Kaiser-I-Hind: How an Anglo-Gujarati newspaper kept publishing through the Bombay plague and into the 1980s


August 28, 2020

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Jehangir Patel, editor of the Parsi community magazine Parsiana, acquired the weekly Anglo-Gujarati newspaper Kaiser-i-Hind in the early 1980s. Along with it, he also got control of its hoary printing press. Located on Bazaar Gate Street in the Fort of Bombay, most of the printing equipment in the press was hopelessly outdated. At a time when offset presses were being commonly used for printing newspapers, the English text of the Kaiser-i-Hind was set using Linotype and Monotype machines, a technology which had been outmoded for a few decades. The Gujarati text was still being composed by hand as it had been done for the previous two hundred years in Bombay.

Article by Murali Ranganathan | Scroll


When Patel ventured up into the loft of the press, he discovered that the entire area was piled high with mouldering newspapers. A quick look at the newspapers revealed that they were the volumes of the Kaiser-i-Hind going back a hundred years to 1882, the year in which it was founded. Recognising the newspaper archive as a unique treasure, Patel preserved them, unlike many of his contemporaries who, at about the same time, were discarding their print heritage without much thought.

Early days

The Kaiser-i-Hind, which translates into Emperor of India, was started on 1 January, 1882 by Framji Cowasji Mehta as a Gujarati weekly published every Sunday. Mehta was related to the redoubtable Pherozeshah Mehta, who was already playing a prominent role in Bombay municipal affairs and was set to ascend the national political stage. A few years before Indian nationalism went mainstream, Framji had laid out the editorial policy of the newspaper in its first editorial.

“…to always speak the truth, to keep the public interest in mind, to be a supporter of independence, …[and] if necessary, sharply criticise the ruling classes keeping in mind the interests of the common people…and not hesitate to seek to topple those in power in case they perpetrate atrocities on the masses…[and] where justice lies in deep slumber, to rouse it to action.”

The Kaiser-i-Hind had long mastered the art of survival. Its editorials trod the fine line between constructive criticism and hectoring disparagement of colonial policies without ever inviting the wrath of the colonial government. After the first Indian National Congress was held at Bombay in 1885, the Kaiser-i-Hind emerged as a strong supporter of that forum.

In the early 1890s, the Kaiser-i-Hind was repositioned as an Anglo-Gujarati newspaper devoting three to four pages to English articles in every 24-page issue. Multilingual newspapers were hardly a novelty in nineteenth-century Bombay. The first bilingual newspaper in the city was the Bombay Durpun, founded in 1832, which printed its English text and its Marathi translation in parallel columns. Soon after, in 1834, the Persian newspaper Aina-e-Secunder added an Urdu supplement. This bilingualism could be traced to the trend among the various communities of Bombay to gradually adopt new languages. Sometimes, it was motivated by the editor’s desire to address two different groups in the same newspaper, for example, Europeans and Indians.

In the 1890s, this practice reached its peak with a few newspapers being published in three languages. The Bahar-e-rozgar (1893) appeared in Urdu, Persian and Gujarati so as to cater to all the different Muslim communities of Bombay, while A Luz, semenario politico, litterario e noticioso (1890) was published in Portuguese, Konkani and English to ensure that it appealed to the Goan community resident in Bombay.

The Kaiser-i-Hind invited many of the leading members of the Parsi community to contribute to its columns, including Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinsha Edulji Wacha and Rustomjee Pestonjee Masani. Mehta ran it on modern journalistic principles, relying on his own correspondents in far-flung towns as well as subscribing to syndicated news services. By 1896, it had emerged as a leading nationalist newspaper. It could claim to be “by far the MOST WIDELY CIRCULATED of all the GUJARATI & ANGLO-GUJARATI Journals throughout India” on its masthead.

Before the plague

The month of July 1896 did not seem very different from any of the preceding Julys. For most of the month, it rained torrentially in Western India as a result of which both the railways terminating in Bombay – the Great Indian Peninsular Railway and the Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway – were thrown into disarray. But there were quite a few things which were happening in Bombay for the first time.

