India’s 9/11, but is instant knowledge desirable?

India’s 9/11, but is instant knowledge desirable?
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First Published: Sat, Nov 29 2008. 12 26 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Nov 29 2008. 12 26 AM IST
It was like any other evening. The television was on and the anchors were haranguing us and their studio guests, inevitable, given the huge pressure that prime time television news bulletins face, especially towards the end of the week, from all the so-called most-watched reality shows on entertainment channels.
And of course, soon enough we got some early warnings, as the permanent “Breaking News” scroll made its way into the bulletin and informed us about a “shoot-out in Mumbai”. This soon turned into a nightmare as the petty skirmish morphed into a full-fledged war conducted with modern arms, next-generation “terrorists” and daredevilry of unimaginable proportions.
Every minute the news channels updated us on the “terror attack” that by now engulfed virtually all of south Mumbai. While the citadels of power and clout were under siege, the attack also targeted the “common man”—railway stations, hospitals, random firing on the street—and even acted with impunity against the combined force of the state apparatus. The attackers had achieved what they set out to do: create panic, challenge the power of the system and wipe out the cream of the leadership, the men in charge of the combat operation against terrorism.
By midnight, the whole situation was terrifying, to say the very least, and certainly not making any sense to us. Yet, most of us found it difficult to switch off the news or wait till morning for some coherent explanations. We were not interested in explanations, we were witnessing something mind-boggling with visuals that we usually associate with fiction, CGI and reconstructed drama.
While some part of us was trying to be rational and trying to treat the event like any other news report, it soon became clear that this was a situation beyond our comprehension. Our overwrought imagination took over and the need to witness the end of this terrible and mindless violence reached a feverish pitch. The rescue operation was comforting and when we saw people coming out of the places under siege or being helped out, the agony lessened and the night seemed less frightening. The powerful image of the commandos was very reassuring.
Despite all this, we continue to wonder whether the entire media spectacle is necessary or not. Does it make a difference? As a nation are we ready for such candid and minute-by-minute coverage? Can we say with utmost confidence that all this imagery will not add to the existing rancour, deepen the social polarization and distrust, sharpen the “us and them” feeling and justify emotions of retaliation and revenge? What better way to react than to adopt the same “Rambo” methods and use firearms to mow “them” down?
In all fairness, this time around, the media is trying very hard to not romanticize the situation, to a great extent reporting officially confirmed news and also allaying the anxiety of people by constantly reminding viewers that this is a complex operation.
We are being told incessantly that what we are witnessing is the best in terms of combat and rescue operations because what the National Security Guard and the Armed Forces are dealing with is not conventional warfare but the most devious form of subterfuge and a nefarious design to destabilize the nation by striking at its commercial capital, terrorizing foreign investors and friends and testing the resilience of the people of the city. 11/26 has been declared India’s version of 9/11 and the media expect that this time around the nation will not tolerate any compromises with forces of “terrorism”. Politicians will have to bury their hatchets and work for a national agenda.
But will we take this debate forward without adding to the fury and initiating a blame game? Will the media stay the issue and draw the right lessons from this entire episode? At the end of the day, the question that needs to be asked is whether it was necessary to see the entire event in minute progression? Even if we think the event was of great urgency for the viewing public, was it necessary to show all the imagery around it, including the pandemonium on the streets?
Are we not in some sense doing what we have done all along, and precisely what we did with the unforgettable hijack of Indian Airlines’ IC184? We raised that issue to a feverish pitch, tracked the incident from minute to minute and when it finally ended we were all greatly relieved and, of course, as a nation decided to move on, but we were certainly not any wiser or more unified on the issue.
Till today, politicians use that incident and the others that followed it to lob accusations and counter-accusations on who is more serious about fighting terrorism.
Akhila Sivadas is executive director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research in New Delhi.
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First Published: Sat, Nov 29 2008. 12 26 AM IST