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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bombay Terror Attacks Media Coverage

Newswatch Survey Finds It "Theatrical"

Shortly after it dawned on all and sundry that what was initially thought of as only a gang war, was in fact a concerted attack by terrorists on the night of November 26, 2008, all eyes of the nation, and the world, were trained on Mumbai. The coverage of the attacks was to become a watershed in India's television history. But hardly had the first night wore on, signs of criticism of the coverage began surfacing. Over Facebook status messages, through SMSs, and subsequently through blogs and other outlets. Even as National Security Guard (NSG) commandos fought a pitched battle with the terrorists, and television cameras and journalists kept viewers updated all through, coverage itself became news. For all the wrong reasons, one might argue.

Going by the outrage expressed by critics through newspaper columns and blogs, among others, Newswatch decided to carry out a survey on what people thought of the reportage issue. The survey was conducted primarily over a web-based interface from December 3-6. The response was overwhelming. In all, 9,906 responses were selected for the analysis.

Some highlights of the survey results:

97 per cent said the high point was round-the-clock, extensive, coverage
74 per cent felt that the reportage-presentation was theatrical
73 per cent thought TV channels are goading the Indian government to go to war with Pakistan
Arup Ghosh and Shireen of NewsX were thought to be the most cool/best anchors/reporters
Barkha Dutt of NDTV was thought to be the most theatrical/worst anchors/reporters
More than half said Shobhaa Dé was one celebrity who did not deserve to be on TV
In most segments, DD News was seen to be the least sensational.

Extensive, theatrical: What people thought of the Mumbai terror attacks coverage on TV Edited and published by Subir Ghosh for Newswatch. © Newswatch 2008. Note: Even though efforts have been made to provide accurate information in this report, the publisher would appreciate if readers call his attention to errors by emailing newswatchindia@gmail.com. Suggestions for future study subjects can be sent to the same email address.

Pages: 16
Format: PDF
Color: All-color
Price: Free
Size: 449 KB
[For download link, please scroll down.]

There are, nevertheless, limitations with this survey. Firstly, there was no sample identification or selection (see page 3 for the methodology). Secondly, since this was an online survey the results would also mean the opinion gathered was that of India's Internet users only, and not that of the people as a whole. The survey results, unfortunately, leave out rural India from its ambit. In that sense, this survey is as elitist as the coverage of the attacks was made out to be by most detractors.

This survey is based on people's perception of the television coverage—it is not a content analysis project, technically.

In all, 16 questions dealt with perceived negative aspects of the coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks by news and business channels. In all, 21 English and Hindi channels were shortlisted for assessment. Non-English/Hindi channels had to be left out for logistical reasons. Respondents were asked to rate each of these 21 channels on a scale of 1 to 5, in an increasing order of perceived negativity. These ratings were subsequently used to arrive at a weighted mean on a scale of 100. No demographic details were collected from the respondents. In other words, it is not possible, for instance, to say if 57 per cent men in the age group of 22-29 in North India believed that Sahara Samay was theatrical in its reportage/presentation.

This survey is also not about ranking channels. For example, the Table 1 results on page 2 do not mean that all respondents thought that Zee News was the most speculative in its reportage. It means that of those who watched Zee News, 86 per cent thought that the channel's coverage was speculative.

This report also carries excerpts from relevant critical articles that appeared in newspapers, opinions of some of the survey respondents, and the response of Barkha Dutt (Group Editor- English News, NDTV) to the criticism of the coverage.

To download the report, copy and paste the following link on to your browser's address line:


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let's Take India Back

Enough of the Moffusil Madness

Sabina was a dear friend. She lived a large and full life until she died in the terrorist attack at the Taj in Bombay. She may have survived if the authorities had responded promptly. But Indian politicians and bureaucracy are a dysfunctional stew of mediocrity and incompetence. She never had a chance. It took the commandos of the elite National Security Group ten hours to get to Bombay and the state police forces that can’t even deal with the thugs of the various fascist senas were completely unequal to the task. The three top officials of the state’s anti terrorist squad were gunned down in a single attack. We were left with the sorry spectacle of pot-bellied cops armed with World War Two vintage 303 rifles trying to deal with terrorists equipped with modern weapons.

