Moot examines role of press in 1857 war
KARACHI, June 24: The lack of coordination, a discriminatory system and greed led to the failure of the 1857 uprising in India, while most of the Indian media had little role to play in the matter, was the general consensus on the first day of an international two-day conference on the 1857 struggle and the freedom of the press in the subcontinent, held at the Arts Council auditorium on Tuesday.
The conference has been organised by the mass communications department of the Federal Urdu University for Arts, Science and Technology (FUUAST).
Speakers presented the opinion that the 1857 war of independence was a turning point for both the East India Company as well as for Indians, for the failure of the uprising allowed the British to consolidate their subjugation of the subcontinent. It was also pointed out that many of the factors permeating Indian society over a century-and-a-half ago were still common in contemporary society.
The key address was delivered by well-known historian Dr Mubarak Ali, who refuted the suggestion that Indians of that time had no political awareness. He maintained that the newspapers published in the early days of the war played a key role in keeping the freedom fighters informed, but conceded that the struggle was marred by the lack of organisation. “Even as Indians were fighting against the colonial forces, they were confronting the enemy within,” he said.
According to Dr Ali, the first book describing the 1857 uprising as a war of independence was published in 1919, and it said that the British had killed nearly a million Indians.
“The 1857 struggle for independence should be seen as resistance against foreign rule,” said Dr Ali. “We are facing similar situations today and we need to revive the spirit of 1857.”
Notable among the attendees were the Sindh Minister for Local Bodies Agha Siraj Durrani, Federal Urdu University Vice-Chancellor Dr Mohammed Qaiser, FUUAST registrar Prof Dr Qamar-ul-Haq, the dean of the FUUAST Faculty of Arts Prof Dr Hassan Waqar Gul, and the chairman of the FUUAST Department of Mass Communications, Tausif Ahmed Khan.
Dr Ali said that the bias of the British led them to term the 1857 movement as a ‘mutiny,’ and pointed out that the monuments they erected were in memory of the army personnel used to crush the movement. However, Dr Ali praised contemporary newspapers for their role in rekindling an interest in history.
The Sindh Minister for Local Government, Mr Durrani, stated that the remnants of imperialism continued to hatch conspiracies against the freedom of expression and a free press.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, journalists struggled for the right of access to information; today’s media-men have the same main focus,” he said, claiming that the Press and Publications Ordinance promulgated by the East India Company in 1822 was the first attempt to curb the freedom of the press and was used to hang Maulvi Baqar, editor of the Delhi Urdu Akhbar, after the 1857 war.
Mr Durrani remarked that in modern times, the world had gone from being a ‘global village’ to becoming a ‘global street’, particularly in the communications sector.
Similarly linking progress and prosperity with free media practices, FUUAST Vice-Chancellor Dr Qaiser emphasised upon the need for a responsible media.
Prof Dr Gul remarked that Pakistan and India spend enormous funds on their militaries, which should instead be spent on ‘people development.’
The objectives of the conference were spelt out by Tausif Ahmed Khan.
‘Journalists under pressure’
During the first working session of the conference, the ex-chairman of the FUUAST Department of Mass Communications said in his paper that officers of the East India Company were involved in massive corruption and thus feared a free press. “The early editors were the expelled English officers themselves,” he claimed, adding that there were over 90 papers in the subcontinent between 1785 and 1799.
Prof Inam Bari of the University of Karachi’s Department of Mass Communications was in agreement, and called the expelled English officers the forerunners of journalists in the subcontinent. He informed the audience that Heike’s Gazette was the first newspaper, although it was meant for the British only. Referring to the policies of Governor John Adam as coercive towards the media, Prof Bari said that Raja Ram Mohan went to the Supreme Court to fight for press freedom, after which Sir Charles Metcalf repealed the restrictive ordinance.
The dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Balochistan, Dr Seemi Naghmana, said during her presentation that while the 1857 war was not victorious, it initiated the fall of the British Empire in the subcontinent. According to her, five attempts were made to curb press freedom in the subcontinent between 1801 and 1808.
“Extensive reading of objective history is a must for a good journalist,” stated Prof Zikrya Sajid, ex-chairman of the KU Department of Mass Communications, pointing out that today, journalism is under immense pressure from governmental and other groups.
Iqbal Nafees, director of the Sindh Archives, put up an interesting presentation comprising rare documents citing references to 1857. He read out passages on the reorganisation of the British army, the uprising of troops in cities including Karachi, Hyderabad and Shikarpur, and also read out a document referring to Indians being forced to convert to Christianity by the colonial forces.
In the second working session, the chief of Dawn’s New Delhi bureau, Javed Naqvi, said that the failure of the 1857 war of independence and victory in 1947 are quite paradoxical. Stating that one of the reasons for the failure of the 1857 struggle was the lack of participation by the Dalits or scheduled castes because their rights were not recognised, he said that this was exploited by the British, who manipulated the Sikhs. “Unfortunately, such discrimination continues,” Mr Naqvi pointed out.
He referred to Mahatma Gandhi who, after his experience of apartheid in South Africa, touched on the issue but according to Mr Naqvi, merely renaming Dalits ‘Harijans’ was not enough. “It is ironic that the poor masses, which bore the brunt of the struggle for freedom, are still far from being truly free,” said Mr Naqvi, adding that growing commercialism in journalism is a draconian development but has to be borne.
A former editor of Karachi’s daily Awami Awaz, Sohail Sanghi, pointed out that the British conquered Sindh in 1843 and there were numerous incidents when residents of Hyderabad, Shikarpur and Jacobabad were punished for taking part in the struggle.
Senior journalist Ahmed Salim responded mainly to criticism regarding the Punjab’s role in the struggle for independence and dealt with the role of the media in Bengal in the formative phase. On his part, senior journalist Aslam Khawaja gave detailed accounts of various documentary records on the 1857 war.
A warning note was struck by Masood Ashar, former editor of Imroze, who said that journalism in Pakistan had “become perilous” and recounted the various threats being faced by media-men.