When a Persian journal spoke truth to power and paid the price

Mirat-ul-Akhbar began publication from colonial Calcutta on April 12, 1822 and was the first first printed journal in the Persian world

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Tue 26 Apr 2022, 11:49 PM

Anniversaries help recall significant days, occasions and events because they matter and hold lessons for the present. A major anniversary earlier this month passed almost unnoticed: 200 years of the first printed journal in Persian — Mirat-ul-Akhbar (‘Mirror of News’) — that began publication from colonial Calcutta on April 12, 1822, by when most of South Asia had come under the rule of the East India Company.

By most accounts, it was the first printed journal in the Persian world (in Iran, the first newspaper appeared in 1837). It is instructive to recall the journal and its fate at a time when journalism faces challenges from various quarters across the globe.

The weekly journal, published on Fridays, was founded and edited by Rammohun Roy, polymath, scholar and reformer, who was among the first Indians to adopt and adapt the technology of print in public discourse to present indigenous perspectives and counter British claims about India and Indians.

By 1822, several English and Bengali journals had appeared, the first in 1780 (Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser), and British officials soon hastened to impose restrictions. Such was the proliferation of print between 1780 and 1835, first in Calcutta and later in Bombay, Madras and in the north that India became the site of the first fully formed print culture to appear outside Europe and North America, and it was distinguished by its size, productivity, and multilingual and multinational constitution. The rapidly evolving print culture co-existed with the earlier form of hand-written newsletters called akhbarat (derived from the Persian-Arabic khabr for news).

The ideas, ideology and idealism of journalism were evolving in England at the time, when Roy presented a remarkable set of objectives for Mirat-ul-Akhbar. In a ‘prospectus’ published in the first issue, he noted that most of the journals were in English, which excluded those who did not know the language, and wrote: “I, the humblest of the human race, am desirous of publishing a weekly newspaper, written in the Persian language, which is understood by all the respectable part of the native community, and am ready to distribute it to all who may be so inclined”. The prospectus was translated and reproduced in Calcutta Journal, which began in 1818, edited by the irrepressible James Silk Buckingham, a Whig, who often drew the ire of British officials for his exposes and encouraged the development of the indigenous press.

Two bits from Roy’s prospectus outlined an alternative model of journalism at the time. He wrote:

“I solemnly protest that it is not my object to make this paper the channel of exaggerated praise to the great, or to my own friends, that I may hereby meet with favour and promotion; nor is it my intention in this editorial capacity to permit unmerited blame or reproach to be cast upon others. On the contrary, I shall have due regard for truth and for the rank of persons in authority, and in composing every sentence, keeping in view the saying of the poet, that — “The wounds of the spear may be healed, but a wound inflicted by the tongue in incurable — I shall guard against any expression that might tend to hurt the feelings of any individual”.

“In short, in taking upon myself to edit this paper, my only object, is, that I may lay before the public such articles of intelligence as may increase their experience, and tend to their improvement; and that to the extent of my abilities, I may communicate to the Rulers a knowledge of the real situation of their subjects, and make the subjects acquainted with the established laws and customs of their Rulers; that the Rulers may the more readily find an opportunity of granting relief to the people; and the people may be put in possession of the means of obtaining protection and redress from their Rulers”, the prospectus promised.

In subsequent issues, the journal appeared more theoretical and international in scope. Its contents included accounts of military events in the Ottoman Empire, and the history and turmoil in Ireland. There were editorials on the function and forms of government and on the need for more checks against abuses of magisterial authority.

Roy was soon using international events as examples to push for reform for Indians. In a lengthy article titled Ireland: The Causes of its Distress and Discontents, Roy wrote that Ireland had been fighting off the unjust rule of the kings of England for a thousand years. Its peasants were impoverished, yet non-resident Anglo-Irish landlords remitted huge sums of cash regularly to England. As historian C. A. Bayly noted, it is difficult to believe that this articulate concern with Ireland was not, and was not perceived to be, a veiled attack on the East India Company’s rule in India.

Roy’s views soon angered colonial officials. In a lengthy minute to the Governor-General’s Council on October 10, 1822, chief secretary W.B. Bayley singled out Mirat-ul-Akhbar and mentioned examples of his writings that were considered offensive. Keen to curb criticism in the press, a Press Ordinance was issued in March 1823, imposing licensing and penalties. Roy led the protest against the ordinance in the form of two lengthy ‘memorials’; one addressed to the Supreme Court in Calcutta and another to the King in England. Written by Roy in near-Addisonian English, the ‘memorials’ were much appreciated in England, but failed to change policy. Roy then closed Mirat-ul-Akhbar in protest on April 4, 1823, and set out the reasons for not being able to function under the new restrictions in the last edition, writing: “I…here prefer silence to speaking out”. He also cited a Persian couplet: Guda-e goshah nashenee to Khafiza makharosh. Roo mooz maslabat-i khesh khoosrowan danand (Thou O Hafiz, art a poor retired man, be silent, princes know the secrets of their own policy).

In the colonial cauldron of the time, Roy closing the journal in protest and the two ‘memorials’ were considered a daring act which marked the beginning of a new type of political activity that was destined to be a special characteristic of India for nearly a century. It was the beginning of a long campaign of constitutional agitation for political rights that later led to the freedom struggle and eventual independence from the British.

The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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