It was a single-column story tucked away in the inside pages of one of Maharashtra’s largest newspapers. The story of the assault on assistant sub-inspector Shaikh Yunus Pashamiya on February 19 carried neither his name nor details of the assault and humiliation the 56-year-old police officer was subjected to by a mob celebrating Shiv Jayanti in Pangaon, Latur district. Shaikh’s story would have have remained untold but for 41-year-old Kashif Ul-Huda in Massachusetts, USA, whose community website twocircles.net was tipped off about the incident by a social activist in the region. After the incident was verified, Ul-Huda uploaded the story on his website. Within hours, it went viral, forcing the national media to take notice.
The Latur case is not a one-off incident. Over the past few years, community websites floated by young Muslims aggrieved over the portrayal of their community have broken a slew of stories, such as the death of Muslims in police firing in Forbesganj in 2011 to the Right to Information stories about the AYUSH ministry allegedly not hiring Muslims for Yoga Day. These community websites operate from diverse locations like New Delhi, Malegaon, Bhatkal and Massachusetts.
“Within the Muslim community, it has been felt that the mainstream media has not made much effort in covering the community and portraying the problems that it faces. We realise that the nature of the beast is such that negative stories would garner more attention. When it comes to Muslims, ignorance, and to some extent, hostility against the community has ensured that negative reportage takes precedence,” says Dr Zafarul Islam Khan, editor of the Milli Gazette. Khan, 68, is the son of noted Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin, and is one of the oldest operators in this space. He has run his portal since 2000.
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Last year, his website broke the story about the AYUSH Ministry not hiring Muslims teachers and trainers for the World Yoga Day held on October 15, 2015. The Milli Gazette was also one of the first to report about the treatment meted out to Aligarh Muslim University Vice Chancellor Lt Gen (retd) Zameeruddin Shah by HRD Minister Smriti Irani in her office on January 9. These stories were subsequently followed up by the national media.
Nearly a decade ago, in faraway Massachusetts, Ul-Huda was troubled by the absence of nuanced reporting of Muslim issues in the mainstream Indian media. A pharmaceutical researcher and Boston University alumni, he self-financed a website to address the issue. In 2007, the website was named twocircles.net and was dedicated to bringing out news on issues related to the Indian Muslims. “We started by reaching out to community activists to get a sense of what was happening in the country. We are now pretty integrated within the community. In fact, so many stories come to us now, we do not have enough people to follow them up,” says Ul-Huda. Twocircles.net is staffed by a team of 10 Muslim reporters and one Hindu news editor.
“We don’t look at issues through the prism of religion. We see them as social problems that affect minorities and vulnerable sections of our society. We do not see ourselves as a medium only for Muslims, and we want to look at issues of all vulnerable sections to whom the conventional media does not reach out to,” he says.
Around the time Ul-Huda set up his portal, Malegaon-based engineer Aleem Faizee, 46, decided to set up ummid.com. For the last decade, the site has been operating from a dank room in a two-storeyed house which abuts a mosque and a Devi Jagdamba Temple. The English-language portal is single-handedly run by Faizee and publishes everything from news of the Muslim world to the woes of the textile industry in the country. Aleem is an electronics engineer who topped Pune University but chose to return to Malegaon to help out in his family’s fledgling powerloom business. “I floated the website in March 2006 because I was disillusioned with the way the mainstream media was treating issues of the minority community,” he says.
He’s not the only one. Two former employees at Twocircles, Syed Zubair Ahmed and Mumtaz Alam, have now started their own successful websites, MuslimMirror and IndiaTomorrow, respectively. Both say that they are attempting to reach out to the community youth, and are also challenging the staid approach of the Urdu media.
“In spite of its reach, the Urdu newspaper scene has not been able to effectively capture the issues that plague the community. It troubles me to say that, at times, the Urdu media has aped the national media in its coverage. Our attempt is to break these shackles,” says Ahmed, chief editor, MuslimMirror. He set up the site in 2012.
Many of these websites are self-financed and operate with very small teams; long hours and irregular revenue is a constant worry. However, the payback is worth it, say the sites’ founders. “Five to 10 years ago, if someone was picked up in a terror case, the conventional media would take the word of the police as gospel truth and not even visit the houses of those who had been arrested. Because of the work done by community websites, the national media has been forced to hear the other side of the story as well. This, we believe, has been a major change that has been ushered in by us,” says Mumtaz Alam Falahi, editor, IndiaTomorrow.
“In an ideal democracy there is no need for the existence of something like Milli Gazette. I will shut it down the day the media gives a fair hearing and representation to the issues of the Muslim community,” says Khan.