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Information and the Public Sphere (Persian Newsletters from Mughal Delhi)

Information and the Public Sphere (Persian Newsletters from Mughal Delhi)
Item Code: IDL188
Author: Margrit Pernau
Publisher: Oxford
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9780195690859
Pages: 480
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.8" X 7.4"
From the Jacket

Handwritten newsletters or akhbarat were vital to the functioning of the Mughal regime. Each ruler appointed his own news writer, akhbar nawis at as many focal points of the subcontinent as possible and they reported on a daily or a bi-weekly basis. This form of collection reporting and circulation of news was taken over by the colonial power and continued to flourish in north India right upto the uprising of 1857.

For the first time this volume brings together translation of three Persian askhbarat from the years 1810, 1825 and 1830. they shed important light on Mughal interactions with contemporary political formations like the Marathas the Sikhs the Rajput states and the British. The newsletters also present an interesting kaleidoscope of everyday economic social and Culture life.

The akhbarat force us to rethink the linkages between the creation of knowledge and public sphere during the early years of Mughal-British interface. The fact that the British quickly adapted to these traditional information network and were even able to evolve them later in accordance with their changing politico-strategic needs shows that the boundaries of British and Indian production of knowledge were more fluid than supposed colonial influence working indigenous resistance.

Margrit Pernau and Yunus Jaffery also investigate the printed newspapers. Critiquing the unique emphasis on the role of the British-indian press the colonized public sphere and the liberal patronage of British officials they argue that the first vernacular newspapers in Urdu and Persian show astonishing lines of continuity with the akhbarat.

Bringing together many inaccessible document this volume is a unique resource for the study of relatively neglected period in Indian history. The introduction discusses the nature of the newsletters and situates them in the wider historical context. It also indicates research areas likely to be opened up by this unexplored source.

An essential reading for readers for students and researchers of the history of the late Mughal and early modern India this book will also interest general readers.

Margrit Pernau is head of research Group center for the history of Emotions max Planck institute for Human Development Berlin.

Yunus Jaffery has taught at the department of Persian, Zakir Husain collage Delhi.


From the very moment the British entered the Indian subcontinent the collection of reliable information stood at the centre of their endeavour to acquire and stabilize power. This included information not only on kings princes and factions at court or on armies and military moves but also on the development of political relation hence on letters sent and messages received. This has been elaborated in many interesting works on the colonial construction of knowledge. What seems sometimes to be a little forgotten however is that at least until the first decades of the nineteenth century, neither this thirst for information now its close connection to the exercise of power was in any way peculiar to the British. Not only the French, but all the Indian powers form the Marathas the court of Ranjit Singh Rajput rulers down to a whole range of smeller Rajas and Nawabs even bankers and traders were in constant need for information political economic and military.

Since the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar a system had evolved which guaranteed the flow of information from the center to the periphery and vice versa and between the different centres. Each ruler attempted to appoint his own news writer (Akhbar Nawis) at as many of the focal points of the subcontinents as possible. They reported either on a daily or on a bi-weekly basis. These handwritten newsletters (Akhbarat) are well known for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have often used in historical research on that period.

What is astonishing is that this same system for the collection and reporting of news in manuscript form continued to exist and even flourish in north India right until the uprising of 1857. two sets of question arise. The first concerns the interrelation between indigenous and colonial models. The earliest Akhbarat in our collection date from 1810 they were written for Archibald section the Resident at the court of the Mughal King just a few years after the conquest of Delhi by the British. Comparison with long-established formulae and with the contemporary akhbarat reporting on Delhi for the Maratha court show that at this point of time the British were primarily interested in getting access-as quickly and as cheaply as possible to the traditional information networks. Information policy aimed at submitting the news writers to the control of the resident but did not yet touch the way information was gathered or presented. As the next akhbarat, written in 1825 and 1830 respectively demonstrate the genre evolved once the British interest in Delhi Changed form the control of an advance post for expansion to the Northwest to the establishment of permanent bureaucratic rule however this development astonishingly did not lead to marked differences between the British and the royal newsletters. It requires very careful reading to make out that the Akhbarat of 1825 were written for the British Resident at Delhi and the Akhbarat of 1830 for Akbar Shah II the Mughal King, the British Resident or some other British officials also obtaining a copy of it. The boundaries between British and Indian procting of knowledge therefore seem to have been much more fluid than commonly supposed today. Instead of colonial influence and at best indigenous resistance a whole pattern of cross-influencing emerges. This has been shown with great detain in Mazaffar Alam and Seema Alavi’s masterly edition and introduction to the Persian letters of Antoine Polier the eighteenth century Swiss adventurer who crossed and re-crossed the boundaries between the cultural world of the East India Company and the persianate courts of the late Mughal rulers it still holds true after the British had acquired territorial mastery over North India. The fact that the British slipped into the informational regime of the North Indian polity that they made use of the cultural forms available to them does not lead to a happy hybridity.

