Aslah Kayyalakkath was 18 years old when he started sending out the messages in 2012. The SMSs with news about marginalised groups were meticulously crafted to fit the 140-word limit and sent out to 100 people every day. Kayyalakkath and three of his friends would take time out after their lectures at Farook College in Kerala’s Kozhikode town to type them out.
Within months, they had started to make a name for themselves in colleges across Kozhikode. “We came to be known as the students who would share news,” said Kayyalakkath. “We would sign off with our trademark, Maktoob.”
They had got the name from Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. In Arabic, Urdu and Persian, the word means “it is written” or “destiny”.
After starting out as an SMS service, Maktoob became a blog in 2014 and a website in 2016. “We made the website ourselves on our mobile phones,” Kayyalakkath said. “We did not have laptops or money then.”
For Kayyalakkath, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which spread across the country in December 2019, were a watershed moment. Before that, the website had covered all marginalised groups. The protests cemented Maktoob’s identity as a website documenting the condition of Muslims in India.
“The violence across university campuses left a huge mark,” said Kayyalakkath, who is now 28. He is the only one of his college friends still soldiering on with Maktoob Media.
Maktoob is not the only digital publication doing this. As Hindu majoritarianism grew entrenched in Indian politics and news in the mainstream media demonised Muslims, TwoCircles.net, Clarion India and Milli Gazette, as well as a number of YouTube channels, have also devoted themselves to offering Muslim perspectives on developments.
With lakhs of impressions and views, these websites and YouTube channels have built a loyal audience over the years. They report on how Muslim youth are targeted by law-enforcement agencies, on lynchings, hate crimes and communal riots. But that is not all. As many of the journalists involved pointed out, they portray a world where Muslims are not always victims but a part of everyday Indian life.
“The sad reality is that this development is a response to the complete abdication of the mainstream media,” said Mohammad Ali who works as a freelance journalist. “Television studios have become peddlers of hate speech and calls for genocide, where else does the average Muslim go?”
He added that the process of watching news channels has itself become traumatic as Muslims are constantly being demonised. “The only job they have done perfectly, especially post-2014, is to alienate Muslims further from the mainstream,” Ali said. “They’ve pushed them on the margins, to the physical and mental ghettos that most of us never wanted to go to.”
Shaheen Nazar, who has had over three decades of experience across newsrooms and is now a visiting professor at a media institute in Noida, agreed: “If you want to know the Muslim sentiment, you will not find it in The Times of India or other newspapers. You will only find it here.”
‘As if the community does not exist’
Ali began his reporting career with TwoCircles.net in 2008. The website had been launched by Boston-based scientist Kashif al-Huda two years earlier, in the charged atmosphere post the suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001.
“9/11 had happened and America had started its war on terror,” Ali said. “India became its [America’s] ally and banned the Students Islamic Movement of India soon after. They started picking up Muslim youth on fabricated charges. Then the Batla House encounter happened, for which queries were raised.”
In September 2008, the Delhi Police had tried to storm a house in the national capital’s Jamia Nagar area. According to the police, four men accused of unleashing bomb blasts in the city just days earlier were hiding in the building. It had led to a shootout killing two of the men and a police officer as well as lingering allegations that the “encounter” or extra-judicial execution had been staged and at least one of the accused framed.
In the media, Muslims were tagged as terrorists and in the eyes of the Indian middle class, they were associated with words like “Urdu”, “hajj”, “kabristan” [graveyards], “triple talaq”, “fatwa”, Ali explained – “as if Muslims continued to live in the mediaeval age”.
At TwoCircles.net, reporters tried to fight these stereotypes. “The idea was to not report on religious aspects at all, but on economic and social aspects [of the Muslim community in India],” said Ali.
For instance, in October 2008, Ali wrote an article about Khushboo Mirza, an engineer from Aligarh Muslim Univeristy who was part of the Chandrayaan mission, India’s ambitious lunar probe. “This was to show how Muslims are as much part of India’s growth story” as any other community, he said.
The website has a section called “TCN Positive” devoted to such stories. It has carried reports on the residents of Okhla and Batla House starting reading spaces because there are no public libraries in the area. It also had a story on how more Muslim girls were enrolling for higher secondary education in West Bengal’s Murshidabad.