Then there’s my friend Lawrence Ferrao, a Jesuit priest, who heads the Xavier Institute of Communications, located on a campus that houses our alma mater, St Xavier’s High School and St Xavier’s College. He wrote an account, “An Eyewitness to Terror,” in which he described seeing two terrorists run past the campus to a nearby hospital and their killing spree. “Within our college stone walls, surrounded by hours of bloody violence, someone surely was watching over us. That same someone is now prodding us to work harder…to bring about change; to make a difference in our beloved India,” he wrote. For sure it wasn’t the Maharashtra govern-ment and its corrupt and inept police forces!

I also heard from Schubert Vaz, a pianist who played in the lobby of the Oberoi. He was saved and he believes it is a miracle. “Bombay suffers from two kinds of terrorists: the terrorists who come from outside the country and our political terrorists within the country. Our problems started with the Rath Yatra (conducted by Lal Krishna Advani) and the destruction of Babri Masjid. We are Indians; it does not matter whether we are Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs,” he wrote. He was cowering inside the hotel’s computer backup room while Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, was outside, swaggering in front of television cameras, trying to score cheap political point at a time of national distress.

Meanwhile the thugs of the various senas, who terrorize the city with sporadic violence, were nowhere to be seen. They are back now, intimidating lawyers who seek to represent the sole captured terrorist. As such, they are militating against the finest traditions of our constitutional de-democracy. They are a reminder of the soft state with its weak-kneed politicians and venal bureaucrats, who run our seriously flawed system of gov-governance.

Even after three weeks, the political class is still unmindful of the distress of citizens. The Congress Party dithered over the replacement of the ineffectual Vilas Deshmukh and is now tying itself up in knots on how to deal with the “senior” leader from Maharashtra, A R Antulay, who suggested that the state’s top anti-terror official may have been killed by Hindu nationalists. For its part, the BJP fumbled on support of the bill creating the National Intelligence Agency until the redoubtable Arun Jaitley got into the act. The incorrigible Left shot itself in the foot again when its suave ideologue Sitaram Yechury foolishly said the Bombay events were a re-sult of the Indo-US nuclear deal

Meanwhile, unfocused citizen anger can easily be diverted. Indeed this is beginning to happen as the media and the privilegentsia are now pushing for a military conflict with Pakistan. That way questions about governance and calls for reform of the system are averted. Indeed, public anger needs to have a focus. To start with, let us ask that our heritage be liberated from the moffusil clutches of government. Politicians, bureaucrats and the media buy into populism while ignoring substantive issues of pol-icy. They have been quick to propose and accept, for example, the change of place names. Starting with Bombay, they have changed other names including: Victoria Terminus, Flora Fountain, Crawford Market, Queen’s Road and a hundred others. This supposedly is their notion of national-ism: tilting at colonial windmills.

Bombay has a history that predates the Shiv Sena, the BJP and even the Congress. When they changed the name of the city, its main railway sta-tion, its airport, its major roads and its many public institutions: the roads still remain pathetic; the airport is still a mess and the railway stations still chaotic. It’s time to challenge the chauvinists, who have terrorized Bombay.

Bombay’s slide started with the rise of moffusil populists in the 1950s. The Samayukta Maharashtra Samiti, precursor of the Shiv Sena, forced the division of the erstwhile Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat. That‘s when the rule of thugs took over the city.

The terror attacks won’t change any political equations. No party cares about human lives. Don’t expect any serious efforts to reform governance. They would rather have a confrontation the failed state of Pakistan than change things internally. The only way to hit them, Congress, BJP, or Shiv Sena, is to strike at the roots of their populism. Let’s demand that the city be called Bombay again and the railway station and airports re-vert to their old, authentic names. It’s a seemingly small but symbolic first step that will upset their diversionary applecart that seems headed straight into a fourth war with Pakistan.

copyright rajiv desai december 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Shoot the Pianist

Fifty-year old Schubert Vaz, pianist at the Oberoi-Trident, Bombay narrates his nightmarish night of November 26 when terrorists seized the hotel.

I was playing the piano as usual as I have for 27 years at the sea-facing lobby of the Oberoi, when I heard gun shots. As soon as I realized that gunmen had entered the lobby and shooting people, I ran into the Opium Den bar. They had already killed two bell boys. Other bodies were on the floor but the terrorists were going into restaurants and firing.

Along with some Oberoi staffers and guests, we next ran into the computer room. We felt that was also not safe. We next headed for the back-up systems room which had batteries and so on. I could continually hear gunshots. I called up my brother in law over the cell phone and spoke softly to tell him that terrorists had taken over the Oberoi, but not to tell my wife. If I was delayed, I asked him to tell her that a guest had invited me to play in his house after my duty hours at the Oberoi. If I did not come home by morning, it meant I was in serious trouble.

