He couldn’t wait, he SMS-ed me from Dhaka airport soon after the plane had landed.
My media activist friend had returned from the annual South Asia Media Summit 2008, in Goa. ‘These guys are crazy. They were not interested in my presentation on cultural diversity but in the existence of jihadi terrorist camps in Bangladesh. That is all they wanted to know.’ We met up later, and he went on, You need at least a dose of scepticism when handling terror claims, but it’s become political football for the Indian media, the intelligence agencies and the politicians. It’s parallel to post-9/11 hysteria. It’s the same ‘fear politics’ that are at play in India.
This was two days before the 62-hour carnage in Mumbai began on November 26 night.
And, before the carnage had ended, before the dead had been counted, before the injured had been rushed to hospitals, the 9/11 framework was in full swing on most Indian TV channels. Montage after montage of smoke-encased buildings dubbed ‘Ground Zero’ were shown while wartime captions declared, ‘India at War’, ‘Another 9-11’.
A day later, in his first reaction to the attacks in Mumbai, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh pointed the finger of blame beyond India’s borders. He did not mention Pakistan by name, but the inference was clear. The external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was more explicit. Preliminary and prima facie evidence, he said, indicated a Pakistani connection.
Secularist nationalist warmongers not to be outdone in expressions of patriotism, joined extremist Hindutvas in clamouring for ‘tough action’, the need to teach the evil perpetrators ‘a lesson they will never forget’, launching punitive raids across the border, destroying jihadi camps, bombing Muridke in Lahore, capturing the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Some went further and said a full-scale war needs to be declared against Pakistan. So did guest panellist Simi Garewal who ranted on the NDTV, ‘We need to carpet bomb parts of Pakistan. Shock and awe. That is why America has not had an attack since 2001. That is what we need to do.’
But there are also voices of courage such as Shuddhabrata Sengupta who writes in Outlook that the Indian state and elements within the state have sinned as much as they have been sinned against. Criticising national amnesia, he reminds readers of the brutal slaughter of one hundred and twenty unarmed and peaceful Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in May 1984 by the LTTE, an organisation that was ‘housed, armed, funded and nourished by the Indian state led by Indira Gandhi,’ and wonders should Sri Lanka then have carpet bombed Delhi and Chennai. And, he goes on, if a professional investigation into the horrific attack on the Samjhauta express reveals that the perpetrators were Hindu radicals assisted by rogue elements within the Indian military intelligence, would Pakistan be justified in ‘carpet bombing’ Pune, Indore, Jammu and other places that are linked to the cluster of organisations and individuals around outfits such as Abhinav Bharat?
Mumbai-based author-columnist Farzana Versey writes of class amnesia. Those who claim that there is no time for resilience anymore forget another dome that was broken down in 1992, they forget Gujarat in 2002. Those who rail against the government now had kept quiet earlier when the government and the police had backed local lumpens. The elite, says Versey, are unconcerned at other deaths in the Mumbai carnage, at the 58 deaths that occurred at the local train station, or the 10 others who died at the hospital, or the taxi driver who got burnt along with his vehicle. They protest now only because their cocktail party circuit at the Oberoi and the Taj are affected.
The Indian government’s accusation needs to be ‘taken with a grain of salt’, says Ayesha Ijaz Khan, London-based lawyer and political commentator. This is not the first time that the Indian government has blamed Pakistan, only to discover later that the accusation was false. Investigations have revealed that four earlier incidents – the Chattisinghpura massacre in March 2000, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the Malegaon blasts, and the Samjhauta express in February 2007 – when the Indian government had directly accused Lashkar-e-Taiba of having sponsored the violence, and Pakistan indirectly for harbouring the militant group, were caused by groups from within India. The Samjhauta express incident, which killed 68, mostly Pakistanis, is the most troubling as four months of investigation revealed that it was not Lashkar-e-Taiba but Lt Col Purohit, who was serving in the Indian army, and had links with Hindu militant groups was responsible for the attack. Also involved was Pragya Singh Thakur, member of ABVP, an RSS inspired youth group.
Others have pointed out that India should not tread on the US government’s post-9/11 path. That the passing of more draconian anti-terror legislation, curtailing of civil liberties, expansion of police powers, and the dismantling of democracy in the defence of democracy is not the answer to terror attacks. That the Indian government would be better advised to turn attention towards the real grievances of 800 million Indians, the routine discrimination of India’s Muslim minority, real economic disparities that are blinded by the spectacular consumerism of its upwardly mobile middle classes.
