ON 19 NOVEMBER 1987, during the protracted final phase of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Indian Airlines flight IC 452 from Kabul landed at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Shortly after its arrival, a security guard spotted ammunition cartridges rolling out over the tarmac from a damaged crate, one in a consignment of 22 that had arrived on the plane. Airport staff began an X-ray examination of every box. Apart from cartridges, the scan revealed at least one rocket launcher.
Police and customs officers took the shipment for a haul of terrorist contraband. While airport personnel argued over who should get credit for the seizure, a man in mufti appeared and identified himself as a Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) operative. Before the munitions could be properly inventoried, he confiscated the crates, claiming they were government property.
The journalist Dhiren Bhagat broke the story on 24 April 1988, in Bombay’s Indian Post and the London Observer. The damaged crate “was the sort of slip that journalism thrives on,” he later wrote. According to the freight bill, the consignment was telecom equipment bound for the Director General Communications in Sanchar Bhawan—a non-existent official. Looking for an explanation, Bhagat contacted the cabinet secretary, BG Deshmukh, to whom R&AW reported. Deshmukh said he could neither confirm nor deny R&AW’s involvement.
In his article, Bhagat speculated that the smuggled arms had been destined for Punjab, where the Khalistan insurgency was at its peak. In March 1988, there had been several rocket attacks on police and paramilitary units in the state—though nobody was hit—and such weaponry hadn’t been used anywhere else in the country following the November shipment. Although Bhagat didn’t say as much, it seemed plausible that government forces had staged the assaults as a pretext for stepping up military intervention in Punjab (and discrediting Pakistan). “Indian officials have expressed concern about the increased firepower of the Sikh militants, who in the last week have used shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, similar to those used by guerrillas in the war in Afghanistan,” Sanjoy Hazarika wrote in the New York Times in early April. “Officials here say they have been unable to confirm reports that these weapons have been smuggled across the Afghan and Pakistani borders into Punjab.”
Bhagat expected his report to kick up a storm in the national press and in parliament. “I was wrong,” he wrote. “Nothing appeared. Nothing happened. No questions were asked.” He took it upon himself to meet with parliamentarians and newspaper editors. Most wanted nothing to do with the story. The Times of India and the Indian Express flatly refused to touch it. Other papers discussed the incident, but decided not to pursue it on the grounds of “national interest”. “I don’t dispute your facts,” one editor told Bhagat. “But you are trying to frustrate my plans.” The editor apparently hoped to incite military aggression and “bash up Pakistan”.
Several members of the Rajya Sabha finally raised the issue in parliament, on 29 April. The next day, anonymous official sources issued a carefully worded denial to select journalists. That the government armed Punjab terrorists was “totally unfounded and preposterous”, the sources said (though Bhagat never claimed the weapons were for terrorists). Many papers carried the counterstatement on their front page; the Times of India story was headlined, “Report on Arms Import Denied”. (A few days later, Canada’s Globe and Mail ran a piece titled “Servile press spikes scoop”, which said Bhagat had “blasted a great hole in the theory that Sikh extremists are getting sophisticated Soviet-made rockets from Pakistan.”)
Bhagat soon confronted the information and broadcasting secretary, Gopi Arora, who was involved in trying to defuse the Bofors scandal. “The specific allegation that R&AW imported arms on 19 November has not been denied,” Arora said. “We do not comment on such things.” Bhagat reported Arora’s comments in the Observer and, on 5 May, during a debate on extending president’s rule in Punjab, Atal Bihari Vajpayee read out the story in parliament. P Chidambaram, then the union minister of state for home affairs overseeing internal security, admitted that R&AW organised the shipment. “No government ever comments publicly on the activities of intelligence agencies, but let me assure the House that the equipment which came in has been accounted for,” he added. “It is highly unfair, preposterous, and wrong to suggest that any part of any equipment found its way into Punjab or to the hands of terrorists in Punjab.”
This was probably the only time the work of an intelligence agency was discussed in such detail in parliament, but Chidambaram’s admission was carried prominently only by The Hindu. The Indian Express completely ignored it. Operation Black Thunder II, a paramilitary raid on Khalistani separatists holed up in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, took place the following week. The entire episode seemed to lay bare the Indian press’s unwillingness to properly investigate the country’s intelligence agencies and matters of internal security. Instead of upholding their duty to the public, newspapers—while suppressing stories, pursuing anti-Pakistan agendas, over-relying on anonymous government sources, and taking an indifferent attitude to the corroboration of facts—seemed to hide behind the aegis of national interest.
IN THE YEARS SINCE BHAGAT’S STORY BROKE, reporting on internal security has remained murky, beset by the same practices that kept R&AW’s smuggling operation off the front pages. Few national security journalists bring to their stories the tenacity and critical eye that Bhagat seemed to have. Today, the beat is at once the most glamorous and the most obscure—dominated by a smart, largely hawkish boys’ club that tends to see itself (and be seen) as inhabiting a tidal zone between the media and intelligence agencies. As one editor described them, these are the “guys who work with the guys who work on the frontlines of the national interest”. Reporting on major crimes, insurgencies, Islamic and Hindu terrorism, the Indo-Pak conflict, and other border disputes gives their work an air of unparalleled importance. “No other story will give you this kind of display,” the former Open political editor Hartosh Singh Bal said of terrorism’s ability to capture front-page real estate. Perhaps as a result, reporters on the “natsec” beat—as it’s widely called—tend to get special treatment: they file late, keep their sources completely anonymous, and are rarely questioned by editors. “A magazine like ours, or even the Times of India with its vast resources, is invested in one journalist to cover security affairs,” the Outlook editor-in-chief, Krishna Prasad, said. “We have to trust him because he is the specialist.”
