Monday, December 08, 2008

Mumbai Attacks: PBS Special Coverage

As I'd mentioned, I was working for PBS (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) in Mumbai following the attacks.

Do see our reports:

1: Amid shocks, Mumbai residents question security
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/mumbaireport_12-01.html (click on "stream video".)

2: India's government under scrutiny after Mumbai attacks
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/mumbaianger_12-02.html (click on "stream video".)

3: After attacks, India's coasts are still vulnerable
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec0 8/indiasecurity_12-03.html (click on "stream video".)

4: Impact of Mumbai attacks resonates throughout India
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec08/indiareaction_12-05.html (click on "stream video".)

Give me feedback!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Muslimonomics

I can’t stress enough that we need to give more weightage to the special Friday prayers held in parts of the country to show mourn the terrorist attacks in Bombay. We’ve been saying for a long time that we wish the moderate faction of Islam would be more vocal and visible – and now we need to highlight this trend – so that other Muslims who have not yet voiced their disapproval will. I don’t think need doubt any ones intelligence and bother to spell out why.

The tide has to change. After the attacks, the gut reaction of many was that they were scared the fallout would be communal violence. Indians have shown great sense in distinguishing an attack on India by foreign terrorists and attacks between Hindu/Muslim factions within the country. This is vital, because it allows us to examine the situation at hand without further endangering the country by having to deal with communal violence as well.

We visited a village outside Bombay. It seemed people there had watched the attacks on TV, but most of them did not really understand the significance of what had happened. A few of them understood from the news that Pakistan is implicated and still seemed far removed from any urgent emotions. The rest seemed unaffected by what they had seen.

What struck me though, was that while the villagers may not have been able to understand the enormity of what had happened, they had all seen it live on TV. In fact, as I peeped into the many colorful houses, I could see TVs and fridges in almost all of them. In fact, our search for a village had been a challenge, because many farmers have sold their lands and concrete structures are replacing them. There is enough construction work in the area to bring home the fact that little India is rapidly urbanizing. And that means that the distance they have from events in the big city is slowly going to shrink. What this means is that the largely urban anger we are seeing will slowly penetrate to the hinterland. As yet, it is a work in progress, but television will be a huge catalyst in attitudes changing as much as the landscape changes.

But as news channels feed more Indians, what message do they wake up to? It is not just the news anchors I am referring to, because we all know that politicians use the media for their ends too – good or bad.

During our visit to Ahmedabad, Simon asked Narendra Modi his reaction to the news item that Modi’s frenzied speeches were used in the training camps to charge up these young boys. Deadpanned, Modi told him that he had no idea about any of it. Later, he turned to me and asked me if I’d forgotten about Godhra as yet or not.

Modi also categorically stated that he was ready to help the government in its fight against terror. “At a time of war, there is consensus,” he said.

But was there something he was not telling us? In highlighting security in his campaign speeches (will he undoubtedly well) will he be tempted to cut this “India problem” into little pieces of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian.

What could allow this division is another factor – as yet a non-entity – which Shashi Tharoor brought up this morning when we spoke to him: if any proof emerges that there were Indians complicit in planning the attacks – and those happen to be Muslims whose sympathies lie with extremist factions – then the danger of using that knowledge to play politics will lead to a very volatile and most certainly violent situation. So I have to ask, do we have it in us to further distinguish extremist elements from the majority of Indian Muslims as we have distinguished between international extremist Muslims and the general Muslim population back home. Quite a mouthful, I know, but a question to ponder.

But you see, the moment you ask this question out loud – “will politicians use the Bombay attacks to incite communal violence” – you expose the hypocrisy of such a electoral strategy.

We talked to people along the way, quite literally. Stuffing ourselves in a local train, we journey to a small village outside Bombay. While on the train we found people eyeing our camera equipment, and then quickly offering their analysis of the situation. I was heartened to find that within the confines of that box, many diverse voices came out. A young man, studying for his MBA, told me that he did not link these attacks to religion at all. It’s all about economics, he told me, and these young boys who fall prey to terrorist dogma only do so because they are poor and this is a quick way to earn money for their family. It’s quite true – if reports are to be believed then the captured terrorist told the authorities that his family was promised Rs 1.5 lakhs (a little under $3000) for his services. That is the extent of this deep poverty that breeds discontent, he told me. This is not the first time, it won't be the last.

But we might just come out of this stronger.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reaction. But action?

I’m still in Bombay. You’re going to watch the news and read all about the peace protest at the Gateway of India. People poured in from all parts of the city; much more than had been originally anticipated. At one point, I found myself separated from my colleagues, and watching an amazing sight. Some person – a politician I did not recognize – was accosted by a news anchor who threw a flyer in his face. She asked him why he was there with police protection (I could count about ten) and why that protection did not extend to common people. Needless to say, a crowd gathered, and the man just stood there, speechless.

