edited by Abdul Rahman Siddiqui, Dawn weekly appeared under the editorship of Pothan Joseph, the doyen of India’s English-language press.
Delhi had, nevertheless, been the live centre of Urdu journalism with the advent of Usman Azad’s daily Anjam and Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman’s daily Jang. Older Muslim-owned dailies like Alamaan and Ansari, though still there, had just been pulling on.
When Dawn converted into a daily in October 1942, Jang and Anjam, each thriving in its own slot, were no challenge to Dawn. For the educated Muslim class, Dawn’s appearance was the break of dawn itself. Before Dawn, only The Statesman acted as the voice of Muslim India. Its weekly columns by one Shahid and later by Ainul Mulk were supportive of the idea of Pakistan. The column suddenly disappeared, banned by the Bengal government, and caused much anxiety and resentment in the city.
Arthur Moore (later knighted), the great editor of The Statesman, demanded an immediate lifting of the ban. The government yielded and the popular column was back to its usual slot in no time. The column writer happened to be one Altaf Husain, an officer in the Information Department of the Bengal government. The gentleman soon became the darling of Delhi-wallas. As the Pakistan movement gained momentum in 1944-45 around the end of the world war, Pakistan, until then little more than a slogan, grew as an ‘article of faith’ for Muslim India and Dawn the staple of their daily morning fare.
Some time in 1946, Pothan Joseph vacated the editor’s chair to hand it over to Altaf Husain, the esteemed Shahid of The Statesman. The idiom and tone of Dawn editorials changed dramatically under Husain. It acquired a cutting edge and biting tongue with such hand-crafted expressions as putting chillies on the tender-pot of the Hindu Congress.
I did my Master’s in History and Political Science and left my college (Saint Stephens’) in May 1947. Since my one fond dream was to join Dawn, I dared approach the much-revered and as much-feared Altaf Husain myself at his Sujhan Singh Park residence on Lodhi Road in New Delhi. Altaf sahib lived in a first floor apartment of the housing complex. I approached him with a thumping heart and pressed the doorbell. Presently a young man, almost my own age, opened the door.
“Yes?” he asked.
I told him briefly my particulars and the purpose of my visit. He asked me, “Please come in and have a seat. Father is in his room. I will see if he is free to see you.”
To my utter surprise, it would be hardly a couple of minutes or so when Husain appeared. “Yes, Mr. Siddiqi, what can I do for you?” I spoke of my ambition to join journalism as my profession. “I see …,” he said, and without another word returned to his room to leave me with the young gentleman, his son Ajmal. Altaf sahib returned after about a quarter of an hour or so with a letter which he passed on to me.
“You’d join Dawn as a junior unpaid sub-editor. Take this letter to our news editor for necessary instructions”.
That was the dramatic end of my first-ever interview with the gentleman regarded as the Quaid-i-Azam’s sole spokesman.
I reported to news editor Mahmood Hussain at the Dawn offices located in a Hindu-neighbourhood off Darya Gunj and handed in the sealed letter to him. I found Hussain an extremely kind man. He beckoned me to have a seat, opened the letter to read with a sort of faint and enigmatic smile and told me to start with the morning shift the next day.
News editor Hussain sat at the head of the newsroom. At the long table in front, I recognised at least two of my old friends, Zuhair Siddiqi and Asrar Ahmed. Hussain stood up to take me around and introduced me to my would-be colleagues.
“Here is yet another person looking for his place in the sun via Dawn. He will join you tomorrow”. They all stood up. Zuhair and Asrar welcomed me warmly, while others did with a formal smile. They were Sibte Farooq Faridi, Asiful Haque and one Gardezi.
Amongst the senior staff I met were Mohammad Ahmad Zuberi and Ahmad Ali Khan (later Dawn’s editor). Both were on the editorial side. Unlike Zuberi, later Karachi Dawn’s Senior Assistant Editor and editor of Evening Star, Dawn’s sister publication, Khan would be rarely seen outside his room. Zuberi later founded what is today the Business Recorder. As for Husain, I don’t recall having seen him ever in the office.
One retired colonel Majid Malik (ex-Inter-Services Public Relations, India) would be seen once or twice a week, dressed in a white cotton tunic designed like the one worn as part of battle dress. He did a regular column: ‘Tremendous Trifles’ for Dawn.
Amongst staff reporters were Khalid Ali (Maulana Shaukat Ali’s grandson, later director, External Publicity, Pakistan Foreign Ministry), M. H. Askari, who would write a column for Karachi Dawn, and another gentleman whose name was Manzoorul, or perhaps Zahurul, Haq – a big pan-chewing fellow.
On the administration side were general manager Mohammad Ali and Shamsul Hassan, the father of Khalid and Wajid Shamsul Hussain. Dawn Delhi was printed at the Latifi Press close to the Dawn offices.
After Aug 14, 1947, Dawn carried on its masthead the legend, ‘Published simultaneously from Delhi and Karachi’. In September 1947, however, its offices were burnt down by a Hindu mob to end its status as the only inter-dominion, India-Pakistan daily, even if only for a fortnight or so. The provocation for the Hindu mob was the headline, ‘Pakistan Zindabad’.
I joined Dawn in the first week of June 1947 as an unpaid junior sub-editor and was later given a salary of Rs150 per month w.e.f. July 1, 1947. I continued to work for Dawn till the closing of the Delhi edition, drew my last pay in October 1947, joined the Civil and Military Gazette in November and was appointed its NWFP correspondent. This arrangement continued until July 1950, when I joined the army.
The writer is a retired brigadier and was chief of the ISPR from 1968 to 1973.
This story part of a special report on Iqbal under the banner of ‘70 years of Pakistan and Dawn’. Read the report here.