History of Urdu Journalism
Mrinal Chatterjee
February 18, 2013

Contrary to popular perception, Urdu is not the language of Muslims. It was a lashkari (soldier’s) language (Urdu comes from the Turkish word ordu, meaning camp or army), nourished during the period of Mughal emperor Shahjahahn. It had words from Persian and local languages. The purpose was to make communication easy among soldiers who were Arab, Turk or locals. Based on the Khariboli dialect of Delhi and Western Uttar Pradesh in the Indian subcontinent, Urdu developed under local Persian, Arabic and Turkish influence over the course of almost 900 years. It began to take shape in what is now Uttar Pradesh, during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1527) and continued to develop under the Mughal Empire (1526–1858).

Urdu is written from right to left, just like Arabic and Persian. The language has 39 basic letters and 13 extra characters, altogether 52; most of the letters are from Arabic and a small quantity from Persian. It has almost all the ‘sounds’ available in any other language spoken in the world. The Persian newspapers of West Bengal were fore-runners of the Urdu press. After the decline of Persian as an official language, Urdu gained prominence.

The first newspaper of Urdu language was Jam-i-Jahan-Numa, founded by Harihar Dutta in 1822 in Calcutta. He was the son of Tara Chand Dutta, eminent Bengali journalist and one of the founders of Bengali weekly Sambad Koumudi. The editor of the three-page weekly paper was Sadasukhlal. After English and Bengali, it was the third language newspaper in India and continued to be published till 1888.

On 14 January 1850, Munshi Harsukh Rai started the weekly, Kohinoor, which had a remarkably high (for those times) circulation of 350 copies. In 1858, Manbir Kabiruddin started the Urdu Guide, the first Urdu daily, from Calcutta. Another important paper founded that year was Roznamha-e-Punjab from Lahore. Oudh Akhbar by Munshi Nawal Kishore was the first Urdu newspaper from Lucknow, also begun in 1858. The Sepoy Mutiny or Great Rebellion of 1857 had impacted Urdu journalism in terms of the number of publications, volume of circulation and content. While some new Urdu papers appeared during the period, a much larger number ceased publication. The number of publications dropped from 35 in 1853 to 12 in 1858. The decline is directly related to the reign of terror let loose in 1857. In the North West Provinces, most Urdu papers had ceased publication after the outbreak of the war.

After 1857, Urdu journalism entered a new era of development. Mention may be made of some major papers such as the Oudh Akhbar, Lucknow; the Scientific Gazette, and the Tahazib-ul- Akhlaq, Aligarh; the Oudh Punch, Lucknow; the Akmalul Akhbar, Delhi; the Punjab Akhbar, Lahore; the Shamsul Akhbar, Madras; the Kashful Akhbar, Bombay; the Qasim-ul-Akhbar, Bangalore; and the Asiful Akhbar, Hyderabad. Oudh Akhbar lived long and was soon converted into a daily. Published by Munshi Nawal Kishore, it shot into great prominence under the editorship of Ratan Nath ‘Sarshar’. The first Urdu newspapers of Delhi were Fawaid-ul-Nazarin and Kiran-us-Sadai, founded by Rama Chandra in 1852. The Urdu press in Delhi became highly critical of the British Government. The best example was the Urdu Akhbar, edited by Syed Hasan, which highlighted many civic issues such as drainage, sanitation, adulteration of food and corruption.

urdhu paper
Akhbarnama was the first Urdu dail published from Odisha. It started publishing from January 2012.

In 1877, Maulvi Nasir Ali, one of the founders of Anjuman Islamia – an Islamic intellectual and political movement – founded three newspapers – Nusrat-ul-Akhbar, Nusrat-ul-Islam and Mihir-e-Darakhshan. The papers focused on current civil and political affairs and were valuable aids of Muslim empowerment. In 1877, Oudh Punch, the first humour magazine in Urdu was started by Sajjid Hussain. The first women’s journal in Urdu was Akhbar-un-Nisa. Darul Sultanat, one of the most important newspapers of 19th century was published in 1881 by Shaikh Ahsanullah Sandagiri Dehlawi from Calcutta. Mathura Prasad Savmar was its editor. It started as a weekly. Later it was made bi-weekly and then tri-weekly.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only three Urdu dailies, the Paisa Akbhar, the Oudh Akbhar, and the Sulh-i-Kul. Politically, they all belonged to the moderate group. However, as a new political wave swept across the country, newspapers and periodicals such as Zamindar, Hindustani, Al Hilal and Hamdard introduced new political zest in journalism. The Hindustan, Lahore; Deepak, Amritsar, Desh, Lahore; Urdu-i- Molla, Kanpur; Muslim Gazette, Lucknow; Madina, Bijnore; Hamdam, Lucknow; and Swaraj, Allahabad did a great deal to awaken political consciousness and to enlist popular participation in the national movement for freedom. Politics and social reform dominated Urdu journalism from the very beginning of the 20th century. The political and social movements launched by the Congress, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Arya Samaj, the Khilafat Committee and the Aligarh Movement, exercised profound influence on Urdu language newspapers and periodicals. They contributed towards the general growth of literature as well. The style became more forceful and direct and a much richer and varied vocabulary developed.

