Dialogue & Action
Funded with the generous support of the British Library's Endangered Archive Program, and refereed by leading South Asian historians Judith Brown (Oxford) and Francis Robinson (Royal Holloway), this project will establish the Centre as a research institute.  The facility is a hub for the digitization of archival materials and will regularly host seminars and promote publications related to the broad area of religion in the region.  The initial award was made to preserve the Nur Afshan, an Urdu language gazette published continuously from 1877 to 1944 that contributes original information regarding civil society encounters and minority voices that are under-represented in the research regarding this period.

The period of British rule in India (1857-1947) continues to generate extensive research and debate.  Events, personalities, and perceptions from this time have been crucial in shaping current social and political currents that persist today. There is perhaps no setting more informative or influential for this context than the Punjab.¹  It was a thriving centre of ideas, a pluralist bazaar of thought shared by Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. Nur-i-Afshan, offers access to voices from time that are previously under represented.  Sometimes published weekly, and other times bi-monthly, the instalments included local and international news summaries, government postings, commodity prices, and advertisements, but also opinion articles, essays, proverbs, and poems.  The gazette’s acceptance of unsolicited articles and editorial commitment to present contrasting perspectives fostered an early form of ‘information commons’ that was different in style and format to the Urdu and English newspapers that developed during this same period. 

The publication includes a variety of materials useful for researchers.  It is one of the earliest Urdu publications and thus testifies to the evolution of Urdu usage in prose, news, and scholarly writing.²  The variety of contributors also adds to its archival importance.  This is not the domain of only professional journalists and academics; it is a collection of writings from the broad public.  This records a vernacular that is virtually lost to the present generation now accustomed to different scales of weights and measures, agricultural practices, and regional specific holidays.  Pakistan’s Punjab has experienced rapid modernization since partition.  The country has prioritized national and Islam identity over that of the traditional regional ethno-linguistic one.  This has caused a perceived dislocation from the experience of the pre-industrial ancestry.³  In Nur-i-Afshan’s hand-written Urdu typeset one encounters a multitude of voices discussing an array of social, political, and religious topics of that demonstrate the continuity with the past, and in later editions, the encounter with the modern.  The editorial structure also presents an interesting anomaly.  The editorial staff, as noted by their names, included representatives from the majority Muslim community as well as from minorities sects, such as the Ahmadiya and indigenous Christians.  Historical records have not been located to clarify the specific purpose or values of the Presbyterian missionaries who were involved in supporting this publication.  The extensive readings conducted in preparation for this application do not indicate the gazette to promote colonialist values, or the imperialist collusion commonly attributed to missionary organization, or any form of missionary polemic or conversionist undertones.  Instead, the editions point to an intentionally multi-position publication intent on creating a venue for many competing views and voices.  Until further analysis can be undertaken, the thousands of pages will have to stand for themselves and tell their own story. Whether the researcher is looking for the price of rice in Punjan 1882, or the response to historical events such as the built up to World War I, samples of ghazzal poetry and proverbs, or accounts and summaries of public events, there is raw material to be discovered in the 21,000 pages of Nur-i-Afshan.

However, the extant editions of Nur-i-Afshan are in a precarious state.  Having combed regional and national libraries, it is apparent that Forman Christian College’s Ewing Library holds the only available copies of the periodical.  These survived only due to the care of a librarian and would otherwise have been haphazardly discarded along with many other historical publications quickly disappearing due to the lack of care, vision, and infrastructure for their preservation and dissemination.   About 20 years of material have been lost (from 1944 to 1966) and many pages have been damaged by moisture or insects. Having recognized the importance of Nur-i-Afshan for both regional and international scholars, this proposal has been put forth to digitize the volumes and make them available to a far broader audience on the Internet.

¹ Cox, Jeffrey. Imperial Fault Lines: Christianity and Colonial Power in India, 1818-1940. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

² Faruqi, Shamsur Rahman. "From Antiquary to Social Revolutionary: Syed Ahmad Khan and the Colonial Experience." Aligargh: Aligarh Muslim University, 2006.

³Berkey, Jonathan P. "Madrasas Medieval and Modern: Politics, Education, and the Problem of Muslim Identity." In Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, edited by Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.  Zutshi, Chitralekha. Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003.  Jalal, Ayesha. Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850. London: Routledge, 2000.


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Dr. Yaqoob Bangash, Charles Ramsey, and Bushra Jaswal