RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMMUNICATOR: Mumbai terror attack has many lessons for media (Article)

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New Delhi, Dec 3 : The attack on Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, by terrorists who subjected the city to unprecedented violence for three days during the last week of November, has many lessons for the nation to learn.

The terrorists may not have been able to bring down the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi-Trident, Caf Leopold and Nariman House, but they have been successful in achieving their main objectives -- which was to kill as many people as possible and depict the city, and India, as an unsafe place.

The television networks in India gave wide coverage to the event from start to finish as if they were covering a cricket test match. The terrorists as also those who were masterminding their 'operations' were getting a bird's eye view of the events.

The media called the events in Mumbai as a war. But the way in which it was projected displayed indifference to the tasks confronting the forces fighting the terrorists.

In a war, the Armed Forces take every care that their adversary is not aware of the strength of the opposing forces, their locations, and the equipment at their disposal. As Public Relations Officer of the Army during the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, I know how keenly India tried to keep the location of the Armoured formations and the strength of the armed forces in different sectors a secret.

All dispatches from the front did not give details of the infantry formations, the kind of artillery at their disposal and such other details. For example, the Pakistan Army was surprised when they encountered tanks in the Khem-Kharan Bhikiwind, Sialkot sectors in 1965 and the armoured regiments in Shakargarh sector in 1971.

If the happenings in Mumbai were a war, no effort was made to deny details of the forces that were trying to evict the terrorists from the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels or the Nariman house. The television coverage showed that initially the forces ranged against them were from the Maharashtra Police and the Anti Terrorist Squad, which were soon joined by the commandoes of the Army and the Navy and the National Security Guard.

The commentators of the Television channels were constantly 'breaking news' about the reinforcements and their details. The disclosure of the death of Hemant Karkare, the ATS Chief, the encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar, the Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte and Major Sandeep Unnikrishnana of the National Security Guard boosted the morale of the terrorists. In a war the casualties are not given till the end of the operations.

The arrival in Mumbai of the National Security Guard, pictures of the para-dropping of the forces on the Nariman House were shown live by the Television agencies. Details of the weapons of the forces were available to the terrorists through the visuals.

Many of those engaged in combating the terrorists were keen to present themselves before the cameras and take credit for their 'achievements'. And this included officials of the Armed Forces. The Army, the Air Force and the Naval commandos were doing their assigned tasks, but their senior officers were speaking to the media and giving details as to how they were 'fighting' the terrorists.

It was only towards the end that television channels were asked to restrain themselves and the local cable network was taken off the air for a few hours. But the damage was already done.

The monitoring of the conversation of the terrorists has shown that their leader was able to direct them to different locations in the Hotels in order to kill as many as possible by using guns and grenades.

It is unfortunate that things had to happen that way. Indians have been aware of the use of information in war and crisis situations. The importance of 'information' as an aid to warfare is detailed in Kautilya's Arthashastra. India had used 'information warfare' to good effect during the India-Pakistan war in 1971 and the Kargil operations in 1999.

Strangely, we have not learnt from our experience. Home Minister Shivraj Patil has paid the price by resigning. It has been announced that the National Security Guard units will be permanently stationed at six different cities in the country. The Prime Minister has assured the nation that a Federal Intelligence Agency will be created soon. He has been saying this at the conferences of Chief Ministers, the Director Generals of Police and Intelligence Officers repeatedly.

The need has been felt that the legal provisions to combat terrorism have to be strengthened. The Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Veerappa Moily, submitted a report on the subject recently. But we have been hearing that 'law and order' is a State subject and the States are not willing to change the law.

We have seen how Governments have found ways of enacting measures when there was a will. This happened after the Indo-Pak war in 1965. Late Indira Gandhi, who was the Information Minister during the war entrusted professional organizations to prepare a report as to how information organizations should be streamlined to effectively function during a war.

Based on the studies, 'operation publicity guidelines' were prepared. They broadly laid down how media was to function during wars, including the training of war correspondents and setting up of Press Camps during operations. India fought the war with Pakistan in 1971 under those guidelines.

But the guidelines needed to be updated after our experience in fighting insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the Kargil War. The comprehensive report submitted by K. Subramanyam was studied by a group of Ministers and the guidelines and technical publicity rules governing publicity have been revised as per the directions of the Group of Ministers and hopefully they would be followed in future.

It is time that the Government prepares a set of rules for the media to follow during crisis situations like the Mumbai terror attacks. And the discretion to impose the guidelines should be given to professionals and not bureaucrats or politicians.

The Central Intelligence Bureau had conveyed information that our adversaries across the border had planned to infiltrate India from the seas. Similar information was made available by the Research and Analysis Wing. Unfortunately, these reports were given to the concerned authorities, but little action was taken. It is sad that the suggestions made by K. Subramanyan have not been followed.

The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, has pointed out that there was 'extra-heavy reporting' of the attacks by the Television channels. He said: "The terrorists were in live contact with their masters, who were telling them what the channels were reporting." He called for restraint in reporting ongoing operations.

He has also absolved the Navy and the Coast Guard for their inability to combat the infiltrators who came from the sea. It is no excuse to say that the information provided by the Intelligence agencies about terrorist coming from sea, was not actionable. It was necessary to follow up the information with concerned agencies and also authorities active along the coast.

It is also no excuse for the Government of India to say that the responsibility of maintaining law and order is a State subject. The Agencies concerned with security should not try to shift the blame, but work in a coordinated manner.

We have many lessons to learn from the terror attacks on Mumbai. It is time the changes are made in the laws governing security of the country. And the problems should be studied and proposals submitted - if necessary to the Parliament -- without delay.

India cannot afford to be complacent. Is that too much to ask?

I.Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India;

email: by By I. Ramamohan Rao

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