AMPLIFYING CHAOS, SOWING DISCORD
Terrorism has been a frequent visitor to Indian shores over the last two decades and more. Earlier visitations have been instantaneous blows that have stunned and staggered, though they have allowed for a quick recovery of morale as civic processes kick in and people who cannot afford the luxury of disengagement from daily routines, resume their normal activity.
Mumbai 7/11 – to use the media shorthand for the 11 July 2006 suburban train bombings that killed close to 200 -- was one such occasion. Yet when it came to Mumbai 26/11, resilience was no longer a virtue to celebrate. The incursion of armed desperados who sprayed death and destruction in vital nodes of the city’s life, before commandeering three buildings on November 26, has become a case study in the tactical confusion that India’s security apparatus is prone to. It also illustrates how the media can respond to emergency situations in a fashion that multiplies public anxieties and creates the conditions for imprudent and ill-considered strategic responses.
Though a seemingly trivial point, it is important to understand a reversal in the format of date identification between 7/11 and 26/11. Consistency in usage is not so important as getting the suffix right, so that it rhymes and resonates with 9/11, the universal shorthand for the terrorist attacks in the U.S. that inaugurated a phase of global insecurity and instability.
This is not to deny the uniqueness of Mumbai 26/11. Unlike all earlier terrorist atrocities, 26/11 was a slow haemorrhage of public confidence, a long-drawn bloodbath that claimed lives and at the same time tested the country’s response capabilities, sapped its self-confidence and imprisoned it in prolonged contemplation of a tableau of destruction.
When the gunfire began at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) – India’s most famous Victorian gothic structure, where millions figuratively tread everyday – it was reported as an outbreak of gang warfare. Only one among the English news channels had the story till well over an hour after it began. Most of India would have slept untroubled through that night. But anybody from the 80 million cable TV households who switched on at an early hour the next morning, irrespective of the channel first tuned into, would have been instantly transfixed. Riveted by the real-life drama, plunged into the depths of emotional trauma by the shooting war erupting in a locale normally associated with calm and unembarrassed displays of wealth, audience susceptibility was greatly multiplied.
The scenes unfolding in Mumbai heightened the Indian public’s mute awareness of its absolute lack of influence in deeply consequential security decisions. With the media orchestrating this national catharsis, the public mood was quickly transformed into convulsive rage against the politicians who supposedly held all the power and had yet allowed an atrocity of such enormity to occur. And it was just a short transition from raging against the politicians, to raging against the political system that had ensconced them in authority.
Perhaps the media was getting jaded by the coverage of election campaigns that rarely rose above the mundane; perhaps it was fearful that a serious interrogation of the security and intelligence apparatus would be negatively perceived; perhaps it was collectively disoriented at the sight of Mumbai’s two most prestigious hotels being gutted from within by faceless marauders.
There was also, perhaps, a genetic predisposition within the media to go overboard at the spectacle of the most exclusive quarters of India’s most affluent city becoming a battleground. The success of the media is premised upon its ability to mirror perceptions of high purchasing power strata, which are the main focus of advertiser interest. The tone of the media coverage was in this sense, brutally honest in bringing out into the open the subliminal disdain that those accustomed to privilege have, for the scruffy world of competitive politics.
In many ways, the media revealed more about itself through 60-hours of feverish and frenetic coverage, than about the terrorist atrocity that was being perpetrated in Mumbai. On the evening of November 28, as the siege approached the 48-hour mark, the local police ordered all channels to cease live coverage of the ongoing security operations. The police had been particularly irked by a Hindi news channel that established live telephonic contact with one of the marauders in the Jewish community centre, the third building to be commandeered. The news-anchor then proceeded to harangue the gunmen, denouncing them as desperate criminals and swearing that they would never escape India’s avenging fury.
The morality lesson for the invaders was abruptly interrupted by a commercial break, which was unusual for those feverish 60 hours when all channels dispensed with advertising. Resuming a few minutes later, the channel seemed to have turned the page, though without any effort at explanation. All arguments with the invading terrorists were forgotten. Later reports which have neither been confirmed or denied by either side, spoke of the police authorities leaning heavily on the channel to cease its conversations with the marauders.
The ban on live coverage was quickly rescinded. With the siege of Mumbai itself being broken soon afterwards, the news channels went into a mode of retrospection, though offering nothing more edifying than more vituperation against politics.