Since the work of the intelligence agencies is by design clandestine—and damaged crates, or their equivalents, are rare—many journalists rely on leaked information. There’s little time, or motivation, for proper corroboration. One mid-career journalist told me that the lifespan of a bomb blast story on the front page of a national daily is a maximum of three days. “You have to do as many stories as you can and get a good display,” he said. “After a week, it’s buried deep inside.” The price of access to early and ongoing information is a willingness to report it more or less as it comes, without too much regard for its provenance. The editorial director of the Sunday Guardian, MJ Akbar, told me, “In daily newspaper time pressure, sometimes you have to accept the story, but the next day you have to go and check.”
Jason Burke, the Guardian reporter and author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, took a different view. “I couldn’t disagree more strongly that a journalist is as good as his or her source,” he told me. “No—the point of a journalist is to take lots of sources, take the information from them, listen to what they say and interrogate that information.” Unfortunately, a failure to do the difficult work of journalism is common around the world; one of the reasons is that “people have inordinate faith in security services,” Burke said. “Readers, policymakers and often journalists are struck by the spurious glamour and credibility that surrounds secrecy.”
Indeed, many Indian journalists refer to intelligence officers, and even agency chiefs, not as sources but as friends, calling them by their first names or nicknames, and inviting them to Diwali celebrations and other family events. At its core, however, the relationship between reporters and agents is a crude barter economy. Most agency work, especially at the domestically focused Intelligence Bureau (IB), is on the political desk—tracking dissidents, businessmen and various politicians: the sort of people with whom journalists are relatively free to meet. “One officer told me very bluntly, ‘My job is not to give you stories but to take stories from you.
If there is a steady flow of information from you, once in a while I might consider giving you a story myself,’” a mid-ranking reporter with a leading daily told me. A senior Mumbai journalist described agency information gatherers as “hungry caterpillars”. “It doesn’t matter from which part of the country the information is from,” she said. “Intelligence is after all about connecting the dots. If I get some documents from Orissa, I would give them to the Nagpur police and get some story in return.”
“My understanding is what you bring to the table is important to build contacts, and then you build confidence by writing about issues,” Shishir Gupta, the deputy executive editor of the Hindustan Times, said about cultivating sources within the IB.
The editor for special projects at the Times of India, Josy Joseph, gave me an example of the sort of exchange that builds close relationships with intelligence agencies. In August 2004, he traveled to Nepal to interview Jamim Shah, a suspected member of Dawood Ibrahim’s gang. The Indian government had just written a letter to the Nepalese government asking for details about Shah. “Shah was emphatic when he denied any wrong on his part during a long interview this correspondent had with him on a rain-swept evening at his office in Kathmandu,” Joseph wrote in the Times of India. “The man laughed and often kept poker face while denying being in a Pakistani jail, or being Dawood’s front man, or even a smuggler.” As soon as the story ran, the IB and R&AW approached Joseph to find out if the interview was recorded. “After listening to his voice, they realised they were tapping the wrong guy all along,” Joseph told me. The IB wanted Joseph to take one of its operatives back to Nepal to show him where he met Shah, but Joseph said he declined.
If there’s an information-feeding industry in the country, the hotels and cafés of Lutyen’s Delhi are part of its outermost layer. On any given day, mid-level agents float around the capital meeting journalists, in haunts such as The Ambassador, Hotel Janpath and, more recently, Khan Market. “It’s an incestuous city,” Joseph said. Like other experienced national security reporters, Joseph has access to senior sources within the agencies. “One day, I was sitting with an IB joint director in Delhi,” he said. “He got a call from his boss, the IB chief, saying Shishir Gupta will come to discuss something. He asked me to wait and went out and met him on the lawn,” which is visible from the joint director’s office. Later, as Joseph was leaving, he saw NDTV’s Sudhi Ranjan Sen getting his tyre changed outside the gate. “So, at one point of the day, there were three journalists from three leading news organisations at the IB office,” Joseph said. (The first time I went to meet a joint director, he had just left on some emergency—but the personal assistant who met me asked if I wanted to leave or take any documents.)
For journalists who prove their worth, the rewards of these close relationships can go far beyond career-boosting scoops. Soon after Joseph shared his Jamim Shah tapes with the IB and R&AW, he planned a stint at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in the United States. One of the intelligence agencies offered to take care of the full cost—about Rs 30 lakh. (Joseph said he turned it down and took out a loan from the State Bank of Travancore instead.) Saikat Datta, the national security editor for the Hindustan Times, also said that R&AW volunteered to pay for him to study overseas. One senior journalist told me the IB offered him a monthly retainer, like the kind newspapers pay to stringers.
