Dec 6, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt;Don't shoot the messenger

This time, this too shall not pass. And that’s the good part. The anger after the attacks in Mumbai is inflammable enough to start a fire. But as India demands answers, action and accountability, should we pause and wonder, for just a second, what sort of house we want to build on the ashes of this cathartic blaze?

All this rage and the energy of an enlightened citizenry will end up exhausting itself if not directed at specific ideas for change. So, while we demand the ouster of politicians, we need to look beyond the sense of easy power that it gives us and ask where we go from here. Will we learn our lessons or will the headlines lapse till the next attack, and the next?

The real tragedy of Mumbai is that we now know for sure that more lives could have been saved had the system not been bogged down by inertia, red tape and turf wars. What sort of country does not give its National Security Guard (NSG) commandos — iconic heroes for a new India — even one dedicated airc-raft? It is criminal that a proposal to this effect gathered cobwebs for three years. How do we explain that specific intercepts on a naval invasion (as first reported in HT) were ignored and are now dismissed as inputs that were not “actionable?” It is embarrassing to watch multiple agencies compete in public to defend themselves — leaving us feeling even more vulnerable than before. And the worst part is the horrible, horrible sense of déjà vu.

Nine years ago, when India emerged victorious from a conflict in Kargil, many of the same questions were asked. How had Pakistani infiltrators made their way 8 kilometers inside our territory? When would we have a centralised security apparatus that would end the internal bickering? When would our Army get the snowshoes and night-vision devices that are mandatory for any fighting force? In 2008, we are asking the same questions all over again as we wonder about the quality of the bullet-proof vests that failed to protect many bravehearts. It shocks us to know that four different reports submitted back then as part of a national security overhaul still await full implementation. It’s almost too painful to remember that the border management report had admitted that coastal security needed modern technology and infrastructure and even proposed a unified maritime agency. In 2001, a group of ministers approved all four reports on the intelligence apparatus, internal security, border management and higher management of defence. Yet, here we are, back at the drawing board.

These are the questions that we should be demanding answers to. Rage has to find a specific syntax so that it does not get lost in the anarchy of anger. Rage, for example, must not become an excuse for targeting another religious community.

Some of that rage has been directed at the media as well. And yes, one of the lessons that are still waiting to be learnt is that you need a centrally co-ordinated information dissemination system in place when such crises erupt. We admire our armed forces, but most of us were stunned when the Navy, while dismissing questions on intelligence inputs, held the media as a “disabling force”. Some people have raised questions about why we had to report on an ongoing operation. Many of the allegations are untrue and a case of shooting the messenger. Here are the cold facts: the security cordon on the site of encounters was determined by officials and was respected by journalists at all times. Had anyone asked us to retreat or switch off our cameras for tactical reasons, we would have done so.

In fact, we would have had no option but to consent. But even while the operations were on, we were briefed, on record, and off camera by multiple agencies, including at a press conference by the Navy’s marine commandos that was telecast live with their permission. Daily briefings by a central point of contact would have reduced any inadvertent confusion thrown up by media coverage. And yes, maybe the media did make some unwitting mistakes as did almost everyone involved in dealing with a terrorist attack of the kind India has never seen before. But the NSG thanked the media; the commandos called in to tell us they finally have their dedicated aircraft and the Home Ministry’s Special Secretary also complimented the media. So, how is it that some people are suddenly trying to push us on the other side of the enemy line?

I received a text message from a young woman whose brother died inside the Oberoi Hotel. She talks about how she is determined to find the strength to fight back. She also thanks journalists for giving her a sense that she could share what she was going through when it all felt frightening and isolating. Television, this past week, has tried to provide a larger sense of community to a city in grief. It may surprise some readers but many of those who had families trapped inside the two hotels wanted to talk. They wanted to express their pain, anger, grief, fear and sometimes hope. Of course, the privacy of those who wanted to retreat into solitude was respected at all times. But there were scores of others — both survivors and victims — who wanted to share. And we believe we tried our best to tell their stories.

The truth is that in the weeks and months to come, we’ll have much to learn from a week that could transform India forever. For starters, we need to find a language in which dialogue is possible without malice, hatred and communal prejudice. Otherwise, we shall lose the India we love. And the terrorists would have won.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV


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