34 year-old Kashif ul-Huda runs TwoCircles.net, the leading Indian Muslim news and features web site. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about his work and reflects on Indian Muslims and the media.
Q: What made you set up TwoCircles.net? What was your source of inspiration?
A: I come from a working class family from Bihar. My father worked for one of the TATA companies in Jamshedpur. He was also involved in trade union activities, starting soon after the communal massacre in Jamshedpur in 1964. He was a major source of inspiration for me. From him I learned the need to work with the community but also that the ‘Muslim-only’ approach will not work, and that, instead, one needs to work with fellow Indians irrespective of faith.
I graduated with a degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from the University of California, San Diego. I have been involved in pharmaceutical research since then. It was after moving to the United States in 1995 that I got introduced to the Internet, and I was fascinated by this new media. In 1997 I started a website for Urdu poetry, which later blossomed into Urdustan.com. This site continues to be the oldest Urdu website on the Internet.
After the genocidal attacks on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, I felt that there was a desperate need to put all the information about Indian Muslims in one place. That led me to launch another website, IndianMuslims.info. I soon realized the need to bring Indian Muslim stories on a daily basis, and I didn’t see anyone else doing it. So, in 2006, with a budget of $1200 that we estimated to be enough for 6 months, we started the news service. In 2007 the news division was spun off under the name of TwoCircles.net, which now brings out, free of cost and freely accessible on the Internet, daily news and features updates on issues related to the Indian Muslims.
Q: Why the name TwoCircles? Why did you choose that name?
A: It is inspired by a quote from Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, the great Indian Muslim freedom fighter. He once famously declared, ‘I belong to two circles of equal size, but which are not concentric. One is India, and the other is the Muslim world’.
Q: What do you feel have been the achievements of TwoCircles.net so far? And what are the major challenges before you?
A: Our little effort is much appreciated by Indian Muslims because there was a pressing need for this sort of work. Our approach has been to take Indian Muslim-focused stories but to treat the subject in a very objective manner. Our approach in covering Indian Muslims news and issues has been positive as compared to the popular traditional approach of many Muslims of mere BJP/RSS/Israel bashing. While the so-called ‘mainstream’ media reports about Muslims only when something bad happens — some Imrana sort of issue, fatwas on controversial topics or a terror attack — TwoCircles.net has been able to cover stories of common Muslims and their achievements and problems. We are also trying to inclusive in our approach by covering news from other marginalized sections such as women and Dalits.
I have experience of creating websites and writing for the Internet media for the last 10 years, so that helped us in creating a website that gives a unique, media-rich experience over the Internet. Our stories are enhanced by slideshows, audios and videos to give a truly multi-media experience to visitors of our site. This is, in some sense, unique and very few other Indian news website come close in that regard. So I am happy not only about the quality of our journalism but also about the delivery of our content.
Our major difficulty is of generating enough funds. Indian Muslims are a community of at least 150 million and they are spread all over India and so it is a challenge to get stories from each state. We don’t have enough people on the ground to cover as widely as we would like to. We are also not able to reach to vast majority of Indian Muslims — only a tiny fraction of them are connected to the Internet. Further, we are aware that most of our reports and stories relate to north India, and that we need to give more attention to other parts of the country. We are trying to address this issue. Recently, we appointed a reporter in Mumbai for western India. In a few months, we hope to hire someone in south India to cover news from that region.
Q: What impact do you think TwoCircles.net has made in influencing discourses on and debates about Indian Muslims?
A: A regular reader of TwoCircles.net — whether Muslim or non-Muslim — will certainly be more informed about real Indian Muslim issues. He or she can easily sense that Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu, and Personal Laws are not the main topics of concern for the majority of Indian Muslims. He or she will also learn that there is immense diversity of language, culture, practices, and opinions among Indian Muslims.
We receive several thousand visitors on our site every day. There are a large number of journalists and opinion makers that watch us on a regular basis, so we hope that by reaching out to them they are able to see various sides and nuances of stories related to Indian Muslims.
Q: What do you have to say about the Indian Muslim media? Also, how do you look at the ways in the Indian so-called ‘mainstream’ media depicts Muslims?
A: I think the Urdu media in India has improved a lot in the last few years. However, the Indian Muslim media in English still remains lamentably very limited. It consists of just a very few magazines which, while they were a good idea ten or twenty years ago, have not kept pace with the time. Almost none of them do any field-based reporting, and most of them are simply a collection of opinion pieces. Furthermore, they simply react to the agenda set by the so-called ‘mainstream’ media. More than lack of money and training, it is the lack of vision that is hampering the growth of the Indian Muslim media.
As far as the so-called ‘mainstream’ media is concerned, there are indeed biases against Muslims and other marginalized communities, but I believe it has also to do with the nature of the corporate media. They are set up to maximize profits, so if they think a story is interesting or sensational and will sell well, they will broadcast or publish it without thinking too much about consequences or even checking facts. I don’t think they are driven by hate against Muslims, but, yes, these journalists need to be educated about Islam and Muslims. Some of them may personally be prejudiced against Muslims under the influence of the Hindutva-Sangh ideology, but I believe that the majority of Indians are free of this prejudice.
Q: What do you feel about how Indian Muslim organisations have sought to relate to or use the media to get their concerns and views across?
A: Most Indian Muslim organizations still use fax and write their press releases in Urdu. So, not surprisingly, their views never even reach most media houses. Some have set up what they call media cells, but, basically, their only or major function seems to be to disseminate information about their organization’s activities. They also keep an eye on what media is reporting about Muslims and Islam, but, sadly, do little at all to seek to engage the media, whether by dialoguing with media persons, writing letters or organizing protests, if the need arises. So, I would say, these Muslim organizations have no well-planned media policy or even a basic understanding of how the modern media works.
I can’t see any planned efforts being undertaken by Indian Muslim groups to develop and promote media relations. For that, they would first need to understand how the media functions and what the constraints and limitations it works under are. Only after that can they can start cultivating relationship with journalists. They need to understand that journalists are not going to be their enemy or friends or whatever — they are just doing their job and looking for stories. If you have compelling and interesting stories they would like to get an exclusive access to them. Even a simple letter writing campaign, if done in an organized and consistent way, can yield surprising results. Along with the national media, the local and vernacular press should also be part of any media policy of Muslim organisations.
Yoginder Sikand is a freelance writer, working out of Bangalore and Delhi. Visit his blogs: Yoginder Sikand; Islam, Peace and Justice; and Madrasa Reforms in India.