Monday, December 8, 2008

A rebuttal to Gnani Sankaran's article

Following the Bombay terror attack, last week I received, twice, an email that contained an article titled 'Hotel Taj: Icon of Whose India?' written by some Gnani Sankaran, 'a Tamil writer'. I have issues with that article and find it to be inappropriate and very mis-timed. I think authors should use their positions more carefuly and not try and divide our society more than that it already is. Following is a copy of this article and after that my rebuttal. 

Hotel Taj : icon of whose India ?

Gnani Sankaran- Tamil writer, Chennai.

Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one's mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called - Hotel Taj the icon of India.

Whose India, Whose Icon ? 

It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists - the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis

But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the page 3 celebrities. 

In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and pan cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there. 

The channels conveniently failed to acknowledge that the Aam Aadmis of India surviving in Mumbai were not affected by Taj, Oberoi and Trident closing down for a couple of weeks or months. What mattered to them was the stoppage of BEST buses and suburban trains even for one hour. But the channels were not covering that aspect of the terror attack. Such information at best merited a scroll line, while the cameras have to be dedicated for real time thriller unfolding at Taj or Nariman bhavan.

The so called justification for the hype the channels built around heritage site Taj falling down (CST is also a heritage site), is that Hotel Taj is where the rich and the powerful of India and the globe congregate. It is a symbol or icon of power of money and politics, not India. It is the icon of the financiers and swindlers of India. The Mumbai and India were built by the Aam Aadmis who passed through CST and Taj was the oasis of peace and privacy for those who wielded power over these mass of labouring classes. Leopold club and Taj were the haunts of rich spoilt kids who would drive their vehicles over sleeping Aam Aadmis on the pavement, the Mafiosi of Mumbai forever financing the glitterati of Bollywood (and also the terrorists) , Political brokers and industrialists.  

It is precisely because Taj is the icon of power and not people, that the terrorists chose to strike. 

The terrorists have understood after several efforts that the Aam Aadmi will never break down even if you bomb her markets and trains. He/she was resilient because that is the only way he/she can even survive.

Resilience was another word that annoyed the pundits of news channels and their patrons this time.  What resilience, enough is enough, said Pranoy Roy's channel on the left side of the channel spectrum. Same sentiments were echoed by Arnab Goswami representing the right wing of the broadcast media whose time is now. Can Rajdeep be far behind in this game of one upmanship over TRPs ? They all attacked resilience this time. They wanted firm action from the government in tackling terror. 

The same channels celebrated resilience when bombs went off in trains and markets killing and maiming the Aam Aadmis.  The resilience of the ordinary worker suited the rich business class of Mumbai since work or manufacture or film shooting did not stop. When it came to them, the rich shamelessly exhibited their lack of nerves and refused to be resilient themselves. They cry for government intervention now to protect their private spas and swimming pools and bars and restaurants, similar to the way in which Citibank, General Motors and the ilk cry for government money when their coffers are emptied by their own ideologies. 

The terrorists have learnt that the ordinary Indian is unperturbed by terror. For one whose daily existence itself is a terror of government sponsored inflation and market sponsored exclusion, pain is something he has learnt to live with. The rich of Mumbai and India Inc are facing the pain for the first time and learning about it just as the middle classes of India learnt about violation of  human rights only during emergency, a cool 28 years after independence. 

And human rights were another favourite issue for the channels to whip at times of terrorism.

Arnab Goswami  in an animated voice wondered where were those champions of human rights now, not to be seen applauding the brave and selfless police officers who gave up their life in fighting terorism. Well, the counter question would be where were you when such officers were violating the human rights of Aam Aadmis. Has there ever been any 24 hour non stop coverage of violence against dalits and adivasis of this country?  

This definitely was not the time to manufacture consent for the extra legal and third degree methods of interrogation of police and army but Arnabs don't miss a single opportunity to serve their class masters, this time the jingoistic patriotism came in handy to whitewash the entire uniformed services. 

The sacrifice of the commandos or the police officers who went down dying at the hands of ruthless terrorists is no doubt heart rending but in vain in a situation which needed not just bran but also brain. Israel has a point when it says the operations were misplanned resulting in the death of its nationals here. 

Khakares and Salaskars would not be dead if they did not commit the mistake of traveling by the same vehicle. It is a basic lesson in management that the top brass should never t ravel together in crisis. The terrorists, if only they had watched the channels, would have laughed their hearts out when the Chief of the Marine commandos, an elite force, masking his face so unprofessionally in a see-through cloth, told the media that the commandos had no idea about the structure of the Hotel Taj which they were trying to liberate. But the terrorists knew the place thoroughly, he acknowledged. 

Is it so difficult to obtain a ground plan of Hotel Taj and discuss operation strategy thoroughly for at least one hour before entering? This is something even an event manager would first ask for, if he had to fix 25 audio systems and 50 CCtvs for a cultural event in a hotel. Would not Ratan Tata have provided a plan of his ancestral hotel to the commandos within one hour considering the mighty apparatus at his and government's disposal?  Are satelite pictures only available for terrorists and not the government agencies ?  In an operation known to consume time, one more hour for preparation would have only improved the efficiency of execution.  

Sacrifices become doubly tragic in unprofessional circumstances. But the Aam Aadmis always believe that terror-shooters do better planning than terrorists. And the gullible media in a jingoistic mood would not raise any question about any of these issues. 

They after all have their favourite whipping boy - the politician the eternal entertainer for the non-voting rich classes of India. 

Arnabs and Rajdeeps would wax eloquent on Nanmohan Singh and Advani visiting Mumbai separately and not together showing solidarity even at this hour of national crisis. What a farce? Why can't these channels pool together all their camera crew and reporters at this time of national calamity and share the sound and visual bites which could mean a wider and deeper coverage of events with such a huge human resource to command?   Why should Arnab and Rajdeep and Barkha keep harping every five minutes that this piece of information was exclusive to their channel, at the time of such a national crisis? Is this the time to promote the channel? If that is valid, the politician promoting his own political constituency is equally valid. And the duty of the politican is to do politics, his politics. It is for the people to evaluate that politics. 

And terrorism is not above politics. It is politics by other means.

To come to grips with it and to eventually eliminate it, the practice of politics by proper means needs constant fine tuning and improvement. Decrying all politics and politicians, only helps terrorists and dictators who are the two sides of the same coin. And the rich and powerful always prefer terrorists and dictators to do business with. 

Those caught in this crossfire are always the Aam Aadmis whose deaths are not even mourned - the taxi driver who lost the entire family at CST firing, the numerous waiters and stewards who lost their lives working in Taj for a monthly salary that would be one time bill for their masters. 

Postscript: In a fit of anger and depression, I sent a message to all the channels, 30 hours through the coverage. After all they have been constantly asking the viewers to message them for anything and everything. My message read: I send this with lots of pain. All channels, including yours, must apologise for not covering the victims of CST massacre, the real mumbaikars and aam aadmis of India. Your obsession with five star elite is disgusting. Learn from the print media please.  No channel bothered. Only srinivasan Jain replied: you are right. We are trying to redress balance today. Well, nothing happened till the time of writing this 66 hours after the terror attack.


My rebuttal, that I sent to my friends back, and am now sharing with you is as follows:

We Bombayites are going through a tough time these days coming to terms with the horror that had enveloped us the past week. This is the time to take stock, to decide what we can do or should or should not do. This is not the time to decide whether CST is bigger icon than the Taj or not.

I am not trying to defend the actions of some of the news channels; I have myself questioned some of their actions on my blog. But the reason why the Taj was the epicenter of the terror coverage because it just so happened that it became. The terrorists did their job at the CST within about half an hour and then moved away. Yes, they killed several people there, the aam aadmi and it was indeed terrible. But the Taj siege was the first of its kind in the country. For 3 days, God knows how many terrorists laid siege at the Taj and had taken hostages. At that time, nobody knew how many civilians are trapped inside the Taj, how many are taken hostage, are they tortured, what were they going through (or eventually what hell they went through), how many terrorists were holed up inside (even now there are several conflicting media reports and one doesn't know for sure how many were there, some people say there were four, others say three, and so on). This siege went on for 3 days, the Oberoi siege continued for 2 days. Never has India witnessed a terrorist siege like this that has stretched beyond 24 hours and it needed coverage. terrorism needed a face which it got in Taj. Certain press reports also claim that some of the hostage victims were brutally torturedSankaran has has completely failed to understand the enormity of this episode. If the CST would have been under siege, is he saying that the TV channels would not have given that a 24/7 coverage? What crap! 

It was heart-breaking to see from the streets below, people trapped in the rooms of those hotels and banging the windows of the rooms begging for help from not just bullets and guns, but also the thick smoke and fire from within. They were trying to save their lives,  but were helpless. To say that their grief is less than those who lost their lives in CST is in a way racism by itself. And this is not the time to say all that crap. 

Please understand from the average Bombayite point of view. The Taj Hotel and CST, both are our iconic structures. Ask any Bombaitye, including news channels, as to who is the bigger icon of India. NOBODY will choose. Every Bombaiyite would say that both are equally important. I was born and brought up in Bombay. I have frequented both the Taj and CST. If today, God forbid CST is not around or something, i would be equally pained. But I am also pained to see my, yes MY Taj Hotel, to see burning in flames. We Bombayites are proud of ALL our heritage structures, and not just the Taj or the CST. Obviously Sankaran does not know this.

Sankaran also belittles all those Taj and Oberoi staff who laid their lives saving their guests. These are heroic stories that deserve to be told. And they deserve to be remembered even if it means repeatedly coming across them in the media. Whoever knew of chefs and hotel staff at the Taj named, say, Kaizad Kamdin and Rajan. But now we do. These are just some of the brave hotel staff that looked after their guests at the Taj even in times of adversity. While Kaizad was just 24, there were a few others in their 20s. Another chef, 28, was serving his last week at the Taj and was looking forward to go abroad. Fate got the better of him. There are similar stories circulating about the Oberoi staff. Read up on Google. If brave staff like this do not make an organisation an icon, what does?

There is a reason why the terrorists not only chose the Taj, but also after initially firing at the lower floors, went up straight to the sixth floor and tried to burn the dome, as per media reports. This is a heritage building and its dome is a symbol by itself. Just like the dome or the top of any other heritage building of the world, like say, CST. When they burn the dome and the top floor of such a building, the terrorists are thought to make a statement that "they have arrived". 

I have visited the Taj myself several times, though may not have spent a lot of money there. But I have dined at the Taj President, another Taj hotel, nearby, at Cuffe Parade ,many times. A restaurant there, Thai Pavilion, has many pleasant memories for me. I cherish it because i go there on special occasions, the last being the Parsi New Year in August. Likewise, there are so many people for whom these places are important and symbols of important events, somebody may have proposed there sitting in a restaurant to his partner, somebody may have shared a good news with his/her partner over wine and dinner, and so on. Marraiges have taken place at these hotels and these occassions hold good memories for them. Are we saying that their griefs, my grief, is any less than those who died in CST? 

I have slogged my ass to earn the kind of money I earn - even though its not great, its sufficient to afford me and my mom a meal twice a year at the Taj - and I have every right to spend it. I am honest and I pay my taxes. Why, then, should I feel guilty? Terrorism hits the hardest when it hits the home. Bombay is my home. So when my home is under attack, shouldn't we feel outraged, insecure and angry? You may say that Bombayites were not as aggrieved when Singur / Nandigram burned. True. But did Singur / Nandigram grieve as much as we did, when Bombay burnt? Are we to say that those who had cars and got killed/injured in the Delhi Khan market blasts are less justified to be heard that those who did not have cars and yet got killed/injured? When I heard that my friend Chumki was there in the Khan market when the blasts there took place, I immediately called her up to inquire about her, without for a second pondering how much money she had vis-a-vis the amount of money other victims at Khan Market had. I called her up because she is my friend and I care for her. Or when my friend Sunita was metres away from the taxi blast outside Santa Cruz airport? She had just alighted from a plane enroute to Delhi the next day, she was staying overnight in Bombay on Wednesday 26 November. I did not bother that she got off a plane, and not a train at CST, and escaped death by a few seconds. 

And this final point of view. Contrary to what this author say, not everyone who goes to Taj or Leopold are spoilt brats who run over pavement dwellers, spend their parents' money and gamble. Many of even the Taj Patrons have come up in their lives the hard way. So what if they want to have a good time and enjoy? Don't we all? We also pay taxes. Just because we work hard, earn and then spend our money, are our griefs any less than those killed at CST? Why should I feel guilty for who I am. For a city that is devastated by this immense loss of grief, and one that needs to unite irrespective of cast, class, creed, religion and social status, this is not the time to divide it based on class. Grow up Sankaran! 

1 comment:

  1. Sankaran's write-up is full of cliched generalisations and should be pointed out for what it is. Such people want to push their agendas through whatever public moment available, but remember, using the dead to forward your fantasies is cruel to those who died, regardless of inside which monument or how. In fact, people like Sankaran are worse than our dear politicians. At least the politicians have become shameless now and don't pretend to be on our side.
    It is shameful that Indian discourse is still dominated by such Leftist fossils, who keep crawling out from under their rocks at the first opportunity. Hey, Shankaran, haven't you heard? Che's dead, man!!!


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