By Rahul Kumar
New Delhi, June 9: One of India’s oldest Urdu newspapers, The Daily Milap, has an interesting history that spans three countries: India, Pakistan and even the UK. The newspaper and its owner-publishers also share a complex weave and weave with that of the country’s growth and the evolution of Indian society. Interestingly and surprisingly, the change is not reflected much in the readership of the Urdu press, which still remains rooted in the days of yesteryear.
India Narrative talks to Daily Milap editor Navin Suri in his office at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, often referred to as India’s Fleet Street. The journal entered its 100th year, which is a feat in a technology-driven era where established publications, and even late entries, fell like skittles.
With more than four decades behind him as editor, Suri speaks at length about the faded sheen of Urdu media, the challenges of ever-changing technology, and Milap’s journey through the decades.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: How is this long journey of Milap intertwined with that of India?
Suri: Milap was intimately involved in the country’s freedom struggle. My father and my five uncles were all involved in the liberation movement.
My uncle Ranbir Singh was a close confidant of Bhagat Singh. After the bombing, Bhagat Singh was arrested along with his comrades. They were put in solitary confinement and the British tried to extract information from them without success. They devised a plan and told Bhagat Singh that his other comrades had become approvers, which was not true.
Bhagat Singh’s father, Kishan Singh, got wind of it. He came to us and told us how to convey this information to Bhagat Singh that no one has revealed any information to the British?
At that time, relatives were allowed to meet prisoners once a week under a watchful eye.
So on the day that Kishan Singh had to visit Bhagat Singh in prison, Milap posted a news item on his front page saying “nothing happened and Bhagat Singh should not worry”. Inside the prison, Bhagat Singh was on a hunger strike when his father visited him with jalebis wrapped in Milap. Bhagat Singh was confused because his father knew he would not accept food due to the hunger strike.
During this meeting, Bhagat Singh’s father told him, “jalebi sut dein, lekin akhbar deikh lein” (throw the jalebis but read the newspaper), which further troubled Bhagat Singh. However, he did as he was told and read the newspaper carefully. He finally understood that his comrades had not yielded under the British pressure.
Q: Can you share more interesting stories like this with our readers?
Suri: In another case — the Hindi Aandolan, Master Tara Singh was fighting for a Punjabi Subba and wanted Sikhs and Hindus to mention that their mother tongue was Punjabi. Hindu organizations have also stood up to say that Hindi is the mother tongue of both communities.
Eventually, the matter reached Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
It must have been around 1960-1961 and both sides traveled to Nehru to present their case. In their presentation, Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh showed Nehru clippings from Milap to say that Punjabi should become the mother tongue.
In their presentation, the Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj also showed Milap cuttings to Nehru and stressed that Hindi should become the mother tongue. Nehru was amused and said to both parties, ‘aap Punjabi ke liye boy rahe hain, aur aap Hindi ke liye boy rahe hain, lekin akhbar Urdu ka dikha rahe hain. (You fight for Punjabi and you fight for Hindi, but you both bring Urdu newspapers).
Q: What changes have you observed in Indian society over this long period?
Suri: There is more acceptability of societal issues among people. For example, divorce no longer has the same taboo that we once had. Previously, so much was invested in a marriage across culture and society. Henceforth, divorce is accepted both by women and by “respectable families”.
I also see tolerance growing in religion and faith and in making and breaking friendships. Earlier, if someone said something about religion or a guru, people would be kicked out of the village and “hukka pani band ho jata tha” (people would be kicked out of the community). This is no longer the case.
Q: How is the Urdu newsreader different from English or Hindi?
Suri: That’s a tricky question. The Urdu reader is personally involved in his journal, as is the editor. I always write editorials under my own name, in which I address readers as “main aur tum” (me and you).
Our readers write to us as if they know me personally. An Urdu reader may not know me but I will be invited for his family occasions like weddings and even bereavements in his family.
On other occasions, I receive a letter from a father asking me to speak with his 19-year-old daughter who wants to study. The father wants me to persuade his daughter to marry because it is the tradition in the family.
Urdu editor and reader have a personal equation, which does not exist in any other language. I am a member of my reader’s family.
The relationship between us is such that the reader is supposed to send us letters and the editor is supposed to publish those letters.
Q: So what do Urdu readers read?
Suri: Ever since Urdu newspapers started publishing from Bengal and from Lahore, they have covered life and society, not just politics. Now, the politics have steadily increased, but other aspects of our society continue to be published.
We publish more positive news than about politics or religion. We will still hear from you about a particular type of preparation of kahwa or Kashmir knitting. Our focus continues to remain on our readers and society. Readers always like to stay personally involved in the Urdu newspaper.
It used to be that the front page had politics on one day, religion on the second day, maybe a scandal on the third day, and people’s letters and society-related news on another day – all on the front page.
We used to publish knitting information because our readers liked to see it in the paper, but it’s gone now. There was a time when even a housewife complained against her husband.
Subscription to our newspaper is still called ‘chanda’ (donation) instead of subscription. Hum toh chande pe jee rahe hain (We literally survive on donations).
The wall of Navin Suri’s office is adorned with swords presented by gurdwaras, a kalma from the Quran that pours blessings and miniature murtis of gods and goddesses
Q: How has Milap kept pace with changes in the media industry?
Suri: We are trying hard but not everything has been successful.
Urdu no longer enjoys the same glory as it once did, but there’s no point in shouting it either. We have to accept that Urdu media is in trouble.
It was in 1983 that we started to computerize Milap. We were looking to Pakistan for help and contacted the largest Urdu newspaper — Nawai Waqt. However, things haven’t progressed much. Finally, a company based in Hyderabad helped us develop software in Urdu. Since then, we have taken the lead in the technology race among Urdu media in India.
Once in the late sixties, we even started publishing from London. The Milap London newspaper was printed bilingually in Urdu and English. This was in response to the launch of a Pakistani newspaper in London. We only lasted about three to four years.
Q: All media houses struggle with online media. How is Milap doing?
Suri: We diversify as much as possible. Besides the website, we have a Milap app.
We have launched the Milap News Service which provides exclusive Milap articles to Urdu media. In about nine months, we have a subscription base of 86 newspapers for our news service.
We also provide information to the diplomatic core. The embassies of various countries especially want to know how their policies are perceived by our readers. Embassies and diplomats find us reliable and credible in the information we provide to them.
Q: Another challenge facing the mainstream media is the proliferation of fake news and misleading information on social media platforms. However, the responsibility for debunking misinformation often falls on mainstream journalists. How is the Urdu media faring on this front?
Suri: Well, Urdu social media also has a lot of fake news. Sometimes it turns out to be very embarrassing for us as people may try to project false information through us. We nip it in the bud. We try to fight against false information.
It is very difficult to cure it. “Har aadmi apne aap ko khuda samajhta hai” (Everyone on social media thinks he is god). These are the positive and negative aspects of the technology.
Q: Do you have readers in Pakistan?
Suri: We don’t have reader statistics in Pakistan, although we do have Twitter followers there. Milap and Pakistan have an interesting relationship.
We had criticized Imran Khan as Prime Minister. Finally, one day, we noticed that he had blocked our two accounts on Facebook and Twitter. We felt very flattered by this.
Then, during the 1971 war, relations between India and Pakistan were at their lowest. One day, someone came to tell us that he had caught packages of Milap at the border. Then we learned that 2,000 copies of our newspaper were smuggled into Pakistan every day from the Punjab border. So I guess we have readers there.
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