Come to think of it, retired General V. K. Singh’s recent disclosure about the Indian Army paying politicians in Kashmir had all the ingredients for a career-defining story reporters on the intelligence beat would have loved to scoop. Yet, despite all the cups of coffee they have gulped with spooks in plush restaurants, they had little idea about what a serious subversion of democracy it was.
As General Singh spoke, Indian spooks mounted a special sideshow of their own. Through them we came to know that Yasin Bhatkal, guilty of killing at least a 100, had ordered an apple pie and cold coffee in Pune’s German Bakery before leaving his bag with a bomb under a table. Decidedly delicious stories, but begging the question: why do spooks mostly feed us the apple-pie-cold-coffee stories, instead of revealing information of the kind General Singh disclosed?
It tells you, one, that there isn’t a whistleblower among our spooks willing to accord primacy to upholding the ideal of democracy and not just servicing organizational goals. Two, media reporting on intelligence agencies is an example of embedded journalism. Reporters are so embedded inside Indian intelligence that they report only what they are told, or rather, dictated. The problem inherent to the intelligence beat is that, more often than not, it is impossible to verify what sources tell you, thus undermining the defining principle of journalism: counter-check information from informants who can’t be identified. How can a reporter ever check the number of militant camps operating in Pakistan or Burma, or verify an intelligence leak about Nepal?
But over the last decade and more, the leaks from intelligence sources have become richer in description, conveying to Indians their deep penetration into subterranean terror groups. It is impossible for journalists to verify whether their claims are real or imaginary. Yet, if you were to read today the stories spun in the months following the terrorist bomb blast in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid on 18 May 2007, you can’t but conclude that their authors were schooled in the genre of magical realism.
Almost all newspapers claimed that the Harkatul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) was behind the Mecca Masjid blast and its Indian commander, Shahid Bilal, executed it. Shahid’s real name was Abdul Rehman and around him breathless narratives were created, based, obviously, on the intelligence the agencies had gathered about him – why and when he left Hyderabad for Pakistan and the other bombings in Hyderabad he was involved in. Subsequently, though, these stories turned out to be fiction.
Nevertheless, they helped justify the picking up of Muslims in midnight swoops and their torture in custody. Months later, one Swami Aseemanand confessed that he and other members of Abhinav Bharati, a Hindu chauvinist group, organized the blast not only in the Mecca Masjid, but also at the dargahs in Ajmer and Malegoan and the Samjhauta Express. In all these cases, too, jihadi groups were blamed.
The flawed narrative around the Mecca Masjid isn’t the only example of kite-flying by Indian spy agencies. Considering the blundering and bluffing by spooks, why do we rarely read stories not favorable of them? One of the few stories is of a wing of the intelligence agency intercepting telephone signals off-the-air, thus requiring no government clearance.
The Meadow is a chilling account Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark meticulously pieced together about the kidnapping of five Western tourists in Kashmir in 1995. The authors accessed senior police officers to claim the spooks were not only aware of the hideouts of the kidnappers, they had even aerial-photographed them. It turns out that instead of mounting a rescue operation, the spooks tacitly encouraged their killings, in the hope of giving a bad name to Pakistan’s ISI.
Indeed, spies are never tarred because of the mechanism of embedded journalism: they are the sole purveyors of information impossible to gather from other sources or to verify. When there is a terror attack, for instance, it is they who help the reporter satisfy bosses keen on exclusive information, however inane and irrelevant. Keeping a source happy is part of the job description of an embed.
Indian editors must get together to evolve a protocol for covering the intelligence beat. Otherwise, we are doomed to consume intelligence stories that have the flavor of apple pie and cold coffee.
This article first appeared in the Nepali Times, a leading newspaper of Nepal. Click here to go to the original.