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Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Covid -19: Musings from the hospital bed.

I am on the tenth floor of Global Hospital's building which has been reserved only for Covid-19 patients. Adjacent to my bed is a big window from where I get a top angle view of areas in central Mumbai like Parel, Lalbaug, Sewri, Byculla etc. Just outside the window stands red tall building of ITC Grand Central Hotel. Beside it is a cluster of residential skyscrapers. A retired IPS friend known for breaking the backbone of Mumbai underworld resides in one of these buildings. The premises has a big lawn and an open theatre in it where people can be seen walking or walking their dogs. At a distance, remenants of old mills are visible which reminds that the area was once part of mill district of Mumbai. Looking towards left one finds numerous under-construction towers which are as high as 40 floors. Beyond them one gets a glimpse of Mumbai harbour located on the eastern seafront of the city. There is good amount of greenery also seen. The area has good number of trees and some of them have been made their home by parrots, maina, sparrow and other birds. Looking towards right of the window I find a distinct looking white coloured building of The College of Physicians & Surgeons of Mumbai which appears to be deserted.The weather is cloudy and today there is no sunlight. Thin fog has engulfed the skyline around the hospital. This is due to deep depression which has occured in Bay of Bengal. Weather bureau has warned heavy rains in Mumbai also as a consequence. Hospital is a boring place but a good view mitigates the boredom.

My hospitalisation was preceded by 8 days of fever and declining Oxygen levels. Although, first Covid-19 test came negative, a CT scan of chest bombed that 20 percent of my lungs were infected. I thought of getting medicated at home but heavy insistence by friend Umesh Kumawat and colleague Ganesh Thakur compelled me to get admitted. In the hindsight I feel it was a timely decision before things would have gone out of hand. It is for the first time in my life that I have been hospitalised. In 2005, I was taken to Jaslok Hospital for first aid when my motorcycle was hit by a speeding taxi near Mahalaxmi. 

My day begins at 6AM when I am woken up by a nurse who attaches an intravenous means (IV) to inject antibiotics in my body followed by a blood thinning injection in my stomach. An hour later another injection of insulin is administered due to my diabetic status. Throughout the day, I receive four injections in my body and two of them in my stomach. After breakfast a dose of different capsules and tablets is given, total nine of them. My blood sugar level, blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels are checked every few hours. This is my fifth day in hospital and I am feeling better than the first day when I came here. My throat has improved and there is no fever but weakness is still there.

Initially, I had a bit of anxiety. Considering my co- morbidity, I wasn't sure about my fate. Before hospitalisation I have come across cases of four people I know who have succumbed to Covid-19. They were either of my age or younger than me. Some had no co-morbidities. The thought of dying, getting wrapped in black polythene and directly being taken to electric crematorium with no relatives around revolved inside my mind for initial two to three days. But then I thought, when my mother who was very critical and had a bleak chance of survival has recovered and gone home then in her comparison I am in a much better state. Keeping positive state of mind is very necessary for a Covid patient to maintain his immunity. A dialogue from movie Sholay is apt here - "Jo darr gaya, vo mar gaya".

Thankfully, while coming to get hospitalised I quickly picked up a book from my home collection, "Our Moon Has Blood Clots" by Rahul Pandita. This book is helping me to keep the phone away  and most of the time is being spent in reading. Have finished it more than half today. But you can't avoid the phone. Since the time I have been hospitalised there has been a flurry of calls and messages from friends, relatives, well wishers and colleagues. Phone is the only means for the people concerned for me to get update on my health as no visitors are allowed in Corona ward. For initial three days, I just responded to very few calls since I was finding it difficult to speak but now I am taking calls and also reverting to those whom I missed. It was really heartening to know that the people whom I had lost touch and had not spoken since years also called up after knowing about my illness. Some had themselves had gone through it and offered good advice. There is a TV set attached in the front wall, but mostly I choose to keep it shut for good.

