By Syed Nooruzzaman
The hall was almost full, though it was of an average size. The hall at the Press Club of India was the venue for a “special programme” on Urdu journalism the other day. The audience was patiently waiting for celebrated Urdu-wallas to express their views on the “Role of Urdu media in the making of India”. The high-sounding programme was organised to mark the 200th anniversary of Urdu journalism in India.
Lo and behold! It was a shocking experience to find that the speakers called to enlighten the waiting Urdu enthusiasts hardly met their expectations. One of the speakers who snatched more time than any other guest on the dais happened to be a person having donned many political hats. He once owned and edited a weekly newsmagazine which never gave him the status of a journalist of consequence. He used the occasion to sing paeans to highlight his own role as also the contribution of his family for promoting Urdu journalism though many journalists present there were heard saying that the gentleman, who mostly talked in first person singular number, brought out his so-called popular magazine with very few full-time employees. Can any newspaper organisation promote the growth of journalism with the help of mostly part-time employees? The man was Shahid Siddiqui, once seen more on TV channels as a Muslim politician than as a journalist.
One person who tried to show the mirror to the Urdu media was not a journalist. He manages the show in a big newspaper organisation as a non-journalist but appeared to be well aware of the dire straits in which the Urdu media finds itself today. He was Upendra Rai of the Sahara group, which brings out Rashtriya Sahara, a successful Urdu daily. His realistic advice to Urdu journalists was to make use of technology to remain relevant at a time when most newspapers and periodicals in print were losing revenue and readership owing to the onslaught of the electronic media – mainly TV channels and news portals or web sites.
Some of the speakers, including the person conducting the programme, Asif Umar, proudly pointed out that Urdu journalists were on the forefront of the freedom struggle and the first journalist who paid with his life for the cause of the country’s Independence was Maulvi Mohammad Baqar on September 16, 1857. Baqar, of course, was a fearless journalist, who had shifted to this noble profession from teaching at the then Delhi College.
What, however, did not find mention on the occasion was that journalism during the pre-Independence days was considered a mission – the mission to get the country free from the clutches of the British colonialists. Today it is a profession with most journalists primarily interested in their salary. However, there are some who enter this profession with a passion for telling the truth as they see it or for presenting a viewpoint in accordance with their own understanding of things.
Another point which must not be allowed to go unmentioned is that during the heyday of Urdu journalism, there were mostly owner-editors. They would contribute to the struggle for Independence going to any extent and would take pride in it. Today it is the management that calls the shots. Most editors are not owners and almost every newspaper proprietor is more interested in the earnings of his venture than any other thing. Urdu newspaper establishments are no exception. A media company is successful not necessarily because its products are known for their special stories or investigative stories. So many factors are there behind a successful media outlet, including the marketing strategy. But no strategy can make a news venture financially viable if it fails to find a substantial number of readers or viewers.
The most debilitating problem with Urdu news outlets is the declining population of people who can read and understand the language having an enviable past. That is, perhaps, one reason why most of the speakers at the Press Club event talked mainly of the days of yore. Fine. The past gives the much-needed psychological strength and lessons to learn to survive in turbulent times. But one must not forget that the past cannot be of much help in the present, full of different kinds of complexities. There is a limit to living on old laurels. Surprisingly, only Upendra Rai dwelt on the present which is what should be done to ensure that Urdu journalism begins to thrive again as it did in the past.
Inquilab, Rashtriya Sahara and other popular Urdu newspapers cannot compare themselves with Jang or Nawa-e-Waqt of Pakistan, yet Indian news ventures in Urdu can do better if these can devote their time and energy on the promotion of Urdu language too. Of course, they should concentrate on generating stories that can upset the applecart of ruling establishments, but nothing is possible if Urdu readership and viewership continue to decline.
Many years back, celebrated journalist Kuldip Nayar, who began his professional odyssey as a Urdu scribe, told this writer that he was endeavouring for the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations because this would not only spur economic growth in South Asia but also help in Urdu journalism and language acquiring the deserving status. He expressed these views on one August 14-15 night soon after getting free from the annual candle-light ceremony that he and many others
associated with his peace drive organised at the Wagha border. Who would know better than Nayar how to infuse a new life into Urdu journalism?
The state of Urdu journalism is no better than the condition of Urdu language in the country. Urdu newspapers rarely pay their staff members as much as is true in the case of most English and Hindi media outlets. English-language journalists are definitely better placed than Hindi and Urdu media persons, but the situation in the case of Urdu appears to be the worst. How can one expect special or investigative stories from poorly paid journalists? To cap it all, they are contractual employees and get little support from their employers in times of crisis.
The situation that prevails makes one believe that Urdu journalism in India cannot get rid of its infirmities so long as the future of the Urdu language remains threatened. It has no state patronage and gets little support from the private sector. It is losing readers day by day. The painful story has been depicted beautifully by a little known poet, Iqbal Ashhar, thus:
Urdu hai merā naam maiñ Khusrav kī pahelī/ Maiñ ‘Mīr’ kī hamrāz huuñ, Ghālib kī sahelī/ Dakkan ke Valī ne mujhe godī meñ khelāyā/ Saudā ke qasīdoñ ne merā husn badhāyā/ Hai Mīr kī azmat ki mujhe chalnā sikhāyā/ Maiñ Daaġh ke āñgan meñ khilī ban ke chamelī/ Urdu hai merā naam maiñ Khusrav kī pahelī/
Ghālib ne bulandī kā safar mujh ko sikhāyā/ Hālī ne muravvat kā sabaq yaad dilāyā/ Iqbāl ne āaīna-e-haq mujh ko dikhāyā / Momin ne sajāyee meray ḳhvāboñ kī havelī/ Urdu hai merā naam maiñ Khusrav kī pahelī/
Hai Zauq kī azmat ki diye mujh ko sahāre/ Chakbast kī ulfat ne meray ḳhvāb sañvāre/ Fānī ne sajāyee merī palkoñ pe sitāray/ Akbar ne rachāyee merī be-rañg hathelī/ Urdu hai mirā naam maiñ Khusrav kī pahelī/
Kyuñ mujh ko banāte ho ta’assub kā nishāna/ Maiñ ne to kabhī ḳhud ko Musalmāñ nahīñ maanā/ Dekhā thā kabhī maiñ ne bhī ḳhushiyoñ kā zamāna/ Apne hī vatan meñ huuñ magar aaj akelī/ Urdu hai merā naam main Khusrav kī pahelī.
[The writer, a Delhi-based political commentator, is a former Deputy Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh.]