January issue 2017
Urdu in the 21st Century
2016 was a remarkable year for Urdu online presence. With the arrival of multiple forums in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, the space for debate, discussion, and a dialogue on the pressing issues in our society in a language accessible to nearly all, has been expanded considerably. All the four websites discussed have made very effective use of social networking sites to disseminate their information and draw in readership. Most significantly, these platforms have contributed to shedding the impression that Urdu cannot be used as a medium for promoting progressive ideas.
Sujag, one of the older web platforms, has been active since 2015. It came about as a result of the efforts of a group of veteran journalists and social activists associated with a not-for-profit organisation, Punjab Lok Sujag. Established in 1997, this group has been undertaking research and advocacy work on gender, agriculture, health, politics and governance.
Asghar Zaidi, the editor of the website, who has 20 years experience of working in the print and electronic media, terms his association with Sujag as the most remarkable aspect of his journalistic career. “We have a team of 30 people, which helps us cover 10 districts out of 36 in Punjab. Now we plan to extend our coverage to other districts as well,” he says.
The Sujag website has separate tabs for each of the 10 districts. A click leads to a page containing all the news reports, stories, audio and video features about that particular district. The video features are mostly in Punjabi and Seraiki. “Reporters are hired after assessing their leanings regarding religious or ethnic prejudices, and views on gender. They are provided technical training, and are paid competitive salaries, and freelance contributors are also paid. Reports on each district are published on a daily basis, with at least two reports per day per district.”
The website has an ‘opinion and perspectives’ section which publishes translations and original contributions on broad social and political issues. “We publish at least 10 articles, including translations and original contributions, mostly in Urdu, because there are very few people writing in Punjabi and Seraiki. But we have one section, Boldi Kahani, which is entirely in Punjabi. We have chosen works of classic Punjabi writers (from East Punjab as well), and produced them in audio pieces. There are characters, music and sound effects in each of these stories. Currently we are working on Maxim Gorky’s novel The Mother in Punjabi. Five episodes of it have already been recorded and will be available online shortly,” says Zaidi.
Aik Rozan, another Urdu website which was launched in June 2016, is also run by a small group of like-minded friends. Yasser Chattha, a graduate of English literature, with a PhD in political linguistics, working as Assistant Professor of English in a public sector college in Islamabad, along with his friends, took the decision to start an Urdu website.
Referring to web space and the debates on social networking sites, he says, “Facebook and Twitter interactions prove of little help as there are always many spoilers around to run any protracted or meaningful debate amok. So we thought it would be better to have a platform for discussions and an exchange of arguments in a cooperative cyber context, and to broaden its scope by inviting people to contribute observations and experiences. Hence, Aik Rozan, our blogging website.”
Although Chattha says he personally feels more at home in English, he thinks it’s a remnant of our post-colonial heritage and out of sync with the times. While acknowledging that even though speaking and writing in English is socially rewarded, he says, “We want to establish that debates and discourses in Urdu aren’t just about jingoism, hyper-nationalism, anti-democratic tendencies and a narrow religious worldview. We are introducing topics such as the environment, climate, and the rights of the marginalised, and giving space to competing worldviews. We are trying to do our bit to facilitate people to become more self aware and question their motives for the views they hold – basically to make them think. The importance of communicating in a language which reaches the larger population cannot be overemphasised. Urdu, and other regional languages, have that opportunity built in. We need to truly embrace modern sociolinguistics science ideas and emphasise that no language is stupid or supreme. They all have their equally important worldviews and cultural philosophies.”
Assessing their performance and outreach, Chattha says, “We started Aik Rozan mid-2016, after making a thorough analysis of our strengths and weaknesses. We decided to remain within our financial and available-to-us time limits. The core team consists of only four people, and a few workplace friends. We are all very happy doing this demanding and time-consuming task and hope to sustain it as a non-profit, voluntary organisation through our social responsibility commitment and idealism for some foreseeable time. We offer a platform to volunteer writers, although we state clearly that we are unable to pay any honorarium, etc. In just six months we have made a good footprint on Facebook, with a fan base of around 10K by now.”
