People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 17

April 29, 2007

Rebel Journalism: Dehli Urdu Akhbar, May-September 1857


Facsimile of the news printed by Dehli Urdu Akhbar about the rebellion in Kol (Aligarh), Bulandshahar and Saharanpur.


Shireen Moosvi


AT the height of the Rebellion, in June 1857, the Governor-General Lord Canning is reported to have said that the ‘native press’, on the pretext of publishing news, was very cleverly and craftily spreading seditious sentiments among the Indian people. This reminds us that the Rebels were able to use the printed word to serve their cause. The four months that Delhi remained in the hands of the rebels (May-September 1857) saw the city served by three weekly newspapers, of which perhaps the major one, to judge by its detailed reporting and commentaries, was the Dehli Urdu Akhbar. Sixteen issues of this paper from 1857 are preserved in the National Archives of India, New Delhi. Of these three, viz. 8 March, 12 April and 10 May, are pre-Mutiny. The remaining thirteen issues belong to the period, 17 May to 13 September 1857. Unfortunately, five issues, namely of 7 and 28 June, 26 July, 30 August and 6 September, are missing and copies of them have not yet been traced anywhere else. Atiq Ahmad Siddiqi rendered yeoman service to research on 1857 by publishing in 1966 a volume containing transcriptions of the texts of all the Urdu newspapers of Delhi, during the Mutiny available in the NAI, being the Siraj-ul Akhbar (Persian) of 11 May, thirteen issues aforementioned of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar (of which seven appeared under the changed name Akhbar-al-Zafar), and six of the Sadiq-ul-Akhbar. 


The Urdu Akhbar has received much attention from scholars of the history of Urdu journalism who have explored matters relating to its dates of issue, ownership, editors, publishers and printers. It has also been used as an important source for the period of the rebel regime in Delhi in Swatantra Bharat, (Varanasi, 1957) by Athar Abbas Rizvi, well-known as the editor of History of Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh, 5 Vols., Lucknow, 1957-60, the largest collection of documents on the Revolt so far published. 


It is, therefore, rather strange that William Dalrymple should have made the following statement: 


“No less exciting was it to discover that Delhi’s two principal Urdu newspapers, the wonderfully opinionated Dihli Urdu Akbhar (sic!) and the more staid and restrained Court Circular, the Siraj ul-Akbhar (sic!), had continued publication without missing an issue throughout the Uprising, and that the National Archives contained almost complete sets of both. Again only fragmentary translations of these have previously been available”. (The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, p.14).


It is unbelievable that the Imperial weekly newspaper Siraj-ul-Akhbar, noted for its chaste Persian, can be declared to be one of the “two Principal Urdu newspapers”. Nor is it true that almost all the issues of these weekly newspapers for 10 May – 20 September 1857 are available in NAI, as we have seen. It is also strange that Nadir Ali Khan’s important book in Urdu should appear in Dalrymple’s Bibliography only in the garb of its English translation.


Facsimile of the rebuttal issued by Delhi Urdu Akhbar to a communal notice put up by the British 


The Urdu Akhbar, issued on every Sunday, came by 1857 to be owned and edited by Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, a well respected Shi‘ite scholar and a member of the Delhi elite, with access to the Court and the Urdu literati. Particularly friendly relations existed between him and the famous Urdu poet, Zauq. According to print-line on all the surviving issues of 1857 it was ‘printed and published’ by Sayyid Abdullah, the Manager of the Delhi Urdu Akhbar Press. The press was located at Baqar’s own house in Guzar Aitiqad Khan, near Panja Sharif. It appears from a glance at the three pre-Mutiny issues that the Urdu Akhbar followed the practice of other contemporary Urdu newspapers (like Tilism of Lucknow), in providing news drawn from government gazettes, other newspapers both English and Urdu, with unpaid free-lancers supplying reports or information from other places by letters sent to the editor. Its coverage was not confined to India and, contrary to Dalrymple’s statement that it only remained concerned with ‘local political and religious matters’ (p.86), its columns regularly gave news of Europe (Firangistan) and England (Englistan), keeping its readers informed on such matters as changes in the British cabinet or an attempt on the life of the King of France. However, from the issue of 17 May, with Delhi having been cut off from the rest of the country by the English, and the postal system destroyed, the paper naturally enough could only report events happening in and around Delhi, or such places outside about which the editor was able to learn from people coming from other parts of the country. This was, of course, not by choice. The issue of 17 May reports under the account of the Cantonment that the Englishmen looking after the postal system had been killed. Again on 24 May the editor laments that no arrangements for dak (postal system) have yet been made (by the rebel regime), so that information from outside was hard to get.




