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24 September 2012

Is Indian Muslim media serving its purpose?

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By Kaleem Kawaja

After 1947 whatever remained of the Muslim community media (newspapers, magazines) in India was mostly in Urdu language. Gradually this Urdu media which only few Indians could read, also limited the reporting of events from the entire country to the affairs of the Muslim community. Even in reporting about the Muslim community the focus shrank to the sufferings, poverty, backwardness and injustice to Muslims from the government and the majority community.

While it is true that in the decades following independence the Muslim community as a whole suffered much deprivations, injustices and anti-Muslim violence, yet a small number of them, say about 4%, managed to acquire good education, good jobs, good business opportunities. This is well below their population proportion of about 15%, yet it is there. Also in the field of sports a few Muslims did well at the national level. However, the Muslim community media which was mostly Urdu based, gave very little coverage to any success stories from the Muslim community.

Despite many Muslims being conversant in English language, and at least 4% of them being financially and intellectually well off, in 65 years the 170 million strong Indian Muslim community, did not establish a single credible English language newspaper or electronic news service, whereas a lot of people from other Indian communities established newspapers that have thrived as India's economy has grown significantly. Thus the entire Muslim community has had no media-means to convey their concerns and issues to the vast number of Indians, Muslims and non-Muslims, who did not read Urdu.

Since Muslims at large felt that the mainstream Indian media was not giving adequate coverage to the issues of their community, a handful of Muslims started a few biweekly newspapers and online news services in the English language in the last about five to ten years. The intent was to reach the Indian mainstream and non-Muslim population across the country, through English that is spoken throughout the country, to report on mainstream events and issues while giving adequate coverage to the events and issues of the Muslims. That was good news.

However, as things have developed over the last about five years, these English language Muslim news services and newspapers have followed the pattern set by their Urdu media friends in earlier decades. The readability of these news services is again getting confined to the Muslim community, as their coverage is getting confined to the Muslim community and most reports are about the deprivations of the community as victims. Only rarely one finds introspection of the community's internal problems, corruption, lack of effort to progress, lack of self-help programs.

For instance, if you look at the performance of the Muslim English media in the last one year, you find that they rarely reported on major movements or events in the country that were not Muslim-specific. Some examples are: Massive upsurge of corruption including among India's cabinet ministers, senior government officials etal; Anna Hazare's massive nationwide anti-corruption movement; substantial inflation and increase in prices of consumer goods at all levels; significant slowdown of India's economy; massive power shutdown in July 2012 that affected about half of the country; widespread political turmoil in the Indian parliament on the performance of PM Manmohan Singh and the literal shutdown of the parliament for about half of its monsoon session; the high performance of Sania Mirza - India's star international tennis player; the high performance of Azim Premji's WIPRO - an international information technology company; the high performance of many large Indian corporations that grew substantially; the growth of high quality educational institutions.

Amazingly, the English language Muslim media, just like the Urdu media, provided hardly any coverage to these very major mainstream occurrences. This was a contrast to the mainstream Indian media that gave much coverage to these national issues. The reason: these issues though major at national level were not Muslim-specific. It is very strange that the Muslim media should think that issues of corruption, turndown of economy, parliament in turmoil or successes of Indian stars do not affect India's Muslim community. Instead the major focus of the Muslim English media is unlimited stories of injustices and violence to Muslims, government neglect of Muslims, conspiracy theories with BJP-RSS at their center, write-ups on the Muslim clerics and the absence of write-ups on Muslim intelligentsia. Although all those are true yet should they be given saturation coverage while mainstream subjects are shut out?

What is surprising is the very brief coverage of the success stories and stars from the Muslim community and the lack of interest in promoting them as role models for the youth. Instead focus seems to be on orthodox religious Muslim organizations and individuals who appear to be detached from modern India and appear to have a 19th century outlook and lifestyle. Do majority of Indian Muslims fit this profile and does it motivate them?

Now think of the non-Muslim readers and youth who browse the Muslim English media looking for the pulse of the Indian Muslims. Think how readable the Muslim English media is. Think how little it does to make mainstream non-Muslim Indians get interested in the Muslim community. Think of how little it helps to generate public opinion among non-Muslims for the pressing needs of Muslims. Think of what it does to the aspirations of the Muslim youth for an equal place in the Indian sun.

India's Muslim English media has a special responsibility. They have to communicate with the modern educated non-Muslim Indians telling them that Muslims are like them, progress oriented and wanting to move into 21st century India. Observing their religion faithfully yet not wearing it on their sleeve and not letting instances of injustice to the community demoralize them into thinking of themselves as victims; looking for fair opportunities in various arenas but not handouts.

Another important need is that the Muslim intelligentsia that does not support the Muslim English media must do that providing intellectual and financial support to them so that they can break a path forward for the Muslim community that has been stereotyped for too long. How long can the Indian Muslim community live without a relevant media of its own that serves the most basic needs of the community?

[Kaleem Kawaja is a community activist based at Washington DC. He can be contacted at: kaleemkawaja@gmail.com]

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