By Rana Safvi
Vasily Vereshchagin’s Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 1884, Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin
painted his famous Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English, in which he
showed a man being tied to the mouth of a canon that was about to be blown. The
man in question was Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, who I discovered during the course
of my research. Though the description of the execution in the painting showing
Baqar tied to the mouth of a canon is incorrect, it shows how Baqar had
captured popular imagination even three decades after the 1857 revolt.
After a four month long siege, Delhi fell
to the British on September 14, 1857 and Baqar (1790-1857) was the first
journalist to have fallen to the imperialistic designs of the British on
September 16, 1857. He was a religious scholar who was well versed in Persian,
Arabic, Urdu and English. He had received religious education from his father
Maulana Muhammed Akbar (who was an eminent Alim) and secular education in Delhi
College, which he joined in 1825. Later he became a Persian language teacher at
He later joined the British administration
under Charles Metcalfe but wasn’t happy there. His love for writing and
journalism led him to buy a lithographic press in 1834. In 1836-37, the Dehli
Urdu Akhbar was born. The monthly subscription rate was Rs 2. One could
subscribe to it at Rs 11 for half a year or annually for Rs 20.
Although it was not India’s first Urdu
newspaper – that credit goes to the Jam-e-Jahan Numa, which was started
in Calcutta in March 27, 1822 – the Dehli Urdu Akhbar was Delhi’s first Urdu
newspaper. Newspapers that had existed in Delhi prior to this – the Sultan
ul Akhbar, the Siraj ul Akhbar and the Sadiq ul Akhbar – were
all in Persian.
In 1857, as the revolt spread around north
India, Baqar changed the name of his newspaper from Dehli Urdu Akhbar to
Akhbar-uz Zafar from July 12, 1857. This was meant to be a tribute to Bahadur
Shah, whose penname was Zafar – the last Mughal in Delhi to whom the mutineers
rallied. He began to publish on Sundays, instead of Saturdays, as an act of
defiance against the British, who observed sabbath on Sundays.
Azizuddin Husain of Jamia Millia Islamia
University, in his work ‘Maulvi Muhammed Baqar Dehlavi’s Editorials in
Condemning British Policies Against Indians in his Newspaper Delhi Urdu Akhbar,
from May to September, 1857’, describes the life of Maulvi Mohammad Baqar and
cites references from the Dehli Urdu Akhbar, preserved as part of the Mutiny
Papers collection in the National Archives, Delhi. Husain writes that only 16
issues of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar, from March 8, 1857 to September 13, 1857 are
He writes that “it provides us with lot of
information about Shahjahanabad of 1857, as well as adjoining towns like
Lucknow, Agra, Kol, Buland Shahr, Jhajjar, Rohtak, Ballabhgarh, Rewari, Ambala,
Gwalior, Jhansi etc.”
Before May 11, 1857, Dehli Urdu Akhbar
derived its news from government gazettes, other newspapers and from unpaid
freelancers writing to the editor. It covered a variety of news from all over
the world. It also had a column called ‘Huzoor -e- Wala’ on the emperor.
However, once the mutiny broke and reached
Delhi, the city came under siege and was isolated from the rest of the country.
The content of Baqar’s newspaper had to be confined to local news within the
walls of Delhi.
On May 11, 1857, the sepoys came to Delhi
and along with them came the inmates released from the jail in Meerut. The
jails of Delhi were also broken into and their inhabitants released. Most of
the contemporary Urdu chroniclers of Delhi in 1857 described in detail the
violence and pillage that followed. As did Baqar. At the time it was in no way
a sign of his shifting loyalties, but simply his loyalty to his profession to
Heena Yunus Ansari, a PhD student in Delhi
University, in her unpublished dissertation – ‘Indigenous discourse of the
Great Uprising of 1857: A study of Urdu Weekly Newspapers from Lucknow and
Delhi’ – examines the Dehli Urdu Akhbar and the Tilism- e-Lucknow.
She writes: “Maulvi Baqar had the larger
picture before him. He saw them as liberators of the people who smashed the
pride of the British. For him their uncivil behaviour was simply an act of
The sepoys were encouraged in the paper.
The issue on May 24, 1857 exhorts the sepoys saying that just as great emperors
like Solomon and Alexander, tyrants such as Chengiz Khan, Halaku and Nadir
Shah, and epic heroes and sages had all disappeared, the British too would one
Shafey Kidwai, chairman of the department
of journalism and mass communication at Aligarh Muslim University, describes
Baqar as being the first spot reporter of Urdu. He has translated the May 17,
1857, issue of Baqar’s newspaper and any journalist today will likely relate to
The present scribe too came out of his
house to see things for himself, inspired as he was by a regard for the glory of
his faith and hearing the sound of gunfire. I was confronted by a strange
sight: people were running from the Kashmiri Gate side into the market.