There was emotion, there was chanting. The calls for Vande Mataram made me want to cry, but those were drowned out by cries against Pakistan, Deshmukh, Raj Thackerey and all politicians in general. A few cries against Sonia Gandhi, but not many people obliged.

I climbed on top of a small building where a number of photographers were perched. The crowd was gigantic, unruly, pushy, enthusiastic, angry, sweaty, patriotic, considerate, and unstoppable. But that birds eye view that I had also allowed me to see things from a distance, and brought home the fact that a few days after the terror attack, we are still as vulnerable as ever. Our police for the most part look disinterested and fat, and while crowds throng the Gateway, it seemed to me, from my vantage point, there is still no protection. No clear lines were demarcated, so surveillance of any kind (unless you count the countless TV channels).

Now, I’m sure this won’t surprise most of you reading my blog. It didn’t me. So let me not pontificate and let me start telling you a few more things. This morning I went down to the coastline and found a few obliging fishermen who took Simon, Denis and me to shoot the unending ocean. A little chatter, I broached the terror subject. Once they were sure that I was not implying that they had some prior knowledge of the event, they started telling us about the hapless state of security there. To their credit, and I kinda loved them for it, they were really defending the coast guard with some misguided patriotism, but did admit that they didn’t really see the coastguard much at all. They couldn’t remember the last time they had been checked for documents.

Yesterday we had gone to Dharavi. The mood there was angry too, and although no one from the world’s largest slum had been killed in the attacks, they were offended that this could happen in India. But when it came to the real world – had they even seen an extra policeman in their neighborhood? – they had not. But that didn’t worry them. They told me very proudly that they were such a tight community that even if one stranger walked in, immediately he/she was asked who-why-when-what. And, they added, we will protect ourselves. We’ll give our lives for each other. But they were all a little worried about stepping outside – catching a train – but like everyone in the city, if they had to do it, they’d just go right ahead and do it. What I liked was that the children were all well informed and very opinionated – and not in the mainstream media (how children are traumatized by the coverage of the attacks) but they spoke like little adults. That’s when I turned to Simon and said, “this is when you realize why India is such a successful democracy.” Why? Because he had expected them to be more concerned with their own economic struggles than national security – but was quite surprised to find out that was simply not true.

And that brings me to the real point I wanted to make (yes, I did take my time, I know). A day or two ago, we had an in-depth interview with MD of the Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra – a person I was totally blown away by. He was very smart, introspective and very articulate. I want to briefly recap some of the things he said to me in the middle of a deeply emotional crisis.

Firstly, he hoped that the result of all this “unprecedented” urban anger was not that we secure ourselves and leave out the poorer sections. The fishermen, the people in Dharavi. Them. He also told us why this attack has struck such a chord around the world (well, one of many reasons). It’s the ultimate urban nightmare, he said. Ten men running around the streets of a modern day urban city with guns and grenades. Honestly, I was getting visuals of The Dark Knight in my head when he was talking and it sent a chill down my spine. He also touched upon the fact that because we have tried to inject democracy in every aspect of our laws and the Constitution, there is no single unified commander-in-chief in India, and that needs to change. I think many people are echoing these thoughts. Another interesting observation he made was about the “Spirit of Mumbai”. He said that the very people who built up this myth following other attacks were the very ones tearing it down right now, and that both are extreme emotions, and the only way forward is to find a balance.

He’s right about that. If any of you saw yesterdays news report, then you would have seen the byte of the man in Dharavi – John Bhai – telling us that the government should attack Pakistan and it would take, what, two and a half hours to defeat it? Well, today at Gateway of India, stronger than Vande Mataram was “Pakistan Murdabad”. I think it was even stronger than anti-politician chants.

But the politicians might have gone one clear message – if it lasts – is that we will go after incompetent people, and that politicians will have to start becoming accountable like any other employee/CEO. Their careers should end with a huge debacle. We spoke to Milind Deora today, and he also agreed. He said that when a man is elected from a rural area and somehow is catapulted to becoming Home Minister of the state; it is no surprise that he is intellectually incapable of handling the job. That’s true, and its heartening to see that many voices have gone from blaming the government to the realization that if you don’t vote in urban cities, then it’s the rural votes that count. Nothing wrong with that – that’s not what I’m saying – but those are also places that vote according to identity for the most part (Dalit, Muslim, what have you). And we need to start voting on capability and credibility. That’s a long-term plan, but it has to start somewhere.

And most importantly, just as how I had briefly mentioned in one post about the MP elections right before the terrorist attacks, we need to see what the political parties will be up to in the lead up to the general elections. In the cities, I suspect, the conversation will have to be more mainstream – about policy and action to be taken. But in the smaller towns, will the BJP play the anti Muslim card, and will the Congress, in an aim to pander, again not take a stand on anything? And let’s not forget the rest of the motley crew.

The real fallout, and if there are any lessons learnt, we will find out when the election gets closer.