The Kaiser-i-Hind (19 July) was particularly impressed by the “living pictures” or Cinematographe which had been first screened on the seventh of July by the Lumiere Brothers at the Hotel Watson located on the Esplanade. Its readers were urged to catch the subsequent shows at the Novelty Theatre which were being advertised in its columns. Tickets were being sold by Soundy & Co, a company in which Framji Mehta was a shareholder and director.


Advertisement for “living pictures” (1896)

Those inclined towards more traditional forms of entertainment had many choices on a Sunday afternoon. Local theatre troupes such as the Victoria Natak Mandali and the Parsi Natak Mandali were regularly playing their old hits like the Gul Bakawali and Jahangirshah on the Bombay boards, while the Morbi Arya Subodh Natak Mandali, a theatrical troupe under the aegis of the Raja of Morbi, was touring Bombay and was playing to packed houses at the Tivoli Theatre opposite the Victoria Terminus.

As July turned to August, the arrival in Bombay of one “Mohanchand Karamchand Gandhi” (sic) from South Africa as a representative of the Natal Indian Congress drew the attention of the Kaiser-i-Hind to the disenfranchisement of Indians in the British colony of Natal, yet another step to downgrade them to third-class residents. Gandhi was trying to gain support for the Natal Indian Congress and raise funds for it from the citizens of Bombay.

It was therefore not surprising that the Kaiser-i-Hind did not pay much attention to the weekly mortuary returns for Bombay which recorded both the numbers and cause of death and were published in its every issue. If it had, it would have noticed that more people were dying from fever than from other causes with each succeeding week. Cholera and smallpox also continued to claim their share of victims as did tuberculosis. But at a time when life expectancy in India was below thirty years, a few extra deaths from fever would hardly raise eyebrows.

Recognising the plague

It was only towards the end of September 1896 that alarm bells began to ring in the columns of the local newspapers of Bombay but it was still not considered front-page news. Tucked in the inner pages of the Kaiser-i-Hind (27 September) is the first mention of the plague.

“During the week alarming reports have gone forth from various quarters as to the existence of what is popularly called “bubonic fever” in the Mandevi district where “hundreds” are already said to have fallen victim to the fell disease. Three medical practitioners of that district are said to have treated some of their patients afflicted by this dire complaint; while other gentlemen living in that particular locality have testified to the prevalence of the malady. That the ignorant masses should under these circumstances be in a state of great panic and alarm is only natural.”


Statue of Dr A C Veigas at Dhobi Talao, Mumbai | Image credit: Ganesh Raghuveer

Perhaps one of these three doctors was AC Veigas, who is generally credited with the discovery of the plague. At any rate, it was Veigas, also a Municipal Councillor, who, on 23 September 1896, first drew the attention of the Bombay Municipal Corporation to a fever raging in Mandvi, a locality adjoining the port of Bombay. Even as the medical authorities and the corporation were mulling over how to respond to this medical emergency, the residents of the affected locality began abandoning their houses in droves. When the disease was soon confirmed as the bubonic plague, more Bombay residents began leaving the city. The Bombay Plague Committee was appointed in March 1897 to undertake measures to prevent its spread. It noted that:

“There is little doubt that Plague existed in Bombay, unknown, in the early part of August, but how and whence it came is still an unravelled mystery. At that time, Bombay contained 850,000 inhabitants at least, and by the end of February the population had been reduced to one-half, by the people flying from the City through fear of the pestilence; the effect of this was to entirely paralyse trade, and the resultant loss to the City and the Country generally can never be estimated.”

The printing sector was one of the many industries affected by the unavailability of workmen. A very labour-intensive process, printing depended on many skilled workers and a large number of unskilled labourers, all of whom worked on very low wages. When the exodus from Bombay began, these workers left the city to seek refuge elsewhere. As a result of this, many of the presses were forced to shut operations by January 1897.

