Friday, December 26, 2008

The media in a time of terror


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.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

New layers of bureaucratic complexity without accountability

When India’s Parliament resumed its sitting in December, the two principal political formations had just fought each other to a stalemate in five state assembly elections. The BJP’s effort to milk the Mumbai tragedies for electoral advantage had conspicuously failed. The defeat in Delhi, where concerns over urban terrorism and chaos should have been acute, was especially galling. But the magnitude of the Congress victories in Delhi and Rajasthan – not to mention Mizoram, which is a litle remote from the main theatre of political contestation – was not of sufficient magnitude for it to really claim gloating rights.

Taking the signal that it needed to get over the partisan rancour that normally follows every terrorist strike, Parliament acted with alacrity and with an elaborate decorum. The outcome was a rapid resolution of the issues that have bitterly divided government and opposition benches over the last many years and the creation of an agency specially empowered to tackle terrorism.

Heightened public concern ensured that the sensibilities of the states, which enjoy exclusive jurisdiction over law and order under the constitutional division of powers, would not be an impediment. The National Investigation Agency that will be created under the new laws, will have an intrusive jurisdiction into law and order matters all over. And when all the self-congratulation is done, it needs to be asked whether it would improve efficiencies in investigation and lend a sense of purpose to the prosecutorial process, or merely add another layer of complexity to a muddled bureaucratic apparatus.

The NIA is quite the centrepiece of the new legislation. It would be a police force created and administered by the Central government, which would endow all personnel above the rank of sub-inspector with powers throughout Indian territory. This conferment of powers would be at the sole discretion of the Centre, though the trigger to activate that process is nominally in the hands of the states.

In plain terms, a police station that records evidence under the relevant section of the Code of Criminal Procedure, shall send the statement on to the state government on any suspicion that the offence indicated could fall within the schedule of the NIA Act. The state government shall then forward this information to the Centre, which would on the basis of this and all other inputs, decide within 15 days on invoking the power of the NIA. Once the NIA enters the investigation, the authority of state government agencies would stand extinguished. All relevant records and material shall accordingly, be transferred to the NIA.

The Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987 (TADA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2002 (POTA), allowed both the state and centre to establish special courts for trying relevant crimes. The NIA Act reserves this as an exclusive power of the centre, though the Chief Justice of the concerned state would be consulted on personnel choices.

A special court established under the NIA Act could hold hearings in camera and conduct summary trials when charges involve imprisonment for a period of upto three years. Its hearings would be conducted on a day-to-day basis and would enjoy precedence over all other cases. A judgment it renders could be appealed in the relevant High Court, which would hear it in a bench of two judges and dispose of it “as far as possible” within three months.

The key concession made by the new legislation to the civil rights discourse is in disallowing confessions made to the police as evidence in trial. But the amendments that have been introduced in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967, bring in another undesirable feature of POTA, which is to reverse the burden of proof when fingerprints of the accused are found at the site of a terrorist act, or weapons and material used in the attack are found in his possession. This raises numerous troubling ghosts from the past, when police personnel involved in blatantly illegal acts have planted incriminating evidence to obscure the magnitude of their misdeeds.

The creation of the NIA runs contrary to the specific recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission, which had in a recent report, proposed a special wing within the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to deal with terrorism. Though originally created to deal with corruption in central government establishments, the CBI has by convention also become the agency to go to for lending a façade of probity to politically sensitive criminal investigations. The process of transferring a matter to CBI jurisdiction is relatively simple, involving the discretion solely of the state government. It is another matter that it has often proven fractious, since bureaucratic rivalries and political partisanship are never far below the surface.

The language of the NIA act specifies that state agencies “shall” undertake certain actions in defined situations. Whether this amounts to a categorical imperative or merely to a “best endeavour” demand, is a matter that legal experts will have to sort out. Yet even if the matter is settled in law, it is not apparent that its translation into actual practice will be smooth. Bureaucratic indecision and the infirmities of judgment could still be formidable obstacles.

