An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 05 October 2002

The massacre of devotees at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar on 25th Sep was an outrageous act by Pakistani militants or disgruntled muslims and the whole matter needs a thorough study to determine how the militants managed all that they did in such an unprofessional manner. Mohan Guruswamy has offered his analysis with emphasis on the unprofessional reporting by the media.

It is a fact that the NSG is an Army Outfit, with Brigadiers and junior officers deputed to it for short periods, but it is totally controlled by the bureaucrats of the Home Ministry.

We have repeatedly stated the one million strong Indian Para Military Forces need more professionalism. Police Officers at the end of their career looking for billets, who choose to head these outfits may not be the right answer –– both for India's Intelligence and Para Military Forces. We post below Mohan Guruswamy’s analysis of the Akshardham fiasco:


The Medium is the Massage?

By Mohan Guruswamy

Over thirty years ago Marshall McLuhan wrote: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage.”

When McLuhan wrote that, the USA was in the process of being irretrievably altered by the intrusion into the placid living rooms of America by the distant Vietnam War, with all its gory and bloody detail by nightly telecasts, made more vivid by color television. It not only turned more Americans against the war than were for it, it made the common citizen ever more suspicious of elected leaders, and soon TV anchors like Walter Cronkite supplanted the elected leaders of America as its philosopher kings. Cronkite’s insistence for accuracy was legendary and he came to be America’s most trusted man.

TV also made, as the late artist Andy Warhol famously said, ‘everybody famous for fifteen minutes’! That war and new technology brought about a revolution in the standards expected from leaders and even more importantly from the media in whose power it now lay to make and unmake leaders, and create new trends. American media responded magnificently to the challenge. Having driven Lyndon Johnson out of the US presidency, it followed by hounding out Richard Nixon. And such was the searing impact of television on its national consciousness that America still mortally fears bloody wars in distant lands.

The tight and rigid bureaucratic control of free to air television and radio by the state in India ensured that we missed that revolution. A small window of opportunity however opened up when private cable TV channels were allowed in the mid 90’s. Today cable TV reaches out into every part of the country and into almost every home with a television set. Even though that is quite far from all households it is still a lot of households. Of the 55 million households in urban India cable TV is available in 28 million; and of the 137 million rural households cable TV now reaches 9 million households. Since every home of affluence and hence influence is now touched by cable TV, even if less than one in six homes have it, cable TV could be a significant power in positively shaping our society and our lives. But that could only happen if there was a revolution in standards that our electronic media has been traditionally known for. That alas has not happened and for immediate evidence of it we need only to go back to the coverage of the Akshardham attack last week.

The presentations of top three all news channels, Aaj Tak, Zee and Star of the event as it unfolded are revealing for how differently each one saw it and interpreted happenings in a very small place. To enable you to see this, first imagine that you are looking at a rectangular sketch of the Akshardham campus. If the temple complex were at the top center, the museum is along the right, and the main entrance at the bottom. Two pathways from the center of each side cross in the middle with the temple straddling the vertical pathway and the museum on the top right quadrant.

Aaj Tak had us first believe that the terrorists entered from the left and raced along the horizontal pathway, and gunned down most of the victims in the center of the yard before turning towards the museum. Star’s initial reporting, with the help of some excellent graphics suggested that the terrorists entered from the museum side i.e. the right and having perpetrated mayhem there turned towards the temple, shooting down some more people in the open yard before turning towards the temple whose door was by now closed. Zee, quite prudently it first seemed, did not commit itself to where the terrorists had entered from, but the reasons for that showed up soon after when the presenter rather diffidently suggested that the museum was on top of the temple. Zee then compounded its ignorance by suggesting that number of dead could be in the three figures.