The Kaiser-i-Hind Oil Engine Press, then located at Hornby Road, would also have had to do the same eventually. The Kaiser-i-Hind, which then had a circulation of over seven thousand in Bombay and Gujarat, was one of the main sources of news not just for the Parsi community but also for the extended Gujarati-speaking population. During the critical period of the plague epidemic, it was perhaps the only source of news for its readers. How could Framji Mehta, who believed it was his “divine duty” to ensure that his newspaper was published every week in those difficult times, manage when most of his compositors and workmen had left the city?


Anti-plague measures in Bombay in early 1897 | Image credit: Wellcome Institute

Moving to Matheran

A summer retreat had long been fashionable among the high and mighty in India. The Mughals had Kashmir, while the Viceroy and his entourage ensconced themselves in Shimla. In South India, it was the Nilgiris. During the hot season, the Governor of Bombay and other high officials moved to Mahabaleshwar, a few days journey from Bombay. It had been established in the 1820s by John Malcolm, then the Governor of Bombay, and the European enclave was named Malcolmpet. However, for the trading community and business class of Bombay, Mahabaleshwar was too far off to be either affordable or practical.

The “discovery” of Matheran, literally “forest on the hilltop’, a mere twenty-two miles from the city as the crow flies, in the 1850s, provided Bombay residents with a practical summering option. Many of the hilltops on the Sahyadri range have forts, temples, tanks and other signs of habitation. Matheran, which could be ascended easily from all directions, was not defensible and it had never been worthwhile to build a fortification or a settlement there even though it had an extensive tabletop.

After being identified as a hill station, houses began to be built there though most early visitors stayed in tents. With the commencement of regular rail services on the Bombay-Poona line in the 1860s, Matheran was but a short journey from Bombay. Catching the train from Bori Bunder (later the Victoria Terminus), passengers would alight at Neral station and climb up the narrow track to Matheran either on foot or on a pony.

By the 1880s, about a hundred residences were built in Matheran. They were used mainly in the summers and for a brief period during the Christmas season. Most of these bungalows were rented by Europeans and Parsis for the season. The Parsis were among the first Indian communities to seek refuge in Matheran during the summer. From about mid-March to mid-June when the monsoon arrived, upper-class Parsi families would head to the hill-station with their servants. In the early 1890s, hotels such as the Hope Hall Hotel and the Empress Hotel catered exclusively to Parsis where they could stay for a few days or weeks.

Framji Mehta was perhaps among the first Parsis to make Matheran his summer residence on a regular basis where he stayed at the Arnold Lodge. He took the lead to create a sense of community among the residents of the “hill station”. In April 1892, Mehta started a bi-weekly English newspaper title the Matheran Jottings for the community in Matheran. It was to be published until the middle of June when the season ended at Matheran. Mehta established a printing press on a small scale to print the newspaper.

Besides publishing local news and advertisements, the paper also carried a summary of the latest news published in the Bombay newspapers. In 1892, Mehta also published a Gujarati guide to Matheran. Priced at one rupee, the handbook provided information on how to plan a long visit to Matheran and described its major sights.


Advertisement for Guide to Matheran (1892)

Matheran Jottings was published during the 1892 and 1893 seasons, but it does not seem to have paid for itself. Mehta suspended the publication of the newspaper in 1894 but the printing press seems to have been retained at Matheran, perhaps to cater to local print jobs.

In early 1897, when the situation in Bombay deteriorated considerably during the first wave of the bubonic plague, the Kaiser-i-Hind Oil Engine Press had to close down. The only way to continue the publication of the newspaper was to have it printed outside Bombay and what better place than Matheran where Mehta already had a printing press.

Matheran soon emerged as a refuge from the plague for many Bombay businessmen. Quarantine measures were put in place where visitors had to stay in isolation for five days. The number of postal deliveries from Bombay was increased from one to four per day. Special telegram facilities were set up. Mehta could thus ensure that the Kaiser-i-Hind printed at the Matheran branch press was printed on Saturday night and despatched to Bombay by the morning train.

The Kaiser-i-Hind was printed at and published from Matheran during the first half of 1897. While Mehta and a few employees from the printing press relocated to Matheran, he also retained a skeletal staff at Bombay to book advertisements and manage subscriptions. Not only was the move an expensive proposition for Mehta, there were quite a few hiccups at the start. The accuracy of the Gujarati text composing was noticeably poor. Writing from Matheran, Mehta was particularly critical of the steps taken by the Bombay government to combat the plague.