My appetite is returning. The day I was hospitalised, I could hardly eat a single roti but  now I eat two and some rice. Every two days my blood test is being done and now words like Blood Culture, CRP, CBC, SPO2, HBA1C, D-Diamer etc seem to be important for survival.

The staff of hospital is very professional and friendly and are taking good care of me. All of them look same and faceless due to PPE kits they are wearing. From their Hindi accents like "Aap teek hoyega" or "Jyada tension lene ka nai", I can make out that most of them are either Keralities or Maharashtrians. Hospital dietician comes every evening to check if food is okay. 

Once she asked - "Are you allergic to anything?"

"Yes. Hypocrisy!", I said being intoxicated by content of the book I was reading.

First she got nonplussed with my answer and then smiled in amusement, which I could only read through her eyes since rest of her face was covered with a mask.

Any amount of admiration is not enough for these health care workers. They risk their health in line of duty. I am told that some of them were themselves infected with Covid-19 earlier and were critically ill. Few hours ago I was visited by senior doctors and an executive from the hospital's management who expressed satisfaction over my recovery. When I asked them about my discharge they said that a call would be taken once my latest reports come. 

 Although, I was worried about mother who was discharged 3 days back after recovering from critical Covid infection, I myself don't feel bad for getting infected by it. Nothing is waste. The stay in hospital has given me time to read, write, think, introspect and reflect on my past and future. 

Balasaheb whom I knew...

Today is Balasaheb's death anniversary. As a journalist I have met & interacted with him on several occasions and have covered many events related to him and his party like Shiv Sena's defeat in 1999 Vidhansabha polls, Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray quitting his party, introduction of Aditya Thackeray in politics by him in a rally at Shivaji Park and ultimately his demise in 2012.

Everybody in my family revered Indira Gandhi but after her assassination in 1984, my family noticed that her qualities were reflected in Balasaheb. Although, unlike Mrs.Gandhi, Thackeray was a regional leader but displayed same aggression and made impact on crowds through his oratory and style. Thackeray's Shiv Sena was formed to champion Marathi cause but by 1987, he gave it a colour of hardcore Hindutva organisation. This led to a connect of Shiv Sena even with non-Marathi speaking families like mine. Infact, one of my relatives became an office bearer of Shiv Sena's local unit in South Mumbai.

 To be honest, I was also in awe of Thackeray's personality during my student days which continued till initial days of my career as a journalist. This might be due to my family's influence and also Thackeray's skills to connect with the youth through his speeches and writings in Saamana. Once in 1995, when I was in class nine, I bunked my tuition class and went to Dadar on a local train without ticket to attend his election rally at Shivaji Park. I was overwhelmed with happiness by listening to him and seeing him in person.

 Two years later, I joined Hindi edition of Shiv Sena's mouthpiece Saamana as it's campus reporter and south Mumbai stringer. I was pursuing my B.A in Political Science from Wilson College then. Considering my association with Saamana, the Wilson College unit of Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena which was then headed by Raj Thackeray offered me a post. However, I declined the offer thinking that it would affect my studies. Already, job with Hindi Saamna was consuming much of my time. This way, I missed an opportunity to enter politics and in the hindsight I believe it was for good.

 After Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power in 1995, most of the people working in Saamna behaved like they too were part of the government. Some behaved very arrogantly and disrespectfully with senior cops and government officials. They had a notion -"Ab to apna hi raaj hai. Jo karna hai bindass karo". Few complaints reached Thackeray's ears and he gave a stern warning - "Balasaheb is just one. Everybody must not start thinking that he is Balasaheb".(Sab koi khud ko Balasaheb na samjhe)

Smitha Thackeray, estranged wife of Balasaheb Thackeray's son Jaidev had become very powerful those days. She held good clout in film industry. Once I was working for a story which was against somebody known to her. I called that person for his version, but instead he told me with confidence -"Why are you wasting your time?This story is not going to be published in Saamna". He was right. When I reached office with the story, Smitha Thackeray's phone had already come. Sanjay Nirupam, my then boss, reprimanded me softly. Story was never published.

