“I used to subscribe to all five Urdu dailies published in Mumbai. Now I get none. This is my silent protest,” says Shirin Dalvi. Once recognised as India’s only female editor for an Urdu daily, Dalvi has stopped reading Urdu newspapers for the last 18 months. That’s been Dalvi’s way of reacting to the way her professional fraternity abandoned her when she needed them the most.
When Dalvi became the editor of Lucknow-based Urdu daily Avadhnama’s Mumbai edition, she knew she’d ruffled a few feathers. “Not many were happy with the fact that a woman was the editor of an Urdu daily,” she told Newslaundry. However, despite knowing this, Dalvi had not anticipated just how alone she was until she came under fire.
Last year, on January 7, 2015, masked gunmen entered the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and massacred its editorial team because they’d published a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed that was deemed offensive. The incident shocked many and around the world, journalists found different ways to show their opposition to this brutal attack on freedom of expression. Dalvi decided to reproduce one of the offending cartoons in Avadhnama — it was her way of protesting and showing solidarity. Even though Avadhnama was not the only Indian publication to carry the cartoons, Dalvi was arrested on the pretext of offending religious sentiments.
More than six police complaints were registered against Dalvi and she was accused of causing religious unrest. “Nothing was intentional,” said Dalvi. “Nevertheless, I along with my editorial colleague and staff apologised to our readers the very next day, if by any stretch we had hurt their sentiments.”
At a time when Dalvi expected the media fraternity, particularly the Urdu one, to stand by her, the exact opposite happened. Dalvi was summarily sacked and the Mumbai edition of Avadhnama was shut down. “‘Ek badjaat aurat ki gustakhi ki wajah se pure Maharashtra mein high alert’ (High alert in the whole of Maharashtra after a mistake by an outcast woman) was an eight-column headline in an Urdu daily of Mumbai,” Dalvi told Newslaundry. As former colleagues began lashing out at her along with other members of the Urdu press, Dalvi found herself more isolated than she’d ever been. “I was even called an agent of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” she said. With death threats mushrooming around her and no job, Dalvi found herself trapped in her Mumbai home, an experience she described as “suffocating”. “After two decades of reading newspapers first thing in the morning, planning stories and writing editorials, I was just sitting at home,” she said. “I went into depression.”
Being a single mother and the only earning member of her family, at one point it became difficult for her to manage daily expenses of the household. “No Urdu paper offered me a job. I was a pariah,” said Dalvi. “So I thought, why not start something of my own, where I have all the editorial freedom? And that is how Urdu News Express happened.”
With the help of Milaap, a crowd-funding platform, Dalvi is starting an Urdu e-paper. She needs Rs 4 lakh for her new venture; so far, Milaap has already raised Rs 1,30,400. “I have realised that digital media is here to stay. Its reach is far more than that of Urdu newspapers,” she said.
It’s a bold move at a time when Urdu newspapers are dying a slow death and their circulation figures are dismal. “More than the commercial feasibility of Urdu News Express, my focus is to preserve this language,” said Dalvi. She wants Urdu News Express to primarily focus on women-related issues in India. “We might talk about women liberation in air-conditioned TV studios but the ground reality is different,” she said.