Thus this edition takes further the arguments made by Mazaffar Alam and Seema Alavi (A European Experience of the Mughal orient. The I’jaze Arsalani(Persian Letters 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis Henri Polier Delhi: Oxford University Press 2001) showing that this form of interaction did not find its end in the eighteenth century but continued right upto the 1830s.

Ravi Ahuja Mobility and containment the Voyages of south Asian Seamen C. 1990-1960, paper presented at the conference Translocality: an approach to Globalising Phenomena. Centre for Modern Oriental Studies(ZMO)Berlin, beyond British power relations. We have learned much about the relation between a colonial construction of knowledge the imposition of alien epistemological categories and the exercise of power it is time to consider under which circumstances cultural adaptation may lead to similar results.

The second set of question pertains to the influence these akhbarat had on the emerging printed newspapers. The early vernacular newspapers in Persian and Urdu have regarded as an offspring, if not an imitation of the British officials. A closer look however reveals astonishing lines of continuities firstly in the use of akhbarat as sources of information, but also in what was considered to be news and in the ways it was presented. The novelty of the printed newspapers hence lies not so much in the creation of public sphere in the response to colonial of a public spheres both colonial and pre-colonial the public centring on the courts both Indian and British the public sphere of the mahfils and mushairas assemblies at the courtesans houses and poetical gatherings and most importantly the entire area of collective action which thus became publicized in a new way.

Therefore it may be hoped that the study of the akhbarat may contribute ti a reconsideration the creation of knowledge and of the public sphere during the years of interface between British and Mughal culture. In a wider sense the edition also aims at drawing attention to the endangered archive of Persian sources for the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century and thus perhaps to break through the vicious circle of diminishing knowledge about this material hence a decreasing urge to learn the language and finally the vanishing of these sources from the consciousness of historians.

The beginning of British rule over Delhi and the Delhi territory is usually dated to 11 September 1803 the day on which lord Lake defeated Daulat Rao Sindhia and took Shah Alam II the aged Mughal emperor under his protection the precision of date tends to convey the impression that henceforth the British Empire in this region was both stable and pervasive situation in North India during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.

Former Mughal military and political power had been reduced to a shadow in the Shah Alam and Delhi had lived under a Maratha protectorate which however had not saved the city from being sacked by the Rohila Afghans in 1789. In their search for the hidden treasury they did not spare the fort and tortured and killed many members of the royel family Ghulam Qadir the emperor. But this move which was intended to disqualify him from ruling and replace him by a cooperative successor backfired and led to a wave of Symparthy for Shah Alam. Making use of this mood the Marathas proclaimed themselves the protectors of the legitimate Mughal dynasty occupied Delhi and stationed a guard inside the fort. At the same time they promised a yearly stipend of Rs 600000 to the emperor and his family of which however less then a third were ever paid. Poverty thud was added to political decline. Nevertheless in the fluid situation of the end of the eighteenth century legitimacy which only the approval of the Mughal could confer was a resource not to be neglected.

