Urdu journalism is dying, one newspaper at a time

Urdu journalism is dying, one newspaper at a time

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It’s been 200 years since Urdu journalism started, but there is hardly any discussion around how from its heyday in the 19th century, it has come down to facing an existential crisis. With the political discourse veering towards giving greater importance to Hindi as the national language and relegating Urdu to the status of the language of a religious minority—the Muslims—much needs to...

It’s been 200 years since Urdu journalism started, but there is hardly any discussion around how from its heyday in the 19th century, it has come down to facing an existential crisis. With the political discourse veering towards giving greater importance to Hindi as the national language and relegating Urdu to the status of the language of a religious minority—the Muslims—much needs to be done to resurrect Urdu journalism from its present crisis-ridden state.

Urdu was never the language of Muslims alone, as is now commonly believed. It was Hindus who mainly were the pioneers of Urdu journalism. In the early 19th century, Persian was the official language of North, Central India and even Deccan India. Urdu was widely spoken as Hindavi or Hindustani language by ordinary people, both Hindus and Muslims alike, in large parts of the country.

The first Urdu newspaper Jaam-e-Jahan Numa (Persian for lighthouse) was published by a Bengali Hindu named Harihar Dutta while its editor was a Punjabi Hindu, Lala Sada Sukh Lal. Urdu journalism was a precursor to Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Hindi journalism.

Jaam-e-Jahan Numa faced trouble as it was published in Urdu, which was only a language of conversation of common people in Bengal. The elite, the target audience of print journalism at the time, mostly read English and Bengali. It did not receive patronage or readership from the well-to-do sections. Also, the Bengal government’s lack of economic support made things difficult.

Born in the crucible of anti-British struggle

In her article, ‘Urdu patrakarita ke 200 saal…yatra ke kuch hamsafar ye bhi’, senior journalist and scholar Farhat Rizvi writes that the British ignited the Hindu-Muslim divisive politics. Persian had been the official language at the time of the Mughals. It was replaced by Urdu which, however, later came to be identified with early nationalist stirrings. Hence, the British wanted to marginalise it. The policy of divide and rule was used to identify Hindi and Urdu with two different religions. Yet, Urdu writers and journalists did not heed this and continued to appeal to the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb while making a scathing criticism of the British rule. Awadh region (part of present-day Uttar Pradesh), Hyderabad, Bengal and Punjab emerged as strong centres of Urdu journalism and hundreds of periodicals appeared.

A scholar in the field of Urdu journalism, Gurbachan Das Chandan has written an entire book on Jaam-e-Jahan Numa: Urdu Patrakarita ki Shuruat, in 1992, where he has included historical evidence of the fact that the chief secretary of the British government, William World, had prepared a secret report on the content of Jaam-e-Jahan Numa newspaper, which said that a clerk of the British government was bringing out a newspaper which was anti-government and should be censored. As a result, the First Press Act, 1823, came into existence to throttle an Urdu journal.

Urdu press and a pan-India character

The Urdu press did not remain confined to the traditional centres of Urdu like Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra or Meerut. Besides Bengal, it also spread out to Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Amritsar, Hyderabad and Madras. Urban centres later became publication centres for Urdu newspapers. After Jaam-e-Jahan Numa stopped publication, it took almost 14 years for the revival of Urdu journalism. The Delhi Urdu Akhbar began publication in 1836.

Delhi College, established by the East India Company in 1825, was one of the pioneering centres in Urdu journalism as its alumni and teachers were either serving as editors of Urdu newspapers and journals or bringing out their own Urdu periodicals. There were 24 Urdu newspapers in Delhi. Of that, 11 were brought out by the teachers of Delhi College alone. The same situation existed in Agra College. On the other hand, the Nawab of Oudh did not allow independent journalism and all printed materials were censored. Except for Lucknow Akhbar, it was only after the British annexation of Oudh that Urdu newspapers could be published.

Urdu newspapers and magazines also played a role in enlightening women about current affairs and the freedom movement. One such newspaper was Akhbar-un-Nisa published by Maulvi Sayed Ahmed in 1884. Much later, an Urdu-Hindustani fortnightly Rahber was also brought out by Kulsum Sayani, mother of Ameen Sayani (of Binaca Geetmala fame). Kulsum had furthered the cause of Muslim women’s education in the early 20th century by visiting schools and conducting reading sessions of Rahber. In a letter to her, Gandhiji once wrote, “I like the mission of ‘Rahber’ to unite Hindi and Urdu. May it succeed.” Many such Urdu magazines catering to women were brought out by educated and progressive women.

Urdu journalism and the First War of Indian Independence

Very few are aware of the patriotic fervour of Urdu journalism, which continued up to 1947 and after. Many Urdu newspapers galvanized the Indian people against the British rule. One such example was The Dilli Urdu Akhbar, edited by Maulana Mohammad Baqar. It played a seminal role in rousing the Indian people during the 1857 mutiny. But after the British captured Delhi, Baqr was arrested, charged with sedition and shot dead on December 14, 1857. Maulana Mohammad Baqr thus became the first journalist martyr for the cause of Indian independence.

“Almost all Urdu newspapers were anti-imperialist except maybe one or two. Some were reformist and some espoused the left ideology,” Farhat Rizvi tells The Federal.

Some like Sadarul Akhbar started with the coverage of political events but later became reformist as its founder was an Englishman, while Jam-e-Jamshed of Meerut, giving wide coverage to the British-Sikh struggle, could increase its circulation to 250. Umdatul Akhbar of Bareilly had a prominent role in the 1857 war of independence and faced censorship many times, but Koh-i-noor from Punjab managed to achieve the highest circulation of 359 because of government patronage.

Many editors of Urdu newspapers faced sedition charges and were jailed for inciting people during the 1857 war of independence. In the pre-mutiny period, around 125 Urdu newspapers were flourishing but 1857 proved to be the turning point since most Urdu newspapers had espoused the cause of freedom and suffered at the hands of the British. Many others stopped publication during this period. Only two papers, the Koh-i-Noor from Lahore and Noor-ul-Absar from Agra continued with government support.

In 1857, the Gagging Act was enforced. This was used to confiscate newspapers, arrest editors and publishers as well as attach presses. This continued till 1870. Also, Urdu journalism itself got polarised with the rise of the two-nation theory. The Partition trauma came as a big blow.

Fading charm

Speaking to The Federal, Masoom Moradabadi of the All India Urdu Editors’ Conference and the Editor of Jadid Khabar says, “Right from the early 19th century and until the Partition and even in a post-independent India, the Urdu press played a pioneering role in nation-building. Qaumi Awaz, the sister journal of the National Herald, played a significant role in furthering the cause of Urdu journalism because Jawaharlal Nehru was himself a proponent of the Urdu zubaan (language). It was a great school for budding Urdu journalists. Some others worth mentioning were The Inquilab from Bombay, The Siyasat from Hyderabad, The Azad Hind started by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, etc.”

“Even though Urdu is the official language in seven states across India and is spoken by nearly 50 million Indians, not more than 50 Urdu newspapers worth the name are being published. Moreover, none of their circulation exceeds 50,000,” he adds.

According to Moradabadi, the biggest blow came in the form of government’s 2016 Print Media Advertisement Policy. So many conditions were imposed that many Urdu newspapers failed to comply with and perished. Curbs on Urdu education also influenced Urdu readership.

“Although several Urdu-medium schools existed in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Hyderabad and West Bengal, UP remains barren in this regard. Without basic Urdu taleem (education), Urdu readership dwindled and circulation of newspapers suffered. Today, only students of madarsas can read Urdu. Another reason for decline is low remuneration for Urdu journalists, which would at best be one-fourth of that of the others. A columnist would get Rs 500 for a column. So, Urdu journalists shifted to Hindi newspapers,” Moradabadi said.

Syed Husain Afsar, who works for The Daily Aag, an Urdu newspaper of Lucknow, told The Federal, “The condition in Uttar Pradesh is pitiable because the present government has a communal outlook towards Urdu language. Only a few prominent Urdu newspapers are being published. They are Inquilab (Jagran Group) with the highest circulation, Daily Aaag, which has editions in Lucknow, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur and Faizabad, Roznama Sahara, Qaumi Khabrein, Shahafat and Halafnama. But Sahara, which had a record of training hundreds of young people in Urdu journalism, is in the doldrums. The popular Naya Daur paper has been shut down.

“Urdu print media also had to struggle because of long years of old-fashioned printing techniques, less advertisements due to low circulation, governmental discrimination targeting it as a language of Muslims, and corruption in the existing institutions promoting Urdu. The Urdu Academy and the Faqruddin Ali Committee are doing precious little for the Urdu zubaan. Something has to be done to revamp and revive these publications, as there is no accountability. But who will do it? Neither the current government, nor the erstwhile Samajwadi Party-led government have done anything in this regard,” he added.

Although there are 6,000 Urdu language newspapers and editions in India today, according to the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI) records, hardly 50 of them have any sizeable readership. The content of many of these is not up to the high standards of the old Urdu papers because most talented writers choose to work in newspapers with broader circulation and economic stability.

Even though the web portal Rekhta has contributed immensely to the promotion of Urdu language in South Asia besides a few Urdu TV channels, the challenge in front of Urdu newspapers is huge. With too much dependence on government support and the lack of interest among the Urdu-speaking intelligentsia, the future looks bleak for the Urdu press.


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