THESE DYNAMICS—from permissiveness in the newsroom to incestuousness with sources—help sustain the security establishment. In the name of the national interest, the country’s various intelligence and investigative agencies—R&AW; IB; the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); the National Investigation Agency (NIA); the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO); and Military Intelligence (MI)—operate with a secrecy that makes them more or less immune to political accountability and public scrutiny. “Even outside the government, there was a tacit acceptance of this reality and the media, courts, scholars and analysts etc implicitly respected this privilege,” wrote the celebrated former IB chief Ajit Kumar Doval, a long-time agency operative who led the organisation from 2004 to 2005. Important stories that do leak out may never make it into print. The former R&AW chief Vikram Sood said that after he developed a rapport with journalists, they would call him to confirm information. “Then you can ask them to hold back if the stories are not in the national interest. You say, ‘Oh, come on. Let’s talk,’” he told me, smiling.
Even if defending the nation were journalists’ primary responsibility, it’s hard to ascertain if sources are genuinely attempting to make the country safer. “Every act of irregularity has been committed in the name of protecting the national interest,” the former IB joint director Maloy Krishna Dhar wrote in his memoir, Open Secrets. “This is a bogus claim.” Many agents freely pursue their own agendas: “some make money out of the sacred national trust, some advance career prospects and a few dabble in ideological pursuits.” The same goes for reporters. “There are many journalists who help us out,” a former R&AW official told me. “There is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and every person has his own motivation. Some did it out of patriotism and some due to allure.”
“Even when reporters claim deep insights, they are shaped by vested interests and lobbies active within the agencies,” Josy Joseph said. According to him, some of the greatest causes of distortion are anti-Muslim prejudice; intra-agency ideological conflicts, such as those between old-guard socialists and their capitalist counterparts; and business opportunities opened up by new intelligence technologies. A longstanding rivalry between the IB and R&AW also produces a lot of leaks and deceptions, as the agencies compete to discredit one another—and for the public kudos their classified operations don’t allow. Throughout the agencies, those with stakes to augment or defend “create narratives that suit their interests,” Joseph said.
In the hall of mirrors created by disinformation, the job of a reporter is enormously challenging. “If R&AW has generated a report about external factors outside the country and you are not allowed to say it is a R&AW report, how else do you then say I am aware of these things?” Saikat Datta said. “IB may give you clues, but may not give you the secret information that connects the dots. How do you then build a picture from a journalistic point of view?”
Too often, national security reporters fail to live up to this challenge. “Many people cite intelligence agencies but probably they may not have access,” Datta said. The information they attribute to security officials frequently comes from the police. Still others make do by putting expert opinion in the mouths of fabricated anonymous sources. The executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, Ajai Sahni, told me reporters often come to discuss security issues with him, because it’s easier than cultivating sources. “Then they attribute one quote to me and the rest to intelligence officials, informed sources” or sources in the home affairs ministry, he said. Shortcuts such as these are an open secret in newsrooms. “The positive thing about intelligence stories is that nobody will confirm or deny it,” said Vinay Kumar, the Delhi bureau chief of The Hindu. “If there is information of three lines, you will produce 700 words.” MJ Akbar told me that “Security as a subject has become so sacrosanct that you can slip anything under, between and above the radar.”
The costs of collusion and malpractice are high. “We don’t question the facts given to us enough, and some of it has had dangerous consequences,” Datta said. In particular, anti-Muslim bias—only partly connected to the legitimately threatening activities of organisations such as the ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba—seems to pervade most reporting on internal security and acts of terrorism, even though there have now been many high-profile cases of terror committed by Hindu extremists. Innocent civilians—often Muslims, sometimes journalists—have been detained, jailed, fired from their jobs, and otherwise ruined by false accusations reproduced without corroboration by the press.
“Just because something is supposedly classified doesn’t authenticate it in anyway at all,” Jason Burke said. “Just because something is secret doesn’t make it true.”
OF ALL THE NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTERS working today, 45-year-old Praveen Swami is the most well known. Swami, the strategic affairs editor at The Hindu, began his career making documentaries on Khalistani terrorists in Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1990s, and then joined Frontline, where he reported on the insurrection in Punjab and an intensifying war in Kashmir. This was the period when India’s national security beat took shape, as newspapers (and the country’s first wave of cable television news shows) began to devote reporters to covering the hostilities. With allegations of a nuclearising Pakistan facilitating insurgents in both states, the conflicts seemed to pose an unprecedented threat to South Asian security. Journalists who made contacts with the intelligence agencies during this time— like Swami, whose pieces were often neat, confident narratives, rich with detail that was otherwise hard to find—soon increased their stature in newsrooms and the national media.
In the subsequent decades, Swami has gained a reputation for his searching political analyses and for an academic style of journalism bolstered by wide reading, especially in history. The former IB chief Doval, who became close to Swami late in his career, wrote that he saw a “researcher’s doggedness and an intellectual’s curiosity” in the journalist, “traits an intelligence professional normally frowns on!”
But Swami has also been criticised for his proximity to the country’s intelligence agencies, especially the IB. “If there is one infallible indicator of what the top Indian intelligence agencies are thinking or cooking up, it is this: Praveen Swami’s articles,” a Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association report from 2010 said. “Each time the security establishment wishes to push a certain angle to this bomb blast or that, Swami’s articles appear magically, faithfully reflecting the intelligence reports.” A former R&AW official, who lamented his agency’s inability to cultivate journalists as effectively as the IB, concurred, calling the IB’s relationship with Swami “a great operation”. “They have intellectually won him over,” the official said. “That’s the best kind of operation, you know.”