Politics was not slow with its riposte, though a little clumsy to begin with. A few days after the siege was broken, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a notice demanding an explanation from the channel that had vainly sought to impart a morality lesson to the terrorists. The channel head pleaded injured innocence, claiming that his broadcast had not in any way given undue publicity to the terrorists but had to the contrary, had the wholly salutary effect of fortifying public resolve.
Two themes seemed to contend for attention in the political reaction to the media coverage of Mumbai’s horror. First was the concern that relentless live coverage may well have limited the scope and effectiveness of the security operations. A second theme that emerged in the post facto examination of the media coverage of Mumbai was the effect it had on the public mood. It fuelled anxieties and created an environment in which the appearance of drastic action, rather than prudence, became the priority. And because of the intense competition among the news channels to firmly ascribe responsibility for the outrage, the government was seemingly stampeded into considering a rather limited range of strategic options.
The Committee on Petitions in the Rajya Sabha took up the first of these themes in a report submitted during the brief sitting of Parliament in December. Responding to a petition on the alleged misuse of the right to free speech by the electronic and print media, the Committee urged that some form of statutory regulations be introduced on the media “in the larger interest of society”. The petition had been under consideration since 2006, but had evidently gained urgency in the light of the Mumbai horror. The growing competition within the media made “self-regulation” a difficult ideal to realise. The Committee drew pointed attention to the repeated attempts in the past to introduce a broadcast regulatory authority and a “content code” for the electronic media and affirmed the need to reconsider these on a priority basis.
Sections of the media were quick to push back against this line of thinking. India’s largest English language newspaper, which has strong interests in the broadcast sector, fielded a former chief of staff of the Indian Army, to refute any notion that the live coverage of the Mumbai operations could have compromised their efficacy. Drawing on his years as a military commander, General V.N. Sharma pronounced that individuals and forces engaged in armed combat or search and destroy operations, are unlikely to waste any time with following news broadcasts. On the other hand, the live media coverage had the positive impact of taking the horror into all homes and building up public pressure for swift and accountable action by the authorities.
The second and deeper concern was underlined by K.G. Balakrishnan, the Chief Justice of India. “The symbolic impact of terrorist attacks”, he said at a public function in Delhi, has been “considerably amplified by the role of pervasive media coverage”. The “proliferation of 24-hour TV news channels and the digital medium” ensured that “disturbing images and statements reach a very wide audience”. This manner of “unrestrained coverage” may have the effect of “provoking anger amongst the masses” and fuelling “an irrational desire for retribution”. “Furthermore, the trauma resulting from the terrorist attacks may be used as a justification for undue curtailment of individual rights and liberties”.
A week after the intruders were eliminated, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent out an “advisory” asking all news channels to refrain from repeatedly airing footage of the Mumbai attacks. Averse as always to any official diktat, the news channels responded with a unanimous rejection. But the Ministry was not about to give in. Heads of prominent news channels were called in for a number of further meetings, at which the Ministry evidently invoked the possibility that it could act unilaterally under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. Fighting now to retrieve the credibility of the principle of “self-regulation”, channels that have grouped themselves into the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA), on December 18, issued a set of “guidelines for telecast of news during emergency situations”.
Drawn up by a grievance redressal committee constituted by the NBA and chaired by a former chief justice of India, J.S. Verma, the guidelines uphold “public interest” as the vital touchstone. They commend the virtues of factual accuracy and objectivity, disavow any broadcast that may provide a platform for terrorists to propagate their views, and rule out any live programming that may hamper the efficacy of security operations or put at risk those involved in a hostage situation. Visually disturbing sequences that could cause trauma among victims and their relatives are to be avoided. And archival footage that may reawaken the sense of trauma or agitation in viewers’ minds should be broadcast only when necessary, after clearly identifying the date and time of its recording.
Despite the eminence of its authorship, the new emergency code was seen among most critics as just another exercise in formulaic thinking. It was as recently as August 2008, that the NBA had come out with a comprehensive set of guidelines on self-regulation, which were conspicuous only in their breach during the Mumbai crisis. The Ministry obviously remains unconvinced and is reportedly now thinking of mandatorily requiring news channels to carry pre-authorised content during designated emergency situations. The proposal is at a very early stage of discussion and it is unclear whether its intent is to completely supplant autonomous content generated by the news channels, or to be an additional input. Either way, the media industry is distinctly uncomfortable.
