Yoginder Sikand


Muslims constitute a significant proportion of Kerala’s population and are amongst the most literate Muslim  community. Aside from their participation in different political formations, they produce numerous magazines,  which unlike the Muslim publications in the North, deal with issues other than religion.


Kerala’s Muslims, who form roughly a quarter of the state’s population, are among the most literate Muslim  communities in India. A major reason for, as well as a consequence of, the community’s high literacy rate is the  thriving Muslim-owned Malayalam press. Today, literally hundreds of magazines, journals and newspapers are  brought out by various Kerala Muslim organizations. These deal not simply with religion (as in the case of many  north Indian Muslim-owned publications) but with social and political issues as well. These publications have  played a crucial role in promoting social and political awareness among Kerala’s Muslims and in getting Muslim  views and concerns across to fellow Malayali non-Muslims and to the state authorities and in promoting closer  interaction between the various communities in Kerala.


Set up in 1987 by the Ideal Publications Trust, most of whose members are affiliated with the Kerala unit of the  Jamaat-e Islami, Madhyamam is regarded as the most successful Muslim-owned daily newspaper in Kerala. It  boasts the third highest circulation among all Malayalam daily newspapers in the state. Its chief editor O.Abdur  Rahman stresses that it is not a specifically Muslim or an Islamic paper. ‘Madhyamam is geared to all  Malayalam readers and takes up general issues, while focusing in particular on those related to marginalized and  minority communities, including Dalits, Adivasis and Backward Castes, and not just Muslims alone. We see it as  the voice of the voiceless’, he states. ‘We have been consistently anti-imperialist, supporting a range of  liberation movements and also bitterly critiquing fascism, extremism in the name of religion and terrorism’, he  adds. He describes Madhyamam as ‘a value-based paper, stressing ethics and morals, in contrast to commercial  papers, whose sole motive is profit-making.’    Madhyamam’s editorial offices are located in Calicut, the major intellectual centre for Muslims in Kerala.  Currently, it brings out separate editions from six cities in Kerala—Cochin, Trivandrum, Cannanore,  Mallapuram, Kottayam and Calicut—and two in Karnataka—Bangalore and Mangalore. Separate Gulf editions,  catering to the half million-odd Malayalis living in Arab countries, come out from Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait,  Doha, Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah, making Madhyamam the largest-circulated Malayalam newspaper in the  region. In addition, the Madhyamam Weekly magazine has a circulation of some 25,000. Currently, the entire  Madhyamam group has some 1200 staff on its rolls, including around 500 full-time journalists.


A major challenge that Madhyamam has had to contend with is lack of sufficient advertisement revenue.  Explains Abdur Rahman, ‘Newspapers survive on money from advertisements, but from the very beginning we  had decided, as a matter of policy, to be very selective about the advertisements we published. No ads showing  immodestly-clad women, no ads for banks, alcohol, fraudulent investments and movies. This is why we had to  suffer major losses, and even now just manage to break even.’ A portion of the profits that the paper generates is  diverted to the Madhyamam Health Care Program, which provides free medical facilities to poor people,  irrespective of religion and caste in hospitals with which it has a tie-up with. In the last six years, some 3000  patients have benefited from the Program at a cost of 3 crore (1 crore is 10 million; 1 US dollar is approximately  50 In Rs).


A major problem that Muslim-run papers face, Abdur Rahman explains, is the lack of professionally-qualified  journalists. It was to address this concern that last year the Madhyamam Institute of Journalism was launched.  Currently located in the paper’s Calicut office, the Institute offers a one year diploma in journalism. At present,  it has fourteen students—girls and boys, Muslims and Hindus—on its rolls. The course fee is Rs.20000. ‘This is  the only Muslim-run institution of its kind in Kerala,’ says Abdur Rahman. The course involves considerable  hands-on training in Madhyamam itself, and successful students are likely to be absorbed by the newspaper after  they finish.


What lessons does the successful Madhyamam experiment provide for Muslim-owned media houses in India?  How is it that Madhyamam has made such bold strides, in contrast to many Muslim-run papers in other parts of  the country? Abdur Rahman insists that for Muslim-owned newspapers in India to be effective must be broad- based in their appeal and approach, and not limited just to Muslims alone. ‘A Muslim-owned daily newspaper  should be secular, and not confined to simply Muslim community or religious issues,’ he says. ‘This is the only  way we can present our views and problems to the wider society. Otherwise, others will not take us seriously and  we won’t be able to have any impact outside a narrow Muslim circle. The example of ghettoized north Indian  Urdu papers well illustrates this argument. Because of our approach, many of our readers are non-Muslims.’


‘We do not regularly publish articles on or about religion as such, limiting ourselves, as any newspaper should,  to just news and views about news’, Abdur Rahman elaborates. ‘On religious festivals we bring out special  issues, but this is not limited to just Muslim festivals. We do this for Onam and Vishu—Malayali Hindu  festivals—and for Christmas as well.’ He contrasts this ecumenical approach to that of most Muslim-run  publications in other parts of India, which, he laments, ‘focus only on Islam alone, often narrowly defined, and  ignore social issues.’ ‘At the same time,’ Abdur Rahman continues, ‘this does not mean that a Muslim daily  newspaper should ignore Muslim concerns. What we in Madhyamam do is to present news as news, and  highlight all relevant news, and not just developments concerned only with Muslims. But we also highlight our  own views about the news in our editorial pages and in the columns to which we invite specialists to contribute.  In this way, Muslim perspectives on various developments can be articulated. We also allow people to critique  us in our columns. Muslim papers must allow this, and abstain from a one-way monologue.’


Another advice that Abdur Rahman gives for Muslim-run papers is to invite non-Muslim writers to contribute  their views. ‘A number of leading non-Muslim intellectuals and social activists write for Madhyamam.’ To make  for a healthy work environment, he also suggests that Muslim-owned papers employ non-Muslim professionals  too and not make themselves into a Muslim-only concern. ‘In Madhyamam some forty per cent of our journalists  are non-Muslims—Christians, Hindus, Marxists and atheists. And our staff have their own political leanings and  affiliations. Some are pro-Muslim League, others are with the Congress, and yet others are with the Communists,  but that does not matter as long as they work in a professional manner,’ he says. This openness to others, he  remarks, is a hallmark of Kerala society, where different religious communities share a common culture and a  strong common identity as Malayalis. ‘A major drawback of most Muslim-owned papers’, he opines, ‘is the lack  of professionalism. A multi-religious and multi-communal workplace can make much of a difference in this  regard.’


Madhyamam has ambitious plans for the future, says Abdur Rahman. These include a daily English newspaper,  with simultaneous editions from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, a regular  television channel (that would follow the same media policy as Madhyamam), as well as new editions from  some other locations in Kerala. Certainly, then, a novel experiment that other Muslim media houses could learn  much from.    

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