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Sagging Urdu press in West Bengal

Once Urdu press had glorious past in Bengal but the present scenario does not have much to offer writes Md. Shahid Rafique

Circulation figures of vernacular newspapers show a healthy upward swing with the sole exception of Urdu papers. It is very disappointing that being second national language Urdu shows no sign of development .No one would believe that the present deteriorating state of Urdu press in Bengal had a glorious past .Many questions come to mind when the name of Urdu press in Bengal comes up. What has gone wrong with this vernacular press with such a golden history? Why is its readership dipping further everyday? What is its future? The list is endless. 

A look into the pre-independence era brings forth some old memories of the glorious past of the Urdu press in Bengal. Urdu journalism can be traced back to Jaam-e-Jahan-Namah, an Urdu weekly launched on March 27,1822 under the editorship of Munshi Sadasukh Mirzapuri. After the decline of Persian as the official language, Urdu gained prominence .This gave rise to a series of Urdu magazines and periodicals. The British Raj, on the one hand, used it as a means of communication with the masses and on the other hand, the freedom fighters used it as a rudimentary tool to generate feelings of nationalism. Urdu press was banned by the British due to its involvement in the revolt of 1857.

Urdu Guide was the first Urdu daily published in 1858 from Kolkata. Noted historian Mr.S.R.Bhattacharya said in a book that Urdu press gained momentum in 19th century and became more popular than any other vernacular press in the 20th century. Papers like Al-Hilal and Al-Bilagh opened new vistas for the Urdu press. Among others there were Paigham, Rehnuma , Al-Haque and Angara. However, the Urdu press suffered a major set-back in 1971 after the creation of Bangladesh .It lost the missionary zeal and fervour which were its hallmark. 

The present scenario does not have much to offer. Today there are few Urdu dailies namely Akhbar-e-Mashrique , Azad Hind, Aabshaar, and weekly Nasheman and Ghazi. The state of Urdu press has been reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence. People here are blaming each other for its present condition. Raees Ahmed Jaffri, news editor of Aabshaar, one of the leading Urdu dailies in Kolkata, says," the Urdu press lost its fervour in 1971. It is just dragging itself." He blames this on the lack of patronage from the government which Urdu papers earlier enjoyed. His counter part Azmat Siddiqui of Akhbar-e- Mashrique echoed the same sentiments. He said that the government of Bengal should give more importance to advertisements in the Urdu papers. This will help increase the revenue of this dying heritage and enable them to improve the contents and quality of news.

It is true that earlier Urdu press used to be the voice of the people and all important ads of the government as well as private companies used to be published which provided higher revenue to the press and thus the press was more eager to give first hand news by appointing more people to work and adding valuable columns. But things didn't remain the same and gradually public started losing interest in Urdu papers due to stale news and their poor quality. Dr.Shahnaz Nabi, reader of the Urdu department in Calcutta University , feels that Urdu press can be turned around only when Urdu as a language is given prominence. Urdu should be made the compulsory second language in Urdu dominated pockets. While the news editor blames common people for the receding circulation , the latter has an altogether different story to relate .As far as Urdu students are concerned , they opt for Urdu paper as Urdu is their mother tongue and they are more comfortable with it. But they feel that there is very little for them in the paper as far as the educational and literary articles are concerned. They also feel that apart from the government paying heed to the Urdu press , the press people should seriously do something to improve the quality of the papers. Md. Salim, a post graduate in Urdu from Calcutta University, says that apart from economic compulsions, people do not buy Urdu newspapers as the news is stale. Whatever information is available in the Urdu papers is already published much earlier in the English dailies and TV news. So people prefer to buy cheaper yet better quality English papers rather than an expensive and inferior quality Urdu paper. Some people think that Urdu press is going to die in Bengal if necessary steps are not taken to protect and promote it. Today Urdu papers are used by the masses who know Urdu only. There is no denying the fact that educated Urdu speaking people opt for English newspapers. Even people associated with the language like teachers, students, professors, poets and so on now prefer other newspapers instead of Urdu for better quality of news and views.

With so many problems with the Urdu press, what are the remedies for its improvement. Says Zaheer Anwar , a noted playwright and recipient of Ghalib Award from Delhi Urdu Academy :"There should be a change in the whole infrastructure of the journalistic set up including the remuneration of the press people , the expenditures in the layout and photos, to save the sagging image of the Urdu press." People want to see fearless Urdu press which it used to be in the past. They feel that the Urdu Press has to rise above petty interests and selfish motives .It should play an active role by not acting as a mouthpiece of different political parties. Despite the deteriorating condition of Urdu press , there are optimists like Nishat Alam, deputy secretary of Kolkata Urdu Academy who feels that the Urdu press is improving even though some papers are closing down. Sehrun Nessa , headmistress of Anjuman Girls School, Kolkata has different views. She feels that the present scenario of Urdu press in Bengal brought shame to both the parties-- the press and government and the general public. "Due to lack of ads from public and government the press is facing such problems. On the other hand, the press people should try to improve their quality. The government should pay attention to improve the rich heritage of Bengal." 

The problems are many and so are the solutions. At each level, right from the common man the govt. is to be blamed for this sorry state of affairs of Urdu press. It is high time for self evaluation by the Urdu media in Bengal otherwise it will soon become history.
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