Kerala's Muslims, who form roughly a quarter of the state's population, are among the most literate Muslim communities in India. A major reason for, as well as a consequence of, the community's high literacy rate is the thriving Muslim-owned Malayalam press.
Today, literally hundreds of magazines, journals and newspapers are brought out by various Kerala Muslim organisations. These deal not simply with religion (as in the case of many north Indian Muslim-owned publications) but with social and political issues as well. These publications have played a crucial role in promoting social and political awareness among Kerala's Muslims and in getting Muslim views and concerns across to fellow Malayali non-Muslims and to the state authorities and in promoting closer interaction between the various communities in Kerala.
Set up in 1987 by the Ideal Publications Trust, most of whose members are affiliated with the Kerala unit of the Jamaat-e Islami, Madhyamam is regarded as the most successful Muslim-owned daily newspaper in Kerala. It boasts the third highest circulation among all Malayalam daily newspapers in the state. Its chief editor O Abdur Rahman stresses that it is not a specifically Muslim or an Islamic paper. "Madhyamam is geared to all Malayalam readers and takes up general issues, while focusing in particular on those related to marginalised and minority communities, including Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes, and not just Muslims alone. We see it as the voice of the voiceless," he states. "We have been consistently anti-imperialist, supporting a range of liberation movements and also bitterly critiquing fascism, extremism in the name of religion and terrorism," he adds. He describes Madhyamam as "a value-based paper, stressing ethics and morals, in contrast to commercial papers, whose sole motive is profit-making".
Madhyamam's editorial offices are located in Calicut, the major intellectual centre for Muslims in Kerala. Currently, it brings out separate editions from six cities in Kerala --Cochin, Trivandrum, Cannanore, Mallapuram, Kottayam and Calicut -- and two in Karnataka -- Bangalore and Mangalore. Separate Gulf editions, catering to the half million-odd Malayalis living in Arab countries, come out from Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Doha, Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah, making Madhyamam the largest-circulated Malayalam newspaper in the region. In addition, the Madhyamam Weekly magazine has a circulation of some 25,000. Currently, the entire Madhyamam group has some 1,200 staff on its rolls, including around 500 full-time journalists.
A major challenge that Madhyamam has had to contend with is lack of sufficient advertisement revenue. Explains Abdur Rahman, "Newspapers survive on money from advertisements, but from the very beginning we had decided, as a matter of policy, to be very selective about the advertisements we published. No ads showing immodestly-clad women, no ads for banks, alcohol, fraudulent investments and movies. This is why we had to suffer major losses, and even now just manage to break even.' A portion of the profits that the paper generates is diverted to the Madhyamam Health Care Programme, which provides free medical facilities to poor people, irrespective of religion and caste in hospitals with which it has a tie-up with. In the last six years, some 3,000 patients have benefited from the programme at a cost of Rs 3 crore.
A major problem that Muslim-run papers face, Abdur Rahman explains, is the lack of professionally-qualified journalists. It was to address this concern that last year the Madhyamam Institute of Journalism was launched. Currently located in the paper's Calicut office, the institute offers a one year diploma in journalism. At present, it has 14 students -- girls and boys, Muslims and Hindus -- on its rolls. The course fee is Rs 20,000. "This is the only Muslim-run institution of its kind in Kerala," says Abdur Rahman. The course involves considerable hands-on training in Madhyamam itself, and successful students are likely to be absorbed by the newspaper after they finish.
What lessons does the successful Madhyamam experiment provide for Muslim-owned media houses in India? How is it that Madhyamam has made such bold strides, in contrast to many Muslim-run papers in other parts of the country? Abdur Rahman insists that for Muslim-owned newspapers in India to be effective must be broad-based in their appeal and approach, and not limited just to Muslims alone. "A Muslim-owned daily newspaper should be secular, and not confined to simply Muslim community or religious issues,"
he says. "This is the only way we can present our views and problems to the wider society. Otherwise, others will not take us seriously and we won't be able to have any impact outside a narrow Muslim circle. The example of ghettoised north Indian Urdu papers well illustrates this argument. Because of our approach, many of our readers are non-Muslims."
"We do not regularly publish articles on or about religion as such, limiting ourselves, as any newspaper should, to just news and views about news," Abdur Rahman elaborates. "On religious festivals we bring out special issues, but this is not limited to just Muslim festivals. We do this for Onam and Vishu -- Malayali Hindu festivals -- and for Christmas as well." He contrasts this ecumenical approach to that of most Muslim-run publications in other parts of India, which, he laments, "focus only on Islam alone, often narrowly defined, and ignore social issues."
"At the same time," Abdur Rahman continues, "this does not mean that a Muslim daily newspaper should ignore Muslim concerns. What we in Madhyamam do is to present news as news, and highlight all relevant news, and not just developments concerned only with Muslims. But we also highlight our own views about the news in our editorial pages and in the columns to which we invite specialists to contribute. In this way, Muslim perspectives on various developments can be articulated. We also allow people to critique us in our columns. Muslim papers must allow this, and abstain from a one-way monologue."
Another advice that Abdur Rahman gives for Muslim-run papers is to invite non-Muslim writers to contribute their views. "A number of leading non-Muslim intellectuals and social activists write for Madhyamam." To make for a healthy work environment, he also suggests that Muslim-owned papers employ non-Muslim professionals too and not make themselves into a Muslim-only concern. "In Madhyamam some 40 per cent of our journalists are non-Muslims -- Christians, Hindus, Marxists and atheists. And our staff have their own political leanings and affiliations. Some are pro-Muslim League, others are with the Congress, and yet others are with the Communists, but that does not matter as long as they work in a professional manner," he says.
This openness to others, he remarks, is a hallmark of Kerala society, where different religious communities share a common culture and a strong common identity as Malayalis. "A major drawback of most Muslim-owned papers," he opines, "is the lack of professionalism. A multi-religious and multi-communal workplace can make much of a difference in this regard."
Madhyamam has ambitious plans for the future, says Abdur Rahman. These include a daily English newspaper, with simultaneous editions from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, a regular television channel (that would follow the same media policy as Madhyamam), as well as new editions from some other locations in Kerala. Certainly, then, a novel experiment that other Muslim media houses could learn much from.
Dr Yoginder Sikand is the editor of Qalandar, an electronic magazine on Islam-related issues, and also an author of several books on the subject.