Jews in Indian Urdu Press
By Md. Muddassir Quamar
Urdu is widely spoken in India and, according to the 2011 census, nearly 60 million Indians comprising 5.1 per cent of the population are Urdu speakers. The country has a vibrant Urdu press and as of 2013-14, it was third largest after Hindi and English both in terms of number of publications and daily circulation. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, there are 1,443 Urdu newspapers including 929 dailies with a total daily circulation of 34 million. A very important aspect of Urdu in India is its links with the Muslim community who constitute 172 million or 14 per cent of the population. Though Urdu is not the lingua franca of every Muslim, historical evidence suggests that a significant majority of Urdu speakers are Muslims. Therefore, it would not be wrong to assume that the Indian Urdu press largely caters to the Muslim population. It means, the way Urdu press covers Jews reflects the perceptions of a significant section of the Indian Muslims about Jewish people.
Portrayal of Jews in Indian Urdu press is largely prejudiced and at times even abusive exhibiting the extent to which conflicts can affect perceptions about an “enemy” group or community. The problem lies in the lack of resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the unwillingness on both sides to find a solution has further complicated the situation. The continued occupation of Palestinian territories, settlements construction in West Bank and wars in Gaza Strip has fuelled passions in the Urdu press to deplore anything remotely related to Israel, Yahudi (Jewish) and Saihuniat (Zionism). It has given license to those who hate Israel to abuse and condemn Jews as “barbaric” people. At the same time, it has rendered voiceless those who have a rational understanding of the conflict and the issues involved as they do not wish to be branded as “supporters of Israel” or “Zionist agents.” An analysis of the Urdu press over the years reveals significant emotional attachment with the Palestinian cause and a growing revulsion towards Israel and Jews.
Cultural, religious and commercial links over centuries make the Middle East a region of significant interest for Indian Muslims, and hence the Urdu press. The developments in the region are keenly covered and the convoluted Arab-Israeli conflict too attracts significant attention with regular news updates, opinion columns and editorials. Portrayal of Jews has been largely entangled within the debate on the conflict. Predominantly, the onus of the conflict is put on saihuni sazish (Zionist conspiracy) and Jews are portrayed as evil, scheming and oppressive. At the same time, Palestinians are portrayed as victims, oppressed and those suffering at the hands of Jews and international apathy. Thus, a binary of good and evil is created with respect to Muslims and Jews leading to a situation that there does not remain any scope for rational analysis of the conflict, its causes and current situation.
Within the conflict there are a few major themes that find significant attention in the Urdu press, the most important being status of Jerusalem or al-Quds. Bait al-Muqaddas or the Al-Aqsa Mosque located in the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif area in the old city of Jerusalem attracts wide coverage. It is alleged that Jews want to usurp Muslim rights over Islam’s third holiest site. Extremist voices within the Urdu press see this as the goal for formation of Israel. For example, the editorial on December 16, 2011, in Delhi edition of Rashtriya Sahara, a popular pan-India Urdu daily, titled “The Issue of Safety of Al-Aqsa Mosque” opines that time has come for Muslims rulers, Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (previously Conference) to take action; otherwise Muslims will lose their rights over the mosque. Similarly, an opinion column to commemorate Quds Day in Delhi edition of Roznama Sahafat on July 26, 2014, establishes the Islamic significance of the mosque and the city of Jerusalem and points that the city and holy site has fallen to the evil designs of Jews and it is now the duty of every Muslim to free it from the Israeli occupation. These are not isolated instances but a regular feature.
In addition, most major and minor incidents or developments in the region are blamed on Jewish conspiracy, sometimes without any direct involvement of Israel such as the Arab Spring. When the protests broke out in Tunisia after self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 and spread to other Arab countries, Urdu newspapers were almost confirm or at least speculated that the protests and demonstrations and subsequent civil wars and bloodshed are a result of Zionist conspiracies. Though, as the situation became more complex, many opinions and editorials did some rational analyses but the narrative of “Zionist/Jewish conspiracy to weaken Muslim countries” did not completely disappear amidst a continued deteriorating situation and the rise of monstrous Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In fact, many in the Urdu press could see a Zionist/Jewish hand in the emergence of ISIS as well.
