On the sidelines of 26/11

I have cut my milk teeth in journalism on disaster coverage – riots, massacres, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, plane crashes, bomb blasts – you name it, I’ve done it. Injured during some (the 1992-93 Bombay riots), traumatised by others (the Assam massacres, the serial Bombay blasts), simply sickened by human misery at others, like the Latur earthquake or the Orissa cyclone.

But 26/11 spared me the agony of being on the spot – I think I have gotten too old to be the kind of reporter I was in the prime of my youth: always wanting to be on the scene before anybody else (my agency training did that to me: I spent a large portion of my career working for a wire service), always wanting to get my report out first, always looking for angles no other reporter might spot…

Its just as well, then, that 26/11 happened last year when I was off-duty. I had just got home from work and was preparing for a late dinner when my Editorial Director, Vir Sanghvi, called to ask for details about the attack. I went into hyper-drive, first calling all my friends among the cops and then the politicians. But soon I ran out of steam. I switched on my television and was glued to it all night/morning. For the first time, I felt quite inadequate — emotionally as well as physically — to rush to the spot, though that was not needed (we already had a large team of young reporters spread across all the areas under attack).

But while this was the only disaster/terror activity in my range that I have not covered from the spot, I am surprised at the anger it has generated in me. Not just on 26/11 as the tragedy was unfolding but also in the subsequent weeks and months. Not just at the terrorists per se but also at our own people – politicians, bureaucrats, cops as well as many of the general citizenry. All of them were on the sidelines and none of them really cared, except for themselves.

I was appalled when former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh thought little of taking along noted director Ramgopal Verma on a little tour of the Taj Hotel the day after the disaster, to boost his film star son Ritesh’s career. The extent of that callousness was apparent from the fact that no television channel had been present when that bit of terror tourism was underway. It did not even occur to the authorities that they were doing something wrong, so they happily sent out clippings from the government videographer to various television channels. And thus Deshmukh cost himself his own job.

Then, again, RR Patil was doomed by his comment that `such small incidents happen in big cities’. He was speaking in Hindi though he doesn’t know the language too well. So why, then, should he have been seeking mileage on national television after the disaster when he had had little hand in its prevention or control? If he had been more caring and less callous, he would have taken the trouble to articulate the thought well in his mind before speaking out in such casual fashion. Cost himself his own job, again.

And if then Police Commissioner Hasan Ghafoor is right in saying that there was dereliction of duty on part of many of the top cops and that they were too lily-livered to come on to the battlefield that night, then it gets my goat on two counts: anger at those cops who allowed others to die while they sat in the safety of their control rooms and at Ghafoor for waiting so long to speak out and expose the truth.

I am also annoyed by those kind of people who did not suffer a single scratch during those terror attacks and yet are the most vocal in their criticism of the government, authorities, cops, bureaucracy, etc for doing nothing (those who were victims do not want to talk, by contrast). And yet these chatterati did nothing on voting day, both during the Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent one for the Maharashtra Assembly in October, to ensure a change of regime in the country and the state. They stayed home or went out on a little holiday, perhaps – for the voter turnout in these areas was less than 45 per cent at both elections. Thus RR Patil is back as Home Minister (at least the Congress had the good sense not to return Deshmukh as CM) and they are still screaming for his scalp when they did little when it could/would have mattered.

But my greatest anger is reserved for the conspiracy theorists. If it were not for the fact that Ajmal Kasab was caught alive and the more poignant fact that an unknown, unarmed constable called Tukaram Omble gave his life to catch Kasab live (even as Kasab emptied bullets into his stomach, he clung on to the terrorist in a death-grip until help arrived in the form of his better-armed colleagues), these conspiracy-theorists would have got away with their absurd theories.

One of the most bizarre theories floated by one of these groups on the morning of 27/11, even as the commandos had just begun to get into the Taj, the Trident and Nariman House, was that the RSS had sent in armed men into these places to kill Hemant Kakare, who was then Chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad of the Bombay Police. Simply because Karkare had been thoroughly investigating the Malegaon blasts which had turned up some Hindu bigots as the culprits, these conspiracy-theorists wanted the world to believe that Karkare was eliminated by their supporters.

Even without Kasab having been caught alive, how would that explain the attack on the Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus, the two posh hotels or the Jewish religious house, even the slaying of the other police officers? And how could/would the RSS have known that Karkare would be out in the battlefield, right on target, and not cowering in the control room as Ghafoor alleges other top cops did?

Even then I thought that theory was an insult to Karkare – both, in investigating the Hindu bigots and battling the Islamic terrorists, this brave officer was only doing his job, keeping his oath and being true to his uniform. To say he was exposing Hindu terrorists because he was sympathetic to Muslims is to prejudice that officer and everything he stood for and reduce his painstaking investigations to simply some cheap chicanery.

A year later, these conspiracy-theorists still abound, though their voices are a shade subdued. But not so the voices of the chatterati. Cops and bureaucrats, too, are still holding on to their jobs (some have even been elevated). The politicians who failed us are back with a bang, too.

And no one has done enough for Tukaram Omble. The one man to whom this nation owes a great debt of gratitude. He would not have known how he was exposing Pakistan’s ugly face by giving his life in the line of duty. With that one single act he did for the country what the best of our leaders and intellectuals of all hues have failed to achieve since Independence – put Pakistan on the mat.

The least his countrymen can do is build a memorial to him, where he fell at Chowpatty. A prominent one. Lest we forget.

But do any of us care?

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