The inescapable circularity of spytalk

In my response ("Whiff of a conspiracy", June 2001) to Subir Bhaumik's "Conspirators' cauldron" (May 2001), I had pointed to certain well-known criteria that distinguish journalism from intelligence-gathering. In his rejoinder "Indian wheat and Bangla chaff" (July 2001), Bhaumik returns to the fray armed with more classified information from secret files, some grand claims about his proximity to intelligence sources and his facility in dealing with their murky ways and a bit of tasteless abuse of Bangladeshi journalists. I feel properly chastised. Obviously, when journalists like Bhaumik are about, sermonising on this or that issue concerning Bangladesh, it is best for Bangladeshis to retire en masse and listen with rapt attention so that they equip themselves to understand their own country a little better.

But Bhaumik's omniscience notwithstanding, he has failed to respond to the substantive queries I had raised. I therefore feel constrained to remind him of the fundamental distinction between a reporter and a spy.  A media report is a verifiable account that belongs in the public domain and is therefore as much available to the undercover agent as it is to the ordinary citizen. Freely available, verifiable public information is not what the undercover agent deals in. By definition, the intelligence report must concoct a world of conspiracies, machinations and intrigue, based on "secret, unverifiable sources". That is its professional compulsion. The spy's report is not open to corroboration nor is it governed by any code of ethics. Granted there are conspiracies that affect the public domain. But then the intelligence agency involved in uncovering it does not usually make it public precisely because it is also involved in the conspiracy as a counter-conspirator.

Since intelligence and counter-intelligence are party to the same conspiracy, their reports bear the stamp of their respective clandestine mandates. When such reports are recycled as media reports, the objective of the concerned intelligence outfit is clearly to influence an outcome in a desired direction. Is it the job of a journalist to participate in and fulfill the objectives of un-dercover agent? That is a question of ethics. There is also the question of verifiability that is involved when such reports are reproduced as media analysis. The authentication of the information reported is foreclosed by an inescapable circularity. The undercover report is its own source. By pushing intelligence reports as media reports which cannot be challenged, Bhaumik creates a situation where he will have to be judged either as the best reporter going or as a mere cog in the undercover mechanism. And when the sceptical among the public raise pertinent questions, he hides behind the privilege of confidentiality.

Bhaumik, of course, claims that he has surmounted all these problems because he is so adept at playing off one intelligence agency against another. That requires very special abilities, as Bhaumik makes amply clear, and we can just accept his word for it. But I am left to wonder why a person of such self-confessed abilities restricts himself to ferreting out information from India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) when there are so many more he can tap in to explain South Asian developments.

This brings me to some of the specific charges that Bhaumik has levelled. He says that I have not named the "foreign experts" who I have cited as saying that the Kotaliputra bomb had "military origins". I am not as privileged as Bhaumik to be in touch with so many foreign experts, but will clarify that "sources" did not tell me this. I merely repeated what had appeared in Bangladesh media reports. There are a couple of points on which Bhaumik has misread my argument. I did not suggest anywhere that Islamic terrorists did not plant the bomb at Kotaliputra. I simply said there was no proof that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the explosion. I still maintain that. Intelligence claims do not constitute evidence. Till the case is closed, the public has a right to get authentic information and not opinions based on unverifiable sources with a long history of misinforming. That is the difference between spreading rumours and reporting with credibility.

Evidently Bhaumik's inability to make careful distinctions is why he is "astounded" by my "assertion" that the "Breda conspiracy has disappeared from Dutch papers". What was said was, "The Breda conspiracy has also disappeared from the papers. In fact, check with the Dutch papers and you will see no such rumours. Notice also that the source quoted was the Indian mainstream media, and not the Dutch media." Read rigorously and logically, it is fairly clear that the papers I referred to were Bangladesh papers, which had quoted the Indian media. To those who do not have to be fed their information it is obvious enough, from the second and third sentences, that there is no reference to any such report in the Dutch media.

