Friday, December 05, 2008

Mumbai, the media and militarism

There are occasions in history when collective trauma brings a nation intimately in contact with its deepest anxieties. Mumbai 26/11, to use the media shorthand for the horror that began one night in November and carried on for close to three days, was one such. The terrorist attacks that began November 26 and transformed swiftly into a 60-hour long siege of three landmark buildings in India’s commercial metropolis, have deeply transformed the national polity. The true consequences will take a while manifesting themselves. But it is a conjuncture that demands calm sobriety, while tending to drift towards intolerance and authoritarianism.

Protracted and painful, the siege of Mumbai was the first terrorist atrocity to be covered in real time by India’s booming electronic media industry. At the time of the demolition at Ayodhya in 1992, the industry was in its infancy and well before the deed was executed, the perpetrators took the extraordinary measure of cleansing the site of media persons of all descriptions. Ten years later, when rioters and arsonists held sway in the state of Gujarat for close to a month, the horrors were carried to all corners of the country by a vigilant media. But the pain was not quite so sharply felt, since the people with a voice loud enough in the national political dialogue had no more than a shallow association with those afflicted.

Terrorism has since then, repeatedly visited India, not as long-drawn episodes, involving a slow haemorrhage of public confidence, but as devastating and instantaneous blows –that stun and stagger, but allow for a quick recovery of morale as civic processes kick in and people who cannot really afford the luxury of disengagement from daily routines, resume their normal activity.

Mumbai 26/11 was designed to be the opposite: a long-drawn bloodbath that would claim lives and at the same time test the country’s response capabilities, sap its self-confidence and imprison it in prolonged contemplation of a tableau of destruction. It was meant to heighten the mute awareness that the wider public has of its own helplessness and its seeming lack of influence in major decisions.

Expectedly, the mood was quickly transformed into unending convulsions of rage against the politicians who seemingly hold all the power and had yet allowed an atrocity beyond imagination to occur. Disturbingly, it seemed a short transition from raging against the politicians, to raging against the political system that has ensconced them in authority.

Enlightenment has been sought in the most unlikely quarters, with the U.S. being upheld as an example worthy of emulation. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on its territory, said one commentator after another on the numerous channels that were collectively orchestrating the national catharsis, there had not been a single attack that had cost the U.S. human life.

Among all the analogies to have emerged from Mumbai 26/11, this is perhaps the most facile and dangerous – that the U.S., protected on both flanks by vast oceanic expanses and separated from the main theatres of instability and violence by realities of geography, is an example for India. Few drew attention to the fact that the U.S. effort to defuse the sources of terror has cost it thousands more lives than were lost in the September 11 attacks, of military personnel who were sent on campaigns in distant lands with no clear sense of what their mission was. Nor did it seem relevant to any of the instant pundits that emerged on the airwaves, that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, have lost their lives as a direct consequence of the scattershot U.S. strategy.

There was another sentiment freely aired: that politicians had lost the moral authority to guide and oversee the response to the terror attacks. They had indeed, even lost the right to applaud the resilience of Mumbai, because they had proven persistently unconcerned about the security of the city. The vulnerability of Mumbai to terrorism was underlined in the context of the substantial contribution that it makes to national tax revenue. Perhaps there was nothing more startling in the TV punditry served up by 26/11, than the spectacle of individuals best known for syrupy talk-shows, metamorphosing into fiery advocates of a tax-payers’ revolt by citizens of Mumbai.

These arguments are quite evidently, based on a non sequitur. Mumbai’s unique position as a vital node in the chain of national value creation determines both its contribution to the public exchequer and also, tragically, its special vulnerability as a terror target. But to speak of a special virtue that the residents of Mumbai have earned from the taxes they pay, or to argue that they can of their own volition, withdraw from the compact that binds them to the larger national community, amounts to a unilateral repudiation of the wider matrix of belonging that makes the city what it is. It dishonours the spontaneous empathy that emerged all across the country for those unfortunate enough to be in the direct line of fire of the terrorist marauders. And it undermines the social solidarity that is essential to defeat terrorism.

Unlike other attacks on Mumbai, except perhaps the 1993 serial bombings that remain the worst single-day incident of terrorism in India, this one has focused on symbols of affluence and power. The targets chosen were also emblematic of India’s newly acquired profile in the global chessboard of power. But those who died were not the rich and the powerful alone. The first casualties indeed, were ordinary Indians waiting to board trains at the city’s main railway terminus.

Beyond the urgent and frenetic coverage of the armed encounter that developed between the terrorists and commandos of the Indian army and the National Security Guard (NSG), the media found little time to cover these tragedies, or to provide the victims and survivors a voice in the evolving national dialogue. Though the print media did a relatively better job, the electronic media seemingly had little time for these stories of human suffering.

This raises 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?

Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the U.S., the spokesman for the U.S. president warned rather ominously that Americans needed “to watch what they say”. That was one among many expressions of the prevalent mood of intolerance, which the U.S. media continued to feed, providing the context for the reckless plunge into wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq. These were momentous decisions taken on the most shoddy calculations, which a compliant media chose not to challenge. Today, it is acknowledged by all those who were silent then, that their acquiescence may have contributed to the exhaustion and enervation of the U.S. today and its deeply eroded standing in the world.

