The Urdu press must do more for liberal values

Does Urdu journalism go along with a world where the media takes pride in justifying the government instead of questioning its anti-people policies? Does it still stick to the anti-establishment posture that produced the trenchant observation: “Urdu journalism without fireworks is like a Wimbledon without strawberries and ice-creams.” When nationalism has become the subject of an everyday referendum, do Urdu newspapers seek to uphold the dignity of the term by making a candid distinction between patriotism and nationalism? Despite its frequent forays into regressive and sentimental topics, does it produce a public sphere for rational debate? These questions assume greater significance as Urdu journalism celebrates its bicentenary. The first Urdu newspaper, Jam-i-Jahan-Numa, was published on March 27, 1822. The weekly was launched by Harihar Dutta from Kolkata.

With their frequent engagements with emotive issues and support for pseudo religiosity, Urdu newspapers strive to live up to the glorious past of being passionate organs for rebellion and dissent, despite their dwindling readership and precarious financial fortunes. Not many are aware that Urdu journalism has the distinction of having produced the first martyred journalist of India, Maulvi Mohammad Baqar, editor of the Delhi Urdu Akhbar, in 1857. The Urdu press, the voice of revolution during colonial rule, was instrumental in the promulgation of the Vernacular Press Act, 1877. It coined the war cry of the freedom struggle,” Inqilab Zindabad”, which is still the slogan of dissent.

Since nationalism has become the central theme in India, one has to look at the editorial content of Urdu newspapers published from various parts of the country. Urdu periodicals, some owned by corporate houses with limited circulation, hardly ever shore up the hostile and aggressive notion of nationalism. Instead, they pitch for constitutional nationalism and patriotism. Their response to the debate on the CAA and NRC bears testimony to this. The Inquilab (Mumbai), Siyasat (Hyderabad), Rashtriya Sahara (Delhi), Aag (Lucknow), Qaumi Tanzeem (Patna), Salar (Bengaluru) and scores of others opposed the law. However, they urged their readership not to protest as victims of religious discrimination. They might take the issue to the streets as proud citizens of India who have been provided full citizenship rights by the Constitution. They tried to create a reasoned debate on the issue. This indicates the presence of a public sphere that strives to convert readers into citizens capable of logical debate. This is why an unwavering commitment to the Constitution frequently surfaced in these agitations. The Indian flag was displayed prominently at protest marches across the country. This is unlike what happened during the Shah Bano case, when the Urdu press became the voice of patriarchy.

Urdu newspapers have vociferously protested the widespread discrimination against the marginalisation of Muslims. However, they also perpetuate an ever-increasing sense of victimhood. The persecution complex became a means for much-needed solace. Religion-centric identity politics found favour in the majority of newspapers. Muslims’ response to the new reality is the most debated topic on their pages, but it hardly goes beyond laments. No strategy is suggested.

Nostalgia gains currency during dispossession and turmoil, but one must realise that the past – often an imagined past — no matter how glorious, can never be the future. The Urdu media falters considerably here, and the lapse has contributed immensely to pseudo-religiosity and conservatism.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Abul Kalam Azad, two prominent Muslim public intellectuals, through their periodicals spelt out to readers how to live in a society where they are not in the majority and the rulers do not subscribe to their faith. This was something Indian Muslims were not accustomed to before the British took over. Urdu periodicals, except for Qaumi Awaz, Hind Samachar, Siyasat, Aljamiyat, Azad Hind and the like, have rarely strengthened the legacy of Sir Syed and Azad by propagating liberal values.

Religious, cultural and linguistic identity, regional aspirations, and liberal values all occupy equal space in what Jurgen Habermas calls the “public sphere”. The media creates it, and the freedom of expression figures prominently in it. The latter is subject to reasonable restrictions. However, any attempt to inveigh against faith must not draw forth violence. Arguments must refute the counterpoint. Burning so-called profane books and demands for banning books serve no purpose. This was well-articulated by two Urdu periodicals of yesteryear. In 1864, Willam Muir’s book The Life of Mahomet was published. Muslims found it highly blasphemous. They took to the streets, but Sir Syed, despite being a highly influential Indian (a member of the Viceregal Council twice) and editor of two periodicals, did not pitch for its ban. He wrote a dispassionate and equally powerful rejoinder.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the issue of blasphemy surfaced in India time and again, and Sir Syed, in the Aligarh Institute Gazette, asserted that Quranic verses are mute on this count, and the Prophet pardoned many, but some of the offenders were punished. When Islam became the state religion, stringent punishment was imposed. This was essentially a sedition law — if one writes against Islam or its Prophet, it amounts to writing against the state. Abul Kalam Azad endorsed the radical views of Sir Syed.

Referring to religious bigotry and violence, he said a true Muslim carries Quran in one hand, and the other can never carry a bomb. Alas, contemporary Urdu newspapers hardly take this message forward.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 22, 2022 under the title ‘The Urdu public sphere’. The writer is a professor of mass communication at Aligarh Muslim University

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