Specifically on the story that Bhaumik broke, about the Breda-based, ISI-backed conspiracy to kill Sheikh Hasina, based on an intelligence report submitted to him by RAW or some other outfit, there are some questions I would like to raise. Bhaumik seems to suggest that the absence of any denial by Pakistan is proof of veracity. If only the geo-politics of nations were settled so easily, through the zeal of heroic individuals close to undercover agents. There could be any number of reasons why the Inter Services Intelligence should choose to say nothing. Why is it incumbent on the ISI to contest a story, on an alleged conspiracy hatched in Netherlands to kill Sheikh Hasina, published in an Indian paper? And is the Pakistani lack of interest in the story sufficient proof that there is indeed such a conspiracy? There are questions of method and logic that arise here.

Let us grant that there was conspiracy. Suppose the ISI knew the consequences and decided to keep mum? Suppose they felt that their objective was best served by letting people know that such a conspiracy was on? But then how can the absence of a Pakistani denial be construed to indicate the agency's involvement. Or suppose the ISI knew that Bhaumik's story was a RAW feed, in the same way that the transcript of the reported conversation between two ISI agents that he keeps referring to might well be? The fact that the Bangladesh government has so far failed to interest the Dutch authorities in this matter should make him wonder. Now that the matter has been well-publicised thanks to Bhaumik's efforts, would the Dutch let a few Bangladeshi terrorists and the ISI plan a murder on their soil? Bhaumik may well have converted an intelligence report into a media report on behalf of some intelligence agency. It will not do to so easily disparage everybody else's intelligence.

The line of credibility

Bhaumik also makes statements about Bangladesh that unfortunately give the lie to his claims to being an "East Bengali with firm roots in Bangladesh". For one, he has no idea about the 'bomb scene' in the country. It has by now acquired the status of a major industry. There are bomb manufacturing units in every town, especially so in the towns near the Indian border. Media reports (not intelligence reports) say that the raw material is imported from India. Hundreds have died from bomb explosions. Many others have died while making bombs. In fact, more people have died from bombs in Bangladesh than soldiers have died in Kashmir.

Bangladeshis have been hurling bombs at each other and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Practically everyone seems to be doing it. Those who have to live through it do not particularly need to cast about for Dutch conspiracies and then, through all manner of convolutions, link them to Bangla Islamic terrorists to explain why they happen. The bomb going off in Narayanganj did not blow up in my face because it just happened to go off in an Awami League office. Many bombs have gone off before and many more will. But till the culprits are taken to task on the basis of solid proof, nothing will abate. Taking action on the say-so of Bhaumik's undercover friends is not really going to help. Journalists can only report what can be proved and leave it at that. Nothing more can be said without breaching the line of credibility.

Not content with connecting the Dutch conspiracy with Islamic fundamentalism, Bhaumik then finds all manner of historical parallels. But his understanding of contemporary and historical Bangladesh is not terribly sound. The 1971 Al-Badr and Razakar killing of intellectuals and the recent bomb blasts at meetings organised by the Communist Party of Bangladesh simply do not compare. These meetings had nothing to do with intellectuals. One of these meetings was organised for labourers and the Ramna meeting had people from different strata of society. So much for the claim about Islamic fundamentalists targetting intellectuals. It is in fact the attack on meetings organised by a party that has no clout that is odd. Had AL or BNP or even Jammat been attacked, there would have been strikes and protest. Is it possible to draw any strong conclusions from all this? Were they picked on precisely because they were soft targets? Was it due to an internal feud? Was it a Maoist attack of the kind which has become more common now? Nobody knows as yet. Certainly, not mere Bangladeshis sitting in Bangladesh. What happened in 1971 was by contrast so much clearer. Then, there was a prepared list of people who were killed with the active support of the Pakistan army to avenge Pakistan's loss. Bhaumik should not decide on other people's history without first getting the facts right.

Having rehashed Bangla history, Bhaumik proceeds to recast its politics. He persists with the error that Awami League is a pro-Indian party. This is as erroneous as the notion that devout Bangladeshi Muslims are all anti-Indian or devout Hindus are all Bangladesh haters. As a matter of fact, Indians can afford the luxury of being pro- or anti-Awami League or Bangladesh Nationalist Party but no party in Bangladesh can really afford to have an anti-Indian policy and survive. The media may create images but all one has to do is look at trade figures over the last 15 years and see the ever-rising index, and the reality of Indo-Bangladesh relations

will emerge. That is the reality of Bangladesh's foreign policy. Bhaumik says that India should not fritter away the gains made in the last five years. Please understand that gains have been made not just in the last five years. The gains have been on for quite sometime and will go on, no matter who comes to power.

As far as Bhaumik's story of the LTTE angle in the plot to assassinate Sheikh Hasina is concerned, he has not provided any evidence other than repeating what his intelligence reports have to say. Such things are more competently described by Le Carre, Ludlum, poor Jeffrey Archer and the like. I, for one, would hesitate to provoke the journalist to further reiterations of the same banality. Sheikh: Hasina faces many threats to her life particularly since some of her father's killers are still on the lam. Naturally, some of them may be plotting her death and security agencies must be keeping track. My only plea is that reporting remain within the boundaries of verification. If there is no definite proof, spare the readers. They have a right to facts, not fiction. Let the intelligence agencies do their work and the media its.

What may have caused the Padua takeover is still not known and till an independent investigation establishes the truth we can never be sure. Nor is the reason for the Boraibari attack clear. The chief of India's Border Security Force, in an interview given to an Indian magazine, has said that the Boraibari attack was cleared 'from above'. Some other reports have also surfaced. The post-clash situation is one of mutually contradictory statements. Unless both parties agree to tell the truth, we will all be engaging in pointless speculation. To stay within the parameter of facts is the safest and most reliable way to inform the public.

Bhaumik's close reading of intelligence reports seems to have affected him in matters of style as well. Intelligence reports are prepared for the government. Therefore, though often imaginative, their style is literal and dry. There is no place in it for metaphor, irony and the other stylistic devices of language and argument. I therefore can only sympathise with Bhaumik when he says "how preposterous to think India engineered the border crisis to strengthen Sheikh Hasina". If he read my response with the care he seems to reserve only for classified documents, he will find that I was merely being ironical. I was simply trying to take the implications of Bhaumik's argument to their logical conclusion by speculating on all the other possibilities that an open-ended conspiracy theory seemed to offer. Just as there is no proof connecting the border incident with the Islamists and pro-Pakistanis in the Bangladesh army and only speculation, there could be any other combination as well. I added my own concoction to show the absurdities one could conclude from the assumptions that Bhaumik makes. Conspiracies are not established by hearsay. And that is the point that Bhaumik misses. This is understandable, for in his scheme of things events must be made to follow prefabricated hypotheses.

There is one last point to be made. Anti-Indian feelings in Bangladesh are traceable to a few issue like the Farakka Barrage, lopsided balance of trade, border management by the BSF, the support given to the Chittagong Hill Tract insurgents (just as Bangladesh had supported some insurgent Indian groups in the past), and "migrant bashing" in the Indian media and by certain political parties. But anti-Indian feelings also rise because avowed "pro-Bengalis" often make unnecessary statements. Bhaumik says, "One has only to read my book Insurgent Crossfire to get an accurate account of the RAW's involvement in fuelling the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. No Bangladeshi, I can challenge, can match the depth of my expose on that issue— unless all they do is speculate". A little later he says, "After all, in India, reporters are not afraid of taking on the military-security establishment, unlike our colleagues in Bangladesh."

We are led to believe that Bangladeshi reporters not only do not measure up to the standards of Indian journalists, they are cowardly as well. How does that make Bhaumik different from the Zee TV correspondent who asked him how "Bangladesh could be chastised"? Such statements are the reason for the belief common in Bangladesh, that many Indians are patronising, that they can never consider themselves to be in the wrong and cannot accept that others, especially those from the smaller South Asian countries, can ever be right.

I will not go into what Bangladeshi reporters experience when they go out in the field. But Bhaumik will do well to read a recent report of the Paris-based RSF which will give him some idea. According to it, "The situation there is very difficult. Unlike in India, journalists there don't operate without fear. They are in danger, are unsafe but do their best and the injury and death toll for discharging duties is high compared to many other places". And unlike Bhaumik, most are not on talking terms with the military establishment, against whom many have fought and through their struggle against martial law, learned the meaning of freedom.

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