Boo! That was my instantaneous reaction after watching Shobhaa De on one of the news telly channels on the first anniversary of 26/11. Why should she be allowed to pontificate and display a panoply of emotions on such a solemn occasion? Who is she? What right does she have to act in such a boorish manner? I will not go to any rock concert, she screeched like a banshee on TV. Next thing I did was blank her out. The power of the remote in my hand did that with ease. It was an outrageous display of indignation. Falsetto yes, but only it was a woman singing. Why do we need these psuedo celebs to tell us what is wrong with our country? Why do these news telly wallahs promote these upper crust snobs? Yes, Shobhaa De is a versatile writer, but whatever she said on telly the other day was far removed from her real life. Why was she so shrill? Simply because it was the Taj and Trident that were attacked and not some local train, which was carrying unsuspecting and hapless hoi polloi to their destination. To Suhel Seth’s credit, at least he made the valid observation that it required the FBI to point us in David Coleman Headley’s direction. Our newly formed National Investigative Agency was clueless about Headley and Rana’s trail in India.
It is over a year now since 26/11 happened. We cannot be grouching against the government and other agencies forever. This was a new style of terror that was unleashed on us. Not since the December 13 attack on Parliament had we seen such a brazen attack on our democracy. The attack was on India, the attempt was to imperil our freedom and the way we live our lives. But let me remind everyone that two of the most audacious attacks in the world have taken place on American soil. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbour was attacked by a Japanese fleet, which caught the American defence establishment napping, and then on 9/11, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were attacked using commercial airplanes. Both times the American democracy was under attack. Both times, there was a gargantuan loss of life and equipment. The scars of Pearl Harbour and 26/11 will never heal. They are deeply embedded in the American psyche. Such was the ferocity of the 26/11 terror attacks that it brutalised the psyche of Indians as well. You cannot forget, and you have to live with it. By making a public spectacle of your emotions, you are making a mockery of those who laid down their lives.
Circumspection is the need of the hour. India cannot go to war with Pakistan, although we very nearly did after the attack on Parliament. A rabid Pakistan is sitting on a nuclear stockpile. The era of conventional wars is probably over. The US has tried to learn from the lessons of 9/11 and this has led to excesses. India, too, in its own way is learning from the tragic events that made up 26/11.
Our biggest problem is how do we track every individual in this vast country. There is no system or process. Indian cities have a large floating population, one can simply disappear here. Till we manage to track people through a unique identity system, there is no real hope. Corruption at all levels doesn’t help, you can pretty much get anything and everything done by bribing people. How Headley was allowed to roam free is what should concern our investigative agencies. Did he plot 26/11 and the whys and wherefores are what we should be seized about. Instead, we have these south Mumbaikars telling us what to do. As it is, there was a sense of revulsion after the news telly coverage of 26/11 last year. The same channels and more or less the same dramatis personae did not exactly cover themselves with glory on the first anniversary. If Facebook saw ferment last year, you should read the invective this time round.
I don’t think intel failed last time round. If one looks at the Ram Pradhan Committee report, then many of these questions are answered. Intel was not paid heed to. That is the unfortunate part. The Ram Pradhan Committee that went into the response by the police to the 26/11 attacks has pointed out “total confusion” in processing of intelligence alerts at the level of the state government and “inadequacies” in the existing mechanism for analysing alerts about possible strikes.
In the panel’s report, which is yet to be made public but has been accessed by various media entities, there are instances of non-adherence to the Standard Operating Practice (SOP) during the terror siege. “It was specifically mentioned (in the intelligence reports) that attacks (were) to take place on three dates that is on August 20, 2006 (alert dated 07-08-2006), May 24, 2008 (alert dated 19-05-2008) and August 11, 2008 (alert dated 09-08-2008) against certain targets, including Taj and Oberoi hotels, which did not happen,” it said. “An overall assessment and proper analysis of these reports would have revealed a strong indication that some major terrorist action was being planned against Mumbai. The existing mechanism to make such an overall assessment was inadequate,” the report said.