Swami’s critics find this intimacy seeping out in his writing. His reporting relies heavily on generic unnamed sources—“investigators believe”, “sources said”, “according to police”—and there’s a belligerence and one-size-fits-all Islamophobia to his analyses that seems of a piece with the security establishment’s dominant worldview. In Delhi’s media circles, there are several widely circulated rumours about Swami’s relationship to the IB. One claims that the agency did him a great favour early in his career, and that he remains indebted to it. Another says the IB has a dossier with which it is blackmailing him. Although these rumours are totally unsubstantiated, and Swami denied such claims, they capture something about just how closely Swami is thought to have toed an agency line.
In November, I went to meet Swami in his office at the Press Trust of India building in Delhi. He had just rejoined the Hindu Group, where he has spent most of his career, after an eight-month stint as the national security analyst at CNN-IBN and Firstpost. His office was still empty, and he was in a very good mood. During our 90-minute conversation about the national security beat and his work, he was affable if a bit pedantic, responding to criticisms with an uneasy smile.
Swami told me he has “an old-fashioned liberal view” of the world, though he also said his ideas “don’t fall neatly into any camp”. He explained his personal politics by paraphrasing Sumedh Singh Saini, Punjab’s director general of police, whom he described as “a student of history and a very controversial police officer back in the day”. (Saini has an abduction and murder case pending against him in a special CBI court in Delhi, relating to the disappearance of three people from Ludhiana in 1994, and was accused of at least one other human rights violation during the years of the Punjab insurgency.) “I know the borders of nation states change all the time,” Swami said. “Maybe there will be a Khalistan tomorrow, or not. I am not particularly bothered. But if somebody thinks they can run around with a Kalashnikov shooting at people in my area, they have another thing coming.” (Ajit Doval and Saini are both thanked in the acknowledgements of Swami’s book India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947–2004.)
This philosophy fits with the ultimately favourable view Swami has taken of acts such as state-directed torture, the importance of which he came to appreciate during his years stomping around Punjab and Kashmir. “In our popular culture, the torturer is almost always a sadist or a coward; a concentration-camp commandant or dictator’s deranged sidekick: never a soldier who is, after all, one of us,” he wrote in London’s the Daily Telegraph, where he was briefly diplomatic editor in late 2010 and 2011. Wikileaks had just published documents about Western forces resorting to torture in Afghanistan. “Much of the torture the leaks detail does not appear to have been driven by sadism,” he added. “It was carried out in the hope of ending the depredations of terrorists who have killed tens of thousands.” One outraged reader commented, “You need mental help, Praveen.”
Swami’s hawkish stance is a large part of why critics call him an apologist and shill for the country’s intelligence services. He dismissed the notion. “I wish I was working as closely with the agencies as people think I am,” he joked. “I would be much happier if there was an actual debate about these things as opposed to personal invective.” He feels he has been unfairly singled out by critics of the security beat, and explained that what he reports is not exclusive: “Ninety percent of what I wrote, you will find it in plenty of other papers as well. My peers, like Shishir Gupta and Saikat Datta, often complain saying, ‘We wrote the same thing but nobody is cribbing about it on the net.’” He also presented himself as more discerning than his critics allow. The worst thing about the national security beat, he said, is “you have to listen to lies from morning till evening from everybody concerned. From this mess, somehow it’s your job to try and distil what seems plausible.”
Swami’s account of himself is perhaps more level-headed than his work. In 2003, for example, he broke a story in Frontline that later earned him the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust award for outstanding political reporting. His work proved that a much-lauded counterterrorism operation undertaken by the army in the high ranges of Poonch in Kashmir was fake. “Barring the usual muttering about intelligence failure, the media have let it be known that a great victory has been won in the face of overwhelming odds,” he wrote. “Now here is the unhappy truth: Operation Sarp Vinash [Snake Destroyer] is a hoax that is unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army.”
“It is hard to know just what the Army’s authorised version of Operation Sarp Vinash actually is,” he added, “because officials have put out irreconcilable figures and accounts, much of it from behind a veil of anonymity.” He then went on to criticise other newspapers’ coverage: “All these early reports had two common features: they cited no on-record sources, and the term Sarp Vinash was nowhere used.” He added, “reports of helicopter strikes and terrorist-held fortifications had provoked hysteria among New Delhi–based journalists.”
It might have been a self-diagnosis. Two weeks earlier, Swami had been singing a different—albeit equally triumphant—tune. “Over the last month, it has become clear that nowhere near enough Indian troops were marching into the mountains of Poonch,” he wrote. “Operation Sarp Vinash … has thrown up evidence that terrorists on the Poonch heights have been building up safe bases in key areas of the district for several years.” The report, in Swami’s characteristically assured style, carried intimate details of the operation. “Indian troops encountered one elaborate cave defence at an altitude of 3,989 metres, which was eventually destroyed with the use of helicopter-fired air-to-ground fragmentation missiles,” it said at one point. At another, he referred to material from the non-existent terrorists’ diaries, and discussed their non-existent “elaborate communication structure” which allowed them to “communicate with their handlers in Sialkot, Muzaffarabad, Kotli, Islamabad, Abbotabad, as well as sympathisers across India”. He listed the states to which the terrorists had placed calls. Then he added, “One photograph recovered from a killed terrorist showed him posing in front of the Parliament House in New Delhi.” Apart from quoting an unnamed trainee at a local police station, the report’s only attribution was “sources disclosed”.
