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COLUMN: Syed Ahmad Khan’s journalism

September 16, 2012

By Intizar Husain 

Apart from being a scholar and an educationist, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was also a journalist as Professor Asghar Abbas’s work, Sir Syed Ki Sahafat, establishes.

Sir Syed had a versatile mind. Overwhelmed with reformative enthusiasm, he was trying to do a lot of things at the same time. In each sphere of his activity he made his mark, but his biographers and critics have in general lagged behind and have been unable to do justice to each of his contributions. At least in respect to his journalism, they have failed to explain to our satisfaction the significance of his impact. Professor Abbas has now concentrated on Sir Syed’s work in this area.

As Abbas points out, the starting point of Sir Syed’s reformative activity was the Scientific Society, which was his brain child. One may say that with the establishment of this society an age of prose and reason was born in Urdu. The translations are indicative of the fact that Urdu was in the process of accommodating Western thoughts and ideas. And this activity brought in its wake new modes of expression.

It was under the auspices of the Scientific Society in Aligarh that in 1866 a weekly paper began publishing. The Urdu weekly was called Akhbar Scientific Society and its English name was The Aligarh Institute Gazette. The motto of the weekly inscribed in English ran as: “Liberty of the press is a prominent duty of the government and natural right of the subject.” In 1867, this underwent an amendment and became: “To permit the liberty of the press is the part of a wise government. To preserve it is the part of the free people.”

Those were the times of terror. Newspapers dared not criticise the actions of the government. But the Gazettes’ motto spoke of the paper’s stance on freedom and truth. During 1871-72, the paper published a two-part article by Sir Syed, in Urdu as well as in English, in response to William Wilson Hunter’s book, The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound In Conscience To Rebel Against The Queen?

Abbas writes that Urdu papers in those days did not carry editorials but the Gazette was the first to change that. And as Sir Syed’s emphasis was always on education, most of his editorials discussed issues related to it.

The other topic discussed in these editorials was that of self help. In one editorial Sir Syed opposed the Bengali Muslims’ appeal to the government for a grant for their educational institutions. He wrote: “We are not in favour of this proposal. We should better believe in self-help. We very much wish that the Muslims should strive for their progress depending on their own resources.”

“Of course,” writes Abbas, “Sir Syed advised the Muslims not to take part in practical politics. But at the same time he worked for their political education and he employed the services of the Gazette for that purpose.”

Abbas also introduces the contributors of the Gazette and devotes a full chapter to them. Contributors include distinguished scholars such as Maulvi Zakaullah, Maulana Hali, Allama Shibli, Wahiduddin Saleem and Bharatendu Harishchandra. Lists of articles contributed by them, along with the dates of their publication, are also given in the book.

In this list of contributors the name of Bharatendu Harishchandra may appear odd to us. He was a distinguished Hindi writer now known as the architect of modern Hindi prose. Abbas tells us that he wrote Urdu verse under the pseudonym Rasa and one of his articles dealing with the Hindu law of inheritance was published in the Gazettes’ issue of 28 May, 1869.