What does this tell you? One can argue that our response systems were inadequate. Perhaps our dissemination of intel was poor, but remember that the bravery of our policeman or NSG commandos was of the highest order. An event like 26/11 galvanises governments into devoting more time, energy and attention to weapon systems and response times. Like the Chinese aggression, which forced our planners to provide the best to the defence establishment so that we wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Sadly, an event of the magnitude of 26/11 has taught us many lessons. I guess we need to be prodded into action and activity. But then, media also needs to learn from its mistakes and be more responsible. Is it being more responsible? Is it showing more restraint? Sorry amigos, the answer is negative.
I want to now bring to the notice of the readers a news report that I saw recently on the wires. It tells you of how society is seized of the matter. Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, speaking at a seminar fulminated against the media. Cautioning media about the ill-effects of unrestrained coverage of terror attacks, the Chief Justice of India said that it could provoke a disproportionate level of anger among people leading to irrational desire for retribution.
Speaking at an International Conference of Jurists on Terrorism in the Capital, he said if terrorist attacks were attributed to individuals belonging to a certain ethnic or religious community, then it may result in unreasonable discrimination and retaliation against ordinary members of that community. “We must take note of the fact that the symbolic impact of terrorist attacks on the minds of ordinary citizens has also been considerably amplified by pervasive media coverage. The proliferation of 24-hour news channels and the digital medium has ensured that quite often some disturbing images and statements reach a wide audience within a short span of time,” he said in his address at the two-day conference, which was inaugurated by President Pratibha Patil.
The CJI said that such a trend was clearly visible in the US in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and had been cause of the communal violence in many instances even in India. He said that legal response to terrorism must be founded on a rational understanding of the underlying causes for such extremist behaviour. Knee-jerk responses such as clamping down on civil liberties or a spate of arbitrary arrests and increased surveillance over citizens could prove to be counter-productive, he added.
And all this, after the government issued an advisory to news telly wallahs. Instead, driven and consumed by the ratings war, they continue to pretty much do as they please. The advisory was issued a week in advance and it urged the channels to do balanced reporting while showing programmes on the incident, as the trial related to it is still on. “On the occasion of the first anniversary of the terror attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2009, it is likely that special programmes, news items, talk shows and interviews would be telecast to highlight the incidents of last year.
“(As) the investigation and trial of the terror attacks in Mumbai are still in progress, it is, therefore, important to ensure a balanced and responsible coverage in any special programme likely to be telecast on the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks,” the advisory, released by Ministry for Information and Broadcasting to all television channels, said. The Ministry said that the media had been asked to exercise restraint as “replays of disturbing visuals, showing scenes of blood and gore or images of dead or seriously wounded, may bring back dreaded memories of the tragic incident and may indirectly fulfil the basic design of the terrorists to spread fear and insecurity in the minds of people”.
The Ministry had urged channels to keep the contents of the advisory in mind “while telecasting programmes in connection with the anniversary of Mumbai terror attacks”. Following the 26/11 attacks, directives were issued to the media by the Ministry on November 27, 2008 and December 3, 2008, regarding coverage of the terror strikes. Television channels were asked to exercise caution while covering the incidents to avoid hampering rescue operations. Appreciating the role of media in building strong public opinion in the face of such threats to national security, the advisory said “it is necessary to continue to display a high degree of maturity and sensitivity while covering events of terror and terror-related issues, especially in the case of Mumbai terror attacks”.
Perhaps the occasion could be used to reiterate India’s commitment to fight terror and our continuing resolve to effectively counter any acts of terror against the country, the advisory added. Blase was the reaction of our news telly wallahs. I thought Star Plus’ attempt at depicting the events of those harrowing 59 hours through the telefilm ‘Un Hazaron Ke Naam’ was much more apt. It recreated the anguish, emotions and helplessness of those macabre hours when war was waged against everything that India symbolises. Let us not make a scene by shedding copious tears, let us understand the complexities of global terror, which we are now very much a part of. We can run, but we cannot hide. Over time our preparedness and responses will improve.
I have lived in Mumbai through the riots of December 1991 and January 1992. I have also lived through the serial bombings of March 12, 1992. I lived in Andheri East those days and worked in Sunday Observer, Tulsiani Chambers. I traveled by the suburban rail like thousands of other commuters and saw the Indian Army conduct flag marches on the streets of south Mumbai. It was scary, but I survived. India will overcome 26/11 as well. It will be better and smarter at fighting terror. So, news telly wallahs spare us the crocodile tears. And lump it you Page 3 wallahs.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)