In reply to those Indians who argue that America is safe after the war on terrorism, there are many who point out that the world is much less safe, and that Americans too are much less secure. Scores of terrorist attacks have been carried out against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific, more than a dozen in Pakistan alone since the first American strike was carried out on Afghanistan in October 2001. And, as William Blum has pointed out, since there was no terrorist attack in the US during the six and a half years prior to 9/11, one may conclude that the ‘absence of terrorist attacks in the United States is the norm.’
As accusatory fingers point at Pakistan, strengthened by the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s assertion that the terrorists in Mumbai were Pakistani nationals and members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, both Pakistani and Indian journalists, those who do not belong to the ask-no-questions camp, express doubts and raise questions. Nasim Zehra of Pakistan’s Duniya TV says: an Indian TV network interviewed one of the terrorists holed up in a hotel surrounded by commandos. Why was his phone not jammed? How did the terrorist call the TV reporter? Or did the latter call the terrorist? If yes, how did the she or he get the latter’s number? How was it possible for Pakistani terrorists to travel in fishing boats for over 500 nautical miles? And, as Ayesha Ijaz points out, India has 22 separate radar systems that monitor the coastal line between Karachi and Mumbai, it is a heavily patrolled area, one in which hundreds of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are regularly apprehended and arrested for illegal intrusion. Indian journalist Neelabh Mishra remarks on the strange coincidence of Pakistani terrorists finishing off the top leadership of the Anti-Terror Squad, including Hemant Karkare, involved in probing a supposedly Hindutva terrorist cell. Wondering about the circumstances in which the ATS leadership was led into a position of extreme vulnerability to terrorist fire, Mishra writes, ‘how is it that whenever the Hindu rightist extreme seems to be in dire straits as with the current Sadhvi-Purohit-Pandey terror investigations, some violent action undertaken supposedly on behalf of Muslims or Pakistan, as the case may be, comes to their aid and also vice versa?’
What is needed is a thorough investigation, one that is conducted without assigning premature blame on any organisation or country. And, as Sengupta urges, what is needed is for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis to join hands across the Indo-Pak divide, to say that they will not tolerate the nurturing of terror, hate and division through covert and overt acts of rogue elements both within their governments, which have a vested interest in continuing conflict and enmity, and that of non-powerful state actors.
Post-script: As I write, I come across the news that Dar-ul-Uloom, the most respected school of Islamic teaching in the subcontinent, has suggested that Indian Muslims avoid slaughtering cows on Eid-ul-Azha as a mark of respect to the religious beliefs of Hindus, and to pray for the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks and express solidarity with Mumbaikars.
But I come across another news item that reminds me of the fear politics that my media activist friend, back from the Goa conference, was talking about. Ten SIM cards were bought a month ago from three different locations in Kolkata and sent to Pakistan via Bangladesh, three of these were used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Mumbai. I do not harbour any illusions about the present military-backed caretaker regime in Bangladesh, nor of the past governments either. None of the terror attacks that have occurred in this country has been credibly investigated. Public doubts exist that cannot be easily brushed off, doubts about the involvement of elements within the government, or of forces outside the government that were emboldened by state inaction. That is not my point, instead I wonder, how credible is this discovery of SIM cards? And in the absence of courageous officers like Hemant Karkare, DIG Ashok Kale and encounter specialist Vijay Salazar, who had been tasked with finalising the findings of both the Samjhauta Express incident and the Malegaon blasts, will thorough investigations of the Mumbai terror attack take place?
First published in New Age, 8th December 2008
“John Pilger, my name is Fariha Karim. I think you know my uncle,” my 21 year old niece had blurted out. She was a big fan of the celebrated investigative journalist and had clambered through throngs of people in Trafalgar Square, up the large stone steps leading to the iconic lion statues and climbed her way over the lions, past the organisers to get to the tall Australian.
Most nieces tend to think their uncles are famous. Fariha had seen me on the podium when I’d chaired World Press Photo. She’d been to the award ceremony when I was given the honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. She’d seen me preside at Chobi Mela. Pictures on the occasional book, the odd Time magazine cover and a few exhibitions had reinforced my image in her eyes. That was enough for my youngest niece to think everyone in the world would know her uncle.
Fariha was thinking of entering journalism. So when she saw this famous journalist at an anti-war demonstration in London in November 2001, protesting against the British-US bombing of Afghanistan, she decided to take full advantage of the situation. As most of Stop the War marches were in those days, it was busy, with numbers of protestors regularly running into tens of thousands. Organisers estimated 100,000 protestors; police shrunk numbers to a conservative 15,000. Speakers included veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, then Labour MP George Galloway. John Pilger was amongst the celebrities. It was a brave attempt by the aspiring journalist, but her uncle failed to make an impression on the big man, and Fariha hastily retreated.