Besides its symbolic significance, Delhi was valued by the British as an outpost from where all the political relations to the west ant the northwest could be coordinated. Much more than in later times therefore, the task of the Resident was political and military rather than administrative. This was reinforced by the fact that real power tended to be negotiated at a comparatively low level. Besides relations with what were to become the larger princely stated of the British system of indirect rule the Resident was in permanent and direct touch with ancient or newly created Jagirdars and landholders who commanded small but it times decisive military contingents. Even at the height of its power the colonial stated, which never completely penetrated society but limited its intervention to strategic areas. Winning allies at every level and convincing them that their future was best safeguarded through their British connection policy whether under conditions of direct or indirect rule. This held even more true in this phase where the Napoleonic wars had made the containment of French influence on the sibc9ontient a matter of Vital importance to British and where at the same time, resources were severely limited.

The political situation in 1810 was relatively quiet. Since the integration of the Peshwa the formal head of the Maratha confederacy into the British system of subsidiary alliances the Marathas possibility of united action was severely hampered. Of the possible Maratha leaders the Gaekwad of Baroda had already submitted to a British treaty in 1802 while the conquest of Delhi and Agra in 1803 considerably weakened Daulat Rao Sindhia and curtailed the power of his French allies. Jaswant Rao Holkar remained strong enough to attempt and remained strong enough to attempt and almost succeed in re-conquering Delhi in 1804 but after this he too had to submit to a British alliance. Although the wording of these alliances made them perpetual everyone knew that they could and would be revoked as soon as changing political circumstances offered the opportunity.

Rajputana was even less settled than the Maratha lands. In 1806 the British revoked the treaty they has concluded with Jaipur in 1803 leaving the state open to the predatory raids of Holkar and his ally the Rohilla general Amir Khan. In Jaipur Jodhpur and Bikaner the uneasy balance of power between the rulers and their feudatories tiled towards the latter resulting in numerous requests for help and mediation which in turn implied a recognition of British supremacy. Although the non-intervention policy was never carried out on the spot as completely as it was propagated in London for financial reasons by the Court of Directors the colonial power avoided an extension of its formalized commitments preferring to choose ad hoc between intervention and its withholding and keeping up of diplomatic relations with both rulers and their feudatories.

The third centre of influence which developed in these years was the dominion of Ranit Singh who had extended his rule from his ancestral district over large parts of the Punjab. His proclamation as Maharaja of Punjab in 1801 confirmed not only his position as premier chieftain of the Punjab but also implied a claim to all the territories which had recognized the supremacy of Lahore at some point in history. If this had led to an overlorship over the Siksh stated of the Cis-Sutlej –Patiala Nabha, Thanesar Kaithal and Jind-it would not only have brought him into direct connect with the British fears of an invasion through Afghanistan and Peshawar. In the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809 Ranjit Singh recognized the Sutlej as Punjab’s eastern border. Although the independent of the Cis-Sutlej states was confirmed by both sides. In the following years they tended to be drawn into the British zone of influence. As the furthest outpost of British Empire Empire towards the Northwest the Residency in Delhi was not only in charge of contacts with the Sikh states including the territory of Ranjit Singh but also collecting information on the rules under Afghan influence up to Peshawar Kabul and Kashmir.

All these networks however depended first of all in a secure control of Delhi and the Mughal ruler. Already before the conquest of the city Lord Wellesley had addressed a letter to Shah Alam. Should he agree to place himself under the production of the British Government so the gist of the letter ran he would be assured not only of the loyalty and attachment of that Government but also of an adequate provision for his support, these offers were further concretized by a written agreement at the end of the year. As this document bears witness to the extraordinary price the British were willing to pay for the support of Shah Alam and as it also was referred to by the Mughal court as the legal basis for British rule over Delhi right until the 1840s, it is worth quoting in some detail.

1. all the Mehals (districts) situated on the right bank of the river Jumna, and North west of Mowza Khaboolpoor are fixed as the crown lands of his Majesty.

2. The collection of the Revenues of the aforesaid Mehals (shall continue as heretofore) under the direction of the British Resident at the court of Delhi.

