ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Mumbai, Militarism and the Media

The media has encouraged talk that the Mumbai terror events of 26 November are India's equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There are indeed vital lessons to be learnt by India from the US experience with "9/11", though not of the kind widely imagined. By stoking the anger of handpicked guests and unsubtly suggesting where the direct responsibility for the Mumbai outrage lies, the electronic news media, in particular, have seemingly predetermined whatever strategic choices may be available to India.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200815Bazaar reminded Mumbai’s residents that the city was still on the radar of terrorists seeking revenge. This time the link was with the 2002 communal carnage in neighbouring Gujarat, a state closely linked to Mumbai city.In 2006, Mumbai’s lifeline, the com-muter train system fell apart as simultane-ous blasts went off in first class compart-ments in several trains at peak hour, kill-ing 187 people and wounding many more. The people affected were a vast cross-section of the city’s population. The reason, once again, was linked to Gujarat andthesense that Muslims were being targeted. But once again, the city went back to work.The 2008 attack is the very first where the elite of the elite of the city have been affected. It is also the first time that for-eigners have been targeted. And the first time that Jews have been killed. The pro-longed urban war, seen live by millions of people, has been more disturbing in some ways than the previous blasts that came suddenly and ended. The vulnerability to terror attacks, which every city in the world faces today, requires citizens to be as prepared for emergency situations as the authorities and as alert as the intelligence agencies need to be. But the anti-political rhetoric drummed up by the media negates efforts to generate this kind of debate. Disengagement from politics is the exact opposite of what is needed at such a time. It leaves spaces open for the emergence of individuals who declare they know the answers, for “heroes” who people believe will fix everything, for fascism. Mumbai, Militarism and the Media Sukumar MuralidharanThe media has encouraged talk that the Mumbai terror events of 26 November are India’s equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There are indeed vital lessons to be learnt by India from the US 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 electronic news media, in particular, have seemingly predetermined whatever strategic choices may be available to India. 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 on 26 November and transformed itself swiftly into a 60-hour long siege of three landmark buildings inIndia’s commercial metropolis,have deeply transformed the national polity. The true consequences will take a while manifesting themselves. But it is a con-juncture that demands calm sobriety, while tending naturally 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. When the demolition at Ayodhya happened in 1992, the industry was in its infancy and the site was brutally cleansed of media persons of all descriptions, before the deedwasexecuted. 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 significant voice in the nationalpoliticaldialogue had no more than a very shallow association with those most directly afflicted.Instantaneous BlowsTerrorism has since then repeatedly visit-ed India, not as long-drawn episodes, in-volving a slow haemorrhage of public con-fidence, but as devastating and instanta-neous 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 staying disengaged 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 had 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, but had allowed an atrocity beyond imagination to occur. And disturbingly, it seemed a short transition from raging against the politicians, to rag-ing against the political system that has ensconced them in authority.Enlightenment has been sought in the most unlikely quarters, with the United States (US) being upheld as an example worthy of emulation. Since the 11 Septem-ber 2001 attacks on its territory, said one commentator after another on the numerous channels that were collectively orchestrat-ing the national catharsis, there had not Sukumar Muralidharan ( is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.
COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16been a single attack that had cost the US human life.India’s 9/11Among all the analogies to have emerged from Mumbai 26/11, this is perhaps the most facile and dangerous – that the US, protected on both flanks by vast oceanic expanses and separated from the main theatres of instability and violence by re-alities of geography, is an example for In-dia. Few drew attention to the fact that theUS effort to defuse the sources of terror has cost it thousands more lives than were lost in the 11 September 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 Afghani-stan, have lost their lives as a direct con-sequence of the scattershot US strategy.There was another sentiment freely aired: that politicians had lost the moral authority to guide and oversee the re-sponse to the terror attacks. They had in-deed, even lost the right to applaud the resilience of Mumbai, because they had proven persistently unconcerned about its security. 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 than the spectacle of individuals best known for syrupy talk-shows metamor-phosing 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 na-tional value creation determines both its contribution to the national exchequer and also, tragically, its special vulnerabil-ity as a terror target. But to speak of a spe-cial 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 spontane-ous empathy that emerged all across the country with those who were 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.Focus on Symbols of AffluenceUnlike other attacks on Mumbai, except perhaps the 1993 serial bombings that re-main the worst single-day incident of ter-rorism in India, this one focused on sym-bols of affluence and power. The targets chosen were also emblematic of India’s newly acquired profile in the global chess-board of power and privilege. But those who died were not the rich and the power-ful alone. The first casualties indeed, were ordinary Indians waiting to board trains at the city’s main railway terminus.Beyond the urgent and frenetic cover-age of the armed encounter as it devel-oped between the terrorists and comman-dos of the Indian army and the National Security Guard (NSG), the media found lit-tle time to cover these tragedies, or to pro-vide 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 air-waves, 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 and nuanced public dialogue possible?Shortly after the 11 September attacks in theUS, the spokesman for the US presi-dent had said, rather ominously, that Americans needed “to watch what they say”. That was the one among many ex-pressions of the prevalent mood of intoler-ance, which the US media continued to feed, providing the context for the reck-less plunge into wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq. These were momentous deci-sions taken on the most shoddy calcula-tions, 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 US today and its deeply eroded standing in the world.There are, indeed, vital lessons to be learnt by India from the US 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 stra-tegic choices may be available to India. Multiple DissonancesThe 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 in-telligence agencies seem inclined to accept.Early on the afternoon of 27 November, well before the siege of Mumbai had reached the 24-hour mark, the director-general of police in Maharashtra an-nounced 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 after-wards and it was only early the next morn-ing 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 in-structed to implement.Early in the encounter, a story was floatedthat huge quantities of the lethally destructive explosive,RDX, had been un-covered in sites in close vicinity of the Taj Mahal hotel. This story remained the