When I asked Swami about such failures, he said, “I don’t have any vanity about knowing the truth. People will get it terribly wrong from time to time. We are not in the business of curricular or definitive truth. We can try through well established conventions of journalism like double sourcing and so on to arrive at some approximation of the truth.”
At another point, he said, “The reality of life and human existence is that it is deeply complicated.”
IF ANY ONE PERIOD IN SWAMI’S CAREER cemented the view that he is too close, and too uncritical, of his sources—and that he shares the prejudices that seem to pervade many of our national security and intelligence agencies—it was probably the years from 2006 to 2008, when Hindu extremists targeting Muslims detonated a series of bombs across the country.
In 2006, Shab-e-Baraat—the holy day when Muslims pray for the dead—fell on 8 September. Between 1.45 pm and 1.55 pm, four bombs went off in Malegaon, a predominantly Muslim town in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. Three exploded in the graveyard outside Hameediya mosque, and a fourth in the town centre. Thirty-one people were killed and nearly 300 were injured. At the end of November, Maharashtra’s director general of police declared the case solved after the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad detained eight Muslim men, including two that were alleged to be Pakistanis. Five months later, two bombs exploded on the Samjhauta Express train, which runs from Old Delhi to Lahore. Over the next year and a half, there were at least three more blasts carried out by Hindu extremists—at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, at Dargah Sharif in Ajmer, and again in Malegaon. In all, the five attacks killed at least 114 people and injured more than 500.
Much of Swami’s reporting during this time—like the reporting of many of his colleagues on the national security beat—relied almost exclusively on anonymous government sources. Few of the claims Swami reported show indications of having been corroborated, and his pieces are rife with unqualified speculations. Almost every single one attributed the attacks to Islamic terrorists—a belief from which Swami then confidently concocted a number of theories that turned out to be false. At one point, the reader’s editor of The Hindu, K Narayanan, used part of the paper’s editorial page to catalogue readers’ objections to (and defend) Swami’s reporting. “A Chennai reader complained that all the accusations against ‘suspects’ began with phrases such as ‘investigators believe,’ ‘sources told,’ or ‘according to the police’,” Narayanan wrote of one Swami article. “He advised the correspondent not to bring in his own views or the beliefs of investigators and asked the paper to take ‘appropriate steps to prevent any anti-Muslim sentiment being spread by any of its reporters’.”
The Malegaon attack in 2006 was one of the first times that Muslims in India had been targeted by terrorist bombings. On the morning following the blasts, some reports raised the possibility that Hindu radicals were behind the attacks, though these speculations were accompanied by denials from official sources. In an opinion piece in The Hindu, Swami and Anupama Katakam mentioned an April explosion at a house in Nanded, Maharashtra, in which two members of the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh’s youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, were killed while fabricating pipe bombs. “It is far too early, of course, to be anything like certain that a Hindu fundamentalist group carried out the bombing,” they wrote. “Islamist terror groups have long sought to provoke communal violence.” In the following days, many media reports discounted the possibility that Hindu terrorists were behind the blasts. “No evidence of Bajrang involvement”, ran a typical headline, in the Times of India; the accompanying report relied on the claim of a senior police officer, who said the Malegaon blasts were caused by significantly more powerful devices than those found in Nanded.
In time, Swami’s coverage became less even-handed. Writing three days after the Samjhauta blast, he cited an intelligence official who said the bomb’s construction—he compared it to “a beat-up old Ambassador car with a brand new Mercedes engine”—was intended to deceive. “What might have been the purpose of deception is starting to become clear,” Swami wrote. “Jihadi organisations in Pakistan have already begun blaming the Indian security establishment and Hindu fundamentalist groups for the attacks.” In an Outlook report headlined “Rogue ISI Footprints”, Saikat Datta took a similar line, quoting an intelligence official who said, “The sophisticated circuitry in the bombs indicate the involvement of people who have access to resources, who work for a state-run organisation like the ISI.”
As the blasts continued, Swami’s confidence in his jihadist theory seemed to deepen, as did his willingness to uncritically report official statements. After the Mecca Masjid bombing, he published a story referring to an “Islamist campaign against Hyderabad”. The report made public the address of Abdul Rehman, alias Shahid Bilal, “the man the Hyderabad Police believe planned and executed” the attack—who turned out to have nothing to do with the blast. Around this belief, Swami weaved a complex aetiology for the bombing, linking a Lashkar-e-Taiba ideologue’s vow to “liberate Hyderabad from Hindu rule” with the Razakar leader Kasim Rizvi’s 1948 promise to hoist the Nizam of Hyderabad’s flag over the Red Fort in Delhi.
