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Between London & Ayodhya

There can be no comparison between the magnitude and impact of the coordinated July 7 terrorist attacks in London and the failed fidayeen operation in Ayodhya on July 5, but it is useful to look at the political and media responses to these two incidents, which offer an edifying study in contrast.

Both India and Britain have a long history of confronting terrorism, though Islamist terrorism is relatively new to UK. Nevertheless, decades of dealing with the IRA have helped the British develop efficient response patterns, and these have been significantly enhanced as a result of system-building exercises since 9/11. In India, the experience with terrorism goes back decades as well, but it appears that, apart from a narrow base within the security forces themselves, the management of responses remains rudimentary, ad hoc, even primitive.

An analysis of the post-incident non-enforcement responses in the two situations demonstrates, in general, that the broad Indian response was to exploit; the British response was to enable.

There can be little to complain about in the reactions of the first responders in both cases. There has been some nonsensical talk of a ‘security lapse’ in the Ayodhya attack, but it must be clear that the terrorist operation was, in fact, an utter failure. Only the outer cordon was breached – always a possibility, since the element of surprise is on the side of the terrorists – but the terrorists failed to penetrate their target, and all were killed. Not every terrorist attack is a ‘security lapse’, and the excellent response of the security forces in neutralizing the terrorists was laudable. In London, while the multiple explosions could not be prevented – soft targets like public mass transport systems are and will remain vulnerable, irrespective of the degree of precautions taken – the post-incident emergency services response was excellent, and relief was quickly provided in an extraordinarily ordered manner, despite the suspension of critical public transport services induced by the terror attacks.

It is important to notice, also, that people in general behaved well. There was no panic, public disorder or obstructive behaviour in Ayodhya or in the London street. It is, in fact, at the leadership level and in the mass media that the most deplorable examples of irresponsibility and failure were noticed in India, contrasting dramatically with the institutional responses in the UK.

It is, however, fortunate that there were some TV cameramen present on the spot at Ayodhya, and they were able to give a blow by blow account of the incident virtually as it occurred. This prevented possible distortions which particular sections of the media and Human Rights groups have tended to project. In almost every encounter between the Security Forces and terrorists – even in the highly visible attack on Parliament – there have been demands for ‘independent inquiries’, and other strategies adopted by terrorist front and Human Rights organisations to project a distorted picture of the Forces. In this we must be grateful for the almost ubiquitous electronic media presence all over the country.

At another level, however, the media, particularly TV channels, must be faulted for their sensationalist reportage and the amount of time and prominence they chose to give to Hindu extremist organisations to project negative and communally oriented propaganda and unconstrained vituperation. The choice of who they put on air displayed total irresponsibility, and it is notable that this continued long after the incident reports, into the coverage of the orchestrated demonstrations and bandhs opportunistically called for by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right wing Hindu organisations. Tight shots of small groups, ordinarily no more than a few dozen persons engaged in sloganeering and occasional acts of public disruption, were repeatedly projected by TV channels to create a false impression of mass protests and ‘public anger’ over the Ayodhya attacks. The truth is, these bandhs were manifest flops and the public remained icily indifferent to the efforts to whip up Hindu sentiments.

It is not the case that radical nationalist and far-right Christian groups do not exist in Britain, but no media organisation saw fit to rush to these mischief-makers to elicit anti-Muslim invective. Rather, they sought out sane voices – including those among the Muslim leadership in Britain – to strengthen the public perception and recognition of a secular and diverse society standing firm and united in a moment of national crisis.

Information chains in India also leave much to be desired. The Government and its multiple agencies speak in many and often conflicting voices, but no authoritative source of information is ever established – whether it be in the Ayodhya case, or in many past cases involving mass casualties, where the flow of information has critical bearing on public confidence and the containment of personal distress among victims and their families. ‘Leaks’ connected to the identity of the terrorists, their route into the country, their modus operandi, their linkages, continuously find their way into the reportage, and the public domain is awash with speculation and rumour. In the meanwhile, every political leader, Minister and senior enforcement official seeks to exploit as many ‘photo ops’ as possible, even where they have nothing to say, adding confusion to an already messy situation. We thus have heads of police organisations addressing Press Conferences without even confirming the correct time of the incident; Ministers and political leaders giving gratuitous ‘clean chits’ to Pakistan or blame specific terrorist organisations long before the perpetrators have been conclusively identified; and everyone generally saying whatever comes into their heads at the specific moment when a camera or a microphone is thrust into their faces.

In the British case, on the other hand, specific chains of authoritative information were immediately established; officials and ministers coordinated information and spoke only when they had authentic facts, figures or policy perspectives to communicate. The objective there was not personal projection, or, indeed, to mislead, suppress information or underplay the enormity of the attacks, but to quell rumour and provide information that had been properly verified.

This effort was supported even further by the balanced and mature statements made by political leaders across the spectrum, all of whom were unambiguous in their condemnation of terrorism, no one spoke of ‘root causes’ and ‘historical grievances’, or sought to blame the Government for inviting the tragedy by its policies or for ‘security lapses’, or, in any other way, attempted to milk the incidents for partisan political capital. Indeed, the many statements by various political leaders were strong and unambiguous both in their condemnation of the terrorists and the unconditional support they offered the Government to deal with the crisis.

In India, regrettably, the exact opposite has been the case, and every single entity had an axe to grind. The media sought to create baseless political controversies over the incident, and political leaders appeared to be eager to feed this process. A person no less than a former Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister called for a bandh, and one of the reasons cited was that the National Security Guard (NSG) had been sent to Akshardham when the temple there had been attacked, but the Centre had not sent the elite Force to Ayodhya. Nothing could be more utterly nonsensical – the Ayodhya incident had been efficiently handled by the local force long before any Central force could have reached the site. Indeed, even the Akshardham crisis would have been over hours before the arrival of the NSG, had the local Forces not been specifically instructed not to terminate the operation before the arrival of the commandos from Delhi. Scoring debating points in the wake of a terrorist incident demonstrates a tremendous lack of maturity. Such political and media responses feed tensions between the communities, and can only directly and immediately further the objectives of the terrorists and their sponsors.

(Published in The Pioneer, July 9, 2005)





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