Some incidents such as siege of Gaza Strip and the flotilla raid on March 31, 2010, served the narrative of the Urdu press well. The flotilla raid gained widespread coverage and it was argued that Israel is “thirsty of Muslim blood.” Urdu newspapers criticized the raid in which nine Turkish activists lost their lives but did not give adequate attention to details. Undoubtedly, Israel has been occupying Palestinian lands and constructing settlements in occupied territories in violation of international laws and its siege of Gaza has made life in the strip extremely difficult leading to some terming it as an “open jail.” This further necessitated a comprehensive analysis of the circumstances of the raid and unfortunate killings, which was found completely missing. Most of the columns and editorials were reactionary and lacked a rational criticism of the Israeli military action. For example, the editorial in Munsif on June 2, 2010, claimed: “The worst incident in history of the world was the creation of Zionist state of Israel, a slap on the face of Islamic world.” Other newspapers did not lag behind and the action was branded as barbariat (barbarism), jarhiat (aggression) and with other similar terms.
Similarly, the three wars between Israel and Hamas in 2008, 2010 and 2014, that resulted into high casualty on the Palestinian side and large civilian death, attracted wide coverage. The disproportionate use of force by Israeli military has been condemned by international community. No doubt that the attacks have resulted into massive loss of life and destruction in Gaza pushing it back hundreds of years and Israel has been held responsible by many international organizations but investigation reports have found both Israeli forces and Hamas of human rights violations. The Urdu press, however, could see only the “barbaric,” “racist” and “genocidal” action of Israel while forgot to even underline that the latest round of fighting started due to kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by a “rogue” Hamas cell led by Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aysha. Editorials after editorials were written in Urdu newspapers condemning the attacks and urging the international powers to reign in Israel. For example, an editorial in Rashtriya Sahara on July 21, 2014, argued that time has come that Palestinians and their supporters all over the world start attacking Israeli installations and interests all over the world in response to the killings of their brothers in the Gaza Strip. Interestingly, while they condemned utterances from Israeli politicians to take revenge for the murder of three teens, they used similar language to provoke reaction from Muslims all over the world.
While it is understandable to be critical of Israel on occasions where it violates international laws and human rights, it is risible to see Israel and Jewish/Zionist conspiracies being blamed even on instances where it has been a target of attack or violence. For example, the coverage of the attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi on February 13, 2012, was indicative that it is a Jewish conspiracy to indict Iran. It was argued that Israel wants India to break its ties with Iran and plans to invade the Islamic Republic and thus has staged a “mild” attack on its own diplomats “where nobody died” to create a case for the coming attack. When investigations suggested involvement of Iranian citizens and a senior Urdu journalist Syed Ahmed Kazmi was arrested on suspicions of his involvement (he was later acquitted), many newspapers started a campaign to save him and used abusive language against Jews and Israel.
One can understand a religious or ideological affinity with the Palestinian cause and hence a legitimate and rational criticism of Israeli actions or policies against Palestinians or in the occupied territories. The Indian Urdu press, however, fails in giving a rational analysis or generating an informed discussion of the conflict. The portrayal of Jews as extremely “violent,” “inhuman” and “lunatic” people seems to emanate from religious zeal when many religious scholars cite Islamic Holy Scriptures (Quran and Hadith) to condemn Jews and argue that they are the people who have been “condemned” for their non-obedience to wills of Allah. At a time, when the international community is reflecting on creating a common cause for humanity to live in peace and fraternity and it is being argued that inter-religious harmony has to be created to promote possibilities of a better Jewish-Muslim relations that can help resolve the decades old conflict, it is painful to see such levels of hatred against Jews in the Indian Urdu press.
Md. Muddassir Quamar is doctoral candidate in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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