Tracing historical continuities between disparate acts of violence is a common Swami trope; he has used a claim that the first Islamist suicide attack occurred in India in 1565 to argue that it is no surprise India is today the “site of a major and growing jihadist movement”. Another of his typical readings presents Islamic fundamentalists as ideologically monolithic, and largely in thrall to Pakistan. Following the destruction at Mecca Masjid, he incorrectly claimed that Pakistan had been compelled by the West to rein in Lashkar-e-Taiba, and found this a sufficient reason for jihadists to target fellow Muslims: “Attacks on mosques, Islamist terror groups appear to hope, will be blamed on Hindu fundamentalist organisations—and thus provide the pretext they need to throw off the shackles.”
When I asked Swami about his incorrect, damaging reports on Hyderabad, he admitted his coverage was flawed. But, instead of questioning the veracity or motives of his sources, he justified them on the basis of other intelligence claims. “I blamed it on the Indian Muhajideen,” he said. “Shahid Bilal was intercepted on tape so we now know the basis for that suspicion. He was talking about an attack that coincided with Mecca Masjid.”
Unlike the previous bombings, the Ajmer detonation on 11 October 2007 targeted a Muslim syncretic place of worship that is also visited by Hindu and Christian pilgrims. Swami had two front-page bylines the next day. In a straight-ahead news report, he cited anonymous officials who “noted that the Ajmer attack was the most recent in a string of attacks … for several of which members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba have been alleged to be responsible.” Then, in a second, more analytical piece, he turned to self-assured speculation. The bombings, he wrote, “reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”
Less than a year after the Ajmer blast, another bomb went off in Malegaon, in 2008. During the course of the subsequent investigations, hundreds of people were interrogated. There were numerous allegations of torture. By early 2011, at least four dozen innocent people had been accused in the five attacks. Many of them spent as long as 18 months in jail. Profiling one of the falsely accused in The Hindu, Vidya Subramaniam wrote that he lost his job as a salesman in a jewelry shop on the day he was interrogated. “Today, scarred for life and stigmatised for having once been charged with terror, he sells watermelons on the pavement,” Subramaniam wrote after the man was finally released. “Others acquitted along with him feel similarly wrecked: the torture marks have faded but the memories have not.”
Two weeks before I met with Swami to discuss his work, I sat in the office of The Hindu’s executive editor, MK Venu. Following Swami’s departure for the Daily Telegraph, there was a significant change in the way The Hindu covered terrorism. “I am very happy that we don’t have any reporter with Deep Throat kind of IB sources,” Venu said. “We have taken a decision not to carry claims from the security and police establishment immediately after blasts.”
He admitted that it was a sensitive issue for the paper due to its past coverage. A fortnight later, I met Swami in the same office; after the recent departure of the paper’s editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu had resigned.
SOON AFTER THE SECOND MALEGAON BOMBING, received wisdom about the terror attacks was overturned. On 10 October 2008, 11 days after the explosion, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a senior Sangh Parivar activist suspected of owning a scooter used in the blast. A number of other Hindu radicals were detained in the following weeks. Eventually, Pragya Singh and 13 alleged conspirators were charged with the bombing. Then, in November 2010, the Central Bureau of Investigation apprehended Swami Aseemanand, a right-wing Hindu cleric, at an ashram in Haridwar. Aseemanand soon confessed that a group of Sangh activists had been responsible for all five of the blasts. (Aseemanand, who is still under trial, has since retracted his confession.) Police have charged over 20 Hindu extremists in the five cases.
The relationship between media coverage and the prosecution of justice during this period is difficult to map. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to assume that journalists could have brought significant pressure to bear on investigating agencies by pursuing early indications that the attacks were carried out by Hindu radicals. On the other hand, the agencies exerted powerful control over the flow and nature of available information—especially given the insufficiently critical methods of many national security reporters. Whatever the complexities of this dynamic, the skewed coverage took its toll in several ways—from degrading the credibility of the nation’s security establishment and the journalists who cover it, to contributing to the failure to protect the public from seemingly preventable acts of terror.
When claims about Pragya Singh’s involvement began to come to light in 2008, Josy Joseph, then an investigative journalist at the newspaper DNA, started reporting about prejudice within the country’s intelligence agencies. (Joseph recently won the Ramnath Goenka award for journalist of the year.) “Several sources within the security establishment are beginning to admit that ‘deep-rooted biases’ within the intelligence apparatus had prevented them from picking on ‘very clear clues’ available after some of the major blasts,” he wrote. A senior intelligence official who had “for some time been warning against the erosion in
the secular character of intelligence agencies” told Joseph that his agency never bothered “to even look at fringe Hindu groups”.
For his part, Praveen Swami took a tack similar to the one he had used in 2003, when he reported on Operation Sarp Vinash. A possibility he had previously discounted or ignored now appeared in his writing as a fact he had always acknowledged: a month after Pragya Singh’s arrest, he wrote that “elements of the movement she represented have long been known to be preparing for a war—at least since 2003.” (“What I think is important is journalism corrects itself when information becomes available,” he told me during our conversation, in November.)
Joseph was one of the few reporters who, as early as 2006, paid close attention to the possibility the attacks might be led by such a movement. Relying on his own anonymous official sources, he challenged the certainty that seemed to creep into other journalists’ work. The day after the first Malegaon attack, he wrote: “Sources cautioned that the ‘obsession’ with Islamist terror is misleading Indian investigators.” He then quoted an intelligence officer who told him, “We should keep a close watch on developments like the Nanded blast”.
