Saeed Naqvi | Recalling Iraq’s tragedy in 2003 & statesmanship of PM Vajpayee

The Asian Age.  | Saeed Naqvi

Opinion, Columnists

Worldview India’s journalists remember April 2003 for the kind of journalism Indians haven’t practised before or since


April 2003 was the cruellest month for the people of Iraq, a month of reflection on Pakistan by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a rare opportunity for Worldview India, a group of Indian journalists who helped lift the mist from the month’s historic events.

The Americans occupied Iraq by April 3. Vice-president Dick Cheney, the real author of the operation, was eager to declare victory on April 9. It had to be a spectacular media event. After all, Mr Cheney embedded 300-plus journalists with the US military.

The choreography was audacious. In a prepared statement, Mr Cheney would declare victory on the global media, which would be interspersed with images of an ecstatic, popular upsurge pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussain at Firdous Square. Mr Cheney’s talking head would alternate with the slow fall of the statue. Mr Cheney would never have dreamt that all the back-channel tricks that went into the manufacture of the memorable spectacle would be exposed. For the first time in Indian journalism history, Worldview India posted camera units/reporters in Baghdad, Najaf, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Amman and in Lebanon. Some of these reporters happened to be in Palestine Hotel, witnesses to the real story, the one the world wasn’t supposed to know.

Contrary to the narrative of a popular uprising toppling the statue, the Americans had to think on their feet: they had to improvise the iconic images because the popular upsurge had simply not materialised. US Marines were mobilised to “lasso” the statue’s neck and have it pulled down by cranes. CNN, the occupation’s premier cheerleader, has to this day incorporated a video of the statue as a lasting symbol of Americans replacing a “brutal” dictatorship with democracy. The sole superpower can arrange for a statue to be pulled down, but how does it show images of crowds celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall?

The 1991-92 Shia uprising in Najaf/Karbala, encouraged by Operation Desert Storm, was harshly put down by Saddam. The only images of the damaged shrine of Imam Hussain was brought to the world by a TV crew led by this reporter. The Shia refugees from this unreported conflict had been settled in a vast ghetto on Baghdad’s outskirts. It was named, like much else those days, as Saddam City. It dawned on Mr Cheney’s team that one group of people thrilled at Saddam’s fall were the inmates of the nearby ghetto, teeming with disgruntled Shias.

A deal was struck with controversial cleric Muqtada Sadr. Saddam City was renamed “Sadr” City. That’s when celebrations erupted on Baghdad streets. Crowds from Sadr City trampled on Saddam posters and beat it with their sandals. The American romance with Iraq’s Shias burgeoned.

On March 20, 2005, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times recommended Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for the Nobel Prize. Sistani remains the blue-eyed ayatollah because he differs with Tehran on the clergy’s role in governing the state.

Mr Cheney’s contrivance of a quick victory in Iraq was matched by the energetic diplomacy of the US embassy in New Delhi. They persuaded South Block to participate in the American victory by taking over the administration of Iraq’s Kurdish North. Powerful ministers like Jaswant Singh found the US blandishments tempting. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, as much a statesman as a skilful politician, rather than rubbish his Cabinet colleagues, went into one of his extended spells of deep reflection.

He called up his friend A.B. Bardhan, CPI secretary-general. “Are you supporting Indian occupation of Kurdish Iraq?” Vajpayee taunted. “Not at all,” exclaimed Mr Bardhan. “But I see no protest”, Vajpayee replied. The PM was looking for signs of street restiveness on the issue to cite in opposing the idea. The source for this exchange was Mr Bardhan, but Vajpayee didn’t deny it.

This was a period of extraordinary tension between India and Pakistan. After the December 13, 2001 attack on India’s Parliament, the two militaries were in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On April 18, Vajpayee landed in Srinagar and, without a hint to his Cabinet, held out the hand of peace to Pakistan. “An awesome power has arisen”. Regional quarrels have no meaning now. Conflicts in the region would have to be composed. The January 4, 2004 India-Pakistan summit in Islamabad followed.

Vajpayee found the “sole superpower” moment forbidding. Hence his quest for regional peace. Narendra Modi’s crawl towards a regional entente is dictated by a different set of circumstances. The burgeoning China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan togetherness in the vicinity makes a friendly America look too distant.

Worldview India’s journalists remember April 2003 for the kind of journalism Indians haven’t practised before or since. The idea was to cover the war and occupation of Iraq from an Indian perspective. The Western media would of course cover it, but from its own perspective. The embedded journalists were in fact a part of the war effort. This wouldn’t be the Indian perspective, unless New Delhi accepted that it was India’s war too. Indian media houses are stone deaf on such issues. For coverage of foreign affairs, they have deals with Reuters, BBC, CNN and so on -- so much for “atma nirbharta”. A word of gratitude is owed to S.Y. Qureshi, Doordarshan’s then director-general, for grasping the significance of the project. He fought the resistance in the system. The standard argument against covering foreign affairs was that it “has low TRP ratings”.

Let Mr Qureshi bear witness. Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati had the highest ratings until Worldview India’s one-hour prime-time reporting from the Gulf by dedicated reporters pipped it to the post.