I suppose in photojournalism circles a few people would know me, but it is rare for a majority world professional to be known in the west. A famous western journalist was a different matter. Pilger was known worldwide. His book Hidden Agenda, was widely read. His films had won awards. His words mattered.
I was therefore taken aback on reading Pilger‘s Guardian piece on Moudud. In marketing terms this was powerful co-branding. This was about as high as it got in journalism. I had tried writing to Pilger before, without success. This time I wrote to the email in his website. I wasn’t surprised by the boiler plate response:
Thank you very much for emailing the John Pilger website. We will
endeavour to respond to your email as quickly as possible.
However, due to the huge volume of emails received it will not always
be possible to reply personally to your mail.
Watch the War on Democarcy trailer: http://warondemocracy.net
Subject: The Prisoner of Dhaka
Date: March 12, 2008 11:08:38 AM GMT+06:00
“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it’ – John Pilger”
Dear Mr. Pilger,
I have admired your work for many years and use a lot of it when teaching at Pathshala, our small school of photography in Bangladesh. The lead statement in your blog, quoted above, is one that I ardently believe in. I was therefore surprised when Hasna Moudud forwarded me the article “The Prisoner of Dhaka” this morning. I can understand Hasna’s reasons for sending me the article. It is her husband in jail and her attempts to circulate an article which paints Moudud in a good light, may not be journalistically valid but an understandable response from a spouse. However for a journalist who is acclaimed for his investigative prowess, to have so many significant omissions, and a fair number of inaccurate observations, is worrying for the profession.
The arrest of Moudud on the basis of alcohol being found in his house is laughable, and clearly a setup. We have written about it in national Bangla newspapers. The actions of the military government cannot be justified, and we have vehemently protested through our blogs and in local newspaper columns. Unfortunately our words do not reach mainstream media in the west. Yours does. Hence it is important that you voice your opinion against such irregularities, as you have indeed done in this article. But to paint Moudud as a saint, does go against the sentence at the top of this mail. A google search on Moudud Ahmed and chameleon will provide enough links to whet any researcher’s appetite. Sure, not all those links can be trusted and as a journalist you need to dig deeper to get to the facts, but that precisely is what has been carefully omitted in the Guardian article.
Moudud Ahmed on the dais with Rowshan Ershad wife of autocratic general Hussain Mohammad Ershad at a Jatiya Party Rally in Manik Mia Avenue. In the meeting he strongly criticised the BNP, but promptly joined the party (BNP) when they came back to power. Dhaka. May 1996. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
“Although technically you may call it extrajudicial—I will not say killing—but extrajudicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead on encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it—people are happy.”
—Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed, November 2006
I have watched this man wax lyrical about any leader he currently served, only to rapidly change colour and join the winning side when the tables were turned. Moudud and his group of lawyers have abused the legal system wherever possible and under each regime, but for me, one of his ‘lesser’ crimes is perhaps the most blatant. Demanding the clemency of a murderer, because he was a political thug loyal to the party. I do not want to list the misdeeds of Moudud. You are a trained investigative journalist and there is enough evidence out there for you to make your own opinion. Neither do I support the arrest of Moudud on the charges made against him. There are far more sinister charges against the man and it is somewhat pathetic that the government had to resort to this charade to jail him. But to paint one of the most despised men in Bangladeshi politics as a hero, does insult the Bangladeshi public.
While I dislike Moudud for his blatant opportunism, I will defend his rights in this particular arrest. That is because even a lying, conniving opportunist politician deserves what is due in the law. Not because he is a hero. To paint him as such is simply shoddy journalism.
I have tried contacting you in the past, to congratulate you on the excellent journalism that you have consistently been responsible for. Indeed you have been a major inspiration. An article such as this casts doubts on your journalistic rigour and your judgement.
I remain respectfully yours,
I’ve gotten used to this lack of response. On the rare occasions when I’m asked to submit a piece for some prestigious western publication, if I write a piece that is critical of western journalistic practice, the communication goes blank. They are busy people, and polite rejections are perhaps an expensive option. We however lay great store to these shining examples of free media. “It’s been reported on the BBC” gives a statement a holy aura. The Guardian too is amongst the exalted ones, with Pilger the high priest. It would be so nice though if the heavens were to write back.