Urdu newspapers: growing, not dying

BY ANKITA PANDEY| IN Research Studies | 04/10/2016
Far from fading, Urdu newspapers are flourishing and are widely distributed, especially in Delhi and UP. Insights culled from the RNI database from 1957-2015 are fascinating,


Urdu is among the six most widely spoken languages of India and also among the three languages, including Hindi and English, which are used across a large number of states. The share of Urdu-speakers in India’s population has decreased gradually over the past few decades. However, the database on newspaper registration maintained by the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) suggests that Urdu newspapers have registered a robust growth over the past decade.

Urdu boasts of the third largest number of titles in circulation and is among the three languages whose newspapers are widely distributed across the country with at least one Urdu newspaper in more than 20 states/UTs.

Moreover, despite a decline in Urdu-speakers among non-Muslims, there has been a sharp increase in non-Muslim publishers of Urdu newspapers over the past decade. So, contrary to the popular perception, the RNI data suggest that over the past decade, both registration of Urdu newspapers and the participation of non-Muslims in the Urdu newspaper industry, have increased. In light of this, the RNI database merits a closer examination.

This article is divided into two parts. The first is an introduction to the RNI database and a discussion of the growth of registration of Urdu newspapers, the distribution of Urdu newspapers across different periodicities, and the distribution of Urdu newspapers across states and cities. Urdu newspaper registrations increased during the mid-1960s, in the late 1970s in the aftermath of the end of the Emergency, during the late 1980s and early 1990s - a period that witnessed political instability, communal conflicts, and economic liberalization - and again after 2006.

This first part also looks at how the share of dailies within Urdu has grown much faster than the national trend for all languages and how, while Urdu newspapers are widely distributed across the country, five states and 23 cities accounted for 75 per cent of all registrations. Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, were the leading city and state, accounting for 17 and 31 per cent of the registrations.

The second part of this article will compare the distribution of Urdu newspapers with that of Muslim and Urdu-speaking populations. The analysis shows that high shares of Muslims and Urdu speakers in a state and official language status do not guarantee the growth of the Urdu print news media. In other words, demography does not closely determine the fate of the Urdu press.

For example, both Assam and Jammu and Kashmir have a high share of Muslim population and a low share of people who declare Urdu to be their mother tongue. But, the Urdu press is strong in Jammu and Kashmir, but not in Assam. This and other peculiarities at the level of states are examined in the second part.



RNI is the most comprehensive source of information about the newspaper industry in India. It provides information on verified titles, deblocked titles, registered titles, and titles that filed annual statements (see Appendix 1).

A much smaller database gives information about newspapers that are eligible to import newsprint. Titles are automatically deblocked if not registered with RNI within the stipulated period of two years from the date of verification. So, the verified titles database is larger than the registered titles database as it contains recent newspapers that have not yet registered or have been deblocked after they failed to register.

The number of newspapers that file annual statements is much smaller partly because older newspapers might have stopped circulation and partly because the requirement to file statements does not seem to be implemented strictly. But the annual filing database does not provide a complete count of newspapers in circulation. There are many registered newspapers in various languages that did not file an annual statement even though they are operating.

The registered newspapers database is the most appropriate to understand the distribution and growth of newspapers, especially over a long period of time. The registration database gives the following information: (a) Title of newspaper, (b) Registration Number, (c) State, (d) Language, (e) Periodicity, (f) Publication (District), (g) Publisher name, and (h) Address.

In less than half a per cent of cases, the year of registration, place of publication, etc are not available. The database on newspapers that have filed annual statements also includes self-declared circulation. The registered titles database was cross-checked with verified titles in cases of incomplete entries.

The major shortcomings of the registration database include lack of information about how many of the registered newspapers are still in operation and about the circulation figures of the newspapers in operation. Also, this database does not cover the newspapers that operate without registration.

Yet another problem that affects all RNI databases is that without fieldwork there is no way to identify which newspapers are genuine and which have been floated only for occasional propaganda, to access subsidised newsprint, and/or privileges extended to media persons.

Also, in the absence of the mandatory filing, only a field survey covering a randomly drawn sample across the country can reveal how many of the newspapers are in circulation. Until such a survey can be conducted, we have to rely on the data made available by RNI.


 The findings show robust growth

With 6,723 newspapers registered between 1957 and 2015, Urdu boasts of the fifth largest number of newspaper registrations, behind only Hindi (50,766), English (18,754), Bilingual (9,761), and Marathi (9,166).