Personal safety was no doubt in danger, but dearer to me than my personal
safety was the desire to see unusual sights and the other equally strong desire
to give a faithful eye-witnessed account of events to my readers. As I moved
forward, I heard gunshots…a little ahead of me. Soon, I saw the Sahib Bahadur
running for his life, sword in hand and a native following him with gun close
at heel. In the rear was a crowd of common people, some with sticks in their
hands, others with bamboos, chasing the beleaguered Englishmen at hot speed.
They hunted down from Zeenat Bara towards the canal.
Poem by Mohammed Hussain Azad published on May 24, 1857, openly in
support of Badshah Bahadur Shah Zafar and against tyrants like the British.
Credit: Rana Safvi
The Urdu writer and poet Mohammad Hussain
Azad was Baqar’s son. A May edition of the paper carries his poem under the title
Chronogram for this Instructive Revolution.
It was only yesterday that the Christians
were the championed ones and the world providers
But today their wisdom vanished and their
conquering army proved ineffective.
In June when many other Indian soldiers of
the East India Company had rebelled against their masters and joined their
brethren to fight against the British under the banner of the Mughal Emperor
Bahadur Shah Zafar, the tone of the newspaper reflects the general attitude.
The sepoys are now enjoined to display
communal harmony and exhorted to pray to their respective gods and emulate Bhim
and Arjun, Rustam, Chengiz and Halaku. They are now called Sipah-i-Hindustan
(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
George William Forrest, British historian,
mentioned in the introduction of the State Papers soon after the end of the
mutiny: “Among the many lessons the Indian mutiny conveys to the historian,
none is of greater importance than the warning that it is possible to have a
revolution in which Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Muhammedans, could be
united against us…”
It was in this scenario that Baqar rendered
his most singular service via his newspaper.
On its front page was a copy of an
advertisement that had been pasted on the walls of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, which
called upon Muslims to wage a jihad or holy war against the Hindus, for as per
the Sharia the Christians were their friends as Sahib e Kitab, or people
of the book. The advertisement also said that no pig fat was used in the
cartridge, implying that cow’s fat had been used.
Baqar realised that this had to be the work
of alleged British agents and denounced it in his newspaper.
Ansari, in her dissertation has given a
point-by-point rebuttal that Baqar had made at the time.
Regarding the issue of cow’s fat used in
the cartridges she quotes the newspaper,
The British officers say that the rifles
were filled with the fat of cows and not of pigs. If that is so it will hurt
the Hindus and if today Hindus are suffering, tomorrow it will be our turn.
Baqar continues to say that Hindus and
Muslims are fighting side by side and that they should stay united as
Hindustanis and stop the British from playing with the religious sentiments of
If they really wanted to look after the
interests of the Indians, he argued, the British should have been more
sensitive and not forced people to switch their religion, or to fight one
Husain quoted Baqar as writing,
We advise all the rais, rajas and jagirdars
that they should not support British because they are not sincere. They never
care for their promise. They are basically traitors. If you will not listen
then you will regret one day.
Husain also wrote that on July 19, 1857,
Baqar wrote the verses of Shaikh Sadi that highlight the unity of human beings.
“Those sons of Adam are limbs of each other – Having been created of one
essence when the calamity of time afflicts on one limb – The other limb cannot
remain at rest.”
These Persian verses are also inscribed on
the main gate of the UN building in New York.
Baqar used stirring prose and verse to
uplift the spirits of the Indian soldiers and to ensure the unity of the Hindu
and Muslim soldiers fighting the British army.
As such, the portrayal of Baqar as a
turncoat, becoming an informer for the British, as has been described by
William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal, doesn’t ring true. No evidence to this
effect has been discovered in the archives. Shireen Moosvi rebutted the
allegation that Baqar was trying to broker peace between the emperor and the
British, an eventuality that was being prevented by Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, the
Moosvi wrote, “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
Khan gave witness against the emperor in
his trial and suffered no harm at the hands of the British. In fact, the Indian
soldiers suspected him of treachery almost from the beginning. The elite of
Shahjahanabad never forgave Khan for testifying against the emperor, as is
clear from contemporary Urdu writings.
Baqar, however, was arrested on September
14, 1857, as soon as the British managed to breach the Kashmiri Gate and enter
the walled city of Shahjahanabad. On September 16, he was produced before Major
William Stephen Raikes Hodson who ordered his execution without a trial. Some
reports say that Hodson shot Baqar himself at point blank range.
Baqar breathed his last on September 16,
even while the emperor was still in the Qila and the Mughal empire had not
Rana Safvi is a writer and author of Where Stones Speak: Historical
Trails in Mehrauli, First City of Delhi.