One can understand the desire to be first out with the story, but to get essential facts wrong betrays a serious lack of journalistic skills and even a commitment to ferret out the real truth and maintain the trust of the viewers. Star was very clearly guilty of more unprofessional conduct when it later in the evening made it seem but without saying so that its Political Editor, Rajdeep Sardesai, was reporting from near Akshardham when he was probably just in front of a blue screen in New Delhi. Aaj Tak was first to redeem itself by getting the facts finally right around nine that evening. Sardesai was at the spot the next morning and had a better innings this time. He had one of the temple priests show the moving camera from where exactly the terrorists entered and how they moved about carrying out their bloody business till they were finally cornered and shot down at daybreak. It was quite brilliant but it contradicted everything that Star had shown for details the previous evening. Shouldn’t there then have been even a hint of regret for having kept us inaccurately informed till then?

Even where the terrorists were holed up in the night was got wrong for most of the time by all three channels. They were suggesting that the terrorists had found some bushes to hide in front of the temple in the top left quadrant, when the fact was that they had climbed on top of the museum and disembarked into the bushes outside the main complex and next to gate 3. This would be outside the bottom left quadrant of the map in your mind.

All the three channels reported that the terrorists had worn military tunics and suggested that there were three if not four of them. But then how can one expect them to have the facts right when Sardar Advani himself sitting in his North Block office told journalists that there might be three or four terrorists in the temple complex and had worn uniforms?

Advani’s conduct itself did not come under any scrutiny. Even as the drama was unfolding the Deputy Prime Minister of India, many say even the de facto Prime Minister flew into Ahmedabad and was in the Akshardham complex around ten that evening with a retinue of journalists eagerly reporting every word he had to utter. It is possible that had Advani shown similar alacrity much that happened after Godhra might have been averted?

But that is not the point here. What is the point is that when a sensitive operation was underway with many hundred still inside the temple complex, and possibly some even held hostage, a heavily guarded and long retinued VIP would have been a most unwanted distraction for the security men. It seemed that Advani’s need to be in the news from the spot far outweighed other considerations. The following morning Advani was back in the blood splattered complex to hold a press conference. I suppose you just can’t keep a good man back?

Reporting of events after the operation. Even at seven the following morning Star’s graphics were still showing the location of the final encounter as being within the complex in front of the main temple, when its reporting could not have been hindered by darkness. But it seems for them the fog of war took time lifting. The previous evening Star’s Col. Ajay Shukla reported on the equipment and capability of the NSG. He even assuringly suggested that it would soon be over particularly since the NSG commandos had night vision equipment. What Shukla should have also told us is that the night vision scopes cannot work if there are any bright light sources in front of them. As a matter of fact if the scopes are exposed to any bright light the image intensifying picture tubes that are at the heart of the system get irretrievably damaged. Since the lights were all shining bright behind the back of the NSG commandos it was only the terrorists who had the benefit of night vision!

Within minutes of the first shootings security forces of all hues congregated on to the spot. These included the Gujarat Police, Gujarat Armed Police, CRPF and units of its Rapid Action Force, BSF and even plenty of RSS volunteers with the latest lathis. The perimeter was tightly encircled and there was no question of anybody escaping. Then a planeload of NSG moved in with their special weapons and tactics. Was there then going to be any doubt of the outcome? Yet the media has tried to make it out as an action of great collective heroism when it was just another day at the office so to say. Heroism is when you battle the odds, which our forces do almost everyday in some far corner of our much troubled country. It comes as no surprise then that the NSG’s bureaucrats, now basking in their fifteen minutes of fame, are seeking the redress of all their long pending demands, the most important of which seem higher allowances and purchase of new weapons.

What the media misses is that there is much that is amiss with the NSG. For instance only the NSG’s Special Action Group made up exclusively of Indian Army officers and jawans take part in such operations, while their police drawn component do duty securing the Mayawati’s and Mulayam Singh’s of our political firmament. The question then that must be asked is, what is it that the NSG can do that the Army’s para-commandos cannot do? Britain’s SAS which was the original inspiration for the NSG is entirely a military outfit, yet it is frequently called to assist civil authorities and work in tandem with clandestine agencies. Clearly there is a need to re-evaluate the structure and constitution of the NSG, and just acceding to pressures for higher allowances is not going to make it any better.

It is obvious that our electronic media is still geared to making people famous for fifteen minutes rather than working us over so completely that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected and unaltered as McLuhan had prophesized it would. For that it must first learn to gets its facts right.

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