The following day, Joseph had a report under the headline “Are our intelligence agencies groping in the dark?” “Complicating the situation today is the absence of credible leads that could help prevent further attacks,” he wrote. “‘More often than not, our investigations are heavily flawed,’ says a police official with a central intelligence organisation. ‘Evidence is created to fit claims; most of it is undependable.’” Three days later, Joseph reported a similar conversation: “Terrorism is a fast evolving complex situation ‘beyond the formulations of past precedence,’ a senior officer insisted. He said there is always a first time for each organisation to begin with a new explosive and so they wouldn’t rule out Bajrang Dal involvement in Malegaon until concrete evidence emerged to prove otherwise.”
“Reporters tend to overplay their importance in the story,” Joseph told me when I met him recently. He credited his sources with alerting him to the possibility that Hindu activists were behind the first Malegaon attack. On the day of the bombing, he told me, “I spoke to two chiefs of different agencies. One of them said, ‘Josy, you should look at the Hindu groups. Please flag it, because we are ignoring it.’” His source claimed that this angle was being suppressed by the dominant view within the agencies.
But Joseph, who said he instinctively supports the underdog, wasn’t entirely able to withstand the force of collective opinion. His reports on the blasts at Mecca Masjid and Ajmer, in 2007, were less confident about the possibility of Hindu terrorism. “It gets difficult to hold on to your position when the dominant discourse says something else,” he told me. “I wish I had more courage and my sources more information.” At another point in our conversation, he reflected on leads that hadn’t been followed by agencies or the media. “It’s very much possible that the IB officers who knew of the existence of Hindu groups wanted to suppress it,” he speculated. “A lot of innocent people died and the blood is on the hands of agencies and the media.”
Ashish Khetan, an investigative journalist who broke the story of Swami Aseemanand’s confession, in January 2011, told me something similar. (He had reported the story while working at India Today, but the magazine refused to publish it, so he quit and took the piece to Tehelka.) “Our agencies—because of inefficiency, sheer anti-Muslim prejudice, and the proclivity to look for shortcuts—went after the usual suspects,” he said. “And the media has by and large been responsible for creating prejudice against Muslims in the way they cover the aftermath of blasts.” But he also acknowledged the role individuals within the agencies played in bringing new facts to light. “My work wouldn’t have been possible if all the men manning these agencies were bad,” he said, adding, “This is a can of worms that opens only from inside.”
FROM TIME TO TIME, journalists themselves are the victims of false accusations leaked by intelligence agencies and circulated by the press. Early on the morning of Sunday, 9 June 2002, officials from the Intelligence Bureau, income tax department and special branch of police raided the house of Iftikhar Gilani, the Delhi bureau chief of the Kashmir Times and son-in-law of the Kashmiri separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. After securing Gilani in his bedroom, officers searched his home and seized various documents. Television journalists were already in front of the house, filing live reports. An Aaj Tak correspondent standing next to Gilani’s mailbox told viewers that he was absconding, and that incriminating evidence was found on his laptop. Gilani was taken into custody.
A small group of journalists, maintaining Gilani’s innocence, immediately began agitating for his release. A brief report about the campaign appeared in the Times of India on 10 June. The police and IB “quickly realised the need to nip any journalistic acts of solidarity in the bud,” Siddharth Varadarajan later wrote in a foreword to a memoir Gilani composed while detained in Tihar Jail. “Editors could be leaned upon (and they were) but there was no better deterrent to the campaigning spirit than a concocted confession by Iftikhar that he had been an ISI agent all along.”
On 11 June, the Hindustan Times published a report by a crime reporter named Neeta Sharma under the headline, “Iftikhar Geelani admits ISI link”. “In the course of hearing on Monday, Geelani reportedly said he had been passing on classified information about the movement of Indian troops to the ISI,” Sharma wrote. “When chief metropolitan magistrate Sangita Sehgal asked him if she should record this in his statement, Geelani nodded in assent.” A deluge of other reports soon spread news of the confession.
“It was the second day after my arrest. I was hardly there for two minutes in the court,” Gilani, who is now the Delhi bureau chief of DNA, recalled when I met him at the Press Club of India earlier this year. “She was not even a court reporter. It was the best example of fabricating a quote. Later I got to know that a plain-clothes policeman gave that to her. She should’ve confirmed it from the court. That story created a lot of problems for me.”
Many other reporters were lazy, if not reprehensibly negligent. Most failed to check the correct spelling of his name and, like Sharma, continued to write “Geelani”. In Frontline, almost two weeks after Gilani’s arrest, Praveen Swami incorrectly identified him as the resident editor of two Pakistani newspapers, The Nation and the Friday Times. “The police claimed to have found classified information on Kargil war-related Indian troop movements on his computer, along with separate evidence that he had acted as a conduit for terrorist funds,” Swami wrote. It later came to light that the information on troop movements was a paper published by a Pakistani think tank and freely available on the internet. But the IB had fabricated Gilani’s version to make it look like a stolen classified document.
