By Chandan Mitra
It is a general view among Muslims in India that the English-Language media does not project a true and positive picture of the community. They also believe that there is a bias in the international media against the Muslims in general. This, of course, is an over-simplified analysis of an otherwise complicated situation- portraying the image of Muslims as the largest religious minority in India, as well as that of a stereotyped monolithic community living in a Hindu-majority country. The reality is that the variation of the image of Indian Muslims projected by the Indian media varies vastly but the expectations are unfair in the given circumstances. My point of reference is the English language media–for the simple reason that, being an insider, I am closely aware of the reality and more of limitations.
Though I do not fully agree with the perception of Indian Muslims as far as their media image is concerned but I will not directly contest their perception, I would rather go into detail of the features of this psyche along with the problems of the media. For only this reason, I shall also speak from the stand-point of the Urdu press in India as it is only the Urdu press run by Muslims that has done more damage to the Muslim image in India than any other language media. In this analysis, I shall not include such Urdu newspapers as Pratap, Milap, and Hind Samachar as neither are they run by Muslim establishments, nor are their readership Muslim. Their professional concerns and editorial orientations are altogether different. The Urdu media, especially in north India -and more specifically Delhi -is negative and least interested in propagating and encouraging positive Muslim images in a plural society such as India . There is a perception among scholars—even Muslim readers—that Urdu newspapers are not interested in playing any role to make the Muslims a part of the social changes and modernization that is rapidly taking place in India . Ather Farouqui, sums this up aptly:
…the prospects remain that Urdu journalism will continue the traditional game of arousing Muslim sentiments through provocative writing, and render them susceptible to the influence of the communal leadership with which a good many Urdu journalists are themselves aligned due to their own ambitions for political prominence and professional clout…
It is also true that, other than Delhi, the English media and the media of regional languages (other than Hindi print media of north India as in north India it is a different story altogether with a much complicated political sociology) in respective regions see Muslims as part of regional culture and local politics. Except from north Indian Muslims, the Muslims of the entire country whose mother-tongue is other than Urdu or Hindi have fully assimilated themselves with the regional cultural ethos to the extent that they cannot be counted as one entity with the Muslims of northern India . Farouqui further says:
Without doubt the Muslims of South India and West Bengal never recognized Urdu as their language and a symbol of their religious identity. In the changed political milieu too even if Urdu was never their language and in the past they were greatly distanced from the Muslims of North India. Culturally north Indian Muslims always considered themselves different from Muslims in the rest of the country. They are also the victims of the pronounced sense of superiority. Cultural distance and the strong sense of superiority on the part of north Indian Muslims become a great hurdle in linking them with the South Indian Muslims. This factor also prevented the movement for Pakistan from reaching South India except for a few big cities such as Hyderabad . Migration to Pakistan from the South was limited precisely because of the hold of north Indian Muslims over the Muslim League particularly by the Ashraf (gentry). Linguistic and cultural conflicts have arisen there even after the formation of Pakistan thus, the subsequent establishment of Bangladesh and the remarkable rise of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). The strife in the refugee-dominated urban areas of Sindh province is an ample proof of this. Muslim politics in contemporary India are not particularly different from what they were in the past. The hold of north Indian Muslims on Muslim political campaigns even after independence has been strong. This prompted the presumption that the north Indian Muslim leadership would also be successful in the South. However the humiliating defeat of Syed Shahabuddin, a self-designated vocal spokesman of South Indian Muslims, in Bangalore during the 1989 general elections made the north Indian Muslims leadership acutely aware of its real standing in the South.
In northern India , not only the Muslims, but also the Hindus, are a unique socio-political phenomenon. Broadly speaking, north India is itself such a strange political phenomenon that understanding its psychology has never been easy, even for sociologists. The Hindu-Muslim context of north India is different from that of the rest of India . The imbroglio called Hindi versus Urdu is therefore not only the politics of language, but also has the gamut of political complexities at its forefront. The Urdu-Hindi controversy of the nineteenth century was the reflection of this politico cultural conundrum. Even today, the situation has not changed much. Howsoever complicated the reality may be because of its variations, in the eyes of the world, the images that are projected by the English media of India especially Delhi , are the images of India , irrespective of being Muslim or Hindu.
