By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net
‘Fascist forces have carefully targeted the media. They recognise that infiltrating the media is crucial for their political project. In contrast, the media is not even on the agenda of secular forces’, muses 44 year-old Abdussalam Puthige, editor of Vartha Bharathi, Karnataka’s only Muslim-run Kannada language daily newspaper.
This, and what he sees as general Muslim indifference to and lack of awareness of the power of the media, are, he explains, two among the major reasons for the rapid rise of Hindutva forces in Karnataka in recent years, so much so that the state now has its first ever BJP-led government.
Puthige is a soft-spoken, exceedingly pleasant man and exudes passion and commitment. We sit at his modest office in Bangalore, where I pester him to tell me more about himself. That, however, this self-effacing man is reluctant to do. Yet, I managed to cull some snippets. He was born and brought up in a village near Mangalore in coastal Karnataka. He strikes me as a self-made man, unburdened by all his major achievements, which he does not wish to discuss. These include translating over twenty Urdu works into Kannada, starting at the age of sixteen, and editing a Kannada translation of the Quran. In addition to which are a media centre and now his newspaper, with an edition each from Mangalore and Bangalore.
I ask him to speak about how he hit on the idea of launching a Kannada newspaper, given that few Muslims in Karnataka own it as their mother tongue. The fact that the Kannada media is largely controlled by ‘upper’ caste Hindu elites and reflects their interests and concerns, leaving out the marginalised majority—Dalits, Backward Castes and Muslims—was, Puthige says, the major reason that set the project off. ‘I wanted the paper to be the voice of the voiceless, to be a vehicle for relaying their voices and demands, and to counter media biases and hostile reporting about these communities.’ In this, he says, he was inspired by an acquaintance of his from Mangalore, the late Vaddarse Raghuram Shetty, who, sometime in the 1980s, had launched a short-lived Kannada paper by the name of Mungaru that employed several Muslim, Dalit and Backward Caste journalists, in contrast to most other papers in the state which were, and still remain, heavily dominated by the minority ‘high’ caste Hindus. The paper had also sought to focus on news and stories related to these marginalised communities.
In 1996, Puthige, along with some friends, set up a trust, the Madhyama Kendra, which was intended to serve as a media centre to promote awareness among Muslim youth about the importance of the Kannada media, to train them to influence the media by writing letters to editors and contributing stories and news reports and, particularly, to counter mounting misreporting and negative stereotyping of Muslims, which had become a pervasive feature of many Kannada papers sympathetic to the Hindu right. The centre conducted studies and published reports on this issue.
Puthige hands me a bound folder containing these reports and translates for my benefit. On one page is a news item in a Kannada paper that refers to a certain madrasa being raided, probably on grounds of being suspected for harbouring terrorists. When Muslim leaders contacted the police, they were informed that nothing of the sort had actually happened. The result of this fictitious police raid: Muslims and their madrasas became, in the minds of the readers of the report, inextricably associated with ‘terrorism’. On another page of the folder is a news item in Urdu which reads, ‘It is a crime for youth to take to violence in the name of jihad in order to make money’, which a pro-RSS Kannada paper reproduces and deliberately mistranslates as ‘Muslim Terrorists promise youth six thousand rupees each for making bombs.’ A report in a third Kannada paper outdoes even this one in bone-chilling duplicity. It refers to a group of Muslims in Karnataka as reportedly forwarding a certain sum of money to Nawaz Sharif, the then Pakistani Prime Minister. In actual fact, however, that money was sent to Kargil Fund of the Prime Minister of India as a contribution in the wake of skirmishes with Pakistani forces in Kashmir. And so on, all in the same vein.
‘No legal action has been taken against such papers. Not even by secular activists or even Muslim political leaders, who seem ignorant or even indifferent to the issue’, laments Puthige. ‘Vast sections of the Kannada press have become totally communal, and even those run by secular-minded people have been infiltrated by Hindutva elements. It is simply amazing how they are planting false stories about Muslims with such impunity and getting away with it, and this is getting from bad to worse with every passing day’.