We were hiding in the back-up systems room when one of the terrorists entered. He started firing from his machine gun. He shot a 20-year old Oberoi management trainee Jasmine, She died. He killed some guests at point blank range. I thought my time had come to die. I could see the image of my family flash before my eyes. At that time I prayed, "Lord, save me."

The terrorist stopped firing. We were very lucky as for some reason he did not spray the room with bullets as he could have done with a machine gun. He just fired single shots. I could not see him, but could see the muzzle of the gun from where I was hiding.

If he had sprayed bullets all of us in the room would have died. The terrorist did not say a word while he was killing people. He was not angrily shouting, but appeared calm and methodical as he was shooting at us. That made him scarier.

The terrorist left the room. I asked others in the room, including some foreign guests, to put their mobile phones in silent mode. We waited, after about 30 minutes; we began to think of how to leave the hotel. We decided to leave for the Regal Room, and there we found our senior managers who were wonderfully helpful. They asked us to keep calm, and told us security forces will rescue us. We were then taken in groups out of Oberoi, to the nearby INOX theater where we waited until morning. At about 5.30 am, I took a local train to my home in the suburbs.

I have been through the Bombay bomb blasts also in 1993. Bombay suffers from two kind of terrorists: the terrorists who come from outside the country, and our political terrorists within the country who take advantage of our tragedies. Our politicians have destroyed the country with their divisive politics. Our divisive problems started with the Rath Yatra (conducted by Lal Krishna Advani) and destruction of Babri Masjid. We don't need any political yatras. We have the Jazz Yatra, and that is good enough!

We are Indians; it does not matter whether we are Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. I know I am alive now only because the terrorist did not spray bullets as he could have done. Yesterday, I attended the funeral of an Oberoi colleague John even though I did not personally know him. I know it could have easily been my funeral. Bombay is not afraid. I am determined to get back to work at the Oberoi that is my second home for the past 27 years, to playing the piano that is my second wife.

The first song that I will play is Anne's Song by John Denver. It was the favorite of the 20-year old Oberoi management girl Jasmine, who died in front of my eyes. She was such a sweet, wonderful human being and killed for no reason by madmen

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can a Barack Obama rise in India?

Regrettably the answer is in the negative.

Indian politics is feudal, driven by divisive agendas of caste, ethnicity and religion. It is also nepotistic, fueled by ties of kinship. The political class has no ideology, except knee-jerk responses evoked by flawed and leftover notions of socialism, secularism and nonalignment. The system that has grown out of the cloud of an opaque democracy is chaotic and plutocratic. It exploits the twin sores of poverty and disparity. Politicians tend to be kleptomaniacs, who seek rent for providing governance by exception. Their supporters are primarily favour seekers; in this ethical morass, conformity and sycophancy are valued over innovation and competence.

The amorphous world of Indian politics is currently in focus because state elections are at hand. Driving around my assembly district, I see newly-established offices of the Congress, the BJP and the BSP. Just one look into them and it becomes evident that they serve as a hangout for unemployed, uneducated youth, who sit around hoping for a handout of few rupees to get them through the day. In sharp contrast, American campaign offices are a productive buzz of volunteers and party staffers, churning out voter lists, poll data and demographic profiles. Someone is in charge and the field office is responsible for getting the vote out in favor of the party candidate.

Thus, Barack Obama came out of nowhere, a young mixed-race person from a broken home, the son of an immigrant Kenyan father and a peripatetic white mother from Kansas. He has lived in Hawaii, Indonesia and Midwest USA; attended the finest universities on the East Coast and graduated with high honours in political science and law. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School and then spurned an academic career to become a community organiser in the city’s impoverished and mostly black South Side. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of city and state politics to be elected a US senator in 2004.

In 2007, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States and launched a superb campaign focused on the message of change. He used information technology to build a network of support groups all over the country and to raise funds, in small denominations; in the event, he accumulated the largest ever campaign treasury in the history of American presidential elections. He exudes coolness, compassion and an intellectual brilliance that won him not just votes but the deep admiration of youth, Latinos, women and blacks. Indeed Obama fired the imagination of the whole world. As such, when he is inaugurated in January 2009, he will be America’s first global president.

The stark difference between the grass-roots operations and the political aspirations of the world’s two largest democracies speaks of the difference in governance. In the US, governance tends to be positive and enlightened. Roads are well maintained; there is round-the-clock power and water (that you can drink straight from the tap). There are excellent government schools and well-stocked community libraries. Local governments operate and maintain parks and recreation services. They also provide a variety of social services for the aged and the handicapped as also efficient mass transport.