As far as Muslims are concerned, Muslim intellectuals in Delhi are deemed the sole representatives of the entire Muslim community for the simple reason that their being in Delhi gives the media easy access to them. To what extent are the Muslim intellectuals working in the universities and the retired bureaucrats active within the media circle genuinely concerned about the sociology of India Muslims, is a known fact? Very clearly, the members of the English speaking Muslim elite in Delhi have neither have an understanding of the problems of common Muslims, nor do they have any interest in the matter. This is perhaps the reason why the common educated Muslim is not only unfamiliar with these so-called intellectuals but, if they know of them, they even hate them.
To an extent, the Urdu newspapers of Delhi , working as a single entity, could be said to have an understanding of the north India Muslims’ psyche, but they have only played a negative role in their lives. As far as the electronic media is concerned, some Urdu TV channels use the spoken language and focus on the Muslim middle-class that is still almost negligible in proportion to the entire Muslim population. But these channels too give the way to misunderstanding about Muslims. As such, viewers of Urdu TV channels are mostly those who do not know English, it seems that there is no respite for common Muslims.
Despite being a single entity, the speed with which Urdu newspapers form north India, especially weekly newspapers of Delhi, are heading towards decay is rather on expected and anticipated lines. I shall not talk here about official circulation figures of Urdu newspapers that merely serve the purpose of the government to show that Urdu is flourishing. In the government files, of course, Urdu journalism is making steady progress simply because the government officials are assigned the role of issuing misleading statements highlighting the progress made in case of the promotion of Urdu, particularly by a certain central government organization namely National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language.
The question of the progress of Urdu journalism is concerned with the system of Urdu education in common schools with secular curricula. The issue of script has now arisen in the context of the dini madaris. If the children whose mother-tongue is Urdu get an opportunity to study Urdu within their school curricula, the entire sociology of the dini madaris will undergo a sea-change; it would mark their decisive decline. Until there is no arrangement for teaching Urdu in the secular curriculum, the population wanting to learn Urdu would remain confined to the dini madaris and the Urdu newspapers even though unwillingly, would print only what the madrasa-educated people would like to read. We all know what the madrasa-educated people want to read and we are also aware of how a person educated in religious institution views a pluralistic society, or how the religious person himself is viewed by the pluralistic society.
Unfortunately, after Partition, Urdu has not been included by the Congress leadership in the secular curriculum, especially in the north India states. Consequently, the madrasas kept growing. With the passage of time, they replaced school education among Muslims and established a parallel system dangerous to the nation but more for Muslims themselves. One reason for the survival and growth of the madrasas is the economic backwardness of the common Muslims. But when Muslim children did not go to school, both economic and social transformation stopped among Muslims. Without doubt, the increase in the number of madrasas is also an example of the failure of our national educational policy and constitutional obligation to treat Muslims at par in education too. Obviously, an economically backward section of society, such as the Muslims, cannot develop an educational system parallel to the state-sponsored educational apparatus. Sooner or later, society will have to provide Muslims with secular education at par with other religious groups, mainly Hindus, so that they are made part of mainstream education and occupy a common civic space. It is for us to think how to stop the growth and spread of the dini madaris, whose network comprises half-a-million madrasas with 50 million full–time students. (These are authentic and undisputed figures known to all, issued by the government, and which were not challenged.) We should also not forget that because of being religious educational institutions, madrasas are much more organized and influential than the secular-curriculum schools run by the government.
The English media in India is an elite media, an offshoot of the baggage of history. As a large majority of Muslims in India are economically deprived and do not live in big cities, there is a tendency in the English language media to ignore issues that concern Muslims. The English media, however, plays an important role in shaping perceptions in the minds of India as a whole. Although read by 2 or 3% (and really understood by hardly 1%) of the Indian population, the images that the English media builds and creates are reflected decisively in the international scene as well as within India . These images enhance a political balance. The English media provides the pan Indian picture for the regional language media unaware of north Indian languages, such as Hindi (which is already considered as biased as the Urdu media is overzealous in its presentation of Muslim issues). The English-language media is said to provide a common ground between these conflicting positions and is, in a certain sense, a moderator or a melting pot among the various sections of India . There are also allegations from Muslims against the English media that are true but the whole English media does not behave so irresponsibly.
