It was a week in which more than 200 people — most of them women and children — were killed in Gaza. It was a week in which drought became a threat in large parts of north and central India. But if you watched TV news — and in this respect I plead at least partially guilty — you would think the biggest global crisis was the meeting between journalist-activist Ved Pratap Vaidik and the 26/11 mastermind, Hafiz Saeed.
Taking its cue from the uproar in Parliament — and more about the unthinking attempt for relevance by the Congress in just a moment — a near-hysterical media devoted hours of air-time on whether the government had any covert role to play in setting this up.
To begin with the mere optics of it — Vaidik leaning back happily in his chair exchanging inanities with a despicable terrorist as if he were a friendly neighbour — made for a compelling talking point. If this was an interview, why hadn’t it been published thus far? Some accounts of the ‘conversation’ seemed to border on the bizarre. Would you ask the man responsible for the death of more than 160 people for his take on a potential Pakistan visit by the Indian PM? Would small talk about whether Saeed has one wife, or three or none really be on a journalist’s list of must-ask questions to a man most recently responsible for the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat? Vaidik’s visible links to Baba Ramdev and a shared platform with the top BJP leaders during the poll campaign also heightened the controversy with conspiracy theorists suggesting that Vaidik was sent as some sort of back-channel emissary.
Some news coverage of this meeting was legitimate, but it soon descended into a prejudicial debate around nationalism with much name-calling and frothing fury. Competitive hash-tags counted on punchy alliterations to measure whether you qualified as a patriot or not. An India-Pakistan conference that lasted no longer than a day and a half and took place almost three weeks before Vaidik met Saeed has now became the target of disingenuous ire. As one of the many journalists who attended this conference, I was bemused to find that our professional interest in a country we report on — and one to which there is no regular visa access — was now apparently up for self-righteous debate.
In the furore around the Vaidik-Saeed meet, unconnected issues were mixed up. It is relevant to separate, for instance, the journalistic debate from the political one. Is it kosher for journalists to meet or interview terrorists responsible for waging war against their countries? The short answer to that is: It’s a personal choice/assessment. On more than one occasion, I have declined to interview Saeed — or even to give his speeches unfiltered news time, because I believe the format of an interview gives him respectability. At the same time some of the biggest names in international media — whether Robert Fisk or Peter Bergen or Peter Arnett — have interviewed Osama bin Laden. Britain-based journalists have done interviews with the ‘Lockerbie Bomber’. Closer home, some of our senior colleagues have interviewed terrorists from Prabhakaran to Bhindranwale to Dawood. None of these encounters were dubbed ‘anti-national’; instead they were acclaimed as moments of courage and path-breaking journalism. How many of us would have passed up an opportunity to interview Ajmal Kasab before he was executed? Journalists are no less nationalist for wanting to professionally engage with all aspects of an issue. Forget journalists, even governments engage with separatists at home and hostile regimes abroad. So, let’s keep the media debate aside and focus on the politics of this debate.
Because Vaidik was seen to be close to the BJP’s wider family— he has since announced that he is much closer to Manmohan Singh than he is to Narendra Modi — the Congress sensed an opportunity in embarrassing the government. It is legitimate to ask the BJP why it is seemingly more muted on Vaidik when compared to the strident positions it has taken in the past on similar issues involving Left-of-Centre activists. But the mistake the Congress made in its desperation to be a relevant voice inside Parliament was to stretch the debate into disbelief. It’s tough to believe that complex covert missives would ever be routed through as garrulous and media-loving a person as Vaidik. This conspiracy theory doesn’t wash. The Congress must also consider which political constituency it was addressing with its outrage. The loyal support base of the BJP will disown Vaidik but is not going to think any less of it because of the controversy. On the other hand, the traditional BJP critic or Congress backer is likely to be startled by the party’s embrace of a hyper-nationalist aggression that is at odds with its past record. In other words, while the Congress may have provided free material to the prime time stitching of a nightly talk-show, politically its position falls between two stools.
The political shrillness around the issue though is ephemeral; it will pass. What is more worrying is the chest-thumping self-righteousness of some sections of the media that have made it impossible for any sane or civilised conversation to take place. In the past week, one has heard calls for impounding of passports, filing of sedition charges and even demands for Vaidik’s arrest. I have no idea what motive guided Vaidik’s indiscreet meeting with a terrorist who should be behind bars. But there are larger issues at stake here. Rabble-rousing in the name of patriotism is to reduce nationalism to a gaudy bumper sticker. Our Indianness is our own; not a media slogan.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal