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Fast Food and Smoking Guns

When Ronald Reagan was wheeled into surgery after being shot in March 1981, he was minutes from death, but hadn't been bled of his sense of humour. Addressing the assembled team of doctors he said he hoped they were Republicans. The surgeon who would save the President's life, a liberal democrat named Joseph Giordano, replied, "We are all Republicans today". The formula 'We are all X today' is now commonly used to signify identification with a group in crisis. 2011 has thus far proved a prime year for deploying the phrase. In early January, we were all Tunisians; later that month, we were Egyptians, standing in spirit with protestors in Tahrir Square. In early February, Yemen briefly commanded our attention, but Libya soon took over the headlines. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami drew our gaze eastward in March before the World Cup's knockout stage brought it home. Anna Hazare cannily postponed his fast to preempt a clash with the infinitely more compelling drama of the India - Sri Lanka final. He hit a sweet spot in the media, filling a fallow period between one form of cricket and another. Four days was all it took for Hazare to get enough concessions from the government to end his fast. Crucially, during those four days he received more coverage than Irom Sharmila has in four thousand days of being incarcerated and force-fed. My guess is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, which Sharmila wants withdrawn, will still be in force when the Lokpal is established, unless she is given the Nobel Prize for Peace, drawing the media spotlight to Manipur and shaming the Indian government into action.

The crises of 2011 have underlined how media time stretches real time. The duration of an event in the public mind is a function of the total length of all broadcasts about that event. The relentless focus of cameras and commentators can make rapidly evolving circumstances appear to move at a glacial pace. Consider this: it took nearly half a year after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, for the first bombs to rain down on Iraqi troops. Kuwait was overrun on August 2, 1990, and the American-led response, Operation Desert Storm, commenced only on January 17, 1991. Few people accused President George Bush of reacting too slowly, but then the twenty-four hour news cycle was in its infancy, and real time matched media time fairly closely.

When the US itself was targetted on September 11, 2001, its response was, naturally, quicker. The assault on the Taliban regime commenced 27 days after the World Trade Centres were destroyed. The reaction to the current Libyan crisis unfolded at much the same pace. The first major protests in Tripoli took place in mid-February, and Operation Freedom Falcon began on 19 March. In that time, both the Arab League and the United Nations, organisations not celebrated for decisiveness or alacrity, passed resolutions authorising military intervention. I cannot think of any purely internal disturbance or civil strife that has elicited a concerted international armed response in a comparable span of time. Yet, President Obama was censured for 'dithering' and 'dilly-dallying' by critics on the Left, Right and Centre (Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Eliot Spitzer and Christopher Hitchens among them). By the end of March, pundits were mourning the failure of air strikes to dislodge Colonel Gaddafi, and either urging stronger action or questioning the entire operation. In real time, they came across like petulant children in the backseat of a car asking, five minutes after leaving home, "Are we there yet?" But the complaints of experts were legitimate in media time, where years had elapsed since the first Cruise missiles hit Libya.

India's contribution at the 17th March Security Council meeting on Libya was characteristic: our representative, Manjeev Singh Puri, suggested any action was premature before the Secretary-General's envoy submitted his report and provided a clear picture of the situation in Libya. Images of Muammar Gaddafi threatening massacres and footage of actual bombardment of civilians obviously did not constitute proper information from the Indian viewpoint. That could only emerge from a report prepared by a bureaucrat, and then, if possible, vetted by a panel of bureaucrats.

It might seem the Indian government acted quickly to defuse the Anna Hazare threat, but that was only because the solution involved appointing a committee. In other matters, the clash of real and media times in India is growing particularly acute, because our executive and judicial processes (call it government time) are the most ponderous in the world, while the media and communications space is developing as fast as anywhere on the globe. The gap is well illustrated by an affidavit submitted by IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt to the Supreme Court. Bhatt states he was at a meeting with Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi on February 27, 2002, where Modi instructed policemen to allow Hindus to vent their anger. In the nine years since the riots, circumstantial evidence has accumulated that Narendra Modi was complicit in the awful violence, but Bhatt's affidavit is the first smoking gun linking Modi directly to the crime.

The phrase 'smoking gun' originates from a Sherlock Holmes story in which a chaplain is seen holding a 'smoking pistol' over a dead body. The words evoke a sense of immediacy, because guns emit smoke for only a short period after being fired. Though 'smoking gun' now refers to any conclusive proof, the passage of over nine years between act and revelation seems excessive. Unsurprisingly, Narendra Modi's defenders are questioning why Bhatt did not come forward with the information earlier. What we should actually be questioning is the tardiness of a process in which it takes nine years after a grave crime has been committed for a police officer to be afforded the option of legally providing evidence to an empowered authority. There have been commissions of enquiry and a special investigation team constituted after the Gujarat massacres, but they had no authority beyond summoning people and making recommendations. Bhatt must have been aware of the fate of Justice Srikrishna's report on the Bombay riots of 1992-93, which indicted scores of policemen and politicians, but resulted in no punishments. Only one cop of the thirty-one named and supposedly shamed in the report was even suspended.

If Bhatt is telling the truth, he was like a man with one bullet, aware he would be targetted as soon as he used it. He wanted to make the best use of that bullet, and had to wait nine years to get a clean shot. What his affidavit will achieve is yet unclear, but it has already failed in one sense. If nine years is a long wait in real time, it is an eternity in media time. We've had so much noise and rhetoric mixed in with facts in that period, we don't want to hear the phrase 'Gujarat riots' any more, just as we don't want to hear anything about Iraq. Like strenuous exercise producing lactate leading to muscle exhaustion, the media's intense focus, for all its liberatory potential, creates ennui and apathy as by-products.

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.

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