Twocircles.net, a website on Indian Muslims, is becoming a popular source for news beyond stereotypes.
It’s a news website that runs on insufficient funds. It has no ads, no office and a handful of reporters, many of whom are not trained. It’s not a competitive news organisation, and shares content and ideas with other news organisations for free.
Yet twocircles.net (TCN) attracts 10,000 unique visitors daily, and is read by politicians, policy planners, journalists of major newspapers and television channels, and, rumour has it, investigators too. For something located on as clamorous a place as the internet, TCN has managed to make its voice heard — in the most unlikely places.
In June last year, TCN’s news editor spotted a picture he had taken of Muslim students in Azamgarh, UP, which the BJP was attempting to pass off in an ad campaign as an image of progressive Muslims in Gujarat. He alerted the mainstream media, and the BJP was roundly panned. About a year ago, in response to the website’s comprehensive performance report of Muslim MPs, one of the MPs called the TCN office to inform them that they had missed two questions he had asked in the Parliament.
When Kashif ul-Huda began twocircles.net from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, in 2007, he would have hardly expected it to make such an impact. For the 36-year-old biotechnologist from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, what ended up as a website that reports on news about Indian Muslims, from their perspective, began as just a feeling of “needing to do something” in 2002, when riots broke out in Gujarat.
As someone who’d witnessed riots as a child in Jamshedpur in 1979, and later in Lucknow in 1992, he thought he had left such traumas behind when he moved to the US in 2001. But he couldn’t sit silent as “uninformed and hateful comments about Muslims” spread across the internet, such as those which claimed “their population growth was so rapid that they’d take over India in 2050”.
To help put out “the real facts”, in 2005, Huda launched IndianMuslims.info. A near-comprehensive website on socio-economic data related to Muslims, it included information on riots, family planning, bank borrowings, which Huda collected over three years from books and reports.
The launch of IndianMuslims.info coincided with the infamous Imrana rape case, in which a young girl was allegedly raped by her father-in-law in Muzaffarnagar, UP, after which the local elders declared her marriage null under Sharia law. Huda was appalled at “how Indian Muslims became a spectacle, a drama, a tamasha”. “I realised that Muslims could either not articulate their opinion or were not being given space by the mainstream media. It was important to get the Muslim perspective — not regulated by major media gatekeepers —out there as soon as possible,” he says. So, a year later, he started a news section on IndianMuslims.info.
In July 2006, a series of bomb blasts hit Mumbai trains, after which he says the website “got many statements from Muslim organisations and individuals, which we combined in one news story. It was read and shared by many”. None of these opinions were sought out, Huda says; they all came from Muslims who wished to speak for themselves. With this, came the realisation that there was a need and a market for Muslim news through a Muslim perspective. So, in 2007, the news section became a distinct domain, twocircles.net.
Speaking for themselves helps put out Muslim realities more diverse and representative than those that make it to mainstream newspapers and TV channels, “which only talk of Muslims in the context of terrorism, communal riots, and some weird fatwa.” Huda seeks to redress the balance by producing stories “that are not in such negative context.” While they find nothing to inspire them in the “mainstream English-Hindi media”, neither do they take any cues from the Urdu press.
Mumtaz Alam Falahi, TCN’s Patna-based news editor, says, “Urdu newspapers are only busy flattering leaders of the community. They give little or no space to news about the socio-economic condition of Muslims, or even information about the Union ministry of minority affairs. An Urdu paper in Patna recently carried a huge picture of Nitish Kumar at a mazaar. We ask, why don't they find out why the Bihar government hasn't released the Central Government's scholarship funds for pre-high school Muslim students in the state?”
Questioning the establishmentarian stance towards Muslims is at the heart of most TCN stories, including those on people accused in terror-related cases. For instance, TCN had interviewed Rayeesuddin, a 2007 Mecca Masjid blast suspect in Hyderabad, who was later acquitted, and who recounted the torture inflicted on him, and the social ostracism and police harassment he continues to face. They had also brought attention to the case of Muhammad Haneef, a Noida tailor who was detained and allegedly tortured by police in 2005 for being a suspected ISI agent. TCN reporters sometimes feel that their boldly contrarian stance might risk leaving them vulnerable to threats or scrutiny. “Whenever you go against the mainstream, you are isolated and watched,” agrees Falahi.
Yet that’s the direction which TCN wants to soldier on in, because, Huda says, the “major media is either afraid of covering Muslim issues or doesn’t know how to do it properly”. Describing a meeting with the editor of a national Hindi daily, he says, “I asked him what sort of Muslim stories he did. He said, ‘We’re scared to go beyond Ramzan and Eid.’ I was shocked that we’re 15 per cent of the population, and have been living in India for a thousand years, and yet people have no idea what Muslims are.” So TCN, he says, aims to “help journalists report on a complex socio-religious community that is as diverse as India itself”.
They also try to lead by example, in representing diversity; focussing not just on Muslim Victims, but Muslim Achievers. On the site, there is a series of articles on three young Muslim techie entrepreneurs, and stories on Muslim candidates who cleared the civil service exams. The TCN also, on occasion, questions the credentials of Muslim institutions, such as their series of reports which exposed corruption within the Maharashtra Wakf Board in its land deals with builders, or a story detailing AMU’s high-handed treatment of students protesting against the dissolution of the students’ union. Or a comprehensive performance report of Muslim MPs in both Houses across three sessions.
TCN isn’t an Islamic website; it has no section which discusses religion. Huda says that the site has deliberately kept away from religious discourse “so that it is accessible to all Indians — Muslims or not-Muslims.” Neither is it based on a profit-driven model, says Huda, whose only source of income is his day job as a biotechnologist. The Indian American Muslim community funds the website — a challenge, says Huda, “because Muslims easily donate for a masjid or a madarsa but not for a website”. The only ads the website gets are those by Google.
Currently, there are 15 staffers across India — full-time, part-time and freelancing — and have varied backgrounds. Muhammad Ali, who wrote the Haneef story, has an MA in English Literature and worked with an English-language television news channel before he “quit to do more meaningful stories for a lesser salary”, and Falahi is a madrasa graduate, who “never applied to a mainstream media organisation because he would not have been able to adjust to their working environment”.
The one thing all his staffers do have in common, says Huda, is a “dedication and passion related to Muslim issues”, not to justify or assert, but help non-Muslims “see beyond the stereotype”. “We only want to invite you over to hear our side of the story,” says Huda.