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Person With A Mission
Last Updated: August 22, 2008
Person With A Mission-23: Abdussalam Puthige


 

There are around 2000 Kannada newspapers and magazines registered under RNI. So far as a Muslim share in it is concerned, the number is meager. Over half a dozen are brought out from Mangalore. They are daily Vartha Bharathi, weeklies Sanmarga and Al Ansar, fortnightly Pavitra Sandesha, monthlies Tawanidhi, Anupama and Pushpa Mandara. Vartha Bharathi (http://www.varthabharathi.net/), the first Kannada daily launched in 2003 by a Muslim through a public limited company that was floated two years earlier, is edited by Abdussalam Puthige, a Kannada scholar and journalist. He also runs a media trust Madhyama Kendra since 1996. Emerging as a new voice in Kannada, he is unto himself an institution. This week Fana Watch takes up his mission in its every Friday column “Person with a Mission” with thanks from “The Muslim Kannadiga” (Excerpts) by scholar and media-person Yoginder Sikand appearing in TwoCircles.net.

“Fascist forces have carefully targeted the media. They recognise that infiltrating the media is crucial for their political project. In contrast, the media is not even on the agenda of secular forces”, muses 44 year-old Abdussalam Puthige, Editor of Vartha Bharathi, Karnataka's only Muslim-run Kannada language daily newspaper.

This, and what he sees as general Muslim indifference to and lack of awareness of the power of the media, are, he explains, two among the major reasons for the rapid rise of Hindutva forces in Karnataka in recent years, so much so that the state now has its first ever BJP-led government.

Puthige is a soft-spoken, exceedingly pleasant man and exudes passion and commitment…He was born and brought up in a village near Mangalore in coastal Karnataka. He strikes me as a self-made man, unburdened by all his major achievements, which he does not wish to discuss.

These include translating over twenty Urdu works into Kannada, starting at the age of sixteen, and editing a Kannada translation of the Quran. In addition to which are a media centre and now his newspaper, with an edition each from Mangalore and Bangalore.

I ask him to speak about how he hit on the idea of launching a Kannada newspaper, given that few Muslims in Karnataka own it as their mother tongue. The fact that the Kannada media is largely controlled by 'upper' caste Hindu elites and reflects their interests and concerns, leaving out the marginalised majority—Dalits, Backward Castes and Muslims—was, Puthige says, the major reason that set the project off.

“I wanted the paper to be the voice of the voiceless, to be a vehicle for relaying their voices and demands, and to counter media biases and hostile reporting about these communities.”

In this, he says, he was inspired by late Vaddarse Raghuram Shetty, who, sometime in the 1980s had launched a short-lived Kannada paper “Mungaru” that employed several Muslim, Dalit and Backward Caste journalists, in contrast to most other papers in the state which were, and still remain, heavily dominated by the minority 'high' caste Hindus. The paper had also sought to focus on news and stories related to these marginalised communities.

In 1996, Puthige, along with some friends, set up a trust, Madhyama Kendra, which was intended to serve as a media centre to promote awareness among Muslim youth about the importance of the Kannada media, to train them to influence the media by writing letters to editors and contributing stories and news reports and, particularly, to counter mounting misreporting and negative stereotyping of Muslims, which had become a pervasive feature of many Kannada papers sympathetic to the Hindu right. The centre conducted studies and published reports on this issue.

Puthige hands me a bound folder containing these reports and translates for my benefit. On one page is a news item in a Kannada paper that refers to a certain madrasa being raided, probably on grounds of being suspected for harbouring terrorists. When Muslim leaders contacted the police, they were informed that nothing of the sort had actually happened. The result of this fictitious police raid: Muslims and their madrasas became, in the minds of the readers of the report, inextricably associated with 'terrorism'.

On another page of the folder is a news item in Urdu which reads, “It is a crime for youth to take to violence in the name of jihad in order to make money”, which a pro-RSS Kannada paper reproduces and deliberately mistranslates as “Muslim Terrorists promise youth six thousand rupees each for making bombs.”

A report in a third Kannada paper outdoes even this one in bone-chilling duplicity. It refers to a group of Muslims in Karnataka as reportedly forwarding a certain sum of money to Nawaz Sharif, the then Pakistani Prime Minister. In actual fact, however, that money was sent to Kargil Fund of the Prime Minister of India as a contribution in the wake of skirmishes with Pakistani forces in Kashmir. And so on, all in the same vein.

“No legal action has been taken against such papers. Not even by secular activists or even Muslim political leaders, who seem ignorant or even indifferent to the issue”, laments Puthige. “Vast sections of the Kannada press have become totally communal, and even those run by secular-minded people have been infiltrated by Hindutva elements. It is simply amazing how they are planting false stories about Muslims with such impunity and getting away with it and this is getting from bad to worse with every passing day”.

Puthige's paper is a bold attempt to counter this menacing tendency and to make a difference. It was launched in 2003 through a public limited company that was floated two years earlier, and it has a press of its own. Plans are afoot to launch a third edition from Hubli.

Puthige does not see his paper as a 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' one. “It aims at a cross-community readership, with a focus particularly on news and reports about marginalised communities—not just Muslims alone but also others, such as Dalits, Backward Castes and Adivasis”, he explains.

All of these communities are ignored, or else deliberately misreported about, in most Kannada papers, which is a major issue that the paper wants to address. Numerous well-known Kannada leftist and Dalit ideologues write regularly for the paper. In addition, essays and stories by social activists from outside Karnataka, most of them non-Muslims, on a host of issues not necessarily associated exclusively with Muslims are routinely translated and published in the paper. More than half of its readers, says Puthige, are non-Muslims and so is most of its staff which number over a hundred.


A glimpse of Kannada daily “Vartha Bharathi”, edited by Abdussalam Puthige

Vartha Bharati, Puthige says, represents an attempt to undermine the widespread inhibition about writing and reading Kannada among Muslims in Karnataka.

“As inhabitants of the state, it is crucial that we are fluent in the official state language, for without that how can we communicate with others and with the agencies of the state? Without a Muslim presence in the Kannada media, how can we get our views and concerns across to the wider society, to political parties, to the government?”

For Muslims to continue to ignore the Kannada media is to only further strengthen their marginalisation and invisibility in public debates, even in matters directly relating to them, he argues.

“If there were more Muslims in Kannada papers or if more Muslim-run Kannada newspapers were to be launched, this would certainly have an impact in dampening the mounting anti-Muslim propaganda, which large sections of the Kannada press are now so heavily engaged in promoting.”

Puthige tells me about a novel experiment that he and some of his friends recently came up with in order to encourage young Muslims, Dalits and others from similar marginalised communities in Karnataka who are heavily under-represented in the Kannada press to consider a career in the Kannada media. They developed a one year diploma course in Kannada journalism and last year advertised for applications. “We received forty applications for the course, but not a single one of these was from a Muslim or a Dalit.” And, because of that, the course had to be scrapped.

“Muslims need a media run on professional lines and not just in Urdu but in all other regional languages and English as well. A media that addresses not just Muslims alone but other marginalised groups, too”, Puthige goes on.

'There is so much to be done”, Puthige exclaims with a sense of urgency as I get up to leave. I step out of his room and as I look back through the curtains I see him rush back to his seat and begin tapping away at his computer—back to work, back to the 'struggle for justice' that he has been so passionately speaking about for the past two hours or more.

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