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Used by terror?

Let us, instead, learn from each instance — as also from our partners abroad — when terror strikes and institutionalise our responses more efficiently

Written by Nirupama Rao |
Updated: January 29, 2016 12:00:23 am
terror attack in india, india terrorism, terror strike, 26/11, pakistan, india pakistan, John F. Kennedy, muslims 26/11 attack

Are we, the people of India, being used by terror? One has only to recall the infamous episode involving one of our TV channels during 26/11, in which airtime was provided to a terrorist with a fake Kashmiri accent to rail against the Indian state and justify acts of terror, even as he dodged questions from the anchor of the show. This spectacle was aired again and again by the channel concerned in a show of macabre one-upmanship vis-à-vis its media competitors. Unfortunately for the country, this was reality and not fiction. Terrorism had used India. One only hopes that such a sorry episode is never repeated again.

There is a virtual battlefield arising from the “irregular” war waged against the nation by forces that have understood the theatricality of terror as well-suited to the non-stop “news-generated soap opera” delivered to our television screens. The situation is not helped by the underperforming nature of the government in ensuring a timely, credible and authoritative information flow in times of crisis. In short, the government establishment has yet to find an effective and well-managed approach towards a systematised interaction with our public that supersedes rumour and disinformation, informs and reassures the citizenry, and deters voices in the media that add to uncertainty and fear because of the urge to provide so-called breaking news in “live” format.

Terror invariably succeeds in derailing India’s public reasoning about complex international affairs. Most of the debate in the electronic media is of the “Pakistan must pay/ vengeance is mine” variety. Lost in the cacophony is the middle ground that government policymakers need to populate. For instance, our middle ground, even if contested, is to stress the reasoned logic of dialogue with Pakistan without letting down our vigil against terrorism. That is not the message that triumphed during the spirited and impassioned debates post-Pathankot. There is, instead, an incessant manufacturing of consent to showing a smaller and a “loser” country (Pakistan) its place by a muscular and barrel-chested India.

Of course, this is not to deny that there were saner voices in the media that continued to advocate dialogue. But the voyeurism of media microphones, insensitively stuck in the anguish-ridden faces of those who had lost their loved ones to terror, persisted. That, coupled with the continued tendency to dramatise what some guillotine-wielding media labelled as government inadequacies and failings in security and intelligence, completed the picture for the public (“trash the terrorist, trash the government”). Never was the idea of India as greater than the sum of its parts, a strong, united and enduring nation in the face of grave threats, of the need to rally around that idea for all the multitudes we contain, cogently stressed. This was essential to reassure our religious minorities, particularly our Muslim population.

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On the connection between government and press, our leaders could observe the example of a historical figure from another era, one whose voice rings true even today. On April 27, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association on the subject of “The President and the Press”. He spoke of “common responsibilities in the face of a common danger.” There were two contradictory challenges imposed on society in this context, he said: One, the need for greater information; and the other, the need for far greater official secrecy. He asked every publisher, editor and newsman to re-examine their own standards and to “recognise the nature of our country’s peril.” He added that in time of “clear and present danger”, courts had held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.

Even if our country is not in a conventional war, or has not declared war in a traditional fashion, our way of life is certainly under attack. We live in times of peril. Voices in government must counsel more confidently the need for the self-discipline of combat conditions when there is a terrorist attack and our media must understand the need for this. By no means should this entail censorship or muzzling of commentary, but reportage of “live” events must incorporate this self-discipline. We must remember that we fight a monolithic enemy, with many faces but one radical ideology. We are in a virtual battlefield. The locations of our counter-terrorist forces, or snippets pertaining to plans and strategies or operations provide fodder for our enemy, as indeed the latter boasted during 26/11. The patriotism of our media cannot be questioned but this patriotism must pass the test of national security. The media, as Kennedy said in 1961, “must appeal to every citizen’s sense of sacrifice and self-discipline.” And, the media are citizens first and foremost, with obligations not to violate established security norms, whether they are on television, or they are citizen-journalists who take to Twitter or Facebook in times of emergency.

But it is also the government’s obligation and duty to provide the fullest possible information that does not violate national security in times of crisis and danger. The indiscipline that fosters information leakage, instead of an institutionalised, clear, coherent and coordinated channelling of information to the media, must end. The government must acquire perfect pitch in its release of information. It must be cognisant not only of the electronic and print media but also of the multitude of social media users, responding to and reassuring the population in times of grave threat to the homeland.

Credibility, clarity and consistency are the hallmarks of such an approach. The government must become the go-to purveyor of verified facts, the gold standard source for credible information. It has to mitigate fear-mongering and rumour-proliferation. The message from various government agencies has to be a unified one. During the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, public officials opened meaningful lines of communication through multiple media methods, allowing for a clear message that mitigated and moderated the negative consequences of a great deal of misinformation and speculation. This was not the case with the Twitter feeds or public responses of the Indian establishment following the Pathankot attack. Mere expressions of sympathy or boilerplate statements of resolve will not do.

Instead of being used by terror, let us learn from each instance (as also from our friends and partners abroad) when terror strikes at the vitals of the Republic. We must institutionalise and formalise our responses to terror more efficiently and with greater planning. High adrenaline jingoism and testosterone nationalism are not the answers to the problem. Strategic responses to threats to the homeland must include mastery of the art of strategic communication. The challenge here is before the government. On a wider plane, the people of India must demand of both their representatives in the political space as well as the media that norms for information flow that do not jeopardise national security in times of terror are never ignored.


The writer is a former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to the US and to China. She acknowledges the contribution of Adam Joseph, a Fulbright Scholar in India, in the research for this article

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