The debate remains incomplete. Even conceding the post-modernist conceit that all information is subjective, a civilised public dialogue is only possible if there is an effort to reach beyond the limitations of subjectivity. If the media is the main platform for this dialogue, then its minimal responsibility would be to reflect an authentic cross-section of the perceptions that have a bearing on the issue at hand. The print media goes through a 24-hour cycle of discovery, verification and analysis before it reports its perceptions of fact. The electronic media, especially since the 24-hour news channel became a reality in India, breathlessly records every random observation as fact, creating a clutter of information that confuses rather than informs.
There are also questions about the range of voices that people want to hear when they seek to cope with a national trauma. Are residents of Mumbai’s more exclusive neighbourhoods to have the run of the airwaves, their anger stoked by eager news anchors prepared to buy into the fiction that social merit is proportionate to taxes paid? Or is a more diverse public dialogue possible?
In its coverage of the Mumbai attacks, the Indian media seems to have seriously engaged with diversity of a very different sort, considering the multiple dissonances that have emerged on basic points of fact. This speaks as much about the quality of the relationship between the media and the public, as about the nature of the governance compact and the degree of accountability that the security and intelligence agencies seem inclined to accept. The media in this sense, amplified the tactical incoherence of the official response to an unprecedented tragedy.
To mention merely a few instances: early on the afternoon of November 27, well before the siege of Mumbai had reached the 24-hour mark, the Director-General of Police in Maharashtra announced that the Taj Mahal hotel had been emptied of all threats. The following day, the chief of the Indian Army’s Southern Command announced around midday, that the Taj Mahal had just one remnant gunman hiding out in its old wing. The new wing had been thoroughly “cleansed” and the sole hangout would swiftly be neutralised, he predicted. Gun battles raged on for hours afterwards and it was only early the next morning that the last of the marauders was put out of commission.
There were also periodic broadcasts that the gunmen had seized hostages and were engaged in negotiating a ransom for their release, when the reality was quite the contrary. Early in the encounter, a story was floated that huge quantities of the lethal explosive, RDX, had been uncovered from sites in close vicinity of the Taj Mahal hotel. This story remained the exclusive property of one of the English news-channels, but was quietly put to rest as the commando operation progressed. It resurfaced in another guise though, with the claim that the gunmen had huge quantities of the explosive and could possibly raze all three buildings, burying commandos engaged in combat in a graveyard of rubble.
After the clean-up was completed, the RDX theory in its mutant form, was decisively scotched by the head of the elite commando force, the National Security Guard (NSG), in full glare of the country’s numerous media channels. But even in its death throes, the theory proved to have some fervent adherents. Within two days of the final shot being fired in the siege of Mumbai, it was reprised, with attributions to anonymous sources. The two luxury hotels that had been commandeered, the new narrative went, had been seeded with lethal RDX bombs. These had providentially, been detected and defused just in time. The intent of the gunmen otherwise, was to set off those explosives and to escape under the cover of the resultant chaos and confusion.
There were numerous stories that the media managed to float on how the attackers beached on Indian shores. To begin with, three distinct places in Mumbai were identified as locations where the gunmen had come ashore, though the rubber dinghy they had used for landing had ostensibly been spotted and eyewitnesses to their arrival had spoken to the news channels.
Beyond this, considerable uncertainty was sowed over the mode of arrival. There was first, a story of four decapitated bodies being found, all of the crew of the fishing trawler that had been hijacked by the terrorists, possibly off the coast of Porbandar. Within hours, the number of victims of this particular episode was scaled back to one. The captain of the fishing trawler, it was surmised, had piloted the raiders to within sight of the Mumbai shore and then been killed. Concurrently, speculation was being fuelled that elements of the crew may have cooperated with the raiders. The investigation, it was put out, was looking with great interest at fishing boat operators recently incarcerated in Pakistani jails for breaching territorial boundaries, who had perhaps been indoctrinated by Pakistani intelligence.