These five together account for 71 per cent of all newspaper registrations. If we restrict our focus to newspapers that filed annual statements in 2014-15, the Urdu print media is the third largest in the country with 1,675 publications after Hindi (12,723) and English (2,296), but ahead of Bilingual (1,045) and Marathi (925). Together, they account for 80 per cent of the newspapers that filed annual statements. Detailed findings:

  • 6,723 registered Urdu titles (excluding one cancelled title) include 5,413 single edition titles (5,413 entries);
  • 200 titles with multiple editions but same periodicity (564 entries);
  • 68 titles that were registered twice by the same owner without a change in language or periodicity (136 entries in the RNI database);
  • 25 titles registered twice by two different owners in the same language and state (50 entries);
  • Titles registered more than once by the same owner in the same city but with different periodicities - twice (248 titles, 496 entries), thrice (20 titles, 60 entries), and four times (one title, four entries).

The 17 cases in which the year is not mentioned are excluded from the year-wise analysis. The state is neither mentioned, nor is it clear from the place of publication in 14 cases and these cases are excluded from the state level analysis.

1673 of the 6723 registered newspapers filed annual returns in 2014-15. These include 951single edition titles, 150 multiple edition newspapers (421 entries), one title registered twice (2 entries), four titles that were registered twice by the same owner in the same language and with the same periodicity (8 entries in the database), and titles registered more than once by the same owner in the same city but with different periodicities: twice (128 titles, 256 entries), thrice (11 titles, 33 entries), and four times (4 entries).

The long run trends for all languages and Urdu are given in Figures 1 and 2. There were a very large number of registrations in 1957 as that was the year in which all pre-existing newspapers were registered after the establishment of RNI.

In the first two decades, the trend of registrations for Urdu broadly agreed with the overall trend for all languages of India (Figures 1 and 2), followed by a stagnation and a slight decline in the following two decades. The Urdu print media has registered a robust growth after the early 2000s. 



Also noteworthy is the fact that Urdu newspaper registrations peak once in every decade. As mentioned earlier, registrations increased during the mid-1960s, in the late 1970s after the Emergency, during the late 1980s, in the early 1990s and again after 2006 (Figure 2).



We can also analyse the long run trend discussed above by dividing the period into shorter phases separated by landmark events. The years 1977 (end of the Emergency), 1992 (liberalisation), and 2002 (onset of internet media), are treated as watersheds for newspapers. Each of these dates is important for media in all languages. 

For example, liberalisation and the introduction of information technology could have affected the growth of the print media. In addition, 1992 and 2002 are crucial for Urdu due to the Babri and Gujarat riots, respectively. For instance, there was a sharp increase in registrations in Gujarat a few years after the riots and likewise the 2012 communal violence in Assam was followed by a jump in registrations. (It is not clear if riots increased the rate ofregistration of Urdu newspapers. Both cases are discussed further in the second part.)

The broad trends remain unaffected if we divide the 1957-2016 period into decades, 1957-67 and so on or use the years 1986 and 1999 as watersheds instead of 1992 and 2002.

During 1957-77, the trend of registrations for Urdu broadly agreed with the overall trend for all the languages of India. However, between 1977 and 2002 there was a distinct drop in Urdu registrations even though registrations for other languages continued to grow (Figures 3 and 4). During these years the annual average number of registrations in Urdu declined in absolute terms. However, after 2003, registrations in Urdu grew faster than the rest of the languages.



In the last decade and a half, Urdu newspapers have witnessed a dramatic increase in average annual registrations from 2.3 per cent between 1993 and 2002 to 85.3 per cent between 2003 and 2015 (Figure 5). The general impression of the steady decline of the Urdu media is not borne out by the registration data.



Multiple editions can be treated as another indicator of the health of the newspaper industry. Among the 6723 registered Urdu newspapers have, there are 200 multiple edition titles, with one of them having as many as 11 editions (Figure 6). Of these, 109 have editions across states, with one of them operating across eight states. Incidentally, multiple edition newspapers were more likely to file annual statements, possibly because they are better organised. Out the 1673 Urdu newspapers that filed annual statements, there were 150 multiple edition newspapers.



Periodicity distribution

The Urdu print newspapers also differ from the newspaper industry in general in terms of distribution of titles across different periodicities. About 38 per cent of all Urdu newspapers registered between 1957 and 2016 were weeklies. However, until 1977 dailies accounted for only 7.5 per cent of Urdu newspaper registrations in comparison to 42.5 per cent of weeklies.