In India, there is little or no governance. Except for Lutyens Delhi, home of the power elite, most of India is rubble-strewn, unkempt and unfinished; pocked with inadequate roads, erratic power and water supply and virtually no law enforcement, let alone education or health care. The random manner in which civic authorities operate shows how kleptocracy works. Roads are patched rather than re-done; of a 10 km road approved for funding, just half gets built and the rest remains ragged and jagged. A multiplicity of bus stops is set up in some places and none at all in others. Central verges start to collapse immediately after they are finished.

Outsourced as it is to an increasingly rusty ‘steel frame’ bureaucracy, governance has very little to do with the delivery of public goods and services. Instead, it has become a muscular exercise to plunder money from the public treasury and to keep the citizenry at bay. Even a third-rate politician like Mayawati travels in an envelope of ‘Black Cat’ security cover, directed less at personal safety than at making a statement of power to her impoverished dalit supporters. In her warped understanding of politics, Mayawati seeks to impress her base with such over-the-top displays. “Look at me,” she seems to say, “I’m as powerful as upper-caste rulers, and I can do things for you.”

Meanwhile, swarms of corrupt and venal bureaucrats at all levels of government excavate age-old laws and regulations with a view to extorting money from citizens. Not too long ago, some of them visited my office and informed the manager that on the basis of something done by a long-dead former owner, the building was in violation some code and therefore illegal. We haven’t heard from them since but they may well have “opened a file,” giving them the option to harass us whenever they choose. Maybe they need to fund a wedding in the family; or send a son to an overseas university or whatever. Nobody in the political world can rein in democratic India’s marauding bureaucrats. That’s because no politician even thinks of governance. It’s all about power and pelf, unmindful of the citizenry.

No, a Barack Obama cannot rise in India. A Nero, a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao…maybe.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, december 2008

The Failure of the Political Class

The political class is like the public sector, which seeks to run a modern enterprise in a bureaucratic fashion that died abruptly with the Soviet Union. Likewise, politicians and bureaucrats and their cohorts in the academy try to operate a modern nation-state with command and control techniques more suited to the colonial era.

This contradiction was outlined in stark relief by the terrorist strikes in Bombay. Not even the most modern nation-state could have anticipated the strikes; however, the key is the response. Right or wrong, governments in the United States and Western Europe responded swiftly. Certainly in the US there has been not even a minor incident of terror since 9/11. Now compare that to the dithering, uncoordinated response of the Indian authorities. A cogent approach might, at the very least, have contained the number of casualties.

It took nearly ten hours for commandos to show up. Plus the police proved once again unable to do the simplest job of sanitizing the area. Instead, you had crowds of curious onlookers and the inevitable television crews and reporters. What’s more, television reporters, in their eagerness for “Breaking News,” were oblivious of the impact that their coverage could have, especially in keeping the terrorists informed about the commandos’ tactics.

Plus various spokesmen fed the media with information about police plans, government strategy and commando tactics in a random manner. It was clear that no one was in charge: not the union home minister, not the state chief minister, not the state home minister, not the NSG chief, not the police commissioner, not the state and central information ministries…it was a comprehensive failure of governance.

The question arises: could politicians and bureaucrats done any better? Of course, they could have. So why didn’t they? Why did it take the state chief minister so long to grasp the true nature of the attacks? Why did his deputy, who also serves as home minister, downplay the magnitude of the problem? Why did the center take so long to wake up: what was the national security adviser doing? What was the home minister doing? A National Disaster Management Authority office was established recently. Was this not a disaster included in its terms of reference?

Nevertheless, let’s not play the blame game; instead let us analyze why things went so terribly awry. My 27 years of intimate acquaintance with the political process leads to the following answers to questions raised above:

1. The position of a politician in any party is vicarious. Except for the supreme leader, no one is secure. This puts a premium on sycophancy that cascades through the ranks and explains why politicians wear rings, undergo elaborate religious rituals and are deeply superstitious. Their survival is not on the basis of performance or leadership; if he or she should in some way displease the leadership, it’s curtains. Neither chief minister Vilas Deshmukh nor any of the Patils (central and state home ministers) was capable of getting anything done except ceremonial posturing that in their minds would please their overlords. In such a culture, politics becomes process rather than goal oriented. Meaningless gestures and flatulent rhetoric are all you get. Hence Deshmukh’s “terror tourism” trip to the Taj with Bollywood celebrities or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s gift of money to the family of a slain security officer. Compare that to 9/11, when the New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge and directed the response.

