New Delhi: The broadcast time of All India Radio’s Urdu service, which had a substantial audience base in both India and Pakistan, has been curtailed to mere three hours from what used to be 18 hours just three months ago.
The development comes at a time when there is an increased propaganda from Pakistani radio stations, fuelled primarily by tensions between India and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Sources handling AIR transmitters in several parts of the country confirmed that many of short wave and medium wave transmitters that beam radio signals to parts of Pakistan and other countries have remained shut since the lockdown has started — not only affecting the number of transmission hours but also leading to the complete curtailment of content to counter propaganda from Pakistan.
The Urdu Service comes under the External Services Division (ESD) of All India Radio.
The ESD broadcasts news bulletins and programmes in 28 foreign language services for the foreign audience across the globe through long-range short-wave and medium-wave transmitters spread across the country.
It is considered a major tool of public diplomacy and has outreach to about 150 countries.
On 23 March, Prasar Bharati, the parent body of AIR and Doordarshan, had issued an office memorandum listing ESD as a non-essential service and suspending all its services and that of transmitters through which foreign language services, including Urdu, were beamed.
Last month, the ESD restarted 11 of the 28 language services but only two transmitters have so far been made operational. This has led to the crunching of all language services, including the crucial Urdu service.
Prasar Bharati sources, however, said all radio services are under review to better differentiate between world services of strategic interest and national/regional services for domestic coverage of importance.
“This review will ensure the several hundreds of crores of operational expenditure towards radio content is better targeted and utilised towards quality content,” a top source in Prasar Bharati said.
The Urdu service started as a full-fledged language service of AIR after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, even though AIR had started airing Urdu content way before that.
Pakistan launches shrill radio propaganda
The truncating of the Urdu service comes amid a shrill propaganda launched by Pakistan through its airwaves in the backdrop of the military standoff between India and China at the LAC in Eastern Ladakh.
Radio Pakistan, which can also be heard in India, particularly in border villages, had maintained that the latest tensions at the LAC had been fuelled by India’s decision to revoke Article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and tinker with its status quo, which it emphasised affected the sovereignty of both Pakistan and China.
Pakistan also said India is trying to develop a regional hegemony in the neighbourhood and is emboldened by outside help, possibly in a veiled reference to the United States.
“In such a situation, India’s word should have strengthened instead of being truncated. Most of the programmes of the Urdu service stand cancelled now,” said a former AIR official who had been associated with the Urdu service.
Out of the many counter propaganda programmes of AIR, only one programme, Aaj Ki Baat, featuring discussions on topical issues, is being broadcast.
Others such as Fikr-o-Khayal, a script-based programme on topics such as internal issues, contradictions, conflicts, dissenting and subaltern voices inside Pakistan; Manzar pas Manzar, an analysis and countering of Pakistan’s media reports and reports of world press about Pakistan; and Jahanuma, a programme on what the international press says about Pakistan, stands suspended as of now.
Even Pakistan Diary, a programme on the Urdu service that started in the wake of Balakot Strikes in February last year, continues to remain suspended.
Calls for restoration
There are now calls for AIR to properly restore its Urdu services.
Talking to ThePrint, Harjab Singh Aujla, a retired engineer from Amritsar, said the FM transmitter at the Attari border in Amritsar, which beamed programmes to Lahore, stands non-functional right now, affecting the AIR listenership in both Amritsar and Lahore.
“The Urdu service was popular both here and in Lahore. People were hooked to it for music and other programmes,” he said. “At a time when Amritsar is flooded with multiple messages from Pakistan, it makes no sense to take its Urdu service off air.”
Aujla also said it is imperative for the government to functionalise the existing 1,000-ft tower for the relay of AIR’s programmes to Pakistan.
The tower, which came up nearly 10 years ago, never got commissioned. It would have ensured that the content broadcast reached at least 150 km into Pakistan, including Lahore, Sialkot, and Gujranwala, the heart of the cross-border Punjab.
Move comes amid efforts to rationalise short wave transmitters
As reported by ThePrint, a Prasar Bharati-appointed committee had recommended the closure of 45 of the existing 48 AIR’s shortwave transmitters on the grounds that they are expensive, worn out and do not have much of an audience.
Truncating of the Urdu service comes amid this move.
While insiders had said it will affect India’s global outreach, there has been little effort to replace these transmitters with FM transmitters too, given the popularity of FM is growing in India’s neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Nepal.