By Ashraf Ali Bastawi
New Delhi: At the end of December 2016 came the news that the 17-year-old publication The Milli Gazette has said goodbye to its readers. The 16-31 December issue was the last. This is indeed a painful news.
Founder Editor Zafarul-Islam Khan brought it out in January 2000 with high hopes expecting that through this publication he would be able to make the voice of 200 million Indian Muslim community heard. Otherwise, it was not being given coverage in the national media. He thought through an English publication he will be able to convey the Indian Muslim voice to millions outside India as well. But for how long could this journey continue in the wilderness of media world without the badly needed resources? After issuing several mayday calls during these past 17 years and when no meaningful rescue could be found, at last he announced that this journey could not be continued any further.
Asia Times thought it necessary to talk in detail to the editor of The Milli Gazette and learn about the difficulties he had to face and what efforts he made to overcome these difficulties.
Following is a rather detailed interview of Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan by Ashraf Ali Bastawi:
Q.: Towards the end of December we got the sad news that The Milli Gazette will not be published anymore. What was the reason behind this decision?
The community doesn’t support this publication by either buying it or advertising in it. So, in a situation like this, for how long could we continue? However, we regularly used to receive postcards requesting for complimentary copies.
A.: There isn’t any one reason for its closure. As time passed by, financial deficit and other issues continued accumulating creating more and more hardships. In 2000, when we brought out the newspaper, it was easy to employ someone for Rs 3000 but now you can’t do it by paying even Rs 15,000. Added with this is the fact that the community doesn’t support this publication by either buying it or advertising in it. So, in a situation like this, for how long could we continue? However, we regularly used to receive postcards requesting for complimentary copies. For our newspaper, we never publicly asked for donations. Some individuals at times did support us on their own. But we did not make open appeals. The monthly deficit that used to be Rs. 30,000 in the beginning went up to Rs. 1.50 lakh a month and certainly this was much beyond our ability to bear. It were these circumstances that forced us to stop publishing it.
The fact is that we had in the very initial three years realised the difficulties ahead, but somehow we managed to continue our journey. Three years ago our perseverance started to wane but owing to appeals by readers and promises for help from individuals we thought it appropriate to keep marching forward.
At present, my health is not helping me either and because of this some of the other tasks that I should be doing are suffering. For the last one year we had been advertising for an editor to suit our needs but we failed to find one.
When we were in our third year of publishing, The Milli Gazette we received an offer on behalf of the Indian army in Kashmir to publish “news items” which they would provide us and for this they would pay us Rs. 40,000 a month. We rejected that offer outright making it clear to them that we would publish all the facts, good and bad, including the army’s excesses in Kashmir. The latest offer of this kind came recently when a political party offered to invest.
Meanwhile, there also came a time when, in order to control our expenses, we had to reduce the pages from 32 to 24 but that didn’t help either. I have throughout tried my best to make sure that The Milli Gazette remains independent of any influence whatsoever. When we were in our third year of publishing, The Milli Gazette we received an offer on behalf of the Indian army in Kashmir to publish “news items” which they would provide us and for this they would pay us Rs. 40,000 a month. We rejected that offer outright making it clear to them that we would publish all the facts, good and bad, including the army’s excesses in Kashmir. The latest offer of this kind came recently when a political party offered to invest money in The Milli Gazette. We rejected their offer then and there, without giving it a second thought.
I started The Milli Gazette in January 2000 when I had a good job and I was working as the India correspondent of the Saudi daily, Al-Riyadh. This was a well-paid job that continued for some six years. But when I, among other issues, candidly raised the issue of the excesses meted out to Muslims in Gujarat and Kashmir etc, this caused problems. One day the Saudi ambassador in Delhi called me at the embassy and told me bluntly, ‘We are trying to build good relations with India and you are trying to spoil these relations.’ He asked me not to write anything that was against the Indian Government. Such gag order was not acceptable to me. He must have also spoken to the Al-Riyadh newspaper. Soon small complaints started to come from the newspaper and eventually I quit the job.
