Delhi’s 29/10’: terror in the capital

BY subarno c| IN Media Practice | 07/11/2005
The emphasis seemed to be on global solidarity rather than on reporting voices of the affected in that area.



Subarno Chattarji


The series of pre-Diwali bomb blasts in Delhi led to the predictable saturation media coverage. While television networks were first off the blocks it was interesting to note the alacrity with which wire services such as AP put out the news on internet portals. This again is not a new phenomenon: it was evident during the Madrid and London bombings, but it does reveal the extent to which terror attacks or disasters are put on the global media map almost immediately.


NDTV highlighted the global nature of terrorist attacks within hours of the outrage in its interviews with two tourists who were in the Paharganj area. Patricia and Bradley, from Spain and Britain, respectively, spoke of their shock, terror and the scenes of panic they witnessed. Bradley also stressed that he had been in London in July and in Srinagar during the quake. His pedigree as a disaster survivor seemed to make him an important witness as well as providing the link to the London bombings. Understandably such choices for interviews are fortuitous given the terrible circumstances but the fact that two low-end, back pack tourists were chosen for studio time indicates an anxiety of image and global consciousness.


While the reporter on the ground mentioned the fact that residents and shopkeepers commingle in the everyday chaos of Paharganj, few of these residents/shop owners were interviewed in the initial hours, or even the next day. One item on the evening news on October 30 stressed the fact that foreign tourists continued to stay on in Delhi and India despite the blasts, backed by interviews of said foreigners. This was fair enough since a major section of tourists hang out in that area. Nevertheless the lack of local voices in the initial coverage in Paharganj seems surprising. One exceptional local voice mentioned the fact of the London bombings and the need to carry on. The emphasis seemed to be on global solidarity rather than on reporting voices of the affected in that area.


The coverage of Sarojini Nagar and Govindpuri did not have the tourist angle presumably because lesser numbers figure in these areas. Nevertheless Sheila Dixit also referred to global terror and that Delhi would bounce back. The reports from Sarojini Nagar and the chaos and anger at Safdarjung Hospital were both detailed and fair. They stressed the human costs of terrorism and its attendant grief rather than speculation on whether tourists would continue to visit Delhi. NDTV was spot on in highlighting the unnecessary havoc created by VIP visits, as well as the agony of relatives who could not even identify the charred bodies of their loved ones. It seemed to be on stronger ground in its coverage of the local rather than the global frameworks of terror.


Inevitably such an event brings into play the Pakistani angle and NDTV was restrained in its coverage. It duly highlighted Pakistan’s condemnation of the acts of terror and stressed that the opening of five cross over points on the Line of Control (LOC) would go ahead in spite of the attacks. This media restraint perhaps reflected political circumspection in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and was in contrast to the reactions after the attack on Parliament in December 2001. However, this restraint could not and did not last for too long.


‘Terror Darkens Diwali, Eid’ (Sunday Times of India, October 30, 2005) was the banner headline that captured the horror of the previous evening. The article provided some possible contexts for the attacks which ‘were seen as an effort to send a macabre message on a day a city court was scheduled to sentence Lashkar operatives accused in the Red Fort shootout case. Reports that some people - including Pakistani nationals - were detained could not be confirmed’. That the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was and is suspected without much hard evidence in the public domain is indicative of the ways in which the usual suspects are inevitably named once such an atrocity happens. Al Qaeda is normally blamed for all post-9/11 attacks and the fact that LeT has connections with Al Qaeda furthers the sense of retribution behind the bombings. The Red Fort judgments were duly handed down after the bombings and were seen to indicate the efficiency of policing and justice in the country. While every life is precious, the Red Fort shootings involved the deaths of two people (out of three) whose profession is connected to the possibility of violent death. The carnage on October 29 killed innocent civilians in no way associated with state apparatus of violence and surveillance.


The Sunday Times leader concluded: ‘In fact, the attack came amidst the growing feeling that Islamic terrorists were on the backfoot in Kashmir, spurring them to renewed acts of desperation. Saturday’s attack signals their determination to spread terror elsewhere in the country.’ That terrorists were not ‘on the backfoot in Kashmir’ had been indicated earlier, particularly in the assassination of state education minister, Ghulam Nabi Lone.


The Sunday Times devoted six pages to the bombings, with articles ranging from eyewitness accounts (‘Debris in air, glass rained on me’) to one about tourists (‘Tourists scurry for cover, head for exit’). It also provided a graphic ‘Global Terror Timeline’ which indicated major terror attacks around the world since 9/11. This timeline obviously intends to place the Delhi bombings within the context of global terrorism. On the same page (page 6) a graphic, ‘Terror Trails’ provided a timeline of blasts in Delhi prior to 9/11. The latter is significant because it indicates a history of terror in Delhi and indeed other parts of India prior to 9/11. Neither of the graphics, however, mentions the agents of terror and seems to imply thereby a monolithic history of Islamic terrorism. This implication would be untrue particularly in the context of Delhi. It is through these seemingly minor oversights that the idea of Islam as a sole repository of terrorism is reiterated and confirmed.