3. the Mootsuddies or officers of the Royel Treasury shall attend the Kutchery or office of the collector o Revenues of the said crown lands and keep an account of the incomings and outgoing of the said crown lands in order that satisfaction and tranquility may be afforded to his Majesty.

4. the sum of ten thousand Rupees (as Nuzzers shall be presented by the British Resident to his Majesty at each of the seven annual Festivals.

5. two Cazzes and a mooftee shall be appointed from among the most learned 6. In every instance where the punishment of death is awarded by the criminal courts of delhi previous to such punishment being carried into effect it shall be submitted to his Majesty.

7. coins struck in his Majesty name shall be current in the of Delhi and in the crown lands of his Majesty.

8. in order to prevent any inconvenience to his Majesty arising from the tardy collection of the Revenue in the crown lands the British Resident at the court of Delhi shall receive instructions to pay to his Majesty monthly and the heir apparent & c. the sums specified In the annexed document.

9. it is however provided that in case the revenue arising from the crown lands should increase in consequence of improved cultivation and the better conditions augmentation shell ryots or peasantry a proportionate augmentation shall take place in the Royal Stipends.

The king would be granted Rs. 60000 monthly for his private expenses. Moreover Rs. 10000 would be awarded to the Hair Apparent and certain sums to close relatives and faithful servants faithful of course to the British no less than to the King. The status of these grants remained open. While the British were quite clear about the fact that they did not constitute a tribute they still avoided the term pension for the maintenance of royal family. In the Persian texts the term used is either mawvajib which would come close to the English equivalent or more often Tankhwah. Every month the money was brought by a procession of elephants from the treasury of the Residency to the royal treasury in the fort, form where it was distributed under the signature (dastkhat) of the King a symbolic act that could only little conceal the fact that the main distribution had already been authority of the ruler even within the precinct of his palace and family.

Unlike financial matters which formed a central topic in the discussion between the British and the King, the question of the character and legitimation of the British government alluded to in the other articles of the agreement were negotiated in a much more veiled form. It is within this veiled debate that the riots of 1807, which to the face of it were not directed against the British have to be read. The facts were simple at the occasion oif a religious celebration probably in honour named of Lord Parasnath, a prosperous banker named Har Sukh Ray intended to have the statue of the trithankara carried through the city in full state. As Archibald Seron the Resident was worried that this innovation might cause resentment among the Muslims he asked the banker to renounce the most ostentatious element of the procession to which the later seems to have agreed. Apparently completely satisfied, Seton thereupon accompanied the emperor adnhis family to same festively at the shrine of Qutb ub Din at Mahrauli some 10 km to the south of the city. However the calm was deceptive. As soon as the procession was taken out and angry mob stated rioting and plundering. Charles Metcalfe, the Resident’s assistant called out the troops and restored order. Immediately after his hurried return Seton proceeded to the Jama Masjid, where meanwhile the green flag had been hoisted, and attempted tp prevent a further escalation religious leaders. Though negotiations with the religious leaders. Though they realized that the religious implications fo the events called for special caution the British persisted in treating the riot primarily as a problem of public order and to differentiate between errors order and to differentiate between errors of fanatic ignorance+ the crimes of plunder +premeditated sedition. The aim should be they held to show British government disposition to protect all sects of people in the full and free exercise of their respective religions. Therefore it was deemed important to quell the latent sentiments of Jealousy, which the class of Musulman may retain with respect to the Hindus by pointing out that the latter had no intention insult or offend the former.

The king was blamed for not helping to quench the revolt and for interceding in favour of the rioters one Maulawi Rafi ud Din deemed to the leader was expelled from the city.

What the Resident did not mention in his report was the fact that Har Sukh Ray was not just and banker but the treasurer of the Residency through whom all the British transfers of money towards Rajputana and the Cis-Sutlej states were processed. These transfers took place by letters of credit on which the bankers drew their percentage usually anything between 1 and 2 percent. Thus it was has made Har Sukh Ray an extremely wealthy and influential man. Both procession and the riot can be read as testing character of British presence. Did they really mean to rule in the name of the Mughal King and uphold the Muslim –ness of the state as they had announced in the agreement. Or would they allow a symbolic and ritual affirmation of the economic changes their presence had induced. Was Delhi still dar ul Islam a country where a willing and able to use it in favor of his brothers in faith.