Puthige’s paper is a bold attempt to counter this menacing tendency and to make a difference. It was launched in 2003 through a public limited company that was floated two years earlier, and it has a press of its own. Plans are afoot to launch a third edition—from Hubli—is now being planned. Puthige does not see his paper as a ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ one. ‘It aims at a cross-community readership, with a focus particularly on news and reports about marginalised communities—not just Muslims alone but also others, such as Dalits, Backward Castes and Adivasis’, he explains. All of these communities are ignored, or else deliberately misreported about, in most Kannada papers, which is a major issue that the paper wants to address. Numerous well-known Kannada leftist and Dalit ideologues write regularly for the paper. In addition, essays and stories by social activists from outside Karnataka, most of them non-Muslims, on a host of issues not necessarily associated exclusively with Muslims are routinely translated and published in the paper. More than half of its readers, says Puthige, are non-Muslims and so are most of its staff, who number over a hundred.
Getting advertisements to keep the paper going, Puthige goes on, has been a major challenge. Many wealthy Muslim firms would rather advertise in Urdu papers, he says, which are geared to an entirely Muslim readership, and not in a Kannada paper like his, which appeals to and is read by Muslims and others alike. Because Vartha Bharathi is not overtly Islamic or Muslim, unlike most other Muslim-owned papers, many Muslims are reluctant to advertise therein—they do not see this investment as a source of religious merit. And then, Puthige says, non-Muslim firms advertising in Muslim papers have been known to receive threats, concealed as advice, from Hindutva activists to desist from doing so.
Puthige laments a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Muslims themselves for ventures such as his. ‘Many Muslims in Karnataka look upon Kannada as something that is not theirs, as a Hindu language, despite the fact that several Muslims have made important contributions to Kannada culture and literature. They claim Urdu, or what passes of for it, as their mother-tongue. The general impression, among Muslims and non-Muslims in Karnataka, is that Muslims and Kannada just cannot go together, which I feel is wrong’. He elaborates. ‘Some days ago I was in a mosque and a Hindu friend called up on my cell-phone. I spoke to him in Kannada. A man standing nearby overheard our conversation. He was visibly upset. How and why, he wanted to know, was I speaking in Kannada while inside the mosque!’
Similar views are held by many Hindus, Puthige laments. ‘Sometimes, I am invited to address gatherings in Kannada, and, hearing me, many Hindus would say that my Kannada is so fluent that no one would ever think that I am a Muslim.’
Vartha Bharati, Puthige says, represents an attempt to undermine the widespread inhibition about writing and reading Kannada among Muslims in Karnataka. ‘As inhabitants of the state, it is crucial that we are fluent in the official state language, for without that how can we communicate with others and with the agencies of the state? Without a Muslim presence in the Kannada media, how can we get our views and concerns across to the wider society, to political parties, to the government? For Muslims to continue to ignore the Kannada media is to only further strengthen their marginalisation and invisibility in public debates, even in matters directly relating to them,’ he argues. ‘If there were more Muslims in Kannada papers or if more Muslim-run Kannada newspapers were to be launched, this would certainly have an impact in dampening the mounting anti-Muslim propaganda, which large sections of the Kannada press are now so heavily engaged in promoting.’
Puthige tells me about a novel experiment that he and some of his friends recently came up with in order to encourage young Muslims, Dalits and others from similar marginalised communities in Karnataka who are heavily under-represented in the Kannada press to consider a career in the Kannada media. They developed a one year diploma course in Kannada journalism and last year advertised for applications. ‘We received forty applications for the course, but not a single one of these was from a Muslim or a Dalit.’ And, because of that, the course had to be scrapped.
‘Muslims need a media run on professional lines, and not just in Urdu but in all other regional languages and English as well. A media that addresses not just Muslims alone but other marginalised groups, too’, Puthige goes on. ‘This is sorely lacking. The Urdu press is run mainly by madrasa graduates, most of who lack professional skills. There is no tradition of investigative field-reporting, so most of their stories are cut-and-paste borrowings from other sources. They are too preachy but extremely short on information and analysis.’
‘There is so much to be done’, Puthige exclaims with a sense of urgency as I get up to leave. I step out of his room and as I look back through the curtains I see him rush back to his seat and begin tapping away at his computer—back to work, back to the ‘struggle for justice’ that he has been so passionately speaking about for the past two hours or more.
[Photos by Yoginder Sikand]