I have just had a book out – a collection of essays based on reportage and travel over the last few years. I wrote it in the hope that through these stories of reporting from the field, other people too could share in my understanding of me, my times and my country.
There has been a great outpouring of goodwill and support from family, friends and colleagues. I have been exhausted and happy, particularly when I see that the average person is actually willing to engage with some of the more serious issues I've put in the essays. But today, I am also forced to worry: What would happen if everything I wrote was disbelieved, or challenged by others who didn't want to agree with me? Additionally, what would happen if a group of people who disliked me or my politics was to try to discredit my reportage by issuing public statements about me?
Earlier this week, I was forwarded an email with what appears to be a statement issued by the Jamia Teacher's Solidarity Association (though I cannot find it on their own website, it does appear on Countercurrents, a website that I have a fair amount of respect for. The piece (dated April 25, 2010) accuses journalist Praveen Swami of being a liar. To my knowledge, this is the first time a pressure group has formed that publicly singles out a journalist on a given beat for such strident criticism, and in absolute isolation from his/her organisation and other journalists who cover the same region/beat. I was concerned, partly because it seemed like an attempt at constructing outrage against one individual, isolating him from his field of work and thereby discrediting even the editorial leadership of the newspaper he works for by indirectly insinuating that the editors don't know what they're doing.
Before I go any further, I would like to declare some basic facts. Mr Swami was bureau chief at a time when I was working for Frontline, and I just have a book out in which he features in the acknowledgments. He was a good boss and very un-boss-like in that he treated me as an intellectual equal (unlike certain other older male journalists whom I shall not name here) and was always up for a good debate, always listening with an open mind to what I had to say. He is still a friend.
However, this is not about loyalty or a defense of friendship. This is about journalistic integrity and the rights of reporters to report the truth as far as they can access it. The correct thing to do, if you suspect a journalist is not quite doing his job, is to write to the editor of the paper. The Hindu is one of those rare papers that has a readers' editor. It is surprising that the teachers' association did not send in their note to the editor there. Or that they did not put it up as a press statement on their own website, addressed to the The Hindu editor. It would have given Mr Swami a fair chance to defend himself. It seems wrong to me to accuse someone without giving them a chance to have their say. You, being an editor who stands for truth - even truth that is not immediately apparent and which is often ignored or willfully suppressed - probably understand this sentiment. Though I must also say that if I had been an editor of a website that carried the aforementioned note by the JTSA, I would have expected the allegations to be a little more rigorously researched and properly phrased, or I might have found myself slapped with a libel suit.
However, I have done your job for you. Like a good journalist, I wrote to Mr Swami asking for a clarification, with specific reference to the examples of the 'lies' the note referenced. He has answered with a point by point rebuttal of the JTSA's allegations (see below). Having read it, it appears that the note you have published betrays a certain terminological inexactitude on the part of the writers, not to mention wide swathes of intellectual laziness (which is strange, considering these are professional intellectuals). But we can always conduct debates with intellectual rigour at another date. For now, I am hoping that you will be fair, and publish Mr Swami’s rebuttal for the sake of editorial integrity.
April 28, 2010
Thank you for your letter. I’m glad that, unlike many people I know, you’ve actually sought my opinion on the allegations that the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association has levelled at me. Some people seem to have been perfectly content to circulate the allegations without any effort at verification. Since the JTSA’s allegations have not been addressed, to the best of my knowledge, to my Editors at The Hindu, I’ve had no opportunity to respond to what I believe are scurrilous allegations. However, I do hope you will not be upset if I take the liberty of circulating my reply to you to a few people who may be interested in what I have to say.
The principal JTSA claim, if my understanding is correct, is that I’ve invented a suspect for the Bangalore and Pune bombings, undermining my own earlier position—as they see it—that Hindutva groups had carried out the attacks.
Separately, the JTSA also makes two, somewhat mutually-contradictory claims: first that I blindly broadcast the views of India’s intelligence services, and secondly, that I make up stories. The first of these two charges is, by its nature, difficult to prove or disprove: after all, if someone has persuaded themselves that I am an agent of India’s intelligence services, my denials are hardly likely to persuade them otherwise.
It seems common-sense to me that the issue is not who I get my information from—which I am professionally bound, as you know, not to disclose—but how accurate that information is. This brings me to the second claim—i.e., that I have invented or misrepresented facts. This allegation is a serious one, but can be tested. Below, I’ve put my responses to their claims in the order in which they appear. Please make up your own mind.
The JTSA claim
While the Pune police commissioned experts to draw sketches of the suspects based on this footage, ATS dismissed this exercise as “anything but useful”, as their source, the CCTV footage, was itself grainy. (Siasat, April 12). Where does Swami stand on this? He wrote in his 19th February piece: “All that investigators have by way of suspects are three men recorded holding brief meetings before the blast by a poor-quality closed-circuit television camera. From the videotape, it is unclear if the men had anything to do with the attack.” Exactly a month later, Swami conveniently develops an amnesia about Abhinav Bharat and even about the poor quality of CCTV footage. What was earlier ‘unclear” and hazy has in one month segued into solid shape: in the form of top Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative Mohammad Zarar Siddi Bawa ie., Yasin Bhatkal….