The plague is running its terrific course, uncontrolled and unsubdued, and yet neither the Government of India nor the Government of Bombay has done its duty in attempting to stamp it out. From the little that has been done, it would seem that neither Government has in any way realised the full gravity of the calamity that has befallen Bombay and her citizens….But what shall we say of a Government which makes no attempt whatever to measure the full extent of the calamity and has recklessly permitted the most beautiful and prosperous city in India to go to ruin, and her people to desert her and flee from her while her industries and commerce to come to an absolute stand still?

— ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’ 17 January 1897

The first wave of the plague began to ebb from April 1897 and, according to the Bombay Plague Committee, “by the 15th of June, Plague had practically disappeared, this being the more satisfactory as at this time the population of the City had increased to at least 750,000.” Labour had returned to the city in search of livelihoods. Like many other businesses, the Kaiser-i-Hind was able to resume its operations in Bombay. Though the plague returned with varying intensity every year for the next two decades, it was no longer considered a reason enough to quit the city.

Afterlife of a newspaper

Framji Mehta retired from journalism in 1914 and handed over the management of the newspaper to his three daughters. The editorial responsibility of the Kaiser-i-Hind was assumed by his eldest daughter, Miss Jaiji Framji Mehta. This was perhaps the first instance of an Indian lady editing a mainstream newspaper in Bombay. The arrangement did not last long however and the family eventually sold the newspaper. However, the family retained its connection with Matheran and the three ladies revived the Matheran Jottings in 1916, according to Ratan Lalkaka.

In 1916, the Kaiser-i-Hind was acquired by Eruchshaw Rustomji Hirjibehedin who continued to follow Mehta’s reformist and nationalist line while bringing in publishing innovations. Kaiser-i-Hind was positioned as an Anglo-vernacular illustrated weekly claiming the “widest circulation … over 1,00,000 readers every week.” In the 1930s, it was publishing two special issues every year: an Anglo-Gujarati volume for Parsi Nowroze and the Kaiser-i-Hind All India Special Number, only in English.

The former catered to a Parsi audience while the latter was altogether a more formal affair appealing to an English readership with nationalist sympathies. The leading personalities of India representing all shades of the political spectrum contributed articles to its issues. For instance, the 1930 issue includes contributions from MK Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Annie Besant, among others.


Kaiser-i-Hind All India Special Number (1930)

The life expectancy among Bombay newspapers in the nineteenth century was rather low. Some of them managed to survive only a few weeks or months while most folded up within a few years. A handful of Gujarati newspapers proved to be the exception. The very first Indian-language newspaper, Bombay Samachar, continues to be published daily and will celebrate its bicentenary in July 2022. The Jame Jamshed, founded in 1832, is also still in existence but in the garb of a weekly community journal.

Though hopelessly outdated in its name and bilingual format, the Kaiser-i-Hind also celebrated its centenary in 1982. As the Parsi community moved away from the Gujarati language, a bilingual newspaper had few takers. Its new owner, Jehangir Patel, who had acquired it from the Hirjibehedin family, initially recast it as an English monthly before finally shuttering it in the mid-1980s.

As the printing press was first modernised and then relocated, Patel tried to find a new home for the archival volumes of the Kaiser-i-Hind. However, there was no institution in Bombay which was willing to provide the space and the resources for this extensive collection. At the suggestion of John Hinnells, a professor of comparative religion who was then researching Zoroastrianism in Bombay, Patel sent the archive to the University of Manchester. After a brief stay there, the collection was passed on to the Library of Congress who finally found a permanent home for it in the University of Chicago.

Since then, Bombay has managed to lose more of its nineteenth century archival sources, partly due to lack of funding but largely because of apathy. Patel’s decision to send his acquisition abroad has proved to be providential and the continued availability of the Kaiser-i-Hind will enable a better understanding of the city’s past.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.