But, in recent times (2003-15) the share of dailies increased to 59.9 per cent compared to 23 per cent of weeklies (Figure 7). Also, 67 per cent of Urdu newspapers, which filed their annual statement during 2014-15, were dailies. While the share of dailies within the Urdu print media increased during 1957-2015, that of all other Urdu periodicals decreased.



The share of dailies among Urdu newspapers has grown much more than that of dailies in general (Figure 8). Once again, it is seen that initially the trend within Urdu was comparable to the rest of the newspapers and then diverged sharply after 2002. Also, the growing circulation of dailies suggests that the reach of Urdu print news media is growing, which attests to its vitality.




RNI divides newspapers that file annual returns into three broad categories based on self-declared circulation figures per publishing day: Small (up to 25000 copies), Medium (25001 to 75000 copies), and Big (more than 75000 copies). There were twenty nine Big Urdu newspapers among 1673 Urdu newspapers that filed annual returns. Only thirteen Big newspapers’ circulation exceeded 100,000 copies. They include nine dailies, two weeklies, and two fortnightlies. Out of 1103 Urdu dailies that filed annual statements, 24 belonged to the Big category, 341 to Medium, and the remaining 738 (including 42 with zero copies) were Small (Figure 8.1). Medium sized newspapers accounted for 62 per cent of the overall circulation of Urdu dailies, followed by Big (27 per cent) and Small (11 per cent).



Circulation increases with the age of newspapers with older Urdu newspapers having a higher share among Big newspapers (Figure 8.2).



Distribution across states

There was no registration in nine small states/UTs, namely Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Puducherry, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur.

UP, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, including Telangana, Maharashtra, and Jammu & Kashmir were the leading states in terms of registrations between 1957 and 2015 (Figure 9). These states, in the above order, are also the leading states in the latest decade. Except Maharashtra, these four states also lead in annual statement filling.



Every state witnessed a growth in the number of registrations except Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Chandigarh. About 95 per cent of all registrations in Punjab, 92 per cent in Haryana, 88 per cent in Himachal Pradesh, and 86 per cent in Chandigarh, were carried out during 1957-1977. 

Eighty one per cent of the registrations in Rajasthan and 82 per cent in Tamil Nadu were carried out between 1957 and 1992. While 91 per cent in Chhattisgarh, 86 per cent in Gujarat, 77 per cent in Uttarakhand and 89 per cent in Assam were registered after 2002. The one and only publication in Goa and in Kerala were registered in 1988 and 1997, respectively. The second part of this article examines the state level trends in greater detail.


Distribution across cities

Registrations in Urdu were distributed across 265 cities/towns. Delhi alone accounted for 17 per cent of the registrations (Figure 10).  Eleven other state capitals accounted for 43 per cent of the registrations. Overall, 23 cities, including eight cities of UP, accounted for 75 per cent of the total registrations. Ten or fewer publications were registered in 194 cities.




In 2014-15, five cities – Lucknow, Delhi, Hyderabad, Patna, and Kanpur - accounted for 57 per cent of titles and 58 per cent of the circulation. Barabanki is the only small city that figures among the top ten cities by circulation, while Fatehpur is the only small city that is among the top ten cities according to the number of titles in circulation (Figure 10.1). Delhi and Lucknow accounted for 18 of the 29 Big newspapers. There is only one non-North Indian city (Bengaluru) and one small city (Kupwara, Kashmir) that boast of a Big newspaper.




Concluding remarks

The general impression of the steady decline of the Urdu media is not reflected in the registration data. Urdu is one of the very few languages whose newspapers are widely distributed across the country with at least one Urdu newspaper in more than 20 states/UTs (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are treated as one state).

However, five states and 23 cities accounted for 75 per cent of all registrations. Likewise five states accounted for 82 per cent of the circulation and five cities accounted for 58 per cent of the circulation. Twenty one of the twenty nine Big newspapers were published from two states, while eighteen Big newspapers were published from two cities. In recent times, Urdu newspaper registrations have grown faster than the rest of the newspapers. Moreover, the growing share of dailies within Urdu newspapers and the presence of a number of multi-state, multi-edition newspapers suggest that the reach of the Urdu print news media is growing.

The next part of the article will examine the demographic correlates of the growth and distribution of Urdu newspapers.


Part 2


Ankita Pandey is an independent researcher based in Bengaluru.



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More