Q.: What were the circumstances when you started to publish The Milli Gazette? What were the objectives before you?
A.: I started The Milli Gazette in January 2000 when I had a good job and I was working as the India correspondent of the Saudi daily, Al-Riyadh. This was a well-paid job that continued for some six years. But when I, among other issues, candidly raised the issue of the excesses meted out to Muslims in Gujarat and Kashmir etc, this caused problems. One day the Saudi ambassador in Delhi called me at the embassy and told me bluntly, ‘We are trying to build good relations with India and you are trying to spoil these relations.’ He asked me not to write anything that was against the Indian Government. Such gag order was not acceptable to me. He must have also spoken to the Al-Riyadh newspaper. Soon small complaints started to come from the newspaper and eventually I quit the job.
My main reason for bringing out The Milli Gazette was that I was pained to see that most of the news regarding the Muslim community was ignored by the mainstream media and only Urdu newspapers published them. You don’t find in the English-language newspapers. I have always said that whenever you pick up an English-language Indian newspaper it seems as if the 200-million-strong community of Muslims did not exist at all. Had they been sleeping the whole previous day and did nothing at all? This can’t be possible. Many must have done things worth mentioning. Someone might have written a book or done something which should be acknowledged. Someone might have won an award in recognition of his meritorious services. Someone might have founded an educational institution like a school, college or university. But the national, I mean non-Urdu, media seems to have no interest in Muslims. But, of course, if someone has given triple talaq to his wife or some such mischief then this will be big news for the national media. Having this scenario in our mind we decided to bring out a newspaper wherein we could publish and celebrate the achievements and contributions of the IndianMuslim community. We regularly published such news until the last issue.
Many a time we sent our reporters for ground reporting at far-away places to cover issues like terror or riots. For example, I led a delegation to Kushinagar to dig out facts of Hindutva terror there, sent a reporter to Indore when SIMI people were arrested and to from Imphal when the English language daily Pioneer published a false report claiming that efforts were being made to turn the region into an ‘Islamic State’. We did some ground reporting which included a quote from the Director General of Police of Imphal saying that there was no truth in the allegation. We kept an eye on the misreporting in the national media and tried to present the truth. We also translated into English news and views from the Urdu press. This is what the aim of The Milli Gazette was.
Q.: What was the nature of difficulties faced by The Milli Gazette and how you maintained your standards?
A.: We never tried to fill pages with fillers. We used to change even the lead story in the last night before going to press. We did our best to present the problems faced by the Muslims of India and the world. But we have realised during the past 17 years that the Muslim communityperhaps did not need what we were trying to do. Every week or so you find one or two letters in Urdu newspapers lamenting on the need for Muslims to have their own newspaper in English or Hindi or to start a Muslim TV channel. But if Muslims do not buy a Muslim newspaper in English or Hindi, how will it survive? If we were printing 30-40,000 copies of The Milli Gazette and people bought them, where was the need to close it down? The community needs to give it a thought why Muslim India and Meantime from Calicut ceased publication? Or why Syed Hamid’s Nation and The World is in its present state; perhaps it too has ceased publication.. Oh, yes, others did buy our newspapers to know what we were writing or what Muslims were doing or thinking. RSS outfits subscribed to our newspaper regularly.
Q.: Have there been any painful moments in your 17 year-long journey?
A.: Yes, there were. On two occasions we were deeply pained when because of misunderstanding our reports hurt others. We did commit mistakes but for this we apologised in the newspaper. On one occasion a gentleman approached us with an article and we published it in good faith. Later, we found out that that was a personal issue and the gentleman wanted to throw mud at others. Although we did not mean to harm anyone, still we offered written apology and published it in the newspaper. On three occasions over these past 17 years we thought of closing the newspaper due to our financial difficulties. When we started it, our plan was to make it self-sufficient in two-three years and hand it over to a group or institution to run it for the community.
Q.: Did you ever try to contact milli organisations and brief them about the difficulties you were facing?
