Urdu is counted among the most extensively spoken languages in the country. ‘Urdu’ is derived from the Turkish word ‘ordu’ meaning ‘camp’ or ‘army,’ which means that the dialect originated as a lashkari (military) language nourished during the Mughal era in medieval India and debunks the popular myth that it is the language of Muslims.
Urdu has the third-largest number of newspapers and magazines in circulation in India, after Hindi and English. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) database, the registration of Urdu newspapers has gone up in the past decade with a presence in more than 20 states and union territories. Delhi, UP, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir are major Urdu media hubs.
Though the Urdu-speaking population gradually declined in the years after the partition of India and Pakistan, several media houses assert that Urdu readership has increased in the past 15 years. If the RNI numbers are to be believed, the non-Muslim Urdu publishers also increased in these years, as well as the registered Urdu newspapers and periodicals. The presence of multi-state, multi-edition newspapers along with investments by major domestic publication houses hints towards the growing reach of the Urdu print news media in India. There are around 6,000 Urdu language newspapers and editions registered in India today although it is likely that the number still in regular publication are fewer.
Delhi, Srinagar, Lucknow, Kolkata, Patna, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Aurangabad, and Bhopal are major centers for Urdu print media in the country. Digitization and more recently the Coronavirus pandemic forced more than 35 Urdu newspapers to launch their digital editions.
In its 200 years of its existence, the Urdu press has played a defining role on in public and nationalist opinion interests in India with its roots in opposition to the British Raj. The claimants to pioneers in Urdu journalism in the Indian subcontinent are many. Jam-e-Jahan Numa, was first published on 27 March 1822 from Calcutta (present day Kolkata) by a Bengali Brahmin Harihar Dutta. Another claim to being was Agra Akhbar published from Akbarabad in 1831. Marat-ul-Akhbar, a journal founded and edited by artist and freedom fighter Raja Rammohan Roy in 1821 from Calcutta is another contender in this legacy.
Moulvi Mohammed Baqar of Delhi Urdu Akhbar – was the India’s first journalist to sacrifice his life for the freedom struggle for his unbiased reporting of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Baqar was brutally assassinated by the British army. 1857 marked the beginning of the courageous role of the Urdu press in India’s freedom struggle and the public discussion of the social and economic problems of the country. The 1857 rebellion positively impacted the number of publications, and circulation volumes of the Urdu press which became a stepping stone in the development of investigative journalism in the subcontinent.
Kohinoor, Roznamha-e-Punjab, Oudh Akhbar, Urdu Guide, Fawaid-ul-Nazarin, Tahazib-ul- Akhlaq, Kashful Akhbar, Qasim-ul-Akhbar, Asiful Akhbar, and Kiran-us-Sadai are formiddable titles of this legacy. Oudh Punch, the first Urdu humor magazine was published by Sajjid Hussain in 1877, and Akhbar-un-Nisa became the maiden Urdu women’s journal. The Urdu press also played a prominent role in the British government’s Vernacular Press Act of 1877. It conceived the phrase Inquilab Zindabad – the slogan of freedom, rebellion and dissent, unanimously adopted as the war cry of India’s freedom struggle – to this day.
The political movements and social development exercises introduced by the political parties such as the Congress, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Arya Samaj shaped the Urdu newspapers and periodicals as agents of social change and political vectors in the struggle for India’s freedom. Zameendar, the Hindustani, Hamdard, the Muslim Gazette, Watan, Naqeeb-e-Hamdard, the Swaraj, and Al Hilal shaped the opinions of the common man fighting for independence from the imperial rule. The majority of publishers, editors and journalists of Urdu journals and newspapers during the 19th century were non-Muslims.
Urdu journalism saw its lowest phase in the years following partition as cases of burning presses and newsprint were heard of at times. Reports of attacks on journalists and editors were commonplace such as the raid on the Lahore office of Milap which resulted in the death of its managing editor Ranbir, and its subsequent shift to Delhi. The adoption of Hindi as the lingua franca impacted Urdu journalism. According to the RNI data, at the time of partition 415 Urdu newspapers and periodicals were present in India. Of these, 70 migrated to Pakistan with the rest remaining in India.
The 1980’s were another low point in for Urdu journalism with declining readership leading to the closure of several Urdu publications including Shan-e-Millat, Ghazi, Imroze, and Iqra in West Bengal. The years following the emergency and the Babri Masjid issue also saw a strong growth in Urdu media and the years after the millenium have recorded a strong growth as well. Dawat, Nai Duniya, Siasat, Azad Hind, The Munsif Daily, The Inquilab, Urdu Times, Rozana Hind, Akhbaar-e-Mashrique, Aabshaar, and Rehnuama-e-Deccan are some of the recent titles in Urdu media.
However, many Urdu dailies have ceased publication in Uttar Pradesh including Qaumi Jung, Noor-e-Bareilly, Dukhti Rag, Subh-e-Awadh, Mishal-e-Azadi, Aina-e-Alam, Alas-Subh, and Safeer. The reasons for these closures are several – the lack of facilities for elementary education in Urdu, political apathy and prejudice, and rampant saffronization. Nevertheless, Urdu media is here to stay.
This article is based on several books and studies on Urdu journalism including Urdu Media – Kal, Aaj, Kal, an account of the history of Urdu journalism in India by Syed Fazil Hussain Parvez which recounts the evolution of the Indian Urdu media in the 200 years of its existence.