Why Nehru disliked journalist Ishaq Ilmi?

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 27-12-2021
Media and Judiciary (representational image)
Media and Judiciary (representational image)


Saquib Salim 


“The order of detention dated the 5th of October 1956, quashed. The petitioner (Ishaq Ilmi) shall be set at liberty forthwith.” This judgment pronounced by Justice B Dayal Takru of Allahabad High Court on 21 June 1957 was one of the most important judgments that defined the state’s control on journalists, publishers, press, and censorship of news. The acquittal of Ishaq Ilmi was considered a major setback for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The repercussion of this case was to dominate political and public discourse, even after 65 years.


The problem started in 1956 when Mumbai-based Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan (BVB) collaborated with an American publisher to print and distribute 7,000 copies of Living Biographies of Religious Leaders, a book written by Henry and Dana Lee Thomas in 1942. The book had a 16- page chapter on Prophet Muhammad with promiscuous comments for him. The fact that the then governor of Uttar Pradesh, K.M Munshi, was the general editor of the series and had written the foreword to the book put the whole blame of hurting sentiments of Muslims on the Nehru-led Congress government. 


Ishaq Ilmi, the publisher and editor of Siyasat Jadid, an Urdu daily printed from Kanpur brought the matter to the attention of the Indian Muslims when on 28 August, 1956 he reproduced paragraphs from the controversial book with a headline accusing governor Munshi of insulting the Prophet. Ilmi had served jail for two months in 1950, twice in 1951, for one year in 1952, and again for a year in 1954 for writing on Muslim issues. The government and its agencies would equate his criticism with communalism, and anti-nationalism to charge him under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). 


It's interesting to mention that Maulana Ishaq Imli is the father of the BJP leader and former TV journalist Shazia Ilmi.


Ilmi, through his newspaper, asked Muslims to organize protests across the country to force Munshi to resign. His columns from 28 August to 16 September 1956, (the day of his arrest) galvanized the Muslim youth in different cities of North India. Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) organized a protest on 30 August, which was joined by girls from Women’s College as well. In Orai and Moradabad Muslims took out protest marches on 2 September. Police canned the protestors in Moradabad and imposed a curfew. By the time Ilmi was arrested on 16 September, several cities of North India had witnessed violence. The government charged him for Gandhian protests. The charge sheet said; 

“You exhorted those present in this meeting that agitation should continue until the Government took action against the publication of the book and the Governor was dismissed. You said that volunteers should be enlisted for offering 'Satyagraha' and taking a resort to hunger strikes in front of Council House and Government House, Lucknow. Consequently, Sri Wazarat Shikoh resorted to hunger strike at the council House on 10th September 1956 and was arrested.”


Ironically, the government accepted that the book demeans the Prophet. Nehru in a public address said, “When I read it carefully, there is no doubt that some wrong facts and often absurd things have been written in the chapter on Hazrat Muhammad. It was wrong; there was no doubt about it. A Muslim would not have tolerated it, for even I could not tolerate it.” 


Ilmi’s newspaper ensured that on 2 September, Nehru asked Munshi to call back the book with a public announcement. In another letter he asked Morarji Desai, Chief Minister of Bombay, to take possession of the remaining copies from the publisher. Nehru also informed the students of AMU that the book would be called back and he regretted its publication. By 6 September, Munshi had apologized for the publication and even claimed he celebrated the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. 

Though Munshi did not resign, as demanded by Ilmi, the book was called back from the market. The governments of Bihar and West Bengal banned the book, though Nehru believed that by stopping publication a similar goal could be achieved. 


The apology and calling back of the book shows that Ilmi was not wrong in bringing up the issue. Yet, the government made it a prestige issue and Ilmi was arrested on 16 September under certain sections of IPC. Since his arrest could not stand the test of a judicial court, Ilmi was booked under the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) on 8 October 1956. The Governor of the U.P, against whom he launched a campaign, sanctioned his detention for 12 months. 


Nehru wished that Ilmi should have been arrested earlier. Rather than blaming the police and other government institutions, Nehru condemned Ilmi for fomenting riots in Aligarh and other districts of U.P. In his view, Ilmi’s was a much more serious offense than any normal crime’. Nehru claimed, “There was something much deeper, and it was obvious that mischief was afoot and had been deliberately organized”. He blamed Pakistan for the actions of Ilmi. 

Interestingly, only 4 days after Ilmi’s arrest, Nehru, endorsed the action bizarrely. He wrote to the Chief Ministers; “I have an idea that most of our Governments have become much too legal minded. When a newspaper or an individual misbehaves, we dare not take action lest the law court might acquit the person concerned.…… We should act much more promptly. If we are convinced that a newspaper editor or any other individual has spread communal hatred and incited people to communal violence, we should arrest him and either proceed against him in a court of law or keep him under preventive detention.….… It does not matter much if he is acquitted. The government will have discharged its function and the general public will realize that we are going to stand no nonsense about communal troubles. In fact, such acquittals in obviously bad cases would strengthen the hands of the Government to bring legislation to deal with such matters.”


The case coincided with the Second General Elections in 1957 and rallied Muslims behind an issue. It further paved the way for different censorship and detention laws later introduced in India to check the protests. Ishaq Ilmi is now a forgotten chapter of our history but his legacy is alive in each case of journalistic activism, high handedness of the government, censorship laws, and public protests.


(Saquib Salim is a writer and a historian)