It is true that the English media often picks up wrong Muslim voices that do not represent the community; this is counter productive. For example we have Shabana Azmi who always gets space because of being associated with Bollywood. She is easily accessible and knows the English idiom of discourse. But she does not represent anybody but herself, and due to the glamour element attached, her views get highlighted much more than those of various other more representative people. It is the responsibility of the media to search for the right voice and the media has certainly been lazy in that matter.
Certain stereotypes in the media also condition issues. For instance, there is a widespread misconception in the media about the role of the Dar-ul Uloom Deoband. The general feeling is that it is a place where one can get the ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ very easily. Certainly this perception is wrong but the Muslims did nothing to remove this misconception. They just blame the media but cannot request the ulema not to issue fatwas that makes a mockery of the entire community. After 11 September 2001, there has been a lot of coverage of Deoband and its activities, on assumed lines based moe on imagination than field work and visits to the prestigious Islamic university. To the great disappointment of correspondents from the electronic media who occasionally happen to visit Deoband, they found that Deoband was not what they had actually visualized.
But all said and done, one is at a loss to realize that if, half a million madrasas exist in India , where 50 million full time students are enrolled, it is naturally a matter of great concern. These 50 million students do not include the part-time student who attends the madrasas. There are lots of Muslim students who go to regular schools and attend the madrasas part-time to study the Koran and Islamic tenets. So instead of blaming Deoband we should suggest something that can enable the Muslim educational empowerment. I would not comment on the practical joke of the government which, in the name of the madrasa modernization scheme, proposed to spend Rs. 20 crore. A break-up of this money would show that on an average it comes to Rs.0.40 per student. One can easily understand the Congress’s logic or the whole logic of the modernization of madrasas scheme initiated by Rajiv Gandhi.
There are two strands in the media, particularly in the English media. One is patronizing, the other antagonistic. The patronizing strand recognizes that a wrong has been done to the Muslims, and one has to go out of the way to support them and advise them what they should and should not do. This strand is growing among a section of the Hindu intelligentsia and the media. There is another well-known antagonistic strand mainly propounded by Vinod Mehta that Muslims are a prisoner of these images. This strand does not reach out for any kind of dialogue or understanding and has certain stereotyped images of which everybody has become a prisoner.
Siddharth Varadrajan, a senior editor with The Hindu, was scathing in his criticism of the media for long. I do not think that there is a conscious communal basis, at least in the English media but I agree with the view that most of the people working with the English media, including Muslims do not know Muslim society at large. They know only the elite Muslims and at the most, the upper middle class Muslim strata. The bias, if any, is a product of ignorance. It is time for common Muslims to not get into the paranoid feeling that the media has been consciously seeking to victimize or portray them as villains in the Indian society. There are people with a communal viewpoint, who would not in acceptable parlance be called secular. Though they do have space in the English media, they belong to various communities (including Muslims). By and large, the media has tended to be responsible even in cases related to reporting on riots. The English-language media has persisted in trying to bring the guilty to book on a number of issues, —whether it was during the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre, in Maliana or Hashimpura or Meerut or Bhagalpur, or in 2002 Gujarat carnage. The reporting of the English press of these incidents shocked the entire nation. English press pursued these incidents relentlessly, and reporters have gone back to the spot on every anniversary of these riots to bring home the point that the guilty persons are running scot-free, and that the state has not taken any action to bring them to book. Siddharth Varadarajan is correct that there were lapses during the initial reporting because of newspaper reliance on the police version (which is often communally biased), the high financial cost of newsgathering, reliance on unprofessional stringers and the bias of the news desk. But, the media does thereafter take up in systematic manner cases of human rights violation, police atrocities, and the tardy process of inquiries.