The identity of the captured attacker -- the only one caught on film in reasonable clarity, thanks to a news photographer who reached Mumbai’s principal railway terminus just when the first shootout began – was again cause of great confusion. Taken alive after a beachfront shootout on November 26, there were different versions of his name afloat till a week later. First accounts spoke of him as fluent in English and well-educated. A subsequent account told of him being of indigent family origins, with education well short of primary schooling. There were reports that he had been gravely injured and had begged for life-saving medical attention at the hospital he was taken to, and then a clarification by the dean of the medical college attached to the same hospital, that he was unharmed except for minor bruises. Finally, contrary to the account in one section of the media that he was being held in an “undisclosed location”, the medical expert testifying to the captured terrorist’s condition was identified by both name and affiliation.
On December 2, India’s external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, playing host to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, spoke of a range of options that were under consideration to deal with the aftermath of Mumbai. Though he specified none and indicated no preferences, Mukherjee’s statement was interpreted in diametrically opposed fashion by two of the country’s biggest English-language newspapers: one headlined its story “India open to military action against Pakistan”, while the other said quite definitively, “Pranab rules out military action”.
The latter attitude though, was a minimal strain in the media in the aftermath of Mumbai, since Pakistan-bashing was the only constant element in the competitive clamour for attention. The question the Indian media faces is not a trivial one. Is it going to be an exclusive forum for the more extreme voices? Or can it find a sensible way forward, even in a conjuncture as trying as Mumbai 26/11, to promote a genuine social dialogue that is attentive to the true risks and benefits of any particular strategic course?
Though difficult in trying times such as now, can the media hear voices from across the border? Would it have any use for instance, for the following observations from the December 2 editorial in Dawn, one of the most restrained and sober voices in the Pakistan media: “…what cannot be condoned is the behaviour of the Indian media, that taking its cue from the politicians — and from a culture of nationalism that is especially apparent where Islamabad is concerned — came down hard on Pakistan, often conjuring up fantastical descriptions of the way the siege of Mumbai was laid. Not only does this put pressure on the Indian government to keep up its accusations and resist moves for a cooperative stance, it also damages people-to-people ties, for after all, the media is meant to speak for the common man”.
Beginning on November 29, Karachi, where the Mumbai marauders ostensibly set off from, was gripped by ethnic rioting on a scale never before seen. None of the known players in Karachi’s volatile political milieu owned responsibility for the violence. As The Daily Times of Islamabad, another newspaper known for relative sobriety, commented in its December 2 editorial, the Prime Minister of Pakistan had asked for intelligence on the incidents and “at least one TV channel (had) reported that an intelligence report sent to the prime minister has held India responsible for the mayhem”.
As the pitch rose of the diplomatic and political exchanges, the media on both sides began playing their accustomed role of amplifying the discord. The difference with earlier phases of mutual hostility, perhaps, was that the media on each side was now the specific target of attack by commentators and government spokespersons on the other side. This has been accompanied by ad hominem attacks – as by the anchor-person of the Times Now TV news channel in India – on human rights defenders who believe that the response to terrorism cannot be confined within the militarist mindset and needs necessarily to be attentive to civil liberties and social justice.
The Mumbai attacks came just as India was beginning to grapple with certain agonising questions about the fundamentals of its approach to terrorism. The Batla House encounter of September 19 in Delhi’s south-eastern suburb of Jamia Nagar, was a catalyst for several of these questions to be aired with rare freedom. The subsequent discovery of a terrorist ring involving supposed preachers of the Hindu faith and serving and retired officers of the Indian army, then broke old moulds of thinking on terrorism, suggesting that a workable approach to the problem needed to look in different directions.
Needless to say, all these questions have been suppressed with the Mumbai attacks. The dominant media project now is to integrate the Mumbai attacks into the master-narrative on terrorism that was being constructed till Batla House and the Hindutva terror ring cropped up as dissonant elements. The directions that the project will take are apparent in a recent piece written by a media analyst well-known for his feverishly speculative commentary. The figure around which this new narrative evolves is seemingly Mohammad Sadiq Sheikh, in police custody since September and accused of being the mastermind of serial bombings in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi. Sadiq Sheikh is putatively among the founders of the Indian Mujahedin, which has claimed responsibility for all these attacks and it now transpires, has had intimate links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba insurgent group in Pakistan’s side of Kashmir and with Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
When Safdar Nagori, the general secretary of a shadowy body of uncertain provenance called the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), was arrested in March 2008, the same analyst had commented that “SIMI cadre have been involved in almost every Islamist terror strike since (2000), ranging from the Mumbai serial bombings of 2003 and 2006 to attacks in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi”.
