Disquiet on the western front

Disquiet on the western front
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First Published: Fri, Nov 20 2009. 08 19 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Listening once again to the audio recordings of the 26/11 gunmen talking to their handlers in Pakistan, I came across this surreal gem: a handler dictating a (rather corny) sher (poem) to Imran, one of the terrorists at Nariman House. This was on the afternoon of the 27th, by which time the cavalry was well and truly in place. Nothing summarizes better the sheer inertia of the siege, the exasperating absence of our armed response than a terrorist, ringed by snipers, painstakingly taking dictation, making his handler repeat each line twice:
Handler: Yeh sach hai ke andheron ka tassalut hai magar...
Terrorist: Yeh sach—kya, phir se batayein?
Handler: Yeh sach hai ke andheron ka tassalut hai magar, shamey bujhne na denge zulm ke aiwanon me in..., etc.
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
We know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that our malevolent visitors had time not just to memorize bad poetry, but also to wander the streets of Mumbai, linger at heritage landmarks, raid the minibar at the Taj and Oberoi, discuss the energy-giving merits of almonds on the phone, and even take the occasional power nap. Did the 72 hours I spent at the media stockade at Taj come anywhere near capturing the agonizingly slow, fumbling, halting nature of a seige? I am not so sure. For one, a seige—whether in Beslan or Bombay—is at odds with the exigencies of TV reportage, which demanded of us—me—sustenance of a seamless narrative for three days (a feat which, among other things, redefined endurance-test journalism.
A friend from New York emailed saying she liked my reportage but that I was “brachiating” too often). As it turned out, much of what has come to constitute 26/11 “action”—the brutal killings, the rounding up of hostages, some tentative attempts at retaliation, the setting off of bombs and attendant pyromania—was all over by the dawn of the 27th.
From then on, visible activity—which forms the bulk of PoV (point of view) type of live reporting—was at a minimum: the occasional burst of gunfire, the crump of mortar, a group of hotel guests being bundled out under armed protection. For the most, a deathly silence hung like a pall over the Gateway, broken by the odd seagull.
Colaba Causeway was a morgue. A hush cloaked the elegant, colonnaded lanes behind the Taj, each pillar manned by a watchful, heavily armed security man. But the atmospherics of a siege make for complicated TV. How do you adequately convey a sense of jittery commandos squatting for hours in a hotel corridor as terrorists munched on almonds?
I worked the phone, abandoned the stockade to meet sources, interviewed police and navy commanders. But soon it was clear—the official handling of information was turning out to be almost as colossal a catastrophe as the armed response to the attackers.
Starved of action and regular, concise briefings, an escalating cycle of conspiracy theories and red herrings proliferated to explain the delay: the terrorists had back-up from “sleeper” cells among the hotel staff, they had booked rooms in advance and loaded them with weapons and explosives, they had taken hundreds of hostages to the roof of the Trident...and so on. To a large extent, this general incoherence can be explained away as the discombobulating impact of terrorism, especially in the first few hours that follow an attack. And with the information lag that marks every such event.
The BBC’s Nik Gowing, who came by our Mumbai office the other day, dropped off a brochure he has authored on what he calls the “tyranny of real time”. He argues that in an age where news gathering has acquired an increasingly anarchic, freelance quality, government/security agencies are often way behind the information curve in moments of crisis—like a terrorist attack. Except with Mumbai, the authorities were riding an unprecedented curve of information, much of it in real time. Our ignorance, to some extent, could be forgiven: During the first 72 hours, we only had occasional glimpses of this enormous, Rashomon-like mass of information (it was three weeks before I first heard the terrorist-handler intercepts, on the laptop of a 26/11 investigator).
But what about our agencies? In the first few hours, they had access to the CCTV room at the Taj. By midnight they were listening to the terrorists and their handlers. Around the same time, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab’s bedside confession was being recorded in a hospital ward. All of this, quite apart from still images, live images, eyewitness accounts, hostage phone calls, terrorists doing live phone-ins, etc. And yet, right until the end, the official versions (and there were many, too many) mirrored the general confusion.
Sure, they withheld facts for reasons of security, backside-protection and just official cussedness. But it still begs the question why, with such a panoramic view of the attacks, with the advantage of so many perspectives, it took so teeth-gnashingly long to bring it to an end.
When Lounge asked me to write about the “lessons from reporting 26/11”, I racked my brains to distil some pearl of wisdom, some timeless journalistic nugget, and couldn’t come up with anything except this: that we too are victims of the tyranny of real time. That an excess of information can complicate the obvious. That we need to find a grammar for reporting inertia. And that sometimes the clues to decoding the anatomy of a spectacular, horrific act of terror might lie in the absurd.
One of the most quoted lines from the intercepts is, again, Imran at Nariman House being coached by his handler in the event that he is interviewed by the Indian media. Tell them, says the handler, that this is a trailer. The rest of the film is yet to come. Heard in isolation, this is the ominous, apocalyptic line that finds its ways into documentaries and promos everywhere. “Hukumat ko keh do yeh trailer hai. Abhi picture baaki hai (Tell the government that this is just the trailer. The movie is yet to come).” But the next bit is somewhat more anticlimactic: A bewildered Imran asks his handler: Sir, yeh trailer kya hai... (What is a trailer)?
Sreenivasan Jain is managing editor, NDTV 24x7. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 20 2009. 08 19 PM IST