First English newspaper preceded the British

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 8, 2013

After having worked in newspapers starting from my college days till where even my white locks are deserting me, it came as a rude shock when I questioned students of ‘mass communication’ as to which was the first printed newspaper of Lahore. Sadly, there was complete silence. Even their head of department drew a blank.

The damage done by the Partition of 1947 depleting us of our best teachers has still not been overcome. But then I have great faith in the younger generation that they will climb out of the age of ‘superstition’ sooner than all of us expect, that they will understand that reasoning with facts is the only way up, that to gain knowledge all of us must have a reasonable grasp of mathematics and languages, especially our mother-tongue, that all the sciences need to be endlessly tackled by experimentation and reasoning, and that we must acknowledge that there is a science to even understanding our heritage. That is why historiography is critical if we are to correctly understand our past, so that we know where we are today, which will make sure our future is secure from want and superstition.

In this piece I wish to explore the print media as it came to the Punjab, and more specifically to Lahore. Mind you print technology had come to the sub-continent as early as the 16th century, and examples of this can be seen in the few rare books still to be seen, in museums, and printed by Portuguese missionaries in Goa. The Jesuits can be correctly deemed to have introduced printing in the sub-continent.

This power of the ‘press’ was first presented to Akbar the Great by his Jesuit guests. We learn that he pondered over this possibility of spreading knowledge, but then his advisers -- the legendary ‘Nau Rattan’ think tank -- came to the conclusion that as printing would be only in the Latin script, all they would do is spread Christianity.

I am not sure whether this discourse took place during his long stay in Lahore, even though the first Jesuits did come to Lahore when he was rebuilding the Lahore Fort and the bricked walled city. What is certain is that the Jesuits stayed in a house in Tehsil Bazaar, and that they started building Lahore’s first church, using wooden planks, in the main Tibbi Chowk. Akbar ordered that the work be stopped and it was his son Shah Jehan who ordered that the church be burnt.

But then as Mughal grip on power began to wane, the Christian missionaries work spread, and the printed word was a major tool in their evangelical work. Thus it can be said with considerable confidence that the very first group to use printing presses in the sub-continent were the various Christian missions. This trend was true in Punjab too. The problem with Punjab was that this area witnessed a constant strife. With the rise of the Sikh power, which culminated in Maharajah Ranjit Singh taking Lahore in 1799, it took over 20 years before he could truly rest after consolidating his Lahore Darbar. This also meant that his treaty with the British resulted in a peaceful East Punjab. So it was in Ludhiana in 1836 that the American Presbyterian Mission established the very first printing press in Punjab.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh came to know through his excellent intelligence network about this printing press and managed to see examples of their work. He also decided that this was a ploy to spread Christianity and decided that it was best left alone. We see from documents that his French advisers wanted a press to spread education, and so the very first ‘Punjabi Qaida’ was printed in Ludhiana and presented to every woman who got married as a gift from the maharajah. He believed that given time a 100 per cent educated womenfolk would mean an educated population. Beyond this he would not let the press into Lahore.

After he died in 1839, the British East India Company managed to establish a British Residency in Lahore, and it was this British Resident who encouraged in 1842 the establishment of Lahore’s first printing press. Just where was it located, I must confess I have not managed to pinpoint. Two possible locations are pointed out by two different sources. Khushwant Singh in his ‘History of the Sikhs’ points to a bazaar just off the main Anarkali Bazaar, just opposite the tomb of Qutabuddin Aibak.

On the other hand Col H.R. Golding in his book ‘Reminiscences of Lahore’ states that it was located next to the Civil Secretariat of Lahore, where today is the Government Printing Press.

But the British Resident’s facilitation managed to get started Lahore’s first English-language newspaper, titled ‘The Lahore Chronicle’ and the name of the press is given as the Chronicle Press. So we have the first English-language newspaper of Lahore starting even before the British took over. Thus we see a very strong Punjabi army led by corrupt generals leading to the end of the huge Punjab Empire.

To print the newspaper, the EIC brought in from Delhi an experienced printer named Muhammad Azim, who had been associated with the ‘Delhi Gazette’. ‘The Lahore Chronicle’ furthered the cause of the British, with most articles exploring the possibility of Punjab developing economically if the British were allowed to control their economy only. They were careful to avoid any political commentary, advertising how they were helping the Punjab develop economically.

Once the Sikhs fell in 1849 and Maharajah Duleep Singh had been removed to England, the printing presses came to Punjab by the dozen. In 1850 an experienced printer from Peshawar by the name of Harsukh Rai was invited by the new British administration and he set up Lahore’s first Urdu-language printing press by the name of Kohinoor Printing Press, and it was from this press that the first printed Urdu newspaper titled ‘Kohinoor’ was launched. Its editorial policy was pro-British, which is not surprising.We thus have a situation where the very first printed newspaper in Lahore was in English language even though British rule was not formally established, and the first Urdu newspaper came after we had lost our freedom. By 1875, exactly 25 years after the British had taken over, Lahore had 13 printed newspapers and magazines, of them seven were in Urdu, four in English and, amazingly, two in Arabic. This is no surprise for even during Sikh rule, Arabic was taught in the ‘madrassah’ of Punjab. The language policy imposed by the East India Company, and after them by the British Indian government saw the emergence of Urdu as the dominant language in a country where the population did not understand it. The policy of ‘killing off Punjabi’ had started, a policy still in vogue. Why that happened is another story. But the printed word was here to stay, as it always will be.




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