Despite the seeming certainty behind this pronouncement, obviously inspired by driblets of information leaked by the intelligence agencies, a tribunal constituted to review the extension of the ban on SIMI, held on August 5, that there was no evidence connecting SIMI with terrorism. The Central Government on that occasion, secured a face-saving stay on the application of this ruling by the Supreme Court. Media comment was muted and the public, still under the pall of fear spread by the Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad bombings, remained indifferent to finer points of legality.
The pursuit of the terrorists behind the recent wave of bomb attacks in India, picked up momentum with the mid-August arrest of Abu Bashar Qasmi, a 25-year old cleric, snatched from his home in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh by four men who came visiting on the pretext of exploring a matrimonial alliance. Taken immediately to Gujarat, he was identified by the state police as the man behind July’s Ahmedabad attacks. He also reportedly, confessed to an undefined role in the Jaipur bombing.
On August 24, the Rajasthan police announced the arrest of Shahbaz Husain, a computer software expert who ran a small business in Lucknow. Press reports later blazoned the claim of the Rajasthan Police that sophisticated electronic chips and circuits of bombs resembling those used in Surat had been found in Shahbaz’s premises.
With Shahbaz’s firm implication in terrorism, an elaborate chain of linkages began to be drawn between the various blasts. Nagori, Shahbaz and Qasmi were all reportedly, members of a secretive cell that underwent explosives training in camps as far afield as Kerala and the jungles of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Brooding over the whole conspiracy was the presence of Mohammad Altaf Subhan -- later identified as Abdul Subhan Quereshi, and variously described by the alternative names, Taufeeq and Tauqeer, by which he was allegedly known in jihadi circles -- a computer hardware specialist missing from his home in Mumbai’s distant suburb of Mira Road, since 2006.
Subhan was supposedly the technical brain behind the ingeniously designed bombs and the e-mail messages --replete with graphics and intense Islamic religious symbolism -- that had been sent out celebrating each terrorist strike in the heart of urban India. When Delhi was gutted by three simultaneous bombings in September, Subhan was the name on every investigating agency’s lips.
Working its way through the chain that connected Subhan with Qasmi and Shahbaz, the Delhi police quickly identified the other links in the terrorism plot, all from Uttar Pradesh. Acting in concert with their Gujarat counterparts, the Delhi police secured access to Qasmi for a round of interrogation.
In the six days between the Delhi blasts and the Batla House encounter, the script was radically rewritten. As the encounter at Batla House began, concurrent media commentary had it that the interrogation of Qasmi had led to the identification of the tenement and that the prize catch, Subhan, was holed out there. When the dust settled, Subhan remained as elusive as ever and Qasmi it transpired, had nothing to do with the Batla House raid. The Delhi Police still claimed it had cracked not merely the Delhi bombings, but also the Jaipur and Ahmedabad attacks. One of the two youths killed in the Batla House encounter, Bashir, alias Atif Amin became, in the new narrative, the master terrorist.
The final twist in the story came on September 24, with the arrest of five in Mumbai. In just a matter of days, the Nagori-Qasmi-Shahbaz chain of culpability, was history. The Mumbai Police now definitively identified 31-year old Sadiq Sheikh, a resident of the Cheetah Camp slum sprawl near the city’s north-eastern suburb of Chembur, as the inspiration and the mentor for all the terrorist actions of the preceding months.
As the project of knitting Sadiq Sheikh into the narrative of the Mumbai attacks proceeds, various new dramatis personae should be expected to emerge. The old cast of characters clearly has been dispensed with. Subhan alias Tauqeer, always a shadowy figure has now been firmly banished. And so long as the media fails to ask the hard questions that it should, more names will crop up only to disappear as mysteriously, from the future construction of this narrative.
“Made for media” investigations into terrorist atrocities are clearly betraying the cause of justice and creating a new culture of lawlessness within the country’s police agencies. They are also creating a climate of fear among the country’s main religious minority. The hesitant quest for a new approach to terrorism, which had began with the Batla House encounters and the inquiries into the Hindutva terrorism ring, has now perhaps been scotched because of the enormous public anxiety created by the Mumbai attacks. If it is capable of occasional introspection, the Indian media should really ask itself if things could have been different, given a little sobriety and responsibility on its part.