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This Urdu newspaper was banned after criticising General Dyer. Here’s what it did next

In ‘Print and the Urdu Public’, Megan Eaton Robb writes about the impact and role of popular Urdu newspaper Madinah and how it pushed back against censorship.

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Madīnah’s community of editors, subeditors, and proprietors illustrate the interconnected network of professionals working on newspapers across North India, with a shared commitment to confounding censorship laws. Editors of Madīnah were products of qasbahs and lived in Bijnor or nearby while employed by the publication. At least one assistant editor, Ḥamīd Ḥasan “Fakīr” Bijnorī (1903–1991), was a relative, having married Majīd Ḥasan’s daughter in the 1910s before he became the editor of Madinah Press’s children’s magazine Ghunchah after 1922. Ḥamīd Ḥasan would later be listed as an assistant editor from 1930 to 1935 and even take over as editor for several months when the need arose in 1945. When a new editor took over the work of Madīnah and was not already resident in Bijnor, he would move into the Ḥasan compound, which acted as the administrative office of the paper. Several small apartments attached to the main verandah, so editors could live in comfort with their families, remaining accessible to the newspaper office while maintaining privacy. Maulānā Majīd Ḥasan’s name, along with the name of the current chief editor, always appeared on the paper’s title page. At any given time there could be up to three editors of the paper, with the chief editor being referred to as “mudīr-i mas’ūl.”

Although Majīd Ḥasan’s proprietorship provided continuity for the newspaper, its different editors influenced the paper’s tone and focus. The turnover between editors could be rapid when legal troubles emerged. For instance, in 1924, when the editor Qāẓī Badrul Ḥasan Jalālī (1891–1956) was prosecuted by the British Raj for an article, he resigned his editorship, but he stepped back into his position once the dust of government scrutiny had settled. If Majīd Ḥasan attracted too much scrutiny from government surveillance, he could retreat from view behind the shadow of his prominent editors, continuing to exert the same influence behind the scenes. This allowed his outfit to survive draconian censorship measures while retaining the continuity essential to the newspaper’s success.

When he launched the newspaper in 1912, Majīd Ḥasan had little local influence. The only person of significance attached to the newspaper initially was a prominent journalist of the period, Nūr ul-Ḥasan Zahīn, who wrote for Ṣaḥīfa as well. Colonial censors initially dismissed Madīnah as a “bigoted Muhammadan organ, inclined to make trouble between Hindus and Muhammadans.” Madīnah first earned the ire of colonial administrators by criticizing the headmaster of Bijnor High School for complying with the British Educational Code. This was only the first of many encounters with censorship legislation.

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April 1917 marked the beginning of Editor Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn Shairkoṭī’s tenure, and the newspaper’s shift to publishing more explicitly political, anti-British stances. Shairkoṭī, a novelist as well as a journalist, was born in the Shairkoṭ qasbah of Bijnor in 1888. Initially educated by Maulānā ‘Abdul Qayūm Arshāq and Miyānji Sa‘ad Allah Sahib, he had attended Deoband as a pupil of Maulānā Mahmud ul-Ḥasan Asīr Mālṭā, known as Shaikh ul-Hind. After completing his education at Deoband, Mazh̤ ar ud- Dīn returned to Shairkot, where he worked on the newspaper Dastūr under the management of Ḥakīm Asrār ul-Nabī and on the newspaper Nagīnah.

Maulānā Majīd Ḥasan saw Maz̤har ud-Dīn’s affiliation with the newspaper as the beginning of a new period of commitment to the Muslim community and wrote an illustrious introduction for his new editor. Majīd Ḥasan’s message in his introduction was clear: he had brought in a power player to man the ship of Madīnah, a man who indubitably linked the paper to a network of powerful publications and individuals. The new editor transformed Madīnah into a more explicitly political entity. Maz̤har ud-Dīn associated with prominent political Muslims of the period, including Syed Ḥasan Imām, who presided over the Indian National Congress’s consideration of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms in Bombay in 1918. His other associates included Nawab Muḥammad Ismā’il Khān. He was, along with Khalīquzzamān, a key organizer of the UP Muslim League, and a prominent member until 1947; he remained in India after independence.

After the end of World War I in November 1918, discussions of independence and postwar reality in India began in earnest. The state of Islam, and the progress of both national and local branches of organizations such as the Muslim League and Congress, became matters of intense concern. Mohandas Karamchand “Mahātmā” Gāndhī (1869–1948) featured in several articles musing on the way forward for political Muslims. In addition, discussions of the fall out of World War I in Turkey and the caliphate took center stage. Under Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn’s leadership, the newspaper emphasized the connection between the fate of Indian Muslims and of those in Turkey and other nations with significant ties to Islam.

Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn presided over Madīnah’s publication of an article critical of the government’s role in the Jallianwallabagh massacre, which led to a dramatic conflict with the British Raj. In April 1919 Madīnah published an article criticizing Lieutenant Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer’s (1864–1940) endorsement. Putting Madīnah on the Muslim Map of the actions of Colonel Reginald Dyer, who had overseen the disproportionate response at Jallianwallabagh. The article minced no words:

His honour O’Dwyer’s government of Panjab, from the very beginning, kept as the foundation of its policy a despotic course of action [ . . . ] This was his honor O’Dwyer’s last period of government; therefore it was necessary that he make amends for his past course of actions. This was the time when, instead of extinguishing the fire with the water Of gentleness and kindness, he inflamed the hearts of the ahl-i Punjab. Perhaps it could be said that he did not put out the fire with water, but instead doused it with oil. If that were not the case, then why would he at the conclusion of his reign, give orders that were so repellent, so far from resembling affection that they approximated hate?

Also read: Dyer’s rage didn’t end with Jallianwala Bagh. Don’t forget Khoo Korian

It was actually illegal at this point in time to question the motives of the colonial government; thus, the final statement of the quotation accusing O’Dwyer of “hate” fell afoul of censorship laws. The government banned Madīnah from circulating in Punjab as a result of this piece. Mazh̤ arud-DīnandMajīdḤasan’s response was defiant: in August 1919 they renamed the newspaper Yasrab, an Arabic synonym of Madīnah, as a bid to evade censorship.64 On the cover of each issue of Yasrab an Iqbal couplet appeared, a knowing wink to its readership base:

The dust of Madinah is better than both worlds. How wonderful is the city where the beloved is.

Khāk-i yas̱rab az do ‘ālam khūshtar ast Ā’e khunak shahre ke ānjā dilbar ast.

The couplet hinted at the paper Yasrab’s true identity, offered praise for the paper’s unpretentious popularity, and emphasized the link between the newspaper and the city Madīnah. Madīnah’s proprietor and editors were men who wore their few educational laurels lightly. More important than formal education was the ability to use that knowledge in the service of Indians generally and Muslims particularly. Unsurprisingly, the attempt at flouting the circulation ban was quickly detected. The paper reverted back to the title Madīnah after a few weeks, and the ban on circulation was lifted eventually.66 Madīnah was a space offering a figurative point of access to the community of Islam, the qaum, and it was a space increasingly under siege of colonial censorship laws.

Madīnah had been only one of many significant voices in the press commenting on the Jallianwallabagh fiasco. As the UP fortnightly report complained, “[The] occurrences in the Punjab [ . . . ] practically absorbed the entire attention of the press.” Along with Madīnah/Yasrab, the British excluded from Punjab al- Khalīl of Bijnor, The Independent of Allahabad (a Nehru paper), Hamdam and Akhuwat of Lucknow (Farangi Mahalli papers), Swadesh of Gorakhpur, and Amrita bazar patrika of Calcutta. The government demanded securities, or large sums of money as surety against future crimes of sedition, from papers in Bengal, Nagpur, Lucknow, and Madras. Madīnah’s inclusion in this censorship was a testament to its growing influence; its subterfuge demonstrated a growing sense of urgency in its mandate to reach readers and an emerging resolve to flout British restrictions.

In the 1920s, Madīnah focused on coverage of the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, showing a preference for Congress.68 It was per- haps Maz̤har ud-Dīn’s affection for the League that motivated him ultimately to resign from Madīnah in 1921. It is also possible that Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn’s taste for politics pulled him closer to Delhi and toward the League after the political awakening accompanying the Khilafat Movement. It was common for editors to move around among different qasbah-based newspapers, and after leaving Madīnah, Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn joined Munshī Safīr Aḥmed’s Naginah-based paper Almān as its first editor; he was instrumental in relocating that paper to Delhi. He later became close to the leadership of the All-India Muslim League, including Muḥammad ‘Alī Jinnāh. In the 1930s he founded a paper entitled Vaḥdat (Unity) in order to assist the propagation of Muslim League ideals. When Maulānā Shabbīr Aḥmed ‘Usmānī, a Deobandi who supported the creation of Pakistan, resigned from the pro-Congress Jam‘īat ‘Ulamā and declared his allegiance to the Muslim League and Jinnah, he did so from Mazh̤ ar ud-Dīn’s office. This demonstrated Madīnah was one node in an important network of political power and publishing prestige in this period and had to make considered choices when it came to balancing shifting political alliances.

This excerpt from Print and the Urdu Public: Muslims, Newspapers, and Urban Life in Colonial India has been published with special permission from Oxford Univerity Press.

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