Over time, TwoCircles.net started documenting stories of young Muslim men who were acquitted by the courts after several years in jail. One of them was Mohammad Aamir, who was charged in 19 terror cases. After he was acquitted in January 2012 in all cases after 14 years in prison, he went on to become an activist and an author.
The website had a powerful effect on young Muslims whose voices were seldom heard in the public sphere, spurring others to do similar work. Irfan Mehraj, the current editorial lead at TwoCircles.net, said it was Ali’s work that drew him to work for the website. “Only now do you see a mushrooming of websites covering such issues,” he said. “Back in the mid-2000s, TCN was a class apart.”
Zafarul Islam Khan, who launched the Milli Gazette in print and online on January 1, 2000, said that websites exclusively covering Muslim issues had emerged out of necessity because the concerns of the 200-million strong Indian Muslim community were seldom portrayed positively and objectively. “It seems the community does not exist or was sleeping the previous day,” he said.
The same indignation drove Khushboo Akhtar and her younger brother, Nadeem Akram, to start PalPal News, a YouTube channel that reports primarily on violence against Muslims and Dalits. The channel, launched in 2016, has acquired over two million subscribers in six years.
The siblings were born and raised in a family with a Hindu mother and a Muslim father. For Akhtar, hate along religious lines cut deep. “This is against everything I have learnt since I was a child,” she said. “So how can I just see people being killed in the name of religion and be quiet?”
She gave up a job at the national broadcaster, Doordarshan, to start the Youtube channel. “In one month we had a lakh subscribers, we earned Rs 28,000 then,” she said. “We thought we had made Rs 28 lakh.”
The question of objectivity
As Kayyalakkath of Maktoob explained, while the media in India is quick to brand Muslims as extremists, Hindu fundamentalism or state excesses are rarely criticised. It is important to write things as they are, he said, “that is why we are here”.
Over the past decade, 400 people have written for Maktoob of whom 250 are Muslim, including 150 Muslim women. “About 150-200 people are writing in English for the first time ever,” Kayyalakkath said. “Many others write in vernacular languages and we take the help of our friends to translate their work.”
For Meer Faisal, a 21-year-old reporter with Maktoob, working for the website was an act of public service. “I want Maktoob Media to be that place for Muslims where their issues are comprehensively covered,” he said. “So that eventually Maktoob [reaches] a level where one knows about them.”
Mehraj of TwoCircles.net said that the organisation consciously tried to bring in people from marginalised communities and give them leadership positions. In most media organisations, he pointed out, upper-caste journalists decided what the news should be. “There is an imbalance, then, as it is their perspective that decides how a story must be told,” he said. “We want to change that.”
But while websites like Maktoob showed a zeal for portraying Muslim perspectives and criticising biases, journalistic objectivity was sometimes a challenge, Kayyalakkath admitted.
“The reporters know the facts but do not know how to present them,” he said. “Many of them are doing this for the first time, so we have to tell them how to report, talk on calls or face to face. Often when they write, they would put a lot of opinion in the story.”
Websites such as TwoCircles.net could do with more robust editorial systems, Mehraj admitted, but they were always short on resources. “We have a small team, but we could do better with more reporters, editors and freelancers,” he said.
Nazar, who headed Clarion India for a year and a half, through the 2020 communal violence in Delhi and the Covid-19 pandemic, said there was a lack of professionalism in such media houses. “Many of those who are running such websites lack professional training in newsrooms,” he said. “However serious, however well-intentioned, they have not had the exposure of working among more experienced people to learn their perspective.”
But how relevant is journalistic objectivity – often interpreted as giving all sides and all voices equal weight in a story – when a community that has either been demonised or erased from the public sphere tries to write about itself?
“See, we have other reporting to get the general news out,” said Nazar. “However, to get the sentiment of the community cross, such websites play an important role.”
For Khan of Milli Gazette, “objectivity is the hallmark of good journalism”, but “it is also a luxury”.
“It becomes difficult to be objective when lies are spread and a community is unjustly criminalised as part of a well-laid political agenda,” he said. “It becomes difficult to be “objective” when issues of life and death are involved, it is difficult to be objective when your people are raped, burnt and killed in riots, it is difficult to be objective when people are lynched for alleged consumption of beef or in fake ‘love jihad’ cases.”