Given their deeply ingrained operational procedures, police forces all over the country have been known in cases involving high levels of public anxiety, to follow a policy of ruthlessly eliminating risks, to hold suspects in detention for indefinite periods of time, and to allow prejudice to guide them rather than the demands of the law. It was not the formal wording of TADA and POTA that made them instruments of oppression, but the wholly muddled operational procedures followed by those empowered by these laws.

Apart from all its other provisions, the new legislation allows for the detention of terrorism suspects for upto 180 days, while the case against them is investigated. Perhaps the emphasis should have been the opposite: to allow for fewer days of detention than the 90 allowed under ordinary law. It is only under some such compulsion of accountability that public agencies are known to undertake a thorough reform of their operational procedures as a matter of priority.

Flat and Arid: Thomas Friedman's World-View

Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future, Allen Lane, London, 2008, pp 438, 20 pounds (Rs 595); ISBN 978-1-846-14129-4.

Much contemporary wisdom, it seems, originates on dining table napkins. Fiscal policy was influenced rather inordinately and for much too long, by the mythical conception called the “Laffer curve”. That was a serious misfortune and not just for the country of origin of that theoretical artifice. And it had its origin on a dining-table napkin, where the economist Arthur Laffer sketched out what he believed, was a new way of looking at the relationship between tax rates and the resultant revenue yield.

A whole generation later, Thomas Friedman, over a vigorous lunch-time discussion with the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, sketched out what he thought was a compelling inverse relationship: between the price of oil and human freedom. The higher the price went, he argued, the bleaker was the world outlook for the fundamental practices of liberty. This most recent wisdom to dawn from modest origins on a dining-table napkin, could be called the “Friedman Curve”, though the author of this book is perhaps much too modest to claim that eponymous honour.

The point that Friedman makes seemingly has a strong empirical grounding. When oil was hovering around the $ 25 a barrel level, he recalls, U.S. President George Bush could claim to see a friendly soul in his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. But when oil topped $ 100, the hidden, dark depths of Putin’s soul emerged: his urge to bend every other institution of the Russian polity, including the media, to his will, and his latent hostility towards western liberalism.

Similarly, when oil was selling at a modest and reasonable level, Iran elected the reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami as president, one of whose stated intentions was to launch a new phase of détente with the west. But as the oil price climbed, the reformist strain was reduced to a marginal existence, culminating in the election of the fiery former Islamic vigilante, Mahmood Ahmedinejad, as Iranian president in 2005.

Three years ago, Friedman turned Copernicus on his head, by pronouncing that “the earth is flat”. He has since then, rehearsed most of the arguments he now advances, in his column for The New York Times. But reading through this latest book of his, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Friedman is so deeply mired in the notion of “flatness” that he cannot see the multiple complexities of the contemporary world in more than two dimensions.

To just reverse the gaze that Friedman directs at the rest of the world: between Khatami and Ahmedinejad, Iran went through a phase of engagement with the west that began with a significant act of historical accountability, even atonement, by the U.S. In 1998, the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton declassified papers relating to the 1953 intelligence operation that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and foisted on the country a quarter-century of the quirky autocrat who called himself the Shah of Iran. That act of accountability was meant to sweep away the debris of the past and open up new possibilities of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.

Needless to say, the right-wing in the U.S. political spectrum took a dim view of this mea culpa, which it said, was corrosive of the entire U.S. foreign policy process. And with the right-wing restoration of 2001, Bush effectively choked off all new channels with Iran.

Similar hostile actions towards Russia, notably in the unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles treaty, could account for the relative hardening of attitudes towards the U.S. in that country. Now it is perfectly conceivable that without the rapid increase in oil prices seen over the last seven years, neither Russia nor Iran would have been in a position to challenge some of the U.S.’s more arbitrary diktats. Yet, it is a peculiarity of Friedman’s flattened perspective, that he consistently equates a country’s policy attitude towards the U.S. with its respect for human freedom, without ever turning his gaze towards the bullying, hectoring stridency of the U.S. engagement with the world under the Bush administration.

One of Friedman’s moments of revelation in recent times, was when engaged in conversation with an Indian software tycoon, who told him that the Indian industry’s success was a consequence of the “level playing field” they were given by the economic policy reforms of the 1990s. That remark was transformed into the epochal wisdom of the “flat earth”. The world, said Friedman, was increasingly being knit together by a constant striving for similar values and lifestyle paradigms, under virtually identical rules on economy organisation.