The JTSA is right: I did indeed write about grainy video footage obtained from a camera installed in a hotel opposite the German Bakery (I’ve dealt with the Abhinav Bharat issue they’ve raised below, to avoid confusing issues). What I didn’t know when I wrote the story was of the existence of footage from the second CCTV camera, installed above the cash counter in the German Bakery. Please note, though, that the existence of this footage was known to journalists other than me long before the Maharashtra Police Anti-Terrorism Squad disclosed its existence. Mid-Day, to cite just one of several examples that can easily be unearthed from the internet, had an account of its existence as early as February 17, 2010. The article made clear that the police had instructed witnesses not to talk about the footage: “Pravin Panth, cashier at the bakery, said, ‘I have seen the footage, but I cannot reveal the inputs. I have been advised to refrain from revealing details to the media as this may harm investigations’.” Please also note that Yasin Bhatkal’s possible role in the bombings was dwelt on at this stage of the investigation by other journalists.
Clearly, Swami’s changing perceptions about the CCTV footage is in accord with the shifting attitude of the ATS itself.
I wish my supposedly-formidable contacts in the intelligence services and elsewhere had told me about the cash-counter footage. That they didn’t should lead to some obvious inferences; the implications are too clear to need fleshing out here. As the JTSA points out, the Maharashtra Police Anti-Terrorism Squad did indeed claim that it had identified Yasin Bhatkal, from footage harvested from the cash-counter camera. This was widely reported in early April, before I wrote. I was, I have to say, sceptical—hence, I worked to access the footage, and see for myself if the man in the tape did indeed resemble Yasin Bhatkal. I was reasonably satisfied by what I found. In any case, if investigators changed their views when new evidence came to light, why is that a problem?
Swami’s articles appear magically, faithfully reflecting the Intelligence reports. After the Batla House ‘encounter’, he launched a tirade against all those who were questioning the police account of the shootout labeling them all ‘Alices in wonderland’. He went so far as to identify ‘precisely’ how Inspector Sharma was shot by claiming that “abdomen wound was inflicted with [Atif] Amin's weapon and the shoulder hit, by Mohammad Sajid”…. And no sir, Swami’s conclusion was not based on post mortem reports of the killed, fire arm examination report or ballistic report but on this innocent fact: “the investigators believe that…”
The National Human Rights Commission studied the same evidence I did—and more which was not available when I wrote. It says: “…swabs which were taken from the right hands of Mohd Atif Ameen and Modh Sajid by the doctors at the time of post mortem in AIIMS were sent in sealed bottles to CFSL for dermal nitrate tests in the laboratory. The same were found to contain gun shot residue. This conclusively establishes that Mohd Atif Ameen and Mohd Sajid had both used fire arms at the time of incident”. Unless it believes that the NHRC is an intelligence agency, the allegation made by the JTSA is untrue.
Swami however felt no need to pen an article when the postmortem reports of Atif and Sajid revealed that they had been shot from close range and that neither of them sustained gunshot wounds in the frontal region of the body—an impossibility in the case of a genuine encounter.
I didn’t. I still don’t. Having studied the available evidence, the NHRC concluded: “In such circumstances, the action taken by the police party in which Mohd. Atif Ameen and Mohd. Sajid received fatal injuries and died is fully protected by law”. Parenthetically, I note that members of the Facebook group I believe the 2008 Batla House encounter was FAKE insist that “not only the JTSA report, but also NHRC (a statutory body of GOI) says that the encounter is fake”. Either these people have not read the NHRC report—or are lying.
When two crude bombs went off outside the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium ahead of the match between Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore on 17th April, the Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya announced that the state Police were investigating the alleged involvement of the cricket betting lobby. He forcefully denied any link with the earlier blasts in the city in 2008.
But Yasin Bhatkal seems to have preoccupied Swami’s mind on 19th April for he evokes him again in connection with the stadium blasts (“Stadium Blasts herald new IM offensive”). Citing the ever cooperative ‘investigators’, he says that the ‘similarity in design’ and the manner in which some bombs failed to explode are a sure indicator of the IM hand
Leaving aside the minor irony here—the JTSA’s great faith in an embarrassed BJP politician—there are two facts that need to be recorded. In pursuit of the government’s “betting mafia” story, the Karnataka Police arrested five Uttar Pradesh suspects. Those suspects were cleared of any involvement in the attacks by the Uttar Pradesh Police. Second, I clearly identified that suspicions directed at Mohammad Zarar Siddi Bawa, a.k.a. Yasin Bhatkal, were based on what investigators were telling me. Similarity in bomb design is quite evidently reasonable ground for suspicion—though it is not of course proof. Since I have no independent expertise in bomb forensics, the information was clearly attributed to investigators. Its up to readers whether they want to believe them or not.
Swami here details the biographies of SIMI activists in South India, making the link, ever so cleverly, between SIMI—and yes, IM—and the stadium blasts, without providing any evidence of their actual linkage.
I’m a little uncertain here about precisely what the allegation is here—but think the JTSA has some problem with my suggesting that SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen are linked to terrorism. I’m in good company, I think, in this belief. Javed Anand had a must-read article on the issue some time back. Yoginder Sikand had some good background earlier. If you’re willing to fork out a few bucks for more detail, do read C. Christine Fair on the subject. This is just a tiny part of a mass of literature—not including charge-sheets, trial records and so on—on the subject. You don’t need access to the Intelligence Services to access it—just a few hours in a good library
Like so many people driven by blind faith, the JTSA’s members don’t seem willing to be persuaded by fact. Increasingly, the positions of its supporters seem driven by bizarre conspiracy theories. For instance, Omair Anas, one of the leading lights of the “Shut Up Praveen Swami” group (which includes among its members an odd array of Islamists linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing as well as members of that flag-bearer of Delhi’s regrettably unsubstantial radical-chic, Sarai), has this post up on his Facebook wall:
Omair Anas Who carried out 9/11 attack? Israel ! Israel! know how http://pakalert.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/israel-did-911-all-the-proof-in-the-world/
Sun at 23:55 · Share
Israel did 9/11, ALL THE PROOF IN THE WORLD!!
I have two points to make in conclusion:
First, a number of Islamist groups, as well as some of Maoist supporters, have been engaging in a wilful misrepresentation of my work—misrepresentation that, your letter leads me to believe, may be succeeding simply because the audiences for this campaign do not seem to take the trouble of reading what I have written. For example, a Google Groups thread claims that I have been advocating targeted killing of “insurgent leaders (and cadres)! Understandably, away from the battlefields. Dragged out of homes or on the city streets? A la Mossad!?” Please see for yourself if I actually said anything of the kind. I did indeed point to a successful campaign targeting “the leadership and cadre of Khalistan terrorists”. I trust no sensible person would have objections to the targeting of these murderous criminals. I concluded that “Learning from its own success stories, India needs to fight insurgencies in smarter, leaner ways. Like Andhra Pradesh, States must invest in training facilities that meet their particular needs; expand intelligence capabilities; and use technology effectively. Instead of focussing on simply expanding the size of Central forces, the Union government must understand the need for them to be properly trained and equipped”. 
Second, it seems to me a little sad that my critics have chosen to use personal slurs and innuendo, instead of engaging in a debate on facts—a debate I think is important and healthy. It is all the more dismaying when people you would expect to value civil debate engage in these kinds of tactics. I find these tactics despicable. I’m happy to be challenged on points of fact and interpretation. I believe that informed criticism is good for public debate and good journalism. Sadly, I don’t think the JTSA statement has helped either cause.
 Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, ‘Praveen Swami’s Not So Fabulous Fables’ (CounterCurrents.org: http://www.countercurrents.org/jtsa250410.htm)
 Bipin Kumar Singh and Kaumudi Gujjar, ‘Footage gave important leads: cops’ (MidDay: http://www.mid-day.com/news/2010/feb/170210-german-bakery-blast-cctv-footage-vital-clues.htm), February17, 2010.
 Johnson TA, ‘Yasin Bhatkal is IM bombmaker, now in Karachi: Probe team’ (The Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/yasin-bhatkal-is-im-bombmaker-now-in-karachi-probe-team/582699/), February 22, 2010.
 ‘IM leader Yasin Bhatkal mastermind of Pune blasts, claims ATS’, (Daily News and Analysis: http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_im-leader-yasin-bhatkal-mastermind-of-pune-blasts-claims-ats_1368789), April 8, 2010.
 ‘Shri Kamran Siddique Gen.Secretary, Real Cause, New Delhi: 2811/30/8/08-09-FE’ (National Human Rights Commission: New Delhi, July 20, 2009). Online at nhrc.nic.in/Batla.doc. Page 21
 Shri Kamran Siddique Gen.Secretary, Real Cause, New Delhi: 2811/30/8/08-09-FE’ (National Human Rights Commission: New Delhi, July 20, 2009). Online at nhrc.nic.in/Batla.doc. Page 25
 Aakash Singh, ‘Suspects arrested for Chinnaswamy blast case are thieves from UP’ (MyNews.in:http://www.mynews.in/News/Suspects_arrested_for_Chinnaswamy_blast_case_are_thieves_from_UP_N49091.html), April 22, 2010
 Javed Anand ‘Suspect SIMI? Of course’, (The Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/story-print/349496/), August 16, 2008
 Yoginder Sikand, ‘The SIMI story’, (Countercurrents.org: http://www.countercurrents.org/comm-sikand150706.htm), July 15, 2006.
 C. Christine Fair, ‘Students Islamic Movement of India and the Indian Mujahideen: An Assessment’, Asian Policy Vol 9 (Washington DC: National Bureau of Asian Research), January 2010.
 Praveen Swami, ‘For a review of counter-insurgency doctrine’, (The Hindu: http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article395529.ece), April 13, 2010.