Love jihad – a conspiracy theory popular with the Hindu Right and often peddled in mainstream news channels – implies a so-called plot by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into Islam through marriage.
‘They refuse to speak to a Muslim journalist’
Even as they try to highlight developments that are not getting the attention they deserve, it has not been easy for young journalists working with such websites to get all sides of the story in present-day India. Often, they do so at considerable risk, silently bearing heckling and harassment.
Take 21-year-old Faisal, who often dashes to the spot to cover communal clashes. When he tries to speak to Hindu “rightwing extremists”, Faisal said, they often refuse to speak to a Muslim journalist. “They ask us our name, then it goes into a tangent,” he said. “If they talk then the way they talk is not worth quoting.” He added that he often faced the same problem with police officials.
When he tells them he is from Jamia Nagar in Delhi, he is no longer a “mullah” but a “jihadi”. “They do not want to see a Muslim reporter,” he said. “They do not want to accept we exist.”
Kayyalakkath said he understood these concerns as an editor. “We used to call a lot of the people from RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and Bajrang Dal, but we cannot go there directly and meet them,” he said. “This is a limitation, our stories don’t have all the inputs as we want to have conversations with such people to understand why they do such things. We have to find a way to solve that.”
For Akhtar and Akram, as recognition of their YouTube channel grew, so did the threats. “I was continuously getting rape threats and being trolled on social media,” Akhtar said. “Then I changed the way I worked… and we decided that Nadeem would front the news.”
But making her brother the face of the channel did not help. People still threaten both sibings that will be shot dead. Many of the threat calls they recieve are on WhatsApp, “so they cannot be recorded”, she said.
Twice, the threats felt very real – in August and then in September, Hindutva groups surrounded Nadeem Akram’s car at a CNG pump in Noida. Complaining to the police did not feel like an option. “Muslims do not go to police stations,” Akhtar said. “Nadeem only steps out selectively to report now.”
She remembered the worst call she ever got – sometime in 2020, someone called to say she would be raped and pieces of her body would be put in a bag so no one would even be able to identify her. “I’ll be honest, I get scared,” she said. “However, I am also aware that if I do not go there then it will not be reported at all.”
Brother and sister keep a bag ready in case they need to flee at short notice.
Damned by association?
Tagged as terrorists in the national media and constantly under suspicion, the community and the publications that cover it often assert their Indian identity.
On its website, TwoCircles.net has different sub-heads dedicated to news about different groups – “Dalits”, “Adivasis”, “Women” and “Indian Muslims.” When asked why not just “Muslims”, Mehraj said because there was an impression that Muslims were not Indian enough.
Ali, however, felt that Muslims are different across countries and cultures, so to bracket them as one big community would amount to negating crucial cultural and historical differences.
It is perhaps no surprise that websites such as these are perennially short on resources.
Ali held the the community leadership accountable for failing to successfully show that India’s Muslims can have media outlets of their own. “Almost no one from the community’s elite and leadership funded an independent media venture,” he said. “Most initiatives it supported, turned out to be mouthpieces of the organisations which started them.”
He added that after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Muslims began to shy away from donating to such publications or even subscribing to them because they feared being targeted for their sympathies. “All the information is now online and there is a record of it,” he said. “You do not know who will be issued a notice when to be asked about contributing to these minority-focussed digital platforms.”
Khan said that many avoided being publically associated with the Milli Gazette. “Yes, it is much more difficult today to report and comment on the lines we did before 2014,” he said. “Reporters and even letter writers routinely ask us to remove from our website their names, stories and letters because they fear repercussions in areas like Kashmir and Manipur.”
It is not only monetary resources that are hard to find. Just finding an office space can be an ordeal. It took Akhtar six-and-a-half years to find an office. There were few landowners that would rent to them. “We tried in Noida, but [we were refused] because we were Muslims,” she said. “In other places, when they found out my surname is Akhtar, then they would cancel everything.”
They finally found an office in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. “Even now, we do not put up a board recognising ourselves as PalPal News,” she said.
Despite the threats and the discrimination, work carries on. In the most difficult moments, one thought keeps her going: “This hate is not India.”