By Supriya Nair
Urdu newspapers, which were once crucial to Mumbai’s anti-imperial past, continue to see themselves as the voice of a people
When Hindustan Daily was first established in 1936, the government of British India, hoping to defuse anti-imperial passions, banned it outright. Unable to locate a safe printing press, its three young founders began producing their nationalist daily with a cyclostyling machine hidden in a moving taxi, driving around the city.
Today, western India’s oldest Urdu newspaper is published from a small, sunny office in an old building in Nagpada in south-central Mumbai by Sarfaraz Arzu, the son of one of the paper’s founding partners.
It covers national and international news, as well as stories of specific interest to its almost entirely Muslim readership. So do Inquilaab, Urdu Times Daily and a small clutch of Urdu newspapers with Mumbai editions: Munsif,Siasat and Rashtriya Sahara.
The race for slick headlines, catchy photographs and provocative analysis begins at 8. The age of the newspaper calligraphers is over; news is scripted on computers and winged over to press. The copies begin to roll out by 2am. In operation, the Urdu newspaper is indistinguishable from its English counterpart.
And what of the spirit? Many non-English newspapers in urban India are deeply conscious of their status as communicators and interpreters to their readership. They amplify the voice of the people—but they also serve as a voice among their people.
“Urdu has a force, doesn’t it?” smiles Sami Bubere, veteran journalist and publisher of Urdu weekly Subh-e-Ummid. “The force of the words Inquilaab Zindabad (long live revolution), for example, you don’t get that in another language.”
For “Urduwallahs”, as Bubere calls his confreres, the responsibility is felt with special keenness. In the decades since independence, it has been increasingly characterized as a Muslim language, subject to the same discriminations as the Muslim community.
But Hindi remains inextricably linked with its part-Persian forebear. The flowing calligraphy and poetic courtesies of its address mark Urdu out as a language of high culture for many people. But true to its origins in Mughal bazaars, it remains a vibrant, living, political—and politicized—argot; a key note in Mumbai’s Tower of Babel.
A note, Arzu says which is too often unacknowledged. “Urdu is the language of people who are usually invisible except in movies and mushairas,” he says. “For a long time, nobody cared how people lived in Madanpura or Bhendi Bazaar. Urdu newspapers specialized in learning exactly what was going on in these communities.”
Mumbai’s Urdu papers are crucial channels for the government to reach Urdu-knowing Muslims; not just the 1.4 million people who live in the dense Muslim majority district that stretches from Byculla to Crawford Market and old neighbourhoods in suburban Mumbai, but also a growing immigrant population. To politicians and bureaucrats, they are a way to understand a potential vote bank’s needs, but also a way to speak directly to the community.
Perhaps this is why at a meeting with the city’s Urdu journalists and editors in May, Manikrao Thakre, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president, was so quick to pledge support in the form of government advertising to the papers. Thakre echoed chief minister Prithviraj Chavan’s own promises of incentives for Urdu readers and writers in April. These included a plan for land for a printing press in Navi Mumbai.
“Hogwash,” Arzu says candidly. He has been hearing promises like these for 35 years.
A little further up town, Mumbai’s biggest Urdu newspaper inhabits a shining office complex in Parel. Begun in 1938, Inquilaab is one of Urdu publishing’s banner names. Its parent company merged last year with Jagran Prakashan, which publishes India’s biggest Hindi newspaper, Dainik Jagran; over the next few months, new editions will be coming out all over north India. According to the newspaper, 60,000 Mumbaikars read Inquilaab daily.
Inquilaab’s editor, Shahid Latif, is also a veteran sceptic of the government’s promises. “There are some studies that say Urdu is Maharashtra’s second largest language,” he says. “But where is the representation?”
Hindustan Daily and Inquilaab, in spite of differences in scale, have much in common: origins in the independence movement, founders who saw that India and India’s Muslims needed to see futures concurrent with each other, and a political stance that is both staunchly nationalist as well as deeply critical of the state.
Mumbai’s history took shape in an age when the newspaper was a critical tool in projects of social reform and nationalism. Urdu, the lingua franca of its film industry, was a lifeline. The industry’s poets and scriptwriters all wrote for city newspapers as well. The scriptwriter Javed Siddiqui (who wrote, among other things, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) even ran his own newspaper, Urdu Reporter, for some years.
Many Urdu publications in Mumbai began as outlets for their founders’ views. Khilafat, published from Khilafat House in Byculla until 1960, was the brainchild of the brothers Maulana Muhammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, who led the famous pan-Islamic movement of that very name.
The year 1960 also saw the first edition of Urdu Times Daily, Mumbai’s most widely read Urdu paper after Inquilaab. Begun by a ship man, Taj Mohammed Nazir Ahmed, the paper aimed to build a community institution.
“He sunk the family wealth into this paper,” says Imtiyaz Ahmed, the founder’s grandson and Urdu Times Daily’s managing editor. “But he brought some of the finest Urdu journalists and editors here.”
Its offices, in the heart of Madanpura, weathered several storms, including the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1993-94; a turning point in inter-religious relations in the city. Ahmed remembers his newspaper as a rallying point at the time, balancing its reportage of injustice with an effort to preserve the peace.
“(A competing newspaper’s) press was in a Hindu-dominated area, and they were locked out for three days, unable to publish,” Ahmed remembers. “We even broke that story out of a sense of justice.”
The riots fundamentally changed Mumbai for Muslims. Newspapers, dogged, began to look ahead.
“I realized it was a watershed moment,” Arzu remembers. “Because that was the time the community began looking within.”
“At that time, Urdu newspapers began to emphasize that education was to be the top-most priority—that the next generation should not repeat what had happened to generations before. “Because of that, I think Bombay is a changed city,” Arzu says. “I don’t find any young child not going to school.”
Latif concurs. “Muslims realized that a lack of education robbed them of identity, equality, opportunity,” he says. “Today there’s increased enrolment in girls’ schools, professional courses, higher education—the results are showing across the board.”
This directly contradicts a certain narrative about the decline of India’s Urdu readership. Ahmed worries his language will be dead “by 2030—10 years before Gujarati, maybe 20 or 30 before Marathi”. But Latif frankly calls the idea of decline a “myth”. And other editors are heartened by the increased numbers of Urdu speakers graduating from high school, and non-Muslim companies, including Jagran Prakashan, entering the market for Urdu readers.
For them, Urdu is an inspiration. “We have a special mission here,” Latif says. “We don’t just report the news. We are here to serve a community.”
A bond to its people does not express itself so freely in every language. To the Urdu community, the fight to bring “identity, equality and opportunity” to Muslims is still on. The spirit is preserved in a famous sher by satirist Allama Akbar Allahabadi:
“Kheechon na kamaan ko, talwar nikaalo/Agar top mukaabil ho, toh akhbaar nikaalo.” (Don’t draw the bow, bring out a sword; When faced with the gun, bring out a newspaper).
It is a verse many of Mumbai’s readers know well. It has appeared, for the last 50 years, on the masthead of Bal Thackeray’s Marathi weekly Marmik.