Turning the Capture of a Terrorist into a Circus

It was surreal to see video clips of the terrorist captured by villagers in Udhampur. This was not a weekend tamasha but a real life incident of terror where this captured man’s partner had been killed by the jawans of Border Security Force, after they had lost two of their own men. High octane disclosures do not help the cause of counter-terror especially when the video clips show the terrorist and his captors grinning and chatting. Changing of story lines as this terrorist has been doing is an age-old ploy often used by intelligence agencies while training their “asset” in case he is arrested.

When a terrorist strikes, he has essentially three aims. One, obviously is to terrorise in the name of his cause. The second is a desired spin off to get maximum publicity, spread the word about his activity and his organization as far as possible. The third goal is to give a message to the state about the reach of the terrorist and his mentor.

Wrong priorities

It is strange that we cover the face of the terrorist but not those of witnesses or those who helped capture thereby endangering the lives of the witnesses. Now this terrorist has been giving contradictory statements and different names. This by itself will provide all sorts of alibis and excuses to the terrorist and Pakistan will surely obfuscate, prevaricate and indulge in the age-old practice of bland denial.

On several occasions in the past, especially after Mumbai in November 2008, I have written that the media needs to exercise voluntary restraint while covering such incidents because this is a national fight, innocent lives are involved and unnecessary revelations hampers counter terror effort. This is not a call for censorship. Nowadays, it has become common for people to take photographs and video recordings and upload them. But it is for the media itself to be selective and mature in the reportage as it is in other cases. For instance, some sections of the media gave Yakub Memon’s funeral the top slot and relegated the funeral of a former President to a relatively less prominent position on the same day. So let us not pin everything on the state machinery. In any case, if the state were to restrict, the first reaction would be loud complaints against it for what would be seen as being oppressive and curbing free speech.

No Fidayeen these

We have shown this terrorist’s picture on our national TV channels. The Pakistanis have also seen these. Attempts will now be made to cover up for the terrorist. His masters/trainers can also be expected to hunt for the villagers who apprehended the terrorist. We have endangered their lives.

There is another issue that needs to be commented upon. This relates to the use of certain terminology while describing terrorist incidents. “Fedayeen” and terminology of this kind ends up glorifying a murderer/terrorist and only hurts counter-terror effort. “Fedayeen” is a term the terrorist uses to describe himself as martyr. It is his description of himself while he goes about the business of killing innocents and non-believers. In India’s case, this happens to refer to Hindus, whom he has been taught to hate and programmed to kill. So we have no need to call this terrorist a “Fedayeen” or a martyr.

There is political correctness in some narratives but beyond which this becomes political cowardice or intellectual dishonesty. A terrorist is a terrorist; he is neither a Fedayeen nor a Mujahideen in the Indian context. He is not even a gunman as the BBC would describe such persons. A murderer of innocents, should at all times, be described and treated as such not just by the families of those affected but by the state apparatus and by the media whose business it is to mould the correct opinion when we are all fighting a relentless war on terror.

When the British government and the IRA were negotiating a deal in the 1970s, was BBC TV was not allowed to carry the picture of IRA leader Gerry Adams and even his statements were released with a voice over. This is the kind of rigour that is required in dealing with terrorists.

Personally one would have thought that it would have been better to string this along without video clips and then nail the Pakistanis. It would have been so much better to produce this evidence on the morning of a meeting of the two National Security Advisers. Instead the Udhampur episode has been discussed so loudly everywhere by so many channels and newspapers, that most of us do not know what is the real story. Confusion may have advantage but it gives the other side the same advantage. Merely convincing our own people that we have clinching evidence serves little purpose while confronting the adversary.

Terror is going to remain with us for a long time. It is as much a battle of guns and bullets as it is of perceptions and the mind. It is a battle that is fought not just by the intelligence and security forces but also by society at large. The Udhampur capture is testimony to this. It is necessary that, apart from other steps the government may take, there should be a regular briefing for reporters and anchors on what and how to report. The truth needs to be told but the terrorist and his mentors should not be able to draw mileage from this. Photographs of terrorists should be released selectively over a suitably delayed period but never of witnesses. This way the other side is kept guessing.

The capture of a terrorist is a success but it is not victory in itself. It is just one battle won in the long war on terror.

Vikram Sood is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).

Categories: Media, South Asia

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  • RP

    That such a sophomoric article could be written by a former head of RAW is a disturbing indictment of the calibre of Indian intelligence. To focus on fedayeen terminology reminds me of how Fox News in the U.S. spent hours of airtime in trying to rebrand “suicide” bombers as “homicide” bombers.

    As regards protecting the anonymity of witnesses, that is a point well taken. But there is not much incentive to knock off these witnesses since the captured terrorists goose is already cooked – this is not an Asaram or Vyapam case where powerful people have to be protected.

  • SuchindranathAiyer

    These comments are valid. India’s media has learned nothing from the days when some reporters communicated minute by minute intelligence on what India’s security forces were doing to both the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers