Giving voice to the voiceless | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Giving voice to the voiceless

ByJyoti Punwani
Feb 25, 2024 06:48 AM IST

Sarfaraz Arzu, a college student turned editor, saved twice from death, revolutionized Urdu newspaper digitization, faces challenges in ads, circulation, and community reporting.

Mumbai: Sarfaraz Arzu was still in college when the death of his father pushed him into the tough role of newspaper editor in 1978. Luckily for him, senior journalists in the Hindustan Urdu Daily, the eveninger started by Ghulam Ahmed Khan ‘Arzu’ in 1936, acted as his guides in early years. Today, the Hindustan Urdu Daily has become a morning paper, and the undergraduate editor a well-known name in media circles.

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Sarfaraz has twice escaped being killed. The first time was by the police during the 1992-93 riots, when he was going on his bike to attend the Police Commissioner’s press conference. With the entire Mohammed Ali Road under curfew, a police picket at Mandvi post office mistook him for a miscreant and aimed their rifles at him. It was a resident’s cry: “He’s a journalist” that saved him. The second time, after he had published reports about some gangsters, two gunmen walked into his office to shoot him, but the pistol malfunctioned.

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“I’m a survivor,” he chuckles.

Digital push amidst waning ads, low circulation

In the past 46 years, Sarfaraz Arzu has seen a lot of change in the Urdu newspaper world. He has himself also been the initiator of change. Urdu newspapers used to be entirely handwritten by calligraphers. When the advent of computers in the 1980s changed the way English newspapers were produced, the Urdu press looked on enviously, as its script was difficult to digitise.

In neighbouring Pakistan, where Urdu is the official language, the government was spending a lot on research digitising the script, but in India, neither the government, nor private owners were interested in such initiatives.

Not wanting to be left behind, Sarfaraz decided he had to find a way out. He first learnt programming language and then, using his knowledge of calligraphy, tried to break down the script to its bare minimum. This quest took Sarfaraz on a five-year journey across the country to consult experts.

“The solution we found was purely indigenous,” says Sarfaraz proudly. It came about after he met Rajiv Bhagwat of the software company Dataflow, which had already started digitalising Hindi and other Devnagari-based scripts. The software they developed was named ‘Dilkash’, meaning attractive, and after the paper’s calligraphers were trained, Hindustan started using it in 1989.

“The survival of Urdu papers was at stake,” says Sarfaraz, “We’d have become extinct without a level playing field.”

Does a level playing field exist in other aspects of newspaper publishing, advertisements and circulation, for example?

For many years, Urdu newspapers were criticised by discerning readers for the space they gave to Hindi film advertisements and news.

“It’s natural; the Hindi film industry itself can be called a byproduct of Urdu,” laughed Sarfaraz. At a time when there were no multiplexes and newspapers would publish cinema schedules, Urdu papers were the only ones to include all cinema houses: ‘from the upscale Regal and Eros to playhouses such as Nishat, Alfred and Taj,’ recalls Sarfaraz. “There were dedicated film pages and film magazines too.”

With the advent of multiplexes and the disappearance of ad agencies, Hindi film advertisements have dwindled. Now, says Sarfaraz, ads come from semi-government organisations such as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), and from private companies, most of them small scale.

“Urdu papers still do not attract ads from corporates,” says Sarfaraz matter-of-factly, because the latter don’t see returns commensurate with their spending.

Is it because Urdu readers are by and large not well-off? “That could be a reason for not advertising luxury goods, but what about basic consumer products such as soaps?” asks Sarfaraz. He points out an interesting fact: Urdu papers in Hyderabad are in a commanding position because the aristocracy harking back to the Nizam’s time continue to live there.

As regards circulation, the late Feroze Ashraf, who ran free classes for poor children living in the Muslim-dominated suburb of Jogeshwari, would often lament that though Muslim readers in Jogeshwari numbered about a lakh, barely 2,000 Urdu papers were sold there. Readers didn’t find their concerns reflected in these papers, he complained.

Sarfaraz has a different view. For Urdu papers, with their limited revenue, a high circulation would be an unmanageable financial burden. Hindustan’s circulation is around 40,000, he says, and he prefers to keep it at that. Wouldn’t that restrict its reach? Not anymore, he exults – Hindustan was the first Urdu daily to go digital. It now reaches Urdu readers across the world.

Reflecting community life, concerns

But is the new generation reading Urdu at all, let alone newspapers? There, says Sarfaraz, Urdu has an edge over English newspapers. “We concentrate on Urdu schools, covering all their activities, as well as the problems they face. From teachers to students, we treat them all as stakeholders. By serving their cause, we help ourselves. All of them are regular readers.”

Such involvement with the community is natural for all regional language newspapers. But the Urdu press, with an exclusively Muslim readership, stands on a different footing. In the past, Muslim intellectuals – including Urdu journalists – would criticise Urdu newspapers for focusing only on Muslim issues. But post-2014, is there space left for focusing on anything else? Are there times when Sarfaraz makes an editorial choice to give readers a break from the unrelenting assaults on the country’s largest minority?

“Not reporting all that is happening with our community would be a crime,” says Sarfaraz. “If I don’t know what’s going on, how am I going to help the victims? Knowledge strengthens the resolve to fight. It’s because of the stand taken by the Urdu press that Telengana MLA T Raja Singh was initially not given permission to address a rally in Mira Road.”

“Our reports also provide solace to the community,” he adds, “because often, the resolution comes from non-Muslims. It’s the non-Muslims of Uttarakhand who protested against the government’s actions in Haldwani; in Nuh last year, it was the Punjab and Haryana high court that took suo moto cognizance of the demolitions of Muslim properties.”

Given this focus, do governments and the police treat the Urdu press as adversaries? Not at all, says Sarfaraz, in fact, Maharashtra’s chief ministers have mostly been very friendly, and continue to be so. “As for the police, while we question the way they implicate Muslims for terror attacks, we also publish their version. It’s just that we pick holes in them in a way that the rest of the press doesn’t.”

Voice of the voiceless

The Urdu press, says Sarfaraz, has a tradition of revolt. ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ he points out, is an Urdu slogan. Like other Urdu editors, his father too was jailed during the freedom movement, his paper banned and his press shut down. It was then brought out as a cyclostyled sheet. Urdu writers formed the core of the Leftist movement.

Ironically, though, progressive Muslims complain that the Urdu press consistently takes a conservative stand on issues within the community, especially when it comes to women’s rights; that it does not dare to offend those powerful in the community, be they politicians or the ulema. So, is being a community paper as much a drawback as an advantage?

“I consider it a privilege,” retorts Sarfaraz. “We are the voice of the voiceless.”

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