Urdu journalism took on a strongly nationalistic note towards the turn of the 20th century. Zameendar was started in Lahore in 1903. It was the first Urdu newspaper to subscribe to news agencies. Zameendar was intensely nationalistic, which boosted its circulation to over 30000 copies. In 1902, Maulvi Sanaullah Khan started the weekly Watan, meaning ‘motherland’. Watan was intensely nationalistic and continued for 33 years. Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar started Naqeeb-e-Hamdard in 1912. Another powerful political periodical was the Madina, edited by Hamidul Ansari. The greatest Urdu periodical the time was Al Hilal, started by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. A weekly, Al-Hilal created political and religious consciousness among the Muslims. It was one of first Urdu newspapers which put equal importance on content and presentation including layout and design. It was designed on the pattern of Egyptian newspapers. But its greatest asset was content. It addressed the readers in a new language and style of expression.

In 1919, Pratap was started in Lahore by Mahshe Krishnan. It vigorously supported Gandhi’s policies and the Indian National Congress. It was a victim of government harassment and suspended publication several times. It had great influence among the Urdu-reading Hindus of Punjab and Delhi. In 1923, Swami Shraddhanand founded Tej, with Lala Deshbandhu Gupta as editor. It had a wide circulation in Rajasthan, UP and Delhi. It was confiscated several times by the government and banned in a number of princely states. In the same year, 1923, the Arya Samaj started the Milap, a daily in Lahore. It was known for its powerful nationalistic editorials. Jawaharlal Nehru founded Qaumi Awaaz in 1945. Urdu journalism suffered heavily during and after Partition. Riots in Lahore lead to mobs raiding the office of Milap and burning machines and newsprint. Its managing editor, Ranbir, was stabbed and the paper was closed for six weeks. It then shifted to Delhi. Due to the unrest, Pratap shifted to Delhi.

At the time of Partition, there were 415 Urdu newspapers including all daily, weekly, fortnightly and monthly magazines. After Partition, 345 of them remained in India; owners of 70 newspapers migrated to Pakistan. According to the Registrar of Newspapers report of 1957, there were 513 Urdu newspapers and the combined circulation was 7.48 lakh. Fifty years later, the number of Urdu dailies alone was 3168 and the combined circulation of all Urdu newspapers was 1.7 crore (RNI report, 2007). Some of the Urdu newspapers after Partition in India were Dawat, now a bi-weekly, started by the Jamat-e-Islami Hind. Maulana Abdul Waheed Siddiqui started Nai Duniya, a popular Urdu weekly, which was later edited by his son Shaheed Siddiqui. The Sahara Group started a weekly-Aalmi Sahara. A good number of Urdu newspapers were published in Hyderabad including the daily Siasat, Munsif, Indian Etemaad and Rehnuama E Deccan. Until 2006, Andhra Pradesh had the maximum number of registered Urdu newspapers (506) among all the states of India. Mumbai also had several Urdu publications including the Inquilab daily and Urdu Times. West Bengal, especially Kolkata, also had a sizable number of Urdu publications. In 2005 there were five Urdu dailies in Kolkata: Azad Hind, Rozana Hind, Akhbaar -e- Mashrique, Aabshaar and Akkas.

After 1980s there was a gradual decline in the number of publications and readership of Urdu newspapers. Several publications ceased publication. For example, in West Bengal Shan-e-Millat, Imroze, Asre-Jadeed, Ghazi and Iqra were closed. However, in the first decade of the new millennium, resurgence was marked in the Urdu media with a number of new newspapers and television channels making an entry. The big media houses made their presence felt in the Urdu media across several states.The major Urdu newspapers and television channels that are run by major media houses are Rashtria Sahara (launched by Sahara Group in 2006), Inquilab (Jagran group took over the Mumbai-based Urdu newspaper in 2010), Azad Hind, Hind Samachar, ETV-Urdu, Aalami Sahara and Zee Salam. In 2011, Hyderabad-based newspaper Munsif, which is the largest circulated Urdu newspaper in India, launched its news channel, while Mumbai-based Urdu Times will launch its print editions from Delhi and Lucknow shortly. Hyderabad-based Siyasat was the first Urdu newspaper to start a Web edition in the late 1990s. Several other Urdu publications presently have their Web editions.

Besides Delhi and North Indian states such as UP and Bihar, Andhra Pradesh has a tradition of fostering the Urdu press, Hyderabad being a major publishing centre. Besides Munsif, Siasat, Rahnuma-e-Deccan and Saaz-e-Deccan are published from Hyderabad. In 2005, two more Urdu dailies were published from the city: Etemad and Rastriya Sahara. There are smaller Urdu dailies like Aina-e-Hyderabad and Bhagyanagar Observer. Not many Urdu publications have appeared from Orissa, though the state has a sizable Urdu-knowing population. In the late 1980s, Eastern Media, publisher of Sambad, started a Urdu weekly, Sahara. It closed publication within a year. According to RNI, the total number of publications in Urdu was 3315 in 2007-8 including 703 daily newspapers and 1443 weeklies.

(The author, a journalist-turned-media academician, presently heads the Eastern India campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication located in Dhenkanal, Orissa. Besides teaching communication he also writes columns and fiction. This article forms part of a series on the history of regional language journalism in India.)

April-June 2012