By Nasim Yousaf
Allama Mashriqi’s father, Khan Ata Mohammad Khan, was a prominent Punjabi writer and political/religious activist. Khan owned and ran The Vakil, a major bi-weekly newspaper from Amritsar in British India. Khan was a man of means and an influential figure in South Asia during his time, as such a brief biography of his contributions is important for researchers and students as well as for the history of South Asia.
Khan Ata (1846-1925), son of Diwan Kamaluddin Khan, came from a well-to-do family and was a Rajput by caste. His ancestors held prominent positions in the Mughal Empire courts (details of his ancestry have appeared in various books). Khan Ata had property in Batala and Amritsar, which was passed down from his family. Khan Ata emerged as a recognized author and was well-versed in various languages, including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English. His works were a mix of books, articles, reports, and poems. His social circle consisted of prominent individuals of the time, including Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Maulana Shibli Nomani, Maulana Abdullah Al-Imadi, Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Nawab of Loharu, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani and Mufti Sadruddin Azurda. In recognition of Khan Ata’s outstanding contributions to literature as well as for raising substantial funds for the Hejaz railway, the Emperor of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (who ruled from 1876 –1909) bestowed upon him the Tamgha-i-Majeedia (a high-status medal).
Perhaps one of Khan Ata’s most significant contributions to society was his newspaper, Vakil. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, British influence began to rise quickly and some Muslims felt that the Indian subcontinent’s Islamic and Indian heritage was being replaced by English values. The Muslim community also seemed demoralized and detached from the overall political struggle for freedom. The newspaper Vakil, which was owned by Khan Ata, was launched in 1895 in order to provide a voice for Muslim political thought. The newspaper was published by Rose Bazar Press in Amritsar (British India) and had different editors (including Maulvi Insha Ullah Khan, Sheikh Ghulam Mohammad, and Maulana Abdullah Al-Imadi) from time to time. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad also joined Vakil’s editorial team at about age fifteen and remained part of said team for the next five years. He was under the tutelage of Khan Ata before launching his own newspapers and literary works and entering politics.
The Vakil emerged as a highly reputable and prominent newspaper and had subscribers in India and abroad. In 1900, the annual subscription fee with mailing charges for Vakil was six rupees for Indians and ten shillings for overseas subscribers (Vakil, Sept. 17, 1900). The newspaper carried a variety of content as well as some commercial advertisements, while its book depot published materials on the Ottoman Empire along with Allama Mashriqi’s works Tazkirah and Khitab-Misr (Mashriqi’s speech at the first global Khilafat Conference in May 1926 in Cairo).
Vakil critically examined the Muslim community’s activities and promoted nationalism and a strong character based on Islamic values. The newspaper was at the forefront of safeguarding the political rights of Muslims. For example, the newspaper actively reported on the Khilafat Movement in India as well as the Turkish Ottoman Empire, First World War, and the activities of Muslims in various parts of the world. In 1900, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II sent an appeal to Muslims of the world to support the construction of a railway connecting Damascus to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Khan Ata was at the forefront of promoting this effort and, through his newspaper, launched a campaign asking Muslims to donate to the project. The people responded and a considerable amount of money was donated (as was reported in various books).
As Vakil gained in prominence, the newspaper faced its share of challenges. During the First World War, censorship of the Vakil was ordered. And again in 1919, an order of pre-censorship was passed against Vakil. Khan Ata provided strong leadership during these times and the newspaper was able to make it through the adversity and remain at the forefront of Urdu journalism for decades.
Khan Ata and Vakil were recognized by many individuals for their contributions. Muhammad Ali wrote in Comrade (dated Feb 17, 1912): “…Vakil has represented the best type of Urdu journalism. Its views have always been broad, wise and dignified. It has exercised an intellectual tolerance and comprehension which is rare even amongst the better class of English journalism in this country [British India].” Engineer Asghar Ali wrote in his book entitled They Too Fought for India’s Freedom, “Among all the Urdu papers of this time, Vakil was regarded as the most sober and serious paper having most weighty opinions on national affairs.” Gail Minault stated in his book entitled The Khilafat Movement: “…Wakeel had the greatest influence and circulation of any Urdu newspaper, dealt freely with Aligarh matters and Turkish-Egyptian relations, and raised money for the Hejaz railway.”
Today, Vakil continues to draw attention from Eastern and Western writers and has been referenced or quoted in various books, including Professor Andrew Tait Jarboe’s book entitled War News in India. Professor Jarboe was gracious enough to email me the names of source materials where he “found several excerpts from Vakil.” Original copies of the Vakil can be found in the Lahore Museum. Some parts of Vakil have also been translated into English and can be accessed at some major research libraries (*see note below).
In short, Vakil shaped Muslim political, religious, and cultural values in the Indian sub-continent during the British Empire. It influenced the thinking of many and helped generate the spirit of freedom – among Allama Mashriqi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and others – to liberate India from British rule. As such, the founder of Vakil, Khan Ata, made a lasting contribution to the history of the region.
Khan Ata Mohammad Khan passed away on July 5, 1925 and was buried in Batala in India. Following his death, Vakil continued to be published until about July 28, 1931.
*Note: Translated extracts of Vakil can be found in various files [ex. IOR/L/R/5/192] and are available in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room of the British Library. The newspaper is also available in microfilms entitled “Selections from the Indian newspapers,” published in Punjab and available in major libraries of the world, including the Center for Research Libraries (Chicago, USA).
[Nasim Yousaf, a noted Pakistani historian and author, has several books and articles to his credit. He can be contacted at email@example.com]