There are indeed, vital lessons to be learnt by India from the U.S. experience with 9/11, though not of the kind widely imagined. By stoking the anger of hand-picked guests and unsubtly suggesting where the direct responsibility for the Mumbai outrage lies, the news media have seemingly predetermined whatever strategic choices may be available to India. No voices that question the militarist response, have even the remotest chance of being heard with any seriousness.

The Indian media though, 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.

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 one of the sites of the armed encounter -- the historic Taj Mahal hotel -- had been emptied of all threats. As the day wore on and gunfights continued to rage, he remained unavailable for comment. The following day, the chief of the Indian Army’s Southern Command, who had travelled over from his headquarters in nearby Pune, 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. No hostages were taken, since summary execution was seemingly the directive the terrorists had been instructed to implement.

Early in the encounter, a story was floated that huge quantities of the lethally destructive 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 and unobtrusively put to rest as the military operation to clear the siege progressed. It resurfaced in another guise though, with the claim that the gunmen who had commandeered the venues had huge quantities of the explosive in their possession and could possibly raze all three buildings, burying commandos engaged in combat in a graveyard of rubble.

Breathlessly, and without any attention to the inherent irony – since the parallel effort at Pakistan bashing was proceeding apace -- the news broadcasts claimed that the terrorists’ motives could be to replicate the Marriot Hotel attack in Islamabad in September, when an explosives-laden vehicle was driven into the compound of the Pakistani capital’s most exclusive hotel, reducing it within minutes into a raging inferno.

The RDX theory in its mutant form, was decisively scotched by the head of the NSG after the clean-up was completed, 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 Taj Mahal and the other luxury hotel that had been commandeered – the Oberoi Trident – 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.

Thus, even as the theory that the mission in Mumbai was to kill maximally and if necessary, perish in the effort, continued to hold sway, an alternative narrative was gaining ground: that the marauders actually believed they had a credible chance of making good their escape.

There were numerous stories that the media managed to float on how the gunmen beached on Indian shores. To begin with, three distinct locations were identified in Mumbai as places where the gunmen had come ashore, though the rubber dinghy they had used for their landing had ostensibly been spotted and eyewitnesses to their arrival had spoken to the news channels.

Beyond this, there was considerable uncertainty 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 two days, 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 by unnamed sources within the police forces, that some 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 who had recently served time in Pakistani jails for breaching territorial boundaries, and 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.

Ostensibly based on the interrogation of the main accused, a major English language newspaper on December 2, carried a front-page account of how the massacre had been planned. It did not name any sources. Mumbai’s Police Commissioner the following day, perhaps gave away the game when he was reported by the same newspaper as validating its account.

The disorientation induced by Mumbai has been sufficiently grave for traditional rules of journalistic procedure – distance, dispassion and objectivity – to be thrown overboard. These apart, the Rashomon effect was obviously at work in a very stark fashion, with every media observer being convinced that events could with justification be interpreted in accordance with a predetermined attitude.

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 perhaps the only constant element in the competitive clamour for attention. Illustrative of how it has been deemed unnecessary to even provide a semblance of a hearing to the other side of the argument: a commentator on an English news-channel was dismissive about the need to present evidence to the Pakistan government, since such had been since long, featured on the front pages of all Indian newspapers.

It seemed irrelevant that there is a protocol of inter-governmental communications, that is quite independent of what is written in newspapers, whether on the front page or otherwise. Pakistan’s oft-stated request that evidence be placed before it of specific individuals and organisations suspected of involvement in terrorism, was dismissed as continuing testament to its state of “denial” and its unfailing recourse to “dilatory” tactics.

At the same time, the media found little amiss in reporting that India had presented detailed evidence on Pakistan’s involvement to the U.S.

The question the Indian media face 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? From the huge variety of voices seeking to be heard in India, the media seemingly distils out only those that serve its prior conceptions. 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”.

It has also completely passed the Indian media’s attention that 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 any 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”.

This alibi, The Daily Times continued, was not really credible, since the history of strife between two of the city’s large ethnic communities – the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns – made the indigenous origin of the trouble an entirely plausible scenario.

Elsewhere in the editorial columns of the same newspaper, is the observation that November 2008 has been the bloodiest month so far for the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. The country’s territorial sovereignty was “fast eroding” as non-state actors took over ever-expanding swathes of territory, denying the authority of the legally constituted Pakistani state. Foreign military intervention in Pakistan, if it came about, would be more on account of ongoing events in Peshawar than what had happened in Mumbai.

In the circumstances, if India’s argument that the Mumbai marauders enjoyed official patronage in Pakistan is accurate, then the military and intelligence establishments in that country are effectively guilty of treason against their own people. If that case can be made with some credibility it would surely be of interest to the people of Pakistan, who are heavily invested in a sustenance of the current phase of civilian rule. More than a military adventure, which could mire India in a worse strategic mess than the U.S. today finds itself in, a candid and transparent dialogue between governments and people is what is required. That clearly, is not something that could even begin, as long as the media continues to be an accessory of militarism, rather than a voice of sanity and the public good.

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