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Syed Nahas Pasha, celebrating 50 years of Janomot in the House of Commons in 2019, cutting a cake with High Commissioner of Bangladesh Saida Muna Tasneem and Rushanara Ali MP
British BangladeshiCultureLocal

Janomot: The story of the UK’s oldest surviving Bengali newspaper

Despite the decline of the print media, the UK’s first and oldest Bengali newspaper fights on as an unshakable voice for the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets and beyond. 

Founded in 1969, Janomot was the UK’s first ethnic minority newspaper. Fifty-five years later, from a small office off Brick Lane, it’s still printing its weekly edition in Bengali, covering news in the UK and Bangladesh.

Since the paper’s early days, the world and the media landscape have transformed. But Janomot’s mission has remained the same: to be a voice for the British Bangladeshi community and keep the connection with its heritage alive.

From Bangladesh to Britain: Janomot’s early days

Janomot was founded at a decisive time in Bangladesh’s history, when the country was on the brink of independence.

In the 1960s, Bangladesh was officially East Pakistan, located nearly 2000 kilometres from the politically dominant West Pakistan. The government in West Pakistan had declared that Urdu would be the nation’s official language, and sought to suppress the Bengali-speaking majority in the East.

This political and cultural oppression was met with a groundswell of resistance in East Pakistan, and instigated the rise of nationalist leader Sheik Mujibur Rahman. Rahman’s movement for self-determination culminated in the Liberation War of 1971, in which thousands of citizens died. After the war was brought to an end in December 1971, Bangladesh became recognised as an independent state.

From its London office – almost 5,000 miles from Bangladesh – Janomot documented these political developments extensively. Working with reporters in Bangladesh, the paper was a key source of news and information about the events leading up to and after independence, helping to keep the growing immigrant community in the UK informed and connected to what was happening.

Syed Nahas Pasha has edited the paper for thirty-five years. He refers to the 70s and 80s as the ‘Golden Years’ of the paper, when it had around 8,000 subscribers. He emphasises that covering developments in Bangladesh wasn’t the only way the paper served the community at this time, and that it was also crucial in helping the Bangladeshi community to establish itself in Britain.

He explains that because many first-generation immigrants couldn’t speak English, Janomot and other Bengali language newspapers became an important communication channel for the government and local authorities. During the paper’s early years, much of its revenue came from adverts from government agencies about welfare claims, health checks or immigration rule changes.

Like many others in the UK with Bangladeshi heritage, Pasha’s parents moved to the UK in the 1960s. He arrived in the UK as a journalist a decade later, when anti-racist organising in Tower Hamlets against the National Front was at its height.

‘Every Sunday, skinheads from the National Front would come down here. I remember the marches. There was a whole part of Brick Lane and Spitalfields that was a no-go area. People who are my age now, we fought against the National Front.’

He says that Janomot and the Bengali press played ‘a strong role in fighting that racism, in getting our rights.’ The newspaper helped the cause to rename St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel in memory of Altab Ali after his racist murder in 1978 and elect the area’s first Bangladeshi councillors.

Changing times: How Janomot serves the community now

Like all national newspapers, Janomot has seen a sharp decline in its readership over the last two decades. Pasha says its print circulation has halved since its peak in the 70s and 80s. ‘It used to be that we would compete with one or two other Bengali newspapers in the area. Now we are competing with the whole world.’

The paper now has an online presence, but it’s been a difficult transition. ‘If you want to have a large readership you need huge revenue to modernise everything. It’s tough running a newspaper now.’ Without that investment, he’s not sure how much longer the newspaper can continue.

Another challenge has been the decline of the Bengali language, particularly among younger generations. ‘People think there is no future for the Bengali newspaper because people of Bangladeshi origin have been here for generations now. And obviously, a lot of them don’t speak Bengali.’ He says even his own children cannot read or write in Bengali, and he believes his one-year-old grandson won’t learn it at all.

Yet, Pasha remains adamant that the paper should continue to be printed in Bengali, to keep the language alive and help the community stay connected to its heritage. Years ago, the paper supported a campaign in Tower Hamlets for children to learn the Bengali language at school. ‘People wanted to keep connected to their routes. Now the children are learning the mother tongue, not up to degree level but it helps them to understand and keep them attached to their origin.’

When it comes to politics and activism too, the paper continues to see itself as the voice of the community, speaking truth to power. Pasha says the Bangla press remains influential in local and national politics, seeking to advance the representation of the British Bangladeshi community at all levels.

In the last 15 years, Tower Hamlets has seen the election of the UK parliament’s first British Bangladeshi MP, and the first Bangladeshi-born leader of the council. Pasha says Janomot and other local Bengali newspapers played no small part in achieving these milestones.

It’s clear that, for as long as it can continue printing, Janomot will not give up its fight to bring together the British Bangladeshi community and make their voice heard.

Read more about the history of Janomot and its archives here.

Janomot 21 February 1969 (Inaugural issue), reports on the Mass Upsurge in Bangladesh against Pakistani rule in February 1969
Janomot 8 August 1971, showing a public rally organised by Bengalis in Britain at Trafalgar Square on 1 August 1971, drawing attention to the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh
Janomot 14 March 1971, depicting bloodshed in Bangladesh during the liberation struggle

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