The British did their best to avoid answering these questions which directly impinged in the legitimation of their rule. On the one hand they attempted to keep up the fiction that they acted in the name of the King. On the other hand they did their best to counteract the influence of Maulawi Rafi ud Din who did exhorted the king’s duty to favour the Mussulmans throughout and therefore to insist on Har Sukh Ray entering an agreement renouncing the introduction of innovations. While the king pointed out in his conversation the Faith section insisted that though the British government had always supported the rights of the faith in this case it was a matter of justice rather than a question concerning the faith and your Majesty is no less the King of the Hindoos than of the Mussulman.

The British presumption however that Akbar Shah acted through religious bias missed the point as Akbar Shah did recognize The Maulawi’s influence in the city and at the court but was himself not particularly close to him or amenable to his theological influence. Rather it was the fact that one of his brothers presumably Mirza Izad ostentatiously tool Rafi ud Din’s part and argued although his Majesty be the king of persons of both persuasions yet as this is a question of a religious nature he is upon the present occasion more a king of the Mahomedans than of the Hindoos. For Akbar Shah this held the danger that what had begun as a challenge the testing of British legitimation might now involve his own legitimation as well. As his succession to the throne had been by no means as unproblematic within the fort as the British would have liked to believe he had to act with circumspection in his this situation.

At the same time, Section realized the danger of the scanty knowledge the residency had so far accumulated on the public sphere outside the palace and area which was not covered by the akhbarat. With astonishment and not a little embarrassment, he came to know that Maulawi Rafi’ ud Din, whom he had exiled was in fact the younger son of Shah Wali Ullah and the Brother of shah ‘Abd ul ‘Aziz, and was recognized as the leader of the reformist Islamic groups throughout north India, If not beyond. To counteract a possible alienation of these scholars, Secton attempted to gain access to religious assemblies. He participated in the festivities of the first twelve days of the rabi ul awwal at royal palace and soon afterwards paid courtesy visits ‘Abd ul ‘Aziz’ and Pirzada Sabir Bakhsh a Chishti Sufi related to the royal family. The British had yet to learn to become White Mughals in more respects than falling in love with Indian princesses. If they wanted to effectively stabilize their rule, if they wanted to gain a first-hand knowledge of actors and events and correctly understand them the only alternative to the costly imposition of dominion through force they had to gain access to the semiprivate circles in which public opinion was formed.

The third event with continued repercussions throughout the period of the akhbarat of 1810 was the challenge to the British Resident by Mirza Jahangir the King’s younger and favourite son. Through the British in theory acknowledge the principle of non-intervention in the family and private sphere of the ruler this private sphere was never of private.

Altho I have ever made it a rule to refrain from all such interference in the concerns of the King’s family and household, which form its vexatious nature was either injurious to the dignity of his Majesty or likely to give offence to his feelings I have nevertheless considered it as part of my public duty to keep a vigilant and watchful eye on everyone of important relation to the Royal family and more especially to keep myself advised to the characters and conduct of all the person who might admitted to particular intercourse with its several members.

The held even more true when the personal affection of the king came to have a bearing on the touchy issue of the succession to the throne. Akbar Shah II himself had succeeded his father in 1806 with British backing against the claims of his younger brothers Izad Bakhah. Once King he in Mirza Jahangir recognized in abrogation of the claims of his elder son Mirza Abu Zafar the later Bahadur Shah II.