That very rosy forecast has been transformed into a more recent mood of alarm. Friedman now frets that the world, though flat is also getting too hot and crowded; that the consequences of flatness, of everybody believing that the American way of life was their rightful aspiration, could well be catastrophic. Now abreast of findings on global warming, Friedman asks the question that has been laid down as a challenge to the conventional development paradigm by numerous proponents of an alternative path, from economists of a gentle persuasion such as E.F. Schumacher to political radicals such as Fidel Castro. What would happen if India and China, not to mention all the other countries with high levels of aspiration in terms of lifestyle paradigms, were actually to achieve U.S. standards?

The answer quite clearly, is catastrophe. Resource exhaustion was the principal worry a generation back, though climate science has today established with reasonable certainty that the ecological balances that make life on earth what it is, will snap well before that stage is reached.

Friedman’s concerns clearly, have been awakened by an amalgam of the political and the ecological. On one side, he worries that the U.S. addiction to fossil fuels is subsidising the world’s greatest despots: from Saudi Arabia to Venezuela to Russia, they all rank in Friedman’s scale at roughly the same moral level. With the whole world emulating the U.S. since there is no other model available, the coffers of the autocrats of oil are assured of never running low. This could likely precipitate a political crisis for the U.S., ruining its efforts to bring liberty to the world. And it would culminate in ecological holocaust for the entire globe.

Is Friedman then, out to save the world or to retrieve American leadership? Seemingly both, since the well-being of the planet is bound in his perception, with the good-sense and the benign sense of purpose that only the U.S. can bring.

The way forward then, is to embrace a “green strategy” in energy, which would of course have ramifications in virtually every other domain of human endeavour – housing, transportation and numerous others. Friedman recalls with some degree of triumphalism, that the energy efficiency standards that were introduced in the U.S. after the first oil shock of 1973-74 “not only weakened (the oil exporters’ cartel) OPEC but also helped to unravel the Soviet Union”. But then, the virtual repeal of these efficiency norms when prosperity returned to the U.S. in the 1990s, shifted the geopolitical balance yet again.

A relentless sense of U.S. exceptionalism and primacy stalks this book, permeating the strategies that Friedman has in mind for mitigating the planetary ills he lists. With all the mixed record of implementation of the Kyoto protocols on global warming, world governments still remain engaged with the task of working out an agreed, common strategy. By December 2009, the global community is committed to agreeing on a treaty that will supplant Kyoto, addressing the key weaknesses in both its conception and implementation. Friedman remains indifferent to this project, since he does not see very much utility in global treaties. Rather, he would like to see the U.S. set off on a green crusade of its own, transforming itself within a generation into the most ecologically friendly nation in the world. The rest of the world, already inured to the idea that their well-being lies in emulating the U.S., would then voluntarily follow the same path, since “a truly green America … would be more valuable than fifty Kyoto Protocols. Emulation is always more effective than compulsion”.

Friedman’s strategies embrace a wide range of options, but they are derived in essence from what he portrays as the vast innovative capacity of the American people, their ability to contribute in many diverse ways to “nation-building at home”. The ideas are there; they just need to be tapped. The multiple missions that the U.S. needs immediately to embark on, include the replacement of fossil fuels (evocatively referred to as "fuels from hell") with renewable sources like wind and sun ("fuels from heaven"). This would require, for a country where lifestyles are built on wheels, the rapid adoption of electric engines by the automobile industry.

A technical hitch arises right here. A switch to electric automobiles would not in itself make much of a dent on the problem of climate change, since the car batteries would still need to be powered by an electricity grid that runs on fossil fuels. It may well aggravate the problem by bringing in one additional stage of energy conversion into transportation – from fossil fuel to electricity and then into motive power -- with all its problems of efficiency loss.

To get around this problem, the electricity grid itself would need to make the transition to renewable sources. And that problem appears fairly intractable, since there is no way that wind and the sun – which are intermittent and relatively low on energy density – can power an electricity grid that dispenses concentrated energy at virtually all times of the day. This has been part of the common sense thinking on alternative development paradigms for at least two generations. Friedman, obviously, does not get it, since he is obsessed above all, with preserving the American way of life and global leadership.

