“[Translation] In 1903, Maulvi Shibli Nomani…sent the respected Abul Kalam Azad…to Qibla-au-Kaaba [Khan Ata] in Amritsar so that he could shape his [Azad] future. Therefore he [Azad] stayed with him [Khan Ata] for five years and was part of the editorial team of the…Vakil.”
- Allama Mashriqi, Dahulbab
Allama Mashriqi’s father, Khan Ata Mohammad Khan (1846-1925), was the owner of The Vakil (Amritsar), a prominent newspaper in British India. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) joined the said paper as a teenager and was under the tutelage of Khan, who helped shape Azad’s intellectual, political, and journalistic ideas. This piece looks at the early influence of Khan on Azad, in commemoration of Azad’s 60th death anniversary (February 2018).
Khan Ata belonged to a prominent family in India. The villages of Bayazeedpur and Hameedpur (in the district of Gurdaspur in Punjab, India) were named after his ancestors, Diwan Mohammad Hameed Khan and Diwan Mohammad Bayazeed Khan respectively. Khan himself was an accomplished literary individual and was a recipient of the prestigious Tamgha-i-Majeedia award from Emperor Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire. Khan’s newspaper, Vakil, was well-respected and had the largest circulation of any Urdu language publication in the Indian sub-continent. The newspaper is still quoted in many books, and extracts (or English translations) are available in research libraries in the Indian sub-continent and abroad.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad came to Vakil looking for a means to acquire knowledge and improve his language and writing skills. Azad’s father was an orthodox Muslim and neither encouraged Azad to acquire modern knowledge nor sent him to an accredited educational institution to obtain a degree. Azad knew that under these circumstances, it would have been difficult for him to achieve his ambitions in life. In 1903, with Shibli Nomani’s help, Azad was able to become a “part of the Vakil’s editorial team” (Dahulbab, see above) when he was only fifteen years old. Azad remained associated with Vakil for five years, from 1903-1908 (Note: in Azad’s Urdu autobiography [Azad Ki Kahani Khud Azad Ki Zubani, p. 198-199], which has also been quoted in other books and articles, Azad stated that he was running Vakil as the sole editor from a young age, but in fact he was part of a broader editorial team).
In the aforementioned autobiography (p. 198-199), Azad provided his reasons for joining Vakil. According to Azad, there was no other publication (among the Urdu newspapers in British India) that could match Vakil’s circulation and stature. He recognized that the newspaper had educated the people and generated interest in matters including the Turkish-Egyptian affairs, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh College, and raising funds for Hijaz Railways. Azad stated that The Vakil was the only newspaper in the country that freely and openly wrote about Turkish affairs. If Azad “published his own newspaper, it would require a longer period of time to create a large readership.” Thus, Azad explained that it was more beneficial for him to join an established and well-known newspaper so that he “from day one [he] would get access to an extensive and able audience.” Azad again reiterated that joining a qualified newspaper was better than “starting a newspaper [of his own] and that getting into a struggle and competition would be a waste of time.”
An American University Professor, Gail Minault, in her book The Khilafat Movement, also explained Azad’s reasons for joining Vakil: “The Vakil was one of the best known and stylistically excellent Urdu newspapers of the day. It dealt with national [as well as international] and community problems, and Azad could give his own views wider circulation through its editorial pages. Azad undoubtedly felt he would have greater scope with a newspaper like Vakil than an institutional journal like an-Nadwa [Al-Nadwa], and so he went to Amritsar.”
Working at The Vakil had a major impact on Azad and this influence was reflected in many of Azad’s religious and political thoughts. His support of Muslim-Hindu unity and co-existence of religions, his interest in pan-Islamism, his opposition to some of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s views (which he had supported prior to joining Vakil) were reflective of the same ideals that Khan Ata espoused. After his tenure at Vakil, Azad started his own publications, Al-Hilal & Al-Balagh, which were along the same lines as Vakil; like Vakil, Azad’s periodicals also generated enthusiasm for Turkey. Per S.M. Ikram’s book entitled Indian Muslims and Partition of India: “The greater part of Al-Hilal was devoted to articles and photographs about Turkey…He had seen in the Punjab, how enthusiasm for Turkey had been created by…the Vakil...”
Khan was a mentor to both his own son, Allama Inyatullah Khan Al-Mashriqi (famously known as Allama Mashriqi) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who were nearly the same age. Mashriqi became a famous politician, Islamic scholar, and prolific writer. Azad followed a similar path in life. Both Mashriqi and Azad fought for freedom, played a leading role in the independence movement of the Indian sub-continent (now comprised of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), and were against the partition of India (they felt partition would bring violence and destroy peace in the region and was against the overall interests of the Muslim community). Both men spoke passionately about these topics and warned the people of the sub-continent about the grave consequences of division. Khan Ata’s influence was evident throughout both men’s lives and careers.
Azad’s five years at Vakil at an impressionable age served as an important training ground in shaping his thought process and future career aspirations. As a mentor to Azad (as well as to his own son, Mashriqi), Khan Ata indeed played a hand in bringing about the end of British rule in the Indian sub-continent. As a way of expressing his gratitude to Khan Ata, Azad felt honored to write a preface for Khan Ata’s book (Source: Allama Mashriqi, Dahulbab, p. 255).
Both Khan Ata and Azad were buried in India, Khan at Batala and Azad in Delhi. May their souls rest in peace.
(Nasim Yousaf, a great-grandson of Khan Ata Mohammad Khan, has been conducting research in the United States for almost two decades. His books and articles bring a new dimension to the historiography of South Asia. More information on the author is available on the internet)