A.: About one year ago I wrote to the heads of prominent milli organisations and briefed them about the difficulties the newspaper was facing and requested them to ponder over how to continue it and how they can help in saving it from closure. But most of the organisations did not reply. Two or three persons responded. One of them said that his organisation would increase the amount paid for their regular advertisement. He promised that this cooperation would continue insisting that ‘MG is an asset of the community and should not be stopped at any cost.’ But within months, this organisation started reducing the promised amount and at last reduced it to even less that the cost of its advertisement. This is our situation. One doesn’t know what to say about it.
The fact is that our religious leadership has not taught the community, in the manner it needed to be done, to spend on milli needs. Our religious leadership does not have broad-minded thinking. Their thinking works around the promotion of their own organisations and on how to keep these alive. To them anything else has no importance. What they have taught to the millat is to help and support their respective organisations and that is all that is needed.
The problem is that our religious leadership does not think it necessary to talk to and consult with people in the community who are actively working in various fields outside their own organisations. Their consultations and activities remain confined within their own organisations. Obviously, there are a lot of talented individuals in our community in the field of science, finance and media, etc.. These talented people have to be identified and should therefore not only be consulted but their help sought to redress the community’s problems. They should be consulted and listened to in the fields of their expertise. All milli organisations are devoid of such a thinking. We need to seriously sit down and think over why is a community of 200 million people so weak and ineffective?
Q.: Recently in a programme held in Saudi Arabia you came heavy on the milli leadership and asked for a change…
A.: Yes. What I said was that without changing the aged leadership no solution for Indian Muslims can be found. How can an elderly person in his seventies and eighties lead the community? It is a big question. We should take a lesson from the young leadership of the West. America’s new President Donald Trump is the oldest of all the presidents they have had so far. They have had 43 year-old presidents as well. Some time ago the British Foreign Secretary resigned from his post. When asked about the reasons behind his decision, he said he had reached 53 and his party members thought that he was too old for the job. In the West they have a culture of having young leadership whereas in India, old people occupy the leading positions. This is not only our milli character but the culture of the whole country. The harm is that at that at an advanced age one starts hesitating in taking decisions and putting in the physical effort needed for the job. Indecisiveness or hesitation in making decisions can be dangerous. At that age a different psychology develops and one does not want to take risks.
Q.: What would be the centre of your activities after having closed down The Milli Gazette?
A.: As a matter of fact, because of my preoccupation with The Milli Gazette, several of my other projects were getting affected. I wanted to do certain things on priority. For example, to bringing out a white paper on terrorism that we had announced to bring out years ago. But meanwhile due to the preparations for the golden jubilee celebrations of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawrat, of which I was the national president, many of these things got bogged down and delayed. Now, I am fully involved with the white paper and, insha Allah, I hope within the next four or five months it should be out.
This white paper would be of great benefit and would help the Millat to reply to the false terror allegations against it. It would cover police excesses, fake encounters, custodial killings and analysis of black laws like Pota, TADA, Misa, NSA etc. which were introduced by different governments. Through this white paper an effort would be made to arouse the country’s conscience. This idea came to my mind in 2005.
So, my first preference as of now is the white paper. Then the second project is the revision of the English translation of the Holy Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. This is replete with mistakes and does’t go well with the demands of the present time. This has been bothering me for more than the last three decades.
I realise that The Milli Gazette was not fully discharging the service needed by the 200 million Muslims of India. Muslims need to have a number of Hindi and English newspapers, FM radio stations and TV channels of their own. This is not a difficult task. The community can do it. Our people need to make media a priority. The community is doing well in Kerala in this respect.
Milli Gazette’s internet edition will continue. Print media has its own importance while online media has its own place. It is easier and manageable to save the archives of print media. However, electronic media is fast and enjoys much more reach. Prominent electronic media sites started by Indian Muslims have not progressed.
Big commercial companies allocate some funds in the name of social responsibility. I did not try this. I could not convince myself to spread my hands before anyone. However, I did send out general letters or emails seeking support. Those who used to write for the print edition will continue to write for the website.