The “bottom-line” as he puts it, is that “America needs an energy technology bubble just like the information technology bubble”. This would require that the government make it “an absolute no-brainer to invest in renewable energy”. The reference to a “bubble” is interesting, since Friedman’s book arrives in the market at precisely the time when the adverse effects of the housing bubble burst are beginning to kick in.

Contrary to all his dark forebodings about the autocrats of oil seeking to destabilise U.S. leadership with their windfall earnings, he concedes that “sovereign wealth funds” based in these countries “have played a very healthy, stabilising role in the 2008 American subprime mortgage crisis”. One could well ask: what then is the problem? If the autocrats of oil are finally doing the U.S. a favour by recycling all the superprofits they make into Wall Street, what really does Friedman have to complain about?

The worry, it seems is long-term, since “over time” it is difficult to believe that the “economic clout” of the autocrats “will not get translated politically”. But Friedman seems to omit one matter of crucial detail: that the money has always been held in dollar assets and in many ways has served to keep the U.S. economy afloat.

Here is where Friedman’s most illustrious predecessor as a dispenser of napkin wisdom kicks in. The “Laffer curve” originated in a particular economic conjuncture in 1974. The U.S. was in desperate economic difficulties. The Arab world, with Egypt and Syria in the lead, had just been beaten back in a war fought to reclaim territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war of conquest. The oil-rich elements within the Arab world had joined the campaign for the liberation of Palestine by imposing an oil export embargo on nations seen to be supporting Israel’s occupation. Prices of oil spiralled upwards.

The U.S. was then in a conjuncture of declining manufacturing competitiveness and uncertainty about the future global role of its currency. The dollar had been delinked from gold convertibility and was in free float, seemingly unable with inflation rampant, to find its true level. At the same time, the federal government found itself over-extended on the fiscal front. Tax rates had been steeply raised to support welfare programmes launched in 1960s, and the Vietnam war, though winding down, was still claiming large outlays.

Times were difficult, calling for extraordinary measures. And Arthur Laffer in a moment of epiphany saw the pathway out of the morass. Tax revenues are not proportional to rates, he said, since rates that are seen as excessive have the effect of diminishing the instinct to innovate and produce. Low rates in fact, may be the key, since they would restore entrepreneurial incentives, contributing to a significant increase in social output. When output itself is growing rapidly, even sharply lower tax rates would yield higher revenues.

When this wisdom known as “supply-side economics” became official policy with Ronald Reagan’s revolution against good sense in 1981, the U.S. slipped rapidly into a massive external payments deficit. The economy from then on, was kept afloat by infusions of funds from abroad. The dollar came unofficially, to be premised upon the “oil standard”. Borrowed funds became the basis of economic growth for the U.S. First it was the federal government, then the corporate sector and finally, the household sector, that took on this debt.

Friedman’s insistence on a “green technology” bubble in this context is arresting. By definition, a bubble is known to form when values of assets – such as shares and real estate – far outrun their true long-term utility. A bubble is typically a consequence of concerted action by a large number of people with power to move finances into particular sectors, which boosts asset values in those sectors and induces more investors to enter. A bubble creates assets that do not improve overall national productivity. Though there have been some claims that the information technology bubble of the 1990s did contribute to productivity growth, the consensus view emerging today appears to be that it did not.

A “green technology” bubble would in these respects, be a worthwhile successor to all its predecessors, in sucking in volumes of global savings into the U.S., for no discernibly useful purpose. This does not mean of course, that the rest of the world can remain unmindful about the imperatives of a greener future. The options available have been much talked about and even hesitantly tried out in many parts of the developing world. If anything, they have been abandoned because of the power of the conventional wisdom, that emulating the U.S. is the only way to go. As a recent reviewer put it, Friedman represents the advance guard of the conventional wisdom, exploring pathways where the “group-think” of the U.S. establishment will reach in relatively quick time. His work offers abundant reason why the developing world should awaken to the compelling reality of today’s crisis-wracked world: that emulating the U.S. is perhaps the surest pathway to collective suicide.