Monday, December 1, 2008

Mumbai's Agony and Media: What 24x7 Television News Said to Us?

DURING THE three days of terror that shook Mumbai and kept India and indeed the whole world on the tenterhooks, the media had a trying time. It is not easy to be a media-person in these days, when our entire society and polity is fractured, when one has to be very cautious in each and every step, every word, because at any moment one can fall a prey to the jingoistic nationalism on the one hand or the false propaganda and rumour mills that work over time on the other.

Both traps were there in plenty in those few days of acute national attention on Hotel Taj and a few other buildings in Mumbai. Rumours flew thick and fast and at one point the news channel telecast had to be shut down for a few hours in Mumbai to prevent spread of rumours. What provoked such an action at a time when the entire nation's attention was riveted on Mumbai was the rumours that spread like wild fire that gun battle again broke out in the Chattrapathi Shivaji Railway Terminus where it all started. It was an accidental shot from a policeman's rifle that caused the trouble.

Watching the various television channels that continued to report from the courtyard of Hotel Taj for more than three days, it was evident the hundreds of media crew who had camped in the vicinity of the hotel were taking heavy risks as the battle was still raging inside. Bullets were flying thick and fast and grenades were being thrown and some of the media-persons were even hit by shrapnel.

So indeed it was a huge task, a task which the Indian television media carried out rather successfully. They were able to provide minute by minute developments 24 hours a day for more than three days. It was a herculean task no doubt.

But that is about spot reporting. Even in reporting spot developments, they were focused on the two super star hotels of Taj and Oberoy Trident and then the Nariman House where some Jews were trapped, while there was practically no follow up on what went on in other parts of the city; there was nothing about the railway station, nothing about the hospitals that were attacked, nothing about the dozens of bodies that were lying unrecognized in morgues. Nothing about the life in the city, about the virtual siege of a metropolis with more than 12 million people.

They were most often talking about those icons, and I heard Burkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai and others keep on talking about those iconic buildings. How they were the icons of emerging India, how they represented the resurgent India, how they were the torch-bearers of India of the new century.

Sometimes I thought I was now in an election campaign, where they were once again talking about the Shining India. More than four years ago, I was in Delhi when the BJP-led Vajpayee Government launched this Shining India campaign, while the majority of Indian people thought otherwise.

This divide between the India of the upper class and middle class for whom Taj is the only icon that represents India, and the poor people who commute in the suburban trains from CST was more and more evident in all the days of this television cacophony. It was much sound and fury, with little substance.

So I spent much of my time on the net even as they kept on shouting on the mini-screen, some of their voices going hoarse, for credible information on what really went wrong in Mumbai. To get things in perspective, to know why these things happened and what lies ahead. It was a horrific failure on the part of our government, our administrative services, our security forces and our secret services. It was unbelievable that such a brazen assault was possible in any country with a minimum sense of security. It was as if they just came in, shot people as they wished and took the hotels and challenged the entire nation.

I must say our national reaction too was not sober. Many people on the television channels were shouting for tough actions, for tough laws and even a police state to put an end to terror. It was evident they were raising accusing fingers at the 'other', the enemy within, the Muslims in this country even as it was more and more evident that this heinous crime was committed by outside forces. The opinions that got aired vociferously on the channels were part of a pattern that we are very familiar with nowadays.

It was also part of this pattern that Narendra Modi appeared on the Taj premises at the peak of the conflict, denouncing the government. I was overjoyed when that dignified lady, Mrs. Kavitha Karkare, wife of slain Hemanth Karkare, refused to meet this cynical gentleman from Gujarat and spurned his offer of money. She gives me hope and confidence, that despite its terrible and traumatic experiences, this great nation's soul is still intact, that no Lucifer can overpower it, even in the most trying times.

Well, I must say that among the newspapers online that I searched, the one which proved to be most credible, most reliable and with maximum information from every part of the world was the good old New York Times to which I went back on almost every hour of this crisis as one falls back on a trusted friend in the hours of crisis.

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