Another piece of evidence police held against Gilani was an 11-page fax with the minutes of a Hizbul Mujahideen meeting, Gilani told me. (A report in The Pioneer later called him the point man of Syed Salahuddin, the terrorist organisation’s leader.) “The fax used to come from one of the intelligence agencies, and always without a name or number,” he said. “They booked me for being in touch with Hizbul. But Frontline had carried a story by Praveen Swami which had all the same information about the meeting. Not even a comma had been changed. Only the headline was different. Thanks to Praveen Swami, which I told him later, the false charge didn’t stand.” After seven months in jail, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government withdrew all the charges against Gilani, and set him free.
Gilani is not the only journalist who has been the target of malicious planted stories. In August 2012, Muthi-Ur-Rahman Siddiqui, a 26-year-old reporter working in Bangalore for the Deccan Herald, was one of 11 young Muslims picked up by police, who accused them of being Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami terrorists planning attacks on Hubli and Bangalore. A report on the arrest in the Times of India cited a Chennai paper that quoted intelligence sources who said, “Siddiqui told investigators about his links with certain individuals in Ambur, Vellore and Vanyimabadi in Tamil Nadu. They said he frequently visited some organisations based there.” Who those individuals and organisations were was left unspecified. In February of this year, Siddiqui was finally released; there was no prosecutable evidence against him.
“My message to journalist friends is that if they can do it with me, they can do it with you tomorrow,” Gilani told the Network of Women in Media, in 2003. “My case should be a wake-up call for all journalists and concerned citizens.” When we met, I asked him about the work of the intelligence agencies. “They have a right. It’s their job,” he said. “But it is for the journalists how they use the information. It is our duty to confirm it.”
“IT’S A TRUISM THAT DENIALS never quite catch up to charges,” Tom Wicker once wrote, in the New York Times obituary of a man who was falsely accused by the United States government of being a Soviet spy. “Honest journalists who may have mistakenly printed false information know that the most prominent retraction never quite undoes the damage done by the original publication.”
Sometimes, the retraction never comes. In the foreword to Gilani’s memoir, Siddharth Varadarajan recounted bumping into the Hindustan Times reporter Neeta Sharma at a wedding in 2004. “When I said I had a bone to pick with her because of the hit-job she had done on Iftikhar Gilani, she said, ‘I don’t know any Iftikhar Gilani,’” Varadarajan wrote. “I was angry but decided to give her a bit of advice: ‘The police officials who used you to plant that story have escaped with their reputations intact. But what you did will remain a blot on your reputation as a journalist so long as you don’t apologise to Iftikhar.’”
Six years later, when she was working for NDTV India, Sharma won the Indian News Broadcasting Award for News Reporter of the Year. Varadarajan wrote a letter of protest to the jury: “While I am not familiar with her work on TV, her earlier work as a reporter for HT was reprehensible. Indeed, I have no hesitation in saying she was a blot on the profession of journalism. And that until she makes amends by tendering an unqualified apology to the biggest victim of her unprofessionalism—Iftikhar Gilani—she ought to be considered beyond the pale.”
When I met him this November, Praveen Swami accepted that he had erred in his reporting at various points. (“I believe that some history, however flawed, is better than none,” he wrote in 2009.) But he doesn’t believe he owes anyone an apology. “Who is an apology due to?” he asked. “Nobody was charged or arrested or indicted. Yes, people were detained and questioned—but no charges. Surely that shows good faith rather than malice.”
“A journalist’s principal duty is to his readers,” Dhiren Bhagat wrote in 1988, just days before he broke the story about R&AW’s shipment of smuggled arms. “It is a duty to replace rumour with a report, to place facts on the public record so that they pass into history.” Later that year, Bhagat was killed when he crashed his Suzuki Gypsy. There was a lot of speculation about the causes of the accident, though no wrongdoing was ever proven. When I mentioned his name to senior journalists, they asked me if he wasn’t the one who got into trouble with R&AW and then died. The impression left by Bhagat’s death was clear.
On another occasion, Bhagat wrote that “what distinguishes a newspaper from a propaganda sheet or an advertisement brochure is its independence from those it writes about, whether they be government, corporation or theatre group.” In August 2011, the home minister, P Chidambaram, and the opposition leader Arun Jaitley presided over the book launch of Shishir Gupta’s Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within. In the audience were the former home secretary GK Pillai and the former army chief VK Singh. It was a rare peek into a security reporter’s access to power. When I asked Gupta about the many distinguished guests, he said, “You have to build trust over the years. You have to be fair and you have to understand their mindset.”
For his part, Josy Joseph understands the mindset fairly well. He remains in close touch with people inside the intelligence agencies, but he said he was moving away from the natsec beat. “Remaining a security reporter in this country, I have realised, you have to be willing to be manipulated by the system. Otherwise, you won’t get information,” he told me. “And I didn’t want to be manipulated.”
But others I spoke to considered the suppression of facts and the spreading of disinformation to be part of a reporter’s duty. “Every journalist should ask himself a question before publishing any report,” the former R&AW chief Vikram Sood told me. “Will it make India safer or the enemy wiser? Does it serve my country or not? Am I prepared to bend the truth a bit if it does?” Then he asked me, “Are you going to write all this? Because it’s not good to expose journalists doing their bit for national security.”
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.