Hum Sub, one of the most popular Urdu websites, launched just 11 months ago, recently crossed the 10 million mark in clicks. Founded by veteran academic, author, and intellectual, Wajahat Masood, with a team of volunteers who are providing technical help and editorial assistance, the site has drawn plenty of contributors; among them senior journalists, academics, and a long list of new writers. It has created a buzz with its relatively open approach in terms of contributions, acceptance of diverse viewpoints, and a liberal take on issues.
Adnan Khan Kakar, owner of a software firm, and a Computer Science graduate, has been working as editorial assistant and contributor for the Hum Sub website and explains the tremendous response it has received. “The mainstream Urdu press and electronic media is mostly dominated by right-wing hardliners. Liberal writers do not get much space. But there is a new breed of activists and writers who are using the internet to get their voices heard. There are people who have seen the results of extremism, and have suffered. They want to improve things through discussion beyond the set parameters. Most are new to writing; some are good, and some are getting better by the day. We have to provide them space. “
Our only mantra is tolerance. If an article doesn’t promote extremism, has no baseless allegations against an entity or a person, and is written in a polite manner, then we try our utmost to publish it. We understand that the Urdu readership is heavily indoctrinated, and when we present a point of view that is common in the more liberal English press, but not in the vernacular one. Many people are initially shocked. Some even react quite harshly. But we take it as part of our job. For the first time in post 80s Pakistani history, we have provided a liberal and free publication for those who read Urdu and are tired of the traditional Urdu press’ ultra right attitude. They are the people who are flocking to the site. A large variety of quality articles presenting different viewpoints and topics is another factor.”
As to the question of financial viability, Kakar responds, “The entire effort is based on a volunteer network. Our volunteers contribute; we do not pay them. All they want is a better and more tolerant Pakistan.”
Haal Hawal, the first online Urdu website from Balochistan, was started this year by journalist, translator, author, and publisher, Abid Mir, along with three other volunteers. The website, on its masthead, has the picture of slain Baloch journalist, Irshad Mastoi, who was killed in August 2014, with the inscription, “In memory of Irshad Mastoi.” Abid Mir, the editor of Haal Hawal, is the nephew of Irshad Mastoi, and has been associated with many print publications over the last decade. What prompted him to start Haal Hawal in Urdu? “In Balochistan, Urdu has been a major medium of writing and publication. Hence, we are compelled to use it. Unlike the mainstream media in Pakistan, in Balochistan the media is not divided on the basis of left or right leaning, but focused on the local narrative. People here can read and understand Urdu. I have been saying it for years, no matter how uncertain the future of Balochistan and the Baloch, the future of Urdu is very bright here.”
He continues, “During the last decade, the number of people who can read and write Urdu has increased considerably in Balochistan. They are also familiar with online journalism, and have been discussing their issues over different platforms and social networking sites. Some friends came up with online English publications, but their outreach was limited, so we decided to use Urdu for the website dedicated to news on Balochistan. This has helped us get contributors even from distant places in Balochistan. Perhaps, the most encouraging thing is that 90 per cent of our correspondents are new writers, and Haal Hawal has given them a platform to get their stories and reports published.”
Usman Qazi, a development expert from Balochistan, and a regular contributor to the Urdu platforms like Hum Sub and Haal Hawal, describes the role of Urdu and other languages in reaching the masses in the context of Balochistan. “Barring Sindhi, the readership of regional languages is extremely limited due to a multitude of constraints. Balochistan is a particularly bleak landscape where the largest single provincial language, Pashto, is not taught in schools. There has been no serious effort, either on the part of civil society, or political activists, to standardise the Balochi language or even the alphabet. It is more or less, the same case with Brahui, another dialect (spoken by the Mengals). That leaves Urdu as the most convenient and accessible medium for the literate masses. All the written political discourse across the province takes place in Urdu.”
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order