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Urdu newspapers afflicted with headless chicken syndrome

By Quamar Ashraf

To begin with, I must offer a disclaimer here that I am not pure Urduwallah in conventional sense but certainly I do take immense degree of pride in identifying myself with the language as my mother tongue, albeit not as well-versed as a native speaker ought to be. I have been closely scanning Urdu newspapers for over a decade now. Of course, not for the sake of reading newspapers but for collecting and collating issues concerning the Muslim community as part of my monitoring services. But the exercise rarely meets the objective since the Urdu newspapers are afflicted with the headless chicken syndrome.

Poor financial condition

Various reasons are attributed to the decadence. It goes without doubt, however, that Urdu newspapers cannot excel without financial backing, so they can simply not match the standard of other language papers, leave English dailies. Since the Urdu readers have not yet become a ‘middle class’ in economic term, it is unwise to expect any business output from this section. Yet within the given resources, they can still play pivotal role in setting narrative on a slew of issues by giving space to informed debate, reasoned views and opinions, particularly on issues related to religion and society. The consistent approach to this direction will propel the youth to shun sectarian divide, discourage the community leaders from instilling sense of hopelessness; tame the ulema from raising bogey of victimhood and instil a constructive environment instead of responding to issues with “reactive mindset”.

Lack of orientation

Urdu newspapers understandably cater to the Muslim community, but they have disappointed their readers due to lack of orientation. In the last two decades, a couple of instances can be cited to justify the objective of bringing newspapers, but largely they serve the purpose of a set of mullahs and community organisations whose main motto is: “neki kar, paper mein daal” (Whatever you do, but certainly get it published). In the name of orientation, the Urdu journalists are, thankfully, left with oft-repeated poetic lines to catch attention of their readers irrespective of the substances to justify the headlines.

Undoubtedly, the Rashtriya Sahara Urdu over a decade ago under its editor Aziz Burney succeeded in creating a flutter on several issues, earning widespread applauds and criticism – hate him or love him, but you cannot ignore him. The paper indeed gave perspective to news, which it found fit, and carried some of the most noticeable editorials and Op-Eds besides running series on Muslim-related issues. However, the paper’s hey days are over now. Inquilab daily is scrambling to beat it now – to a certain extent it has replaced it – but runs short of spine. Some articles/edits raise eyebrows apart from daily column of Shakil Hassan Shamsi on current issues, but the paper is the lone runner in the race. Some newspapers in south India, however, can be counted and given credence to their coverage. More often than not they raise contentious issues concerning the community and the country as well. They definitely match the standard given the section they seek to caters to. Some papers published from Mumbai relatively also give good display to stories concerning the Muslim community.

Dull desk, pliable reporting

The desk work found to be completely missing – right from news writing to selection and placements. At times, they give prominence to news items which are seemingly aimed at making their statement correct for the mainstream – which rarely read Urdu papers.  Most of the papers published from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar largely lack an air of professionalism. For them, the news prominence is determined by Madanis (Jamiat Ulema Hind leaders Arshad Madani or Mahmood Madani).  They stoop to such a low that they at times carry even court judgements with headlines and photographs attributed to either of the two. Not only small newspapers, big newspapers too become pliable to the Madanis, Qasmis and other set of ”institutionalised titles” – identical to religious ceremonies or linked to ancestral epithets. Precisely, it is manifestation of poor professionalism. “They are pop-stars for us. I cannot say they pay money for this, but certainly they do enjoy good rapport with journos and owners of newspapers who are too small to open their lips before them, let alone being critical of them on any issue. They are immune to criticism,” confided to me an Urdu journalist, requesting anonymity. It is not Madanis alone, no maulana of repute or formidable Muslim body ever runs the risk of facing criticism. It is simple, whenever any jamaat or maulana sends a press release, it finds place as at it is – without any cut or modification. “Mostly madrasa people come into Urdu journalism, so Qasmis, Salafis etc are likely to dominate,”  sums up another journalist with a Noida-based Urdu newspaper.

Furthermore, the Urdu newspapers chiefly rely on UNI, a press agency, to fill their pages, so they have not much in their hand. So any article with lofty headline gets published in several newspapers for nearly a week.

Perpetual victimhood mindset

Most of the editorials, news articles and opinions passionately attempt to push victimhood narrative triggering a sense of inferiority and lowliness among the readers. The phrases coined in the backdrop of Muslims’ decadence over a couple of centuries ago continue to dominate the mindset of the community leaders and thinkers which find reflection in their writing. Interaction with Urdu language journalists is likely to weaken your confidence and spine. Obviously, you cannot expect poorly fed kids to stand firm on their feet. The little privilege offered by government or the organisations largely go to the editors. Reporters rarely get chance to go to tours abroad; opportunity to shake shoulders with top notch; dine with lawmakers or ministers; visit embassies and high commissions. They are poorly paid – blessing in disguise. After all, turning the faucet on at full force cannot ensure you a full bucket of water when the tank runs dry.

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The writer, a media analyst, can be reached at quamar.ashraf@gmail.com

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