The issue of 17 May is exceptionally important because it contains the Editor’s eye-witness (as well as hearsay) account in great detail of the events at Delhi on 11 May and the subsequent days. The report is preceded by Quranic extracts and Persian and Urdu passages on how God can make totally unforeseen events happen. The initial reaction to the Mutiny in the first two issues of 17 and 24 May is, indeed, that of gleeful surprise on so sudden a turn of events, leading to the fall of the mighty English. There is no sympathy or compassion shown for the English, even for their women and children who were now killed. A degree of unabashed pleasure is perceptible in the report on the killing of Nixon, the head of the ‘Chancellery’ and Taylor, the Principal of the Delhi College. The terms used are almost invariably Angrez for the English and Tilanga for the rebel Sepoy. There is a grudging approval of the Tilangis when they killed the English, but disapproval of their trigger-happy conduct when they killed a Khatri horseman or injured a vegetable vendor in Chandni Chauk. The paper complains of the helplessness of the City Kotwal in maintaining law and order in the presence of the army of ‘the Tilangis’ that has descended upon Delhi. Reflective of this attitude is the poem that was composed by Muhammad Baqar’s son, Muhammad Husain Azad (who unlike his father survived the Rebellion to join British service and become the first historian of Urdu literature). This was printed on the first page of the issue of 24 May, with the Editor’s special commendation, under the title ‘Chronogram for this Instructive Revolution’. Recalling how great rulers and conquerors like Soloman and Alexander, cruel tyrants like Hajjaj, Chengiz, Halaku and Nadir, great epic heroes and sages, have all disappeared, the poem glories the fact that, similarly, the English too, once so knowledgeable, so mighty, so cruel, have had their day. “Nothing came of their knowledge, skill, wisdom and character: The Tilangs of Purab (present Eastern UP) have done to death all of them here.” Still the wonder is: “How every trace of the Christian rulers, despite their wisdom and foresight, has all of a sudden disappeared from amongst the people (khalq).” 


However, from 14 June both the vocabulary and attitude change. Now the sipah-i diler (“the brave army”) the Tilingan-i nar sher (the lion-like Tilangis) are being enjoined, if Muslims, to take the name of God and the Prophet, and, if Hindus, to pray to Parmeshar and Narain. The Sepoys are to follow the examples of Bhim and Arjun, of Rustam, Chingez, and Halaku, along with Timur and Nadir Shah, and defeat the English. Thus the simple sense of wonder is replaced by a great sense of sympathy with the Sepoys, and there is the greatest anxiety to encourage them, in the name of both Hindu and Muslim traditions, in their battle against the English.


The terminology continues to change in accordance with the new spirit as the days pass. The Rebel Army becomes the sipah-i-Hindostan (the Army of India) and there are appeals now to ‘fellow countrymen’ (ahl-i watan), ‘dear compatriots’ (aziz ham-watan), with specific exhortations for a united rallying of Hindus and Muslims. The English being Christians and so believing in the Trinity of God are now held to be polytheists and infidels (kafir), while the Hindus being believers in ‘Adi Purush’ share the basic belief in One God with Muslims and so are close to them (issue of 14 June). Both Hindus and Muslims are therefore called upon to fight and destroy the Christian English. 


The next issue of 21 June recalls various grievances against the English: Under them there was utter lack of any respectable or gainful employment for Indians. The English rulers were not only of a different religion but also of a different race speaking a different language. They cornered all the high offices and wealth and did not spend it in our country, but took it away to their own country thus depriving ‘our Hindustan’ of its own wealth. It goes on to criticise the lethargy and lack of industry on the part of the Indian upper classes. their practice of looking down upon business and artisanal professions and their reluctance to move from theinative places in search of better opportunities. 


The issue of 5 July is of special importance. It reproduces as the first item a copy of the Ishtihar (Public Notice) that was pasted on the Jama Masjid, allegedly by agents of the English, to ‘threaten and mislead the citizenry and the army”. The Notice called upon Muslims to wage a ‘holy war against Hindus’, for the Christians were the natural allies of Muslims as ‘People of the Book’ according to the Shariat. It asserted that the use of pig-tallow in the greased cartridges was a totally false rumour. The Urdu Akhbar declares this notice to be a conspiracy, the handiwork of enemies of both ‘Dharm’ and ‘Iman’ (the faith of Hindus and Muslims). The paper provides a point-by-point rebuttal of the pamphlet, saying sarcastically that the English should not try to deceive anyone by invoking the Shariat. 