On Monday The Times was much less cagey about naming names. The front page had articles with headers: ‘Evidence Against LeT Firms Up: Massive Hunt For Illegal Pak Immigrants’, ‘All trails lead to Pak, Cabinet told; peace process may be hit’, ‘India among worst victims of terror’, and ‘Families fight over charred bodies.’ The last article was the only one that did not mention directly or otherwise a Pakistan angle. Avijit Ghosh and Pradeep Thakur cited the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) according to which ‘23, 955 terrorists, 19, 662 civilians and 7, 320 security force personnel have been killed in such incidents between 1994 and June, 2005’. These figures are shocking by any standards but again apart from the mandatory reference to Al Qaeda and the International Terrorist Front no other organizations were mentioned. For instance, the Babbar Khalsa International attacks on May 22, 2005, would also add to this toll.


Apart from seven pages of coverage The Times carried a front page editorial: ‘Enough Is Enough’. This calls attention in its advocacy of anger: ‘This is no occasion to be genteel and "civilized" in our response. It’s time we got angry. Not a blind anger that lashes out at everything in its path - for that would play into the hands of the very people who perpetrate such acts of terror, and be self-defeating. But an anger that builds resolve, that ensures we do not forget the fathers, mothers and children who went shopping for Diwali and Eid and whose pictures poured into newspaper offices a few hours later, except that they were disfigured and charred beyond recognition.’ One cannot disagree with the final sentiment in terms of the need for collective remembrance, an act in which the state and the denizens of Delhi have been strangely remiss. The anger that the editorial extols is, however, directed at the perennial ‘other’, Pakistan.


The edit points to the terrorist havens in Pakistan and ‘calls for a scale and intensity of response comparable to London’s’. ‘This paper has consistently waged a war for peace, and we remain committed to that path. But it’s equally clear that peace cannot be a one-way road.’ The implication is quite clear: while India has been soft and ‘civilized’, Pakistan has exploited our weakness to further its own terror laden policies. India must be firm and more militaristic, less open to negotiation. These are old arguments advanced, among others, by Bal Thackeray and Praveen Togadia. They represent precisely the ways in which fundamentalists on both sides derail possibilities of waging ‘war for peace’ (whatever that means and however that is executed).


The edit concludes: ‘Finally - and much as we may dislike the idea - we need to accept that in times such as these, even a democratic, civil society must accept that there can be limits to freedom. The US has made itself extremely unpopular with its new homeland security laws, but if that’s what it takes to save innocent lives, it’s a sacrifice worth making.’ The US framework and the reference to laws that diminish freedoms (such as the Patriot Act) in laudatory terms indicate the extent to which global frameworks of coping with terror dominate the Indian landscape. Perhaps only the Indian equivalent of Guantanamo Bay or the ‘black sites’ set up by the CIA to intern terror suspects will lead to the satiation of the anger mentioned at the outset. By then the strong response from a strong state will be locked in the inevitable logic of cycles of violence and counter-violence.


The editorial seems to indicate the shape of things to come because it brings into the mainstream ideas expressed by the so-called fundamental margins. One must note that The Times carried a mandatory article of Muslim condemnation: ‘Killers have no religion: Muslims.’ One wonders why such headers are not used when Hindus or Sikhs are the perpetrators. Perhaps the latter do not need to prove their humanity or that tolerance is a tenet of their faith or indeed their national affiliation.


While a large number of articles dealt with the human interest angle, it is surprising that none mentioned the lack of corporate or civic grieving. The idea of the ‘City Back on Its Feet’ was seen as a sign of resilience and the indomitable spirit of the Delhi resident. This is true but there is a sense in which the city got back to ‘normal’ too quickly. Since the global framework is so often invoked by the Indian media it is appropriate to refer to the ways in which New York and London came together as corporate entities after their respective terror attacks. In both cities the Mayors led the community in grief and commemoration. We see no such attempt by Delhi’s Mayor or Chief Minister. This lack of civic society bonding in grief reflects perhaps a larger culture of indifference and selfishness in the city.


The lack of corporate grief could also be attributed in part to the ways in which saturation media coverage inures the consumer to suffering. Such coverage dissipates individual horror and trauma at the same time that it violates the privacy of that trauma by making it available for mass consumption. The rest of the city becomes spectators to that grief rather than being bound by solidarity. It seems worthwhile to speculate on these matters of citizenship at the same time that we meditate on what responses the Indian state should make towards Pakistan and the perpetrators of these crimes.








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