THE BLOG

Delhi Normal, Tensions Submerged

01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My biggest personal problem in what seems like a placid, normal Delhi is that wireless is not working in my otherwise-charming hotel. But this means I'm spending more time watching the television news. Today, NDTV had a story on Shiv Sena, the hard-right Hindu organization, seeking to ban and harass Pakistani artists -- musicians and film stars, for example, appearing in Mumbai. And another video segment reported that no Kashmiris were using a bus service inaugurated in 2005 to open travel between the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and India.

It's time, also, for the stations to emphasize the nobility of some of the police, particularly those who captured one of the terrorists alive, as TV channels migrate from the early story -- that the Mumbai police were hopelessly unprepared for the crisis that ensued -- to one that is more associated with pride.

For example, the news today carried the story that the surviving terrorist was remorseful, had cried, and wanted to write his parents a letter saying he was duped and regretted his training and exploitation by forces in Pakistan. A few stations push for firmness or tougher measures with Pakistan and a very few play and replay the grey surveillance tapes of terrorists at the Taj and Oberoi.

It's a strange feeling, moving through the Delhi streets, going to shops and hanging out at the India International Centre (a favored watering spot), and seeing few if any signs of heightened insecurity or shifts in attitude because of the Mumbai attacks. I went to the quiet, almost rural, campus of Indira Ghandi National Open University (IGNOU) (it claims it has 2 million students) to give a short lecture on terrorism and press responsibility. The students asked (oddly I thought) about the extent of coverage in the United States of Saddam's execution.

It's hard to put life as it seems (maybe deceptively) with the geopolitical narrative of the New York Times, stories by Helene Cooper, op-eds by Patrick French and others, that give the impression of the world on the brink.

Before coming here, I was tracking some of the official reactions in the wake of the attacks. The police had ordered some news channels closed, a pretty dramatic step. The story is going around that the terrorists were talking to their handlers in Pakistan and were told to watch television coverage to find out better exit paths. The government almost immediately reversed the police order.

A debate began, in late November, on what procedures there should be in such extreme emergencies to gain government guidance or direction concerning material too sensitive to broadcast. News organizations defended broadcasts, arguing that their interviews should be not only permitted but welcomed because they aided the government in understanding the causes of the attacks. This raised some ethical questions of whether the journalists were actually acting in concert with the police or commandoes.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has issued an "advisory" on frequent visual replaying of the atrocities. And, in the wake of the Mumbai events, liberalization of the delivery of news (on newly-available radio frequencies) has been seemingly postponed.

The strong showing of the Congress party early this week in state elections contributed to a sense of calm. BJP victories might have signaled an even tougher confrontation with Pakistan. At the moment, there's a picture of the Pakistani government doing some of what it could and should.

In the 1948 Agreement between India and Pakistan, the parties promised that their respective publicity agents (including radio and film) would "refrain from and control: (a) propaganda against the other Dominion, and (b) publication of exaggerated versions of news of a character likely to inflame, or cause fear or alarm to, the population, or any section of the population in either Dominion." Over the last decade, cooperation and friction have seen media governance decisions concerning what films could be shown where, what websites would be featured and what would be blocked, and subsidies of content in each country.

Now again -- in the wake of the Mumbai attacks -- a struggle over representing the relationship between India and Pakistan takes place. Huge disruptions in narrative are examples of often dangerous challenges to existing patterns of media governance as the capacity of a cartel to function founders. New participants and aggressive entrants destroy status-quo preserving pacts and understandings. These shocks to the system alter the power of various players in a market for loyalties.

In this highly mediated world, we know attitudes can be shifted in major ways by a solitary figure in a cave in Wazaristan speaking through videotapes or by entities unknown who deploy violence strategically to throw a society off balance and challenge its faith in the status quo of governance. India is immersed in news channels. But, consistent with cautions of the ruling class, the screens are surprisingly moderate, and the streets surprisingly normal.