End of the Musulman?

By Malik Siraj Akbar

It’s impossible to overlook many things on Triplicane High Road, Chennai: the small outlets unleashing the aromas of fresh coffee and scrumptious kabaab; the barefoot and uncommonly blithe street kids who seem to own the street; and the khaki-clad drivers who navigate the narrow road and sidelanes in their
yellow, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. But only with some effort, will you find the “headquarters” of what some consider to be the world’s oldest Urdu newspaper,the daily Mussalman.

The Mussalman is considered to be the grandfather
of Urdu-language newspapers and boasts an uninterrupted publication run spanning almost 80 years. As such, the office of the daily seems a good place to tackle the longstanding query: Is the press a mission or an industry? And for its 76-year-old
editor, Syed Fazlullah, the press is still very much a mission.

Fazlullah can’t even remember exactly when the Mussalman’s journey kicked off. “How can I remember?” he questions with a toothless smile. “I wasn’t even born in 1927 when my dad, the late Azmatullah, launched the paper in the presence of Congress
President, Dr. M.A. Ansari.”

But enter the newspaper’s office and you feel as if the publication still operates like one from the1920s. There’s no reception desk, no newsrooms, no computer rooms and no monitoring desks. Still, the paper never stops. What one discovers here is that the oufit is fuelled by the unmatched professional commitment and passion of the middle-aged men
reporting the news. Together, the gritty, old-style journalists struggle for the promotion of Urdu language in India’s south-east.

But the struggle has been getting tougher by the day. Today, the Mussalman, which has the distinction of being the sole Indian newspaper to be printed during the gruesome Emergency days, is in serious financial trouble.

Its management has a surfeit of grouses against the discrimination it faces from the state government.

“Tamil Nadu is the only Indian State in India where the Urdu language is not patronised despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Urdu speakers,” Fazlullah grumbles. He says not many people need to be told that a newspaper does require advertisements for its survival. “The state government does not issue any advertisements to our newspaper in spite of its
popularity among the Urdu readers.” He believes this is part of a plan to kill the newspaper by pushing it into a financial crisis.
Fazlullah says his hand-written paper, which is published in four black and white pages, does not represent the viewpoint of any particular community.India’s integrity, prosperity and development, he maintains, are always kept in mind before the
publication of any news story or editorial piece. “The Mussalman has a very neutral position on all matters. For us, all religions and lingual communities are equally respectable,” says Fazlullah.

Actually, Fazlullah is not the only Indian Muslim who has to reiterate his loyalty to the land. “Today, the biggest problem Indian Muslims face is in regard to perceptions of loyalty to the country,” says Abdul Rehman, a Chennai-based educationist. “No Hindu is required to repetitively tell everyone that he is a loyal member of the state. A Muslim, on the contrary, is expected to hang a loyalty card around his neck to prove his loyalty to everyone on the street.”

A disillusioned Rehman says, a Muslim in India in general, and in Tamil Nadu in particular, is viewed as a potential traitor to the Indian state. “We are required to assure everyone that we have no relationship with Pakistan and the mujahideen.”

Regarding the Mussalman, Azmat repeats, “It is not a communal paper.” He contends that his paper, in some sections of national journalistic circles, is recognised as the champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. For instance, in New Delhi, for the last 50 years,
whenever there is a press conference, the reporters of the Mussalman and that of the English daily, The Hindu, sit side by side. One of them stands and introduces himself as a correspondent of The Hindu and the next, as Azmat proudly puts it, says: “I am J.P Bhatnagar from the Mussalman.” Reportedly, their amity and unity even impressed Indira Gandhi.”

Abdul Ghafoor, a local resident who has been reading the paper for many decades, says, “Though the paper does not have an impeccable outlook, the editorials are extremely informative and balanced.” He says he’s never seen the paper taking a biased or
communal position. “It can surely claim to be a staunch follower of true journalistic shibboleths,” he adds.

Editorial integrity does not guarantee a perfect future, though. A cheerful Fazlullah at once becomes pessimistic when asked about the outlook for his newspaper.

“Running a newspaper is a difficult job. Running an Urdu ewspaper in India is even more difficult. But running an Urdu newspaper in Tamil Nadu is the most difficult job in this world,” he states emotionally.

Fazal insists that harmful myths about Urdu need to be liminated. “Many believe that Urdu is the language of Muslims alone. But it is not true.” He says, “Urdu is a very sweet language. Hindus have contributed extensively to Urdu journalism and literature. Official quarters should pay proper attention to the promotion of Urdu.”

Furthermore, Fazal contends the Mussalman is an important part of Indian media history. It requires proper attention from the Tamil Nadu state government for its survival. Otherwise, it is feared, this valuable asset of Indian journalism will die a quiet
death. “Not only is our Urdu paper endangered due to the policies of the government but the future of Urdu as a language in this part of India also looks bleak,”complains Fazal. He says the younger Urdu-speaking generation in Tamil Nadu cannot read and write Urdu.

“It is a major concern for us. Our kids can only read and write English and Tamil. Resultantly, the number of Urdu readers is decreasing rapidly.”

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, a young journalist from Bangalore, says Urdu language newspapers in South India fail to obtain ommercial advertisements. “The economic conditions of Muslims in this part of India is not very stable. Not many large businesses are run
by Muslims where one would expect help for Urdu newspapers to come from.”

Sayeed also prognosticates a murky future for Urdu in Tamil Nadu. “How do you promote a language?” he questions. “The best way to do so is to teach it and pass it on to coming generations through schools. But it is not happening here.”

Even the Mussalman staff does not have a single young man, as it is difficult to find a young man capable of reading and writing Urdu. One wonders what would happen to the language in this part of the country after the present Urdu-reading-and-writing
generation are gone.

Of course, add the dearth of Urdu-literate young journalists to the Mussalman’s ongoing financial crisis and you have a one-two combination punch that could knock out the newspaper for good.

“I am sure on that un ortunate day,” says Fazal in a gloomy tone, “I won’t be alone to mourn. I expect the information department authorities to join me in reciting the verse “Urdu ka janaza hai zara dhoom se nikle,” [Let the funeral of Urdu come out in all its

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