More than just a chronicle

A sketch of the country’s first Education Minister, freedom fighter and Islamic scholar Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. At right, a front page of his Al-Hilal .  

Exactly a hundred years ago to this day, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad — the country’s first Education Minister, freedom fighter and Islamic scholar — came out with the first edition of his newspaper Al-Hilal, an Urdu weekly from Calcutta.

According to Urdu poet Manzoor Ahmed, Azad was of the view that launching a newspaper was the best way to reach out to Muslims and change their attitude towards foreign rule. Al-Hilal’s circulation grew to over 25,000, a phenomenon unheard of in Urdu journalism till then, he added.

Azad’s descendant, journalist Firoz Bakht Ahmed, opines that the writings in Al-Hilal established Azad as a visionary; one who could see much ahead of his time. “Azad had a vision of his own world order, the traces of which we have seen while he manned the ministry of education after Independence.”

Mr. Bakht notes that the contents of Azad’s publication were instrumental in shaping public opinion against the colonial regime, a fact duly acknowledged by some of the other stalwarts of India’s freedom struggle. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his Young India in 1920 about how Azad used Al-Hilal as a medium for criticising the British Raj.

Besides taking on the British through Al-Hilal , Azad’s newspaper covered a range of issues such as theology, politics, wars, scientific advancement, interviews, photography, tourism, food, business and sports.

Giving a brief history of the establishment’s attempts to muzzle Azad’s revolutionary ideas propagated through Al-Hilal , Mr. Bakht explains how from 1912 to 1927 the British stalled the publication of the weekly many a time by levying heavy securities.

Azad ceased publishing the newspaper in 1927. The press on which it was printed was shifted to Delhi a few years later after it was bought by Mufti Shaukat Ali Fehmi, who needed a press to start his Urdu monthly Deen Dunia .

The Fehmi family used this Litho press thoroughly for close to five decades to publish Urdu books and magazines. Then, in the 1990s when lithographic printing went out of use, they had to switch to a modern press. Due to lack of space, the family was forced to look for buyers for this historic press.

Shaukat’s son Asif Fehmi tried to contact universities, Urdu academies, museums and even the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma in order to hand it over to someone who could preserve Azad’s legacy. After all his efforts went in vain, Asif broke the press into pieces in 1994 and sold it for Rs.4 per kg, recalls Mr. Bakht.