With decreasing readers and lack of capital driving the news content, Urdu journalism in India is staring at an uphill task to compete with Hindi and English language journalism.
Ramsha Tausalkar | TwoCircles.net
NEW DELHI — Starting as a lashkari language meant prominently for the Indian army to communicate, Urdu has since then seeped into the daily lives of Indians. Contrary to popular belief, Urdu is not just a language of Bollywood lyrics and mushairas (poetry recitals), it is also one of the most prominent means of communication in the country. Urdu is one of the 22 languages officially recognized in the Constitution. It is also one of the first languages of journalism in the country. Last year, India completed 200 years of Urdu journalism.
As per the most recent RNI (Registrar of Newspapers for India) report (2020-21), the total circulation of Urdu publications was 2.6 crore while that of Hindi publications was 18.9 crore. Even English and Marathi publications’ circulation was more than 3 crore. These figures prop up an important question: Is Urdu journalism declining in India? How did Urdu go from being one of the most prominent press languages during the birth of Indian journalism to being the last on the list of popularity?
Urdu journalist and researcher Mahtab Alam said that there has been a steady decline in Urdu journalism. “Urdu has lost its value in terms of news. You can’t solely rely on the novelty and beauty of the language— that has a limited appeal. Urdu has been reduced to becoming just a language for literature. Nazaakat and nafaasat is all good but until it becomes a language of the market, it is not going to work,” Alam told TwoCircles.net.
The former executive editor of The Wire (Urdu) said that the Urdu language is becoming marginalised due to its demonisation in the current political setting.
The anti-Urdu sentiment has manifested itself on quite a few occasions in India in recent times. In April 2022, Sudarshan News reporters accused food brand Haldiram of ‘hiding’ vital information on their food packets by writing it in Urdu, which was in fact Arabic. In a video report, the reporter questioned why Urdu text is present on the packet of a popular fasting snack for Hindus called Falahari. A 2021 research paper in the Journal of the Contemporary Study of Islam noted that Urdu is seen as a Muslim language by the state and other media organisations because a large amount of Islamic religious text in South Asia is available in Urdu. Islamophobia in India thus extends to Urdu as well.
“The current state of Urdu in India is the same as the current state of Muslims in India,” said Urdu poet and film lyricist Liaqat Jafri.
The literary activist explained that no matter how much people deny it, languages in India are associated with religion.
“While Hindu texts have evolved from Sanskrit to Hindi, Muslim texts have always been in Persian and Arabic and in more contemporary times, in Urdu. During partition, Hindi somehow became the language of Hindus and Urdu became the language of Muslims and it has stayed that way.” He adds, “The issue with Urdu journalism is that the people it addresses now have other concerns. Indian Muslims are cornered and struggling to save their own identity, so they can’t invest into saving Urdu media, whether financially or effort-wise,” Jafri said.
Hindi versus Urdu is not a new debate. While the journalism of both languages started off on an equal footing, Hindi media now dominates news while Urdu has been left behind. As per the RNI report, in states with the highest numbers of single-language publications, Hindi publications ranked the highest in seven states while Urdu publications led at second highest in only two states. A 2020 report by Newslaundry highlights that Hindi and English news media channels receive the most amount of advertising funding from the government. When it comes to newspapers, in 2019 an RTI query revealed that the highest beneficiaries of government advertisements were Hindi newspapers, as per a report by Mathrubhumi.
According to Hasan Akram, a former Urdu reporter, lack of finances is the biggest reason for the decline of Urdu journalism. “Government bias exists, of course. Recently, it emerged that Doordarshan has reduced its number of Urdu bulletins. Thus, the employment chances for Urdu journalists reduce. The Sachar Committee report pointed out that the development of the Muslim community is declining. The main audience for Urdu news media comprises Muslims. When the consumer is poor, even the advertisements given to Urdu media are for the poor,” said Akram, who is now the BBC Monitoring journalist tracking Urdu media.
Not all perspectives, however, on this topic are bleak.
Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of Mumbai-based Urdu newspaper Roznama Hindustan said Urdu journalism is doing better. “We can’t expect it to become mainstream as it has always been the language of the elitist, then of a minority. Mumbai University now also has an Urdu course. Urdu flourishes because it may have its limitations as a script, but doesn’t have any as a spoken language. There needs to be an introduction to technology and we need to bring in handheld journalism, but it can’t be said that Urdu journalism is dying,” Arzoo said.
When one casually browses through an Urdu daily, one comes across local and regional news, an achievements section for Muslim kids, advertisements for home products and an editorial section. There is not much to see when it comes to television and online journalism. Most of the world’s Urdu news content comes from Pakistan. Urdu news media in India has a lot to do to regain its audience and reputation.
“It is not Urdu journalism that is in decline, it is journalism in general, so we must not lose hope,” said Shams Ur Rehman Alavi, a former columnist at The Wire (Urdu). “If Urdu media houses and journalists set their priorities well, know their strengths and understand that they are seen as those having access to not just Muslims but also old parts of most cities in India; they can become better. There is huge potential for them and for Urdu media if they do stories, long-form reports and special stories,” said Alavi.
Mahtab Alam points out that Urdu media must now enter the digital ecosystem and start publishing news online. A few Youtube channels have also been started. Urdu has always had a tradition of radio, which must be revived. While Urdu journalism has suffered and fallen quite a lot, not everything is lost. With financial assistance and the right people, it can get back up on its feet again.
Ramsha is an independent journalist and writer. She tweets @RamshaTausalkar