In its later issues too the paper strongly espouses the perception that all Indians are one, while the English are absolute aliens. 




Here it is necessary to correct certain very misleading remarks made by Dalrymple about the reason behind the appeals for unity and resistance printed in the Dehli Urdu Akhbar. He tells us that “Maulvi Muhammad Baqir included in his columns a call for the Hindus of the city not to lose heart — which of course implied that they were beginning to do just that,” He, then, goes on to give a passage in translation from a “remarkable letter aimed at his Hindu readers” published in the Akhbar’s issue of 14 June, (Last Mughal, pp.268-69). The fact is that the appeal was addressed to both Muslims and Hindus, and Dalrymple’s translation of the passage is deliberately doctored by omitting all references to Muslims. Without bothering about small inaccuracies, I reproduce below his translation, inserting in italics what he has omitted. 


“O my countrymen, Looking at the strategy and devious cleverness of the English … and their overflowing treasuries you may feel disheartened and doubt that such a people could ever be overcome. But those who are my Muslim brothers by faith, let them consider — if they are anxious and concerned out of worldly considerations — to look at their [not ‘your’] religious books, such as the Qur’an, the Tafsir and Hadis, and those who belong to the Hindu dharm [not ‘my Hindu brothers’], let them [not ‘you’], by the light of their gyan (wisdom) and dharm (faith), illumine their hearts [not ‘look into your Holy books’] and first see that except the Adipurush, the primaeval Deity, nothing is permanent.”


It can be seen from the above reproduction of what the paper actually wrote, that there is no sanction for the inference drawn by Dalrymple about the Hindus alone being addressed and so there being any implication of their being less committed to the Revolt than the Muslims.


An ordinary reader would find even in the last issue of the paper (13 Muharram = 13 September) the same spirit of defiance, and not the depressed resignation which Dalrymple reads into it (p.346). The issue actually exists in two separate prints. Of one only the front page exists. In both the prints news is carried that everywhere from Banaras to Muzaffarnagar the rebellion is having successes. The readers are urged not to be demoralised from “the long period” (tulkashi) of the struggle, a phrase used in both prints.


Dalrymple also quotes an English report (date not mentioned) purporting to be a translation of a letter from Muhammad Baqar to the effect that he had been persuading Bahadur Shah Zafar to make peace with the British, which Hakim Ahsanullah Khan was preventing. In this letter he is also reported as mentioning that there was much outrage among Muslims at the killing of five butchers by Hindu sepoys (pp.301-2). Whether such a letter was actually sent by Baqar or not cannot be established; but the English, at least, did not treat him as their informer: he was seized and hanged, while Hakim Ahsanullah flourished. The Rebels knew well enough that the latter was in league with the English. In the issue of 18 Zilhij/9 August, just after the Idu’z Zuha when the cow-slaughter issue came up, there is a report at the bottom of page 3 that Hakim Ahsanullah Khan had been proved to be an agent of the English and so arrested by “the Victorious [Rebel] Army.” 


In the Dehli Urdu Akhbar there is not the slightest mention of the cow-slaughter episode, which in some accounts of the Rebel regime in Delhi is given much importance. The omission of any reference to this incident in the Dehli Akhbar in either its issue of 11 Zilhajj /9 August immediately after the Iduz Zuha (8 August), or in that of 18 Zilhaj, suggests that the editor did not regard the issue as very serious. It is, however, worth quoting how its contemporary, the Sadiqul Akhbar commented on the matter in its issue of 12 Zilhaj /13 Sawan, under the heading “Thanks” (Shukriya):


“A thousand thanks to Almighty God that the auspicious day of the Id-i Qurban passed off peacefully despite the machinations of the mischievous opponents of religion, the irreligious English, and no dispute arose between Hindus and Muslims on account of cow-slaughter. Both communities remained united, like milk and sugar.”


The paper attributed the success in maintaining unity to the efforts of Bahadur Shah and his “Prime Minister” Hakim Ahsanullah Khan. Apparently, the editor was not yet aware of the Hakim’s links with the English.


It is clear that the Dehli Akhbar mirrors the feelings of much of the Delhi populace, especially its educated section — its elite —, and it is singular how from the early feelings of estrangement towards the sepoys, they become in its pages, much before the fall of Delhi, the object of admiration, and then begin to be viewed as the valiant defenders and protectors of the city. All this tells us much not only about what Professor Rajat K. Ray calls “the Mentality of the Mutiny,” but about how the very process of resistance transformed that mentality and created a patriotic surge that prevailed over everything else.