For the past four weeks or so, I have been meaning to, but could not due to lack of time, see the latest action flick in town: Quantum of Solace. I haven’t watched a James Bond movie for several years, so it was my full intent last Saturday to take advantage of a sparse weekend. But after the non-stop action-filled reality show from Mumbai, I don’t need to see Bond in action any more.
In 72 hours, I had more than all the action Bond movies can put together, and more than I can digest. More real than it can ever get: and all of it with real villains, real ammunition, real hatred, real anger and real blood.
What happened in Mumbai from 26 November is horrendous. Whoever planned it and those who executed this ghastly act were not only “remorseless”, they probably didn’t have anything but a coldly calculated master plan for creating a mayhem. And they succeeded in it, not so much because of the failure of our security and intelligence apparatus as much as the way we responded to it.
It doesn’t take much effort to see that the main objective of such an act is to destabilize and disrupt. No matter what the subject of this disruptive attack may be, the purpose is to render it ineffective, to portray it a failure and generally convey the sense of “not everything is fine”.
Indeed, not everything is fine. It’s certainly not fine when nearly 200 innocent lives are lost and many more lives are impaired at the hands of a few attackers, and when the only way we can respect the lost lives is offer their kin some rotten political booty. It’s certainly not fine when even after several similar – albeit smaller in extent, but sometimes more deadly – attacks in the recent past, there is absolutely no evidence of any effort to protect and secure citizens’ lives. And it’s certainly not fine that when our forces are called upon to save lives, they are not equipped enough to do their job quickly and effectively.
But more than anything else, it’s absolutely not fine the way we responded to these attacks. So, what do we do when such a criminal and ghastly attack occurs? We point the finger at the “usual suspects”. We draw battle lines along our faiths, our religions, our communities and our languages. Rather than keeping our cool and restoring calm, we throw caution out of the window and join the emotional bandwagon. We mistrust our friends and neighbours. Even before any evidence of the minds and hands behind the attacks could possibly be gathered, the judgement had been passed, by the political leaders, the media and the intellectuals alike. And, in that we made no distinction between the particular and the general. There is some sage advice in what a newspaper said:
“For the government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first priority should be to make a crucial distinction for the Indian public. Singh has already blamed the murders in Mumbai on “external forces.” What he ought to explain to his people is that even if there were Pakistanis among the terrorists, and even if the killers set out from the Pakistani port of Karachi, that does not mean they were acting on orders from Pakistan’s elected civilian government.”
It’s amazing to see the efficiency of our “intelligence sources” post-facto: within hours of every such event, we are told they knew who did it and how. But despite this efficiency, we fail to prevent such tragedies time and again.
It’s a pity we have to remind ourselves that a few divisive and extremist elements inside any community do not and should not reflect upon the collective feelings and opinion of that community. And to remind our leaders that if you count votes by religion, caste or language, you will have to count dead bodies along the same lines. And that such inhuman act doesn’t care for any particular community: just take a look at the list of the dead and injured and you will realize that they come from all communities, including Muslims, on behalf of whom apparently these people acted.
And the media? They take the trophy for playing right into the hands of the perpetrators of this tragedy. Couldn’t they see that this whole event was planned and executed as nothing but a global media event? The perpetrators did it only to gain sustained global media coverage, to instill fear not only in Indians but every global citizen, and to elicit an extreme response. And the media – especially the TV channels – made it easy for them, not only by providing them free live coverage of their impact, the blood and the gore – not to speak of “action” or the lack thereof from the political leadership – round-the-clock for three days, but also by throwing restraint to the air. And they brought in the politicians, the terrorism analysts and the so-called intellectuals to fill any gaps. As a security expert wrote:
“In a novel twist, the Mumbai terrorists might have embarked on propaganda of the deed without the propaganda in the confident expectation that the rationalisation for the attack – the narrative – would be provided by politicians, the media and terrorism analysts.”
Thanks to a globalized and connected world, we were able to tune in from far to the coverage of the event on Indian media. I cringed when I saw TV news channels and their journalists, veterans included, spinning theories based on rumours and speculations rather than facts, and getting emotional and espousing jingoistic feelings rather than staying objective and providing neutral viewpoints. In their rush to beat the competition with “breaking news”, the electronic media churned out half-baked stories, based on unconfirmed facts, and contributed to panic and heightened emotions, and thus lost the war downright, very sadly, to the attackers.
Many more lives were saved, thankfully, due to the quiet heroism of the common people and the low-profile policemen who rescued them, took them to hospitals or took care of them. Some of these people lost their lives in the process and it could have been worse but for them. The high-profile police officers and commandos rightfully got the recognition they deserve, but we should not forget these truly unsung heroes.
A big buzz around this event has been the emergence of the new technologies in the coverage of events. Many people from Mumbai used blogs and other tools like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook to document the event, through updates in text and photos, as well as to vent their feelings. These online forums tend to attract people with extreme views more than the moderates and thus often represent a skewed view of things. But, this time the overall picture that emerges is one of balance and restraint. In fact, many of these “citizen journalists” documented the events in a more factual and objective manner than the mainstream media.
Even better, they used these tools to help the victims of the attacks: to provide emergency help information, to help locate missing people, to provide information about those killed and injured. I think the only positive aspect of the whole event is this spontaneous expression of solidarity from citizens concerned about fellow citizens, cutting across ideologies and creeds.
When an exceptionally good action or horror movie gets too close to reality, making me shudder in fear and anxiety, I have to remind myself that it’s a movie after all, not real life. Like being woken in the middle of a nightmare and being relieved that it was indeed a bad dream. But the Mumbai attack was no Bond in action, no bad dream. It was for real, with real people killed and real blood spilled, and with real fear and distrust seeded into us. And this thought gives me little quantum of solace.
But, as my 12-year-old daughter Sohini said in a poem she wrote after watching the events on TV:
“I know that this poem doesn’t make a difference
And that the world (with its crazy people) will still be the same,
But I’m writing it just in case there’s another person
Who agrees that killing is not a joke or game.”