Missing the Wood for the Trees on Dawood’s Offer to Surrender

File photo of Dawood Ibrahim. Credit: PTI

File photo of Dawood Ibrahim. Credit: PTI

The Indian Express has an intriguing story today about an offer the gangster-turned terrorist Dawood Ibrahim apparently made in 2013 to return to India to stand trial for his role in the bombings that took the lives of 257 innocent people in Bombay on March 12, 1993.

According to the newspaper, Dawood’s offer was made to a “a Delhi-based lawyer who is also a Congress leader”. This lawyer-leader, in turn, informed “two senior Congress leaders” of the offer, who concluded “that the prospect of conducting a trial against India’s most wanted on his terms was too risky.” 

Finally, the newspaper quotes unnamed “top officials of the former UPA government” as saying the “offer to return” was “discussed at the ‘highest level’ within the party and the government” and “also discussed between former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Shivshankar Menon, the then National Security Advisor.”

While the story is important enough to warrant the newspaper allowing its source to remain anonymous, its decision to not press the source for other corroborative information is surprising.

For example, readers would like to know:

  • How was Dawood Ibrahim’s offer communicated to the “Delhi-based lawyer who is also a Congress leader”? Was it by phone or email?
  • Did Dawood make the offer himself or was it made through an intermediary?
  • Where and on what date was this offer made?
  • What was the source’s locus standi to receive such an offer?
  • What does the source know about the current location of Dawood Ibrahim?
  • On what date did Manmohan Singh and Shivshankar Menon supposedly discuss this offer? Any former official in a position to tell the newspaper such an important discussion took place ought to have been able to provide the actual date.
  • Most importantly, what were the terms of Dawood’s offer?

None of these questions would have compromised the identity of the source.

Frustratingly, the newspaper says the government of the day decided “the prospect of conducting a trial against India’s most wanted on his terms was too risky” but sheds no light on what should have been the most important part of the story, namely, what Dawood’s terms were.

There can be no bona fide reason for the Indian Express‘s source to want to withhold that information. At any rate, the source should surely have been asked what the terms of Dawood’s offer were and if he/she refused to divulge that information, readers should have been informed about that fact.

The story is a lesson on the way in which the media ought to approach anonymous sources. Anonymity is useful when it is the only way to bring into the open information whose disclosure is manifestly in the public interest. It is less so when a source seeks anonymity merely in order to fire from the shoulders of a newspaper or TV channel.

In the present case, the information that Dawood Ibrahim was willing to surrender is surely in the public interest. The claim that the PM and NSA of the day considered and rejected the offer, if true, is also in the public interest. But what is much more compellingly in the public interest is this: the terms India’s most wanted man wished to set for his return, and the channel of communication he used, especially since these would help fix both his current location and the state of his relationship with his handlers and associates.

Those terms acquire added salience in the light of the controversy over the recent execution of Yakub Memon for the same crime. An intelligence officer associated with Memon’s arrest, B. Raman, had suggested that Memon cooperated with the Indian authorities to secure the return of other members of his family wanted in connection with the 1993 blasts and that the death penalty was not justified in his case.

In the absence of the Indian Express probing the terms Dawood Ibrahim had set for his surrender, its story about his 2013 offer being rejected appears incomplete, leaving the reader wondering where’s the real story?