2. National priorities are much lower in the politician’s hierarchy of values. Every situation he faces is judged on the basis of whether it strengthens or weakens his position. In addition to sycophancy, the political culture celebrates opportunism. This explains why the chief minister of a neighboring state rushed to Bombay and the Oberoi, where he swaggered before the assembled media, charging the government with failure and calling for new laws and what have you. If ever Modi was stripped of his recent image building sheen, this was it. He was shown up for what he is: a small-time opportunist with an agenda that is clearly too large for him. Meanwhile opposition leader L K Advani, with his refusal to support the government, wrote his obituary as a possible prime minister. Contrast that to solidarity shown by American and European politicians in the face of similar terror attacks.

3. Innovation and ideology are an intrinsic part of modern political cultures. Barack Obama steamrollered his way to the presidency of the United States with a high-tech campaign and a message of change. In India, Mayawati is feted for her ability to rabble rouse among the impoverished and oppressed Dalit castes, wearing diamond rings and disclosing mind-boggling assets. The BJP, with its pursuit of a communal ant-Muslim agenda, offers no real message other than hate and deceit. The failure of the party to emerge as a center right alternative is unforgivable and speaks to a lack of vision. On the other hand, the Congress is hopelessly paralyzed by various competing factions including a socialist left that seeks to return to the days of Indira Gandhi; feudal groups based on caste and religious affiliation; and a ruling progressive section that is held in the check by the various factions. The result is reform by stealth, a hesitant foreign policy and mindless populism.

Sapped by such a cancerous culture, the political class was simply incapable of responding to the terrorist assault on Bombay.

an edited version of this column appeared in the times of india, december 4, 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

Eyewitness to Terror

BATTLE GROUND : St Xavier’s College approx 9.40 p.m. onwards

"There's been some firing at V.T. station," he said. It didn’t sound too serious. But within minutes, the scenario changed - and how! TV channels blared the news of a possible gangland gun battle at Leopold's Cafe, in Colaba. By 10.15 pm, frenzied reporters on all channels screamed, "we have a terrorist attack…shooting at the CST station reported….and they have entered the Taj Hotel in Colaba."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, all hell broke loose around St. Xavier's College. Machine guns fired (sounds very different from the ' rat-a-tat ' that we hear in movies) and grenades blasted around us. We listened in hushed, frightened silence to the deadly news that the 'atankvadis’ – terrorists- were in the neighboring Cama Hospital premises. Some of us huddled in the recreation room before the TV; some, standing on the long third floor terrace, watched disbelievingly at rifle-toting commandos enacting battle-like scenes before our eyes; and, some slept!

Standing in the corridor facing the Azad Maidan, Paul Vaz was visibly shaken. He saw a man shot in cold blood, just in front of our college driveway on Mahapalika Marg. Proof, that the ‘terrorists’ had scrambled past our main gates!

Peering over the railing of the terrace facing St. Xavier's School, Joe Velinkar and Arun watched in disbelief. Just a few feet from the College side-gate (the one facing Rang Bhavan), two men were crouched behind a white car with a spinning red light atop it. Then, with guns firing in the air, they "coolly," according to Velinkar, walked past the Rang Bhavan, and entered the G.T.Hospital complex.

Sometime between these two happenings, in this same area, brave policemen met their deaths in front of the Corporation Bank, which is situated at the extreme end of the college building. Bullets whizzed - dented the door of the bank and the red, steel electric sub-station. This is the spot where ACP Ashok Kamte (an alumnus of St. Xavier's College), Hemant Karkare, the ATS Chief (his daughter had completed her studies last year at Xavier’s) and Vijay Salaskar met their end.

Presumably, the young terrorists escaped in these officers’ Qualis van - the same Qualis that fired indiscriminately, killing two youth living in houses behind our college. And then later, on bystanders at the Metro junction a few meters away. But, within our college stone walls, surrounded by hours of bloody violence, someone surely was watching over us and our hostelites. That same someone is now prodding us to work harder - in and through our Institutions - to bring about change; to make a difference - in our beloved India.

If you prayed for us…THANK you

Lawrence Ferrao SJ

Fr Lawrie, principal of Bombay's prestigious Xavier Institute of Communications, was the celebrant at our daughter Pia's wedding in Goa, November 24, 2008. He sent me this eyewitness account.