I do not agree with the view that the media is insensitive to the issues of the Muslims. It has, in fact, been responsible and responsive – its extent is another issue. Instead of tarring the entire media with the same brush, one needs to differentiate and expand the space where there is a greater concern and sensitivity, rather than saying that the whole media is the same. The Muslim intelligentsia should not shut themselves out from the English media; rather, they have to enhance their space within it.
The painting of the images is not only in terms of terrorism or madrasas. There are other issues with wider social ramification that we must consider. Take the issue of the triple talaq in one sitting, for instance, on which reams have been written in the English media in the last ten or twelve years, ever since the Shah Bano issue. I am not saying that these should not be discussed, but the disproportionate amount of space and time that goes into the over-simplified analysis intensifies stereotypes. Most of the nonsense becomes possible because of publicity hungry ulema. We have to look beyond, rather than just point to improper riot reporting or inherent biases. We have to highlight issues that will bring about fundamental changes – issues of the Muslims’ socio-economic growth, progress and the educational empowerment and achievements. The reality is that issues that are not really germane to the genuine problems of the Muslim community get undue attention from the media as well as from Muslim writers, There are other issues that are of greater relevance. For example, how many Muslim students go to primary schools? What is the drop out ratio of Muslim students after secondary and senior secondary examinations? How many Muslims have been inducted into the police force at the level of sepoy and sub-Inspectors? How many are there in the administrative services examinations conducted by the subordinate staff selection commissions in the states? If the proportion of Muslims is low, why is it so? These are real issues that the Muslim themselves do not get to read or reflect upon, debate, or discuss.
If we discuss Muslim education, we discuss it only through the English medium which is just utopian. If we can discuss Muslim proportion in government services, we just talk of civil services, an impossible thing for first generation learners whether Hindus or Muslims. Needless to say that, this entire elite phenomenon will not work to improve the socio economic conditions of common Muslims in India . In the world of entertainment, there is a great deal of Muslim participation but again it is an elite phenomenon. I think that is where we are all collectively guilty: these issues do not get discussed.
Is there a bias that is causing the decline in Muslim representation in the government services? Why, for instance, has the Muslim middle-class, which was such a critical factor in the pre-Partition years, declined and dwindled in comparison to the Hindu middle class? Arguably, it is true that a very large section of the Muslim middle-class did migrate to Pakistan between 1947 and 1950, but why did it not grow? We never discussed the complexity of the issue that the Muslim middle-class voice is not really the voice of the entire Muslim community
The new Muslim middle class is also the new-born psychological version of the aristocratic Muslim elite of pre-partition India . In the Hindu community, the Hindu middle-class got education in state run schools where regional language and not English was the medium. Now the Hindu middle class dictates and determines the socio political agenda and sets the tone for dialogue and discourse at the international level too. These issues, I emphasize again, needs to be reflected in the media, debated, and discussed again and again. The media is the only forum for interaction and greater participation, both for intra-community dialogue within the Muslim community and inter-community dialogue between all communities that together can lead to a better, prosperous and cohesive India . The media has to correct itself, but we also have to look beyond as the myopic vision that we have at present will not solve the problem. The two communities have lived together for hundreds of years, and they will continue to live together. Biases have to be corrected – unfortunately, they have intensified. What do we do about that? I think that is what we have to focus on, and I hope that there will be more writers, more commentators, and more Muslims joining and contributing to the media. The media is today getting increasingly effective and powerful, and greater Muslim participation is needed in it.
Biases do exist every where. But just as there are biases, there are also people who go out of the way to try and correct them. These are both part of the fractured Indian reality that we should recognize, and try to widen the space, widen Muslim participation in the media, and have more people talking about real Muslim issues, going beyond those issues that unfortunately help intensify stereotypes.
Chandan Mitra is the Editor in chief of the widely circulated English daily 'The Pioneer' and he is also a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).He can be contacted at email@example.com.
(This article was included in the book edited by Ather Farouqui titled "Muslims and the Media Images:News versus Views" published by the Oxford University Press , India .)