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200817exclusive property of one of the English news-channels, but was quietly and un-obtrusively 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 com-mandeered 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 grave of rubble.Breathlessly, and without any attention to the inherent irony in the assertion – since the parallel effort at Pakistan bash-ing was proceeding apace – the news broadcasts claimed that the terrorists’ mo-tives could be to replicate the Marriot Ho-tel 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.TheRDX 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 anony-mous sources. The Taj Mahal hotel and the other luxury hotel that had been comman-deered – the Oberoi Trident – the new nar-rative went, had been seeded with lethal RDX bombs. These had providentially beendetected 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, con-tinued to hold sway, an alternative narra-tive was gaining ground: that the maraud-ers actually believed they had a credible chance of making good their escape.Numerous StoriesThere were numerous stories that the me-dia 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 confusion over location, there was considerable uncertainty sowed over the mode of arrival. There was first the story that emerged that four decapi-tated bodies had been 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 epi-sode 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, there was speculation 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 withgreat 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 to be captured on film in rea-sonable clarity, thanks to a news photog-rapher who reached Mumbai’s principal railway terminus just when the first shoot-out was beginning – was again cause of considerable confusion. Taken alive after a beachfront shoot-out on 26 November, 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, to the effect that he was unharmed except for minor bruises. Finally, contrary to the account in one section of the media that he was being held inan “undisclosed location”, the medical expert testifying to his condition was identified by both name and affiliation.A major English language newspaper on 2 December carried a front-page ac-count of how the massacre had been planned, ostensibly based on the interro-gation of the captured terrorist, though without naming sources. The following day, the same newspaper reported that Mumbai’s police commissioner had vali-dated its entire account.Rules Thrown OverboardThe disorientation induced by Mumbai has been sufficiently grave for traditional rules of journalistic procedure – distance, dispassion and objectivity – being thrown overboard. That apart, there was a Rashomon effect of a very stark kind at work, with every media observer being convinced that events could with justifica-tion be interpreted in accordance with a predetermined attitude. On 2 December, 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 fash-ion 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 defini-tively, “Pranab rules out military action”.Pakistan BashingThe latter attitude though, was a minimal strain in the media in the aftermath of Mumbai, since if there was one constant element in the competitive clamour for attention, it was Pakistan-bashing. A com-mentator on an English news-channel was dismissive about the need to present evi-dence to the Pakistan government, since such had been featured on the front page of all Indian newspapers since long.It seemed irrelevant that there is a pro-tocol of inter-governmental communica-tions, 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 “dilatory” and “denial”. At the same time, the media found little amiss in reporting that detailed evidence on Pakistan’s involvement had been presented to the US.The question the Indian media face is not a trivial one. Is it going to be an exclusive
COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly18forum 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 dia-logue 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 diffi-cult in trying times such as now, can the media hear voices from across the bor-der? Would it have any use for instance, for the following observations from the December 2 editorial inDawn, 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 na-tionalism 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 accu-sations 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 29 November, 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 2 December editorial, the prime minister of Pakistan had asked for intelligence on the incidents and “at least one TV channel 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, there is the observa-tion 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-expand-ing swathes of territory, denying the au-thority 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 argu-ment that the Mumbai marauders enjoyed official patronage in Pakistan is accurate, then the Pakistani military and intelli-gence establishments are effectively guilty of treason against their own people. If that case can be made with some credi-bility 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 mili-tary adventure, which could mire India in a worse strategic mess than the US today finds itself in, a candid and transparent dialogue between governments and peo-ple is what is required. That clearly, is not something that could be even begun, as long as the media continues to be an ac-cessory of militarism, rather than a voice of sanity and the public good.The Mood Is the Message: Mumbai in a Time of TerrorDilip D’SouzaWe talk of the “senseless” killing of terrorism. Here it was in Mumbai, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic “cause maximum terror”. The question a lot of us here in Mum-bai have is simple: what was it all for? I mean, we’re sorrowful and angry about the killing, but we also would really like to know: what was it all for?Ten young men train for months, learn-ing about weapons and sea landings and elaborate guerrilla tactics. They pore over maps and data about the city until it’s all committed to memory, so much so that they know the city like natives. They take a sea journey, commandeer an Indian fish-ing boat, kill the men on it, they arrive in Mumbai. They spend the next 60 hours shooting, burning, throwing grenades and killing many more. They make no demands of any kind, they don’t even seem to make an effort to contact authorities to state their grievances. They speak to the channel IndiaTV, but it’s a disconnected rant. And then they die, as they had to. Nearly 200 innocent residents of my city lie dead at their hands, many more injured.We talk of the “senseless” killing of terrorism. Here it was, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic “cause maximum terror”.And there were 60 straight hours of that maximum terror. The first few of those, especially, were frantic and surreal, as shootings and bombs were reported from all over the city. In Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the vast train station. At the Leopold Cafe, beloved tourist hangout. In the Taj Mahal and Oberoi-Trident hotels, later the focus of blanket news coverage. On Nepean Sea Road, lined with homes of the rich and famous. Outside the Metro cinema, where it actually happened on liveTV: a police jeep sped past, shots rang out and the man immediately in front of the camera began screaming, blood spew-ing from his hand. In Vile Parle, where a Dilip D’Souza ( is a writer who lives in Mumbai.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top