By Kaleem Kawaja
24 August 2014
I have been watching with keen interest for about 20 years now the various attempts of India's Muslim community to publish English language newspapers. With repeated dismal performance of well-meaning ventures by capable and well educated Muslim individuals, it is a sad story and it is very difficult for me to understand why it is so. From Radiance, Nation & the World and Milli Gazette of New Delhi to Islamic Voice of Bangalore, to Eastern Crescent of Mumbai it is a long story.
The common core problem in all of them is the indifference of educated Muslims to support such ventures which is compounded by poor journalism in these newspapers themselves.
Typically Muslim community newspapers make very little effort to be in the mainstream of the Muslim community, to go beyond a culture of continual complaints of the depressed state of the Muslim community, injustice to Muslims, intense political rumours and machinations, desire to cater to Muslim clerics, and only minuscule focus on the success stories or brave mainstream efforts of fellow Muslim individuals and institutions. That renders the readability of Muslim community newspapers to be very poor. And that makes the educated Muslims who are expected to support these newspapers to become still more indifferent to these Muslim newspapers. Indeed it has become a Catch 22 situation.
For some strange reason the English language Muslim newspapers gradually start copying the sensationalist and somewhat sectarian trends that one finds in some Urdu newspapers. They hardly ever try to follow any journalistic cultural elements from India's mainstream newspapers. There are a few balanced Urdu language newspapers in India, but by and large the readability of most is very poor even for educated Muslims, let alone for non-Muslims. Continual extensive coverage of human rights violations and poor economic conditions of individual Muslims continues month after month. Urdu newspapers survive because their readers are largely Muslims with low levels of education and very narrow interest in the world at large. But Muslim English newspapers do not survive because their readers are well educated Muslims and some non-Muslims whose intelligence level is higher and whose interests are wide. They have a deep desire to see the Muslim English newspapers to be more balanced like the mainstream Indian newspapers albeit with adequate focus on the Muslim community but not coverage of mostly negative news.
Successful Muslim athletes, scholars, professionals, university professors, officers, organizations helping growth of education and competition are there and are working at improving the community. But their coverage in the English Muslim newspapers, which may be monthlies or fortnightlies, is very scanty, just as it is scanty in Urdu newspapers. Coverage of India's economic policies, defense policies, foreign policies, international news etc is very scanty indeed except for a few sensationalist stories or religious happenings in Muslim countries.
Even though I am a sympathetic reader of Indian Muslim English newspapers I am often flabbergasted at the continual poor quality of journalism in these papers. The quality of journalists contributing to the printed English newspapers is poor indeed. Mostly these newspapers print columns written by Muslim social activists who are not journalists and thus are largely either protest oriented or talk about the narrow subjects or complaints against western countries. I often wonder if the objective of the publishers and editors of the Muslim newspapers is to become political leaders of the community or to promote Muslim community journalism. In fact several publishers/editors of English and Urdu Muslim community newspapers have become political leaders. But in the process Muslim community journalism has suffered much and their English newspapers have failed.
I recall clearly that in the period when bright Muslim athletes like Sania Mirza and Azharuddin were doing very well and were getting extensive coverage in India’s mainstream English newspapers, they received only scant and occasional coverage in the Muslim community’s English newspapers. And that coverage was mostly personal stories about them when some obscure Hindutva newspaper or organization threw mud at them. Coverage about the tournaments and games they participated in were absent. I could never find any news about the major tournaments that Sania Mirza was participating in any Muslim community newspapers.
Similarly one hardly ever finds any coverage about today’s successful Indian Muslim professors, scientists, officers or even political leaders. In fact successful Muslim political leaders are often painted negatively ignoring their mainline activities. An example is the coverage of Salman Khurshid, recently India’s foreign minister. Surely that was the time to give coverage to his foreign policy formulations and activities. But the Muslim media’s coverage of Khurshid was limited to his assistance or lack thereof in the area of getting visas to Muslims for the Haj pilgrimage. Coverage is generally for the political leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who indulge in fire & brimstone. This trend in the Muslim English newspapers is very similar to the trend in most Urdu newspapers.
Recently Radiance monthly magazine of New Delhi celebrated 50 years of publication. Unfortunately this magazine has served the interests of a very narrow circle of ultra- orthodox Jamat Islami folks. For anyone who is not a very orthodox Muslim it is very hard to read this magazine. I wonder how many mainstream educated Muslim and youth can find any interest in this magazine and what influence it ever made outside the very small circle of its constituency even among Muslims. They were simply unable to reach any non-Muslims even to communicate the core concerns and interests of Indian Muslims. Radiance may have served the interests of the ultra-orthodox older Muslims but it failed in doing what is expected from a newspaper of the Muslim community or to present community’s issues in the mainstream of the nation.
In reading Pakistani newspapers like Dawn, I often find them quite balanced even though their community is mostly Muslim and Pakistan is in the throes of significant religion based tension. One only has to read Dawn to see that its coverage is balanced and not driven by negative or sensational news. It will not be fair to say that Indian Muslim newspapers do not succeed like Dawn just because they lack the financial resources of Dawn. Dawn’s readability is definitely much better.
Since the readability of the Muslim community English newspapers is so dismal, hardly any non-Muslim Indians read them. Thus these newspapers are failing in communicating the issues of the Muslims to non-Muslims who are 85% of India’s population, one of their core objectives. Hardly any mainstream English newspapers pick up reports from the English or Urdu newspapers of the Muslim community. In fact there are several instances of mainstream newspapers picking up reports from the online news services of the Muslim community. That should tell the Muslim English newspapers what they need to do to become more readable.
In contrast to printed English newspapers of the community that are failing and whose readability is dismal, a few online web based news services like Two Circles News, Ummid.com, Caravan Daily, India Tomorrow are doing rather well. Their coverage is wider, serves the youth and the older people, does cover many national and international non-Muslim policies while they also cover violations of human rights of Indian Muslims and news from Muslim countries and appear integrated with many secular Hindus. The English language print newspapers can improve their readability much by learning a few things from the online Muslim news services.
At the same time despite the good online Muslim news services, the community definitely needs a good print Muslim newspaper that can become a vital medium for Muslims to communicate with the non-Muslims, NGOs, government and international organizations. Since Urdu media's reach is so narrow even among Muslims it is essential that even to communicate with each other nationwide, Muslims have an English newspaper. Furthermore it is incumbent on the educated Muslims to support the community’s English newspapers financially by advertising in them and by becoming their paid subscribers. They should realize that no non-Muslim media’s heart can bleed for them as their own media can.
Kaleem Khwaja is the Executive Director of Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM).