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Media and the Stereotyping of Muslims

Media and the Stereotyping of Muslims

Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views edited by Ather Farouqui

Media and the Stereotyping of Muslims

Kalpana Sharma

T
he title of this book is not entirely representative of its contents. That is, as several authors in the book including the editor Ather Farouqui repeatedly emphasise, there is no unidimensional entity that can be termed the “Indian Muslim”. Given this, how do you analyse media images of Muslims in India?

And which media do you look at? The electronic media requires a different kind of analysis. But even in print, there is a vast chasm between the English language press, the regional language press and within that the Urdu press that is considered coterminous with the Muslim press. Yet, even the Urdu press does not represent the views of all Muslims as Urdu is spoken largely in the north and Muslims in the south and the east, particularly, would read newspapers in their own r espective regional language.

Despite these limitations, the effort to look at the image of Muslims in the Indian media is an interesting and instructive e xercise. For beyond the predictable stereotypes you find that either there is silence or simplification on the one hand, more particularly by the English language press, or demonisation and generalisation by the non-English press.

To understand the role the media plays in reinforcing dominant stereotypes of Muslims – the usual dichotomy of the mullah and the burqa-clad woman, and the rare “progressive” Muslim – one has to understand the particular history of the e stablishment and growth of the Urdu press in north India.

The Urdu Press

In many ways, this is the most interesting part of this edited volume as it sets out information, and insights, that would normally not be available to students of the media. So little is written and known about the Urdu press. Veteran journalist

book review

Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views

edited by Ather Farouqui (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2009; pp xiv + 354, Rs 695.

Kuldip Nayar, for instance, had his first job in the Urdu newspaper Anjan published from Delhi. The most popular Urdu paper post-Partition was Hind Samachar, owned by a Hindu, Lala Jagat Narain, whose m edia empire also publishes Punjab Kesari in Hindi and Jag Bani in Gurmukhi. The paper was read by the Hindu and Sikh elite who had learned Urdu, as it was the language of government.

Today, one of the biggest and most successful Urdu newspapers is Rashtriya Sahara, once again not owned by a Muslim. It is available online, its journalists are the best paid in the Urdu press (which is not saying much as the majority of Urdu publications are run on a shoe-string budget with a handful of employees, some of whom are paid as little as Rs 2,000 a month), and it is continuing to grow. I ndeed, along with other Indian language newspapers, the circulation of Urdu p apers also continues to grow.

Yet of the 3,078 registered Urdu publications, only 403 submit their annual reports and even of these less than 50 can be regarded seriously. The majority keep their registration alive by printing a few pages, getting government advertisements and in the past, selling their newsprint quota.

Farouqui is scathing about the Urdu press in the essays in the collection. Calling them “blood-drenched” newspapers, he argues that the majority of them want to keep their readers “buried under grief and pessimism” and harp on discrimination as the main cause of backwardness. They do not recognise, he writes that the “post-Partition psychological orientation”

August 1, 2009

of Muslims has also been responsible for their backwardness. By adopting a negative tone, the Urdu press is denying Muslims the chance to understand their “existential realities”, he suggests.

However, even if the majority of Urdu publications conform to Farouqui’s de

scription, there are some serious publications like Nai Duniya, Inquilab and Siasat that do not fit this stereotype. The latter, published from Hyderabad, is the secondmost popular Urdu e-paper after Inquilab. So although Farouqui says that mainstream Urdu journalism has remained static, Arshad Amanullah, in his essay, “Is Urdu Journalism in India a Lost Battle?” argues that it has not. He looks closely at the trend established by Rashtriya Sahara and now followed by newer papers like Hindustan Express published from Delhi since 2006 by several disgruntled former employees of Rashtriya Sahara and suggests that there could be a change in the style of Urdu journalism.

But the Urdu press reaches out only to Muslims. And according to the essays in the book, its readers are mostly working class and poor Muslims who read only Urdu. The majority of the growing professional middle class Muslims read Hindi or English newspapers, or those in other Indian languages. In the south, for instance, even the poorer Muslims do not read Urdu and would read a “Muslim” newspaper in their own regional language.

So while both the quality and the style of Urdu journalism has a great impact on the attitude of literate but poor Muslims, particularly in north India, the coverage of issues that affect Muslims in the English, Hindi and other Indian languages determines attitudes towards Muslims amongst the majority and exacerbates anger and a sense of exclusion amongst the educated Muslims who read these newspapers.

Diverse Perceptions

Here the book carries several essays that take different positions. Vinod Mehta, e ditor of Outlook, argues that on the whole the English language media is quite moderate and does not deliberately vilify or demonise Indian Muslims. He blames the

vol xliv no 31

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BOOK REVIEW

Muslim leadership for the negative images that come through in much of the media and argues that the media cannot be blamed for giving space to these regressive views as articulated by a conservative Muslim leadership. Chandan Mitra, editor of Pioneer from the opposite side of the political spectrum, more or less agrees with this position. He states that it is “the Urdu press run by Muslims that has done more damage to the Muslim image in India than any other language media”. Siddharth Vardarajan of the The Hindu, on the other hand, illustrates how in many subtle ways the English language mainstream media does, in fact, reinforce negative images of Muslims. For instance, even when newspapers follow the norm of not mentioning the communities involved in a communal clash, there are clear giveaways when Muslims are involved in the violence. However, if Hindus have instigated it, the reporting will not reveal it.

One might add, one of the most striking examples of this kind of bias was the a bsence of any follow-up to the blasts in Parbhani and Nanded, Maharashtra a few years ago in which Bajrang Dal cadre were involved. By way of contrast, the media pursued diligently every such incident involving Muslims aided by active feeds from the police. So the issue of image i nvolves not just what is reported, but what is not.

In fact, the absence of Muslim voices at so-called “normal” times is the other side of the debate on media’s role in perpetuating only one kind of image of the Muslim. The exception is reported. But the processes of change, particularly the positive ones, are rarely pursued. For example, in Maharashtra, Muslim girls have been doing exceptionally well in school board exams for several years. This is the direct outcome of a deliberate and determined attempt by “progressive” Muslims, post the demolition of the Babri masjid, to promote female education in their community. This trend went largely unnoticed in the media until these girls came into the news. No one speaks to people in these communities unless there is a crisis, such as a terror attack, when they are generally expected to reiterate their love and loyalty for the country. Thus, the absence of the “normal” Muslim voice e xaggerates the exception.

Apart from an essay by Mrinal Pande, editor of Hindustan, there is nothing else in the book that analyses Muslim images in the Hindi press. This would have been an important input as attitudes towards Muslims in the Hindi heartland are impacted by the Hindi media, more so the Hindi electronic media. This apart, Farouqui has assembled an informative and reasonably provocative collection of essays. It is refreshing to find that the contributors do not subscribe to a uniform view, that they differ with one another and that even the editor differs with them and states it in no uncertain terms. All this makes for a very good read.

Email: kalpu.sharma@gmail.com

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