Mainstream English and Hindi media look at them in black cloak or wearing a skull cap. Or so many Muslims in India believe. The Urdu media,on the other hand,is more interested in covering a seminar at AMU or some mushaira somewhere in Lucknow,than in real socio-economic issues that affect the community. Frankly,who cares about the Urdu press? Not many Muslims today can read the language,and thus dont read Urdu newspapers. My bet is that sadly,very sadly,my parents generation is the last generation that can read an Urdu newspaper.
Caught between the mainstream media and the Urdu press,the Indian Muslim community is trying to find an outlet for expression in the new media the Internet. There are a couple of news and information websites run by Muslims that feature news and articles about the community,from their perspective. Some that I have read include Ummid.com,Indianmuslimobserver.com,Newageislam.com and Twocircles.net.
Indianmuslimobserver.com,run by a group of journalists in Jamia Nagar,Delhi,calls itself,Your Window To The Muslim World. Ummid.com,run by a registered firm in Malegaon,Mahrashtra,doesnt have such an in-your-face Muslim tag in its description,but you do get the message that it intends to talk about the Muslim community. Both sites mostly collate stories from various newspapers and agencies,and stories that have something to do with Muslims — whether in India or Libya get greater visibility than national political news. The sites though seem a bit confused about their identity. They profess to be either Muslim or representing the oppressed,but their content doesnt suggest so. Theres news about everything else mainstream politics,technology and even environment — on the sites,with a great deal of space allotted to these sections. Nothing wrong with having diversified content but such diversification only dilutes the purpose that they are giving of their existence.
Newageislam.com,which at one time used to send a lot of newsletters (without subscription) to my and other journalists emails,is run by a senior journalist based in Delhi,and is an opinion-driven portal with academic articles contributed from writers based in different parts of the world. Anyone whos interested in Islam and the global political issues it is entangled with,such as terrorism and radicalism,can drop by this site.
Though its great that the community is proactively beginning to do something to improve its public image at least in the new-age media but true journalism lies in reportage and the kind of stories you produce from the ground. In that sense,Twocircles.net (TCN) stands out from among the new breed of websites dedicated to news about Muslims. The most striking thing about TCN is that it is not Islamic theres no section dedicated to religious discourse. And unlike either Ummid.com or Indianmuslimobserver.com,it has its own set of reporters doing in-depth stories from the remotest of towns in states across the country,from Gujarat and Maharashtra,to Kerala and Assam. And its readers are not just Muslims (which has happened,says its US-based founder and executive editor Kashif ul-Huda,because of absence of religious content) or the general public. They include policy planners and politicians as well. Syeda Hameed,member of Planning Commission,mentioned twocircles.net as a portal that reports on the development/discrimination binary in an op-ed she wrote for The Indian Express last month. The BJP used a picture of Muslim students in a college in Azamgarh,UP shot by a TCN reporter in a campaign ad,projecting them as the progressive Muslims of Gujarat. A Muslim MP called up the office of TCN and told them that the website’s comprehensive performance report of Muslim MPs had missed two questions he had asked in the Parliament.
Questioning the establishment’s attitude towards Muslims forms the crux of stories TCN does,most of which are about the ordeals of young Muslims arrested and later acquitted in various terror cases. It runs a good number of stories exposing alleged police torture on Muslims,corruption in Muslim bodies such as wakf boards and high-handedness of Muslim institutions such as AMU. And though it also carries stories on Muslim achievers such as a series it did on young Muslim technology entrepreneurs or those who clear civil service exams,as well as reports on educational status of Muslims in certain states such as Andhra Pradesh,stories on the Muslim Victim far outnumber those on the Muslim Achiever. It recently launched a Youtube channel too where it uploads its video reportage.
While TCN is making its presence felt among those who are interested in reading news about the Indian Muslim community and gets about 10,000 unique visitors and 50 comments every day — as Huda told me over the phone in an interview for a story on the site itself,published in The Indian Express’s Eye magazine it has no ads. The only ads it gets are those by Google. It thus runs on charity. While the site employs 15 reporters across the country,it has no marketing executive. So,it’s just managing,as Huda told me,with funds donated by Indian American Muslims,who,like Muslims elsewhere,are more eager to donate for a masjid or a madrasa than for a news website.
Despite its paucity of funds,it’s surprising that TCN doesn’t charge fee for the content it supplies to Urdu and other vernacular dailies across the country,as Huda said. When I asked him why,he said those publications don’t have enough money to pay their own staff. Huda said that they are a community-service-driven model,and not a profit-driven one. I laud his and his staff’s efforts at presenting versatile content about a community,which is quite often stereotyped by the mainstream press. But I wonder how they’ll sustain themselves. Any model has to be able to generate revenues and sustain itself instead of solely relying on funds for a long life. Speaking of the reasons TCN was founded,Huda said,We don’t own a mainstream TV channel or newspaper. Since the future of news and information is the Internet,I didn’t want Muslims to lag behind in this new medium.
But without a revenue model, will they be able to push ahead? Without a robust entrepreneurial spirit, will they be able to extend their reach? If Muslims really want their voice to be heard by a large and diverse audience and have it heard for a long enough time be it on the Internet or any other medium they need to rethink their strategy. Maybe they can take a cue from Al-Jazeera,and learn from how the channel has grown from being one that was watched by only Arabs to now having an audience all over the world.