In 1807 the resident reported that on the occasion of the formal darbar of id ul fitr, the festivities closing the fast of the month of ramazan the king had granted Mirza Jahangir the aftabi. This shade giving screen in the shape of the sun fixed on a long pole, had always been considered an appendage of royalty and even Akbar Shah II had never used it in the life time if his father. The British reacted immediately as they had already expressed their preference of Mirza Abu Zafar as heir Apparent. The conferment of such an extraordinary mark of distinction could only so they judged show the inability of the King to control the intrigues of the female quarters notably the redoubtable triumvirate of Mumtaz Mahal Begam (the king’s paternal aunt), all of whom favoured the young prince. Moreover such a move could not fail to throw dissension among the princes and endanger the peace of the entire fort. Although they did not say so the concern of the British for their continued influence was certainly as important as their care for the hen-pecked King or the peace of mind of his eldest son. Under British pressure, Mirza jahangir agreed not only refrain from using the aftabi but also to return it; an action which had to await the darbar of the id ul zuha to be given a similar public importance as the formal grant at the preceding id.

The next two years were spent in a continuous tug of war. The fiction of the alliance with the British government and of its benevolent and liberal character prevented an open fight the resistance of Mirza therefore tool the shape of a constant breach of etiquette both towards the british and towards his elder brother. The resident in turn answered by refusing to recognize the action for the political resistance they were but ascribed them to them to the unruly and dissipated character of the prince an image which further precluded his changes for succession. Matters came to a head in September 1809. What exactly happened is difficult to reconstruct as the report in question is missing from the files both in London and in Delhi. While some disorderly scene probably also an insult to the resident seems to have taken place it seems improbable that Mirza Jahangir fired a deliberate short at seton as the local tradition which was recorded by father Ullah Beg, would have it. Though the Resident had the prince immediately brought to residency he seems to have borne no ill-will as he spent the next days playing background with Mirza Jahangir to while away his prisoner boredom. Finally it was decided to exile the prince to Allahabad and soon after to insist on the formal investiture of Mirza Abu Zafar ad the heir apparent (wali-ahd). Moreover a British officially to safeguard the security of Akbar shah in reality to control the personal guards and armed retainers of the king and his sons.

Mumtaz Mahal vowed to gift a precious covering of flowers for the grave of Qutb ud Din Bakhtiyar Kaki the famous fourteenth century Chishti saint buried at Mahrauli if Mirza Jahangir came back to Delhi safely. Both the saint and the queen kept their promises. Mirza jahangir returned in November 1810 and the royal procession to Qutb Shah gave rise to the annual phulwalon ki sair the flower sellers festival which continues to be celebrated to this day.

The story would have ended here, were it only the tale of an unruly youth and his reformation. The continuation however, proves that Mirza Jahangir was neither as harmless nor the ruler of Delhi as reconciled to British overlordship as seton would have liked to believe. In December 1812 the Queen mother applied for permission to visit her younger son, Mirza Sulaiman Shuoh ad Lakhbau. As the British Suspected some ulterior motive behind her journey, they advanced financial reasons to prevent her form leaving Delhi. In the meanwhile Mirza Jahangir who had ostensibly taken up European habits and cloths at Allahabad started to complain about the restricted atmosphere of the oriental palace at Delhi and expressed the wish to return to his former exile where he had learned, so he said to appreciate British company and freedom. After some token resistance the King acquiesced. The British were all too ready to believe in the prince’s cultural preferences and although they hesitated to grant the King’s wish that his son might be allowed to visit him whenever he longed to see him the exile was not held to be permanent.

The way this agreement was used shows the potential for resistance which existed on the interstice between the second and the third Maratha War even for a monarch who went down in history as rather apolitical and weak. At the same time it makes clear how quickly this potential could be neutralized by the colonial power. Soon after supposedly settling down at Allahabad Mirza Jahangir turned up at Lakhnau apparently to take part in a family weeding but in reality bearing secret letters from his father to the wazir and Bahu Begam and asking their help for settling the affairs between the royal court at Delhi and the British. Either because the had no interest enhancing the was wary of the possible repercussion of such a venture on the internal policy of Lakhnau the Wazir immediately disclosed the move to the resident. In a humiliating interview Akbar Shah had to offer his apologies Mirza Jahangir’s allowance was reduced and he was never again permitted to leave Allahabad where he died in 1821.


Introduction by Margrit Pernau 1
1Akhbarat June 181034
2Akhbarat 182588
3Akhbarat 1830158
Biographical Notes416
Glossary 440

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