During my stint in Saamana, I met him just once, when Shiv Sena organised an Uttar Bhartiya Mahasammelan in Andheri Sports Complex. The event was organised to connect with north Indians. Hindi Saamana's then executive editor Sanjay Nirupam was key person for the event and everybody working for Hindi Saamana including me was part of the organising team. During the speech Thackeray said to the north Indian crowd - "So what if you are called Bhaiyas? Even we Marathis are referred to as ____", he said.

My interactions with Balasaheb became more frequent when I quit Hindi Saamana and joined Aaj Tak as a TV reporter.  Knowing that I had worked with Saamna he said - "Anybody who has worked with Saamana is a Shiv Sainik. I will call you TV waala Shiv Sainik", he said smilingly. It is another story that me and my cameramen were about to be lynched by Shiv Sainiks in 2002 at Thane. 

In 1999 on the day when Vidhansabha election results were declared, I alongwith India Today's V.Shankkar Iyer interviewed him late evening. Shiv Sena-BJP combine had lost the elections and it was a big setback for Thackeray. But during the interview, he maintained a calm posture and answered even bitter questions gracefully. It was unusual for a person who was known to lose his cool even at a slightly irritating question by journalists. History tells that,  journalists were humiliated in his press conferences for asking "unpleasant" questions. Before going for the interview I was worried that he might be in a bad mood and would not answer tough questions. That turned out to be my overthinking.

In my several meetings with him, I noticed that Bal Thackeray was a very different person when he was on stage or on camera and when you met him personally. He appeared to be a very soft spoken, humble and down to earth person contradicting his on stage avatar of being an arrogant, badmouthed and proponent of hate. Thackeray's persona led me to draw parallels between him and some "encounter specialist" cops who too had dual shades of their personalities. Looking at their gentlemanly  behavior, it was hard to imagine that these people chased and killed gangsters.

Monday, 9 November 2020

What happens when you bid for property of Dawood Ibrahim : A case study.


Ajay Shrivastava has travelled from Delhi to Mumbai over 40 times in past 19 years to attend the court but still has not been able to get possession of property that he won in an auction arranged by Income Tax department.

The property consisted of two shops in Nagpada of Mumbai & was deemed as belonging to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. It is under possession of Dawood's late sister Haseena Parker's family.

 For the first time in year 2000 IT dept had organised an auction of Dawood's 11 seized properties. The officials waited throughout the day at Colaba's Diplomat Hotel where the event was arranged but nobody turned up to bid. I reported in Aaj Tak next day (which was a 20 minutes news capsule on Doordarshan those days & not a channel) - "Dawood stays in Karachi but his fear still exists in Mumbai. Nobody dares to bid on his property".

 Ajay Shrivastava, a lawyer who saw my story sensed an opportunity in the news. It was an opportunity to display his patriotism and also get praise from his party Shiv Sena with whose student unit in Delhi he was attached with. In 1999 he shot into fame for digging up pitch of Phirozeshah Kotla Stadium in Delhi on call by Shiv Sena to protest against playing cricket with Pakistan.

The next bidding was in March 2001. He flew down from Delhi and participated in the auction. He won the two shops after bidding  2.5 lakh rupees. He was the only participant in the auction. 

 Although, Shrivastava won the auction things didn't turn out as per his expectations. Shiv Sena neither acknowledged nor appreciated his endeavour. Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray even didn't give Shrivastava time to meet him.  Off the record senior Sena leaders said that they had nothing to do with what Shrivastava has done. He had done it in personal capacity without consent of the party.

 After winning the bid, Shrivastava went to Nagpada's Jayrajbhai lane where the two shops were located under heavy police protection to inspect the property. However, as soon as he reached the spot, he was gheraoed by a hostile mob who questioned his motive to bid for the property. Somebody shouted - "He is Chhota Rajan's man". Within five minutes he had to leave the spot on advice of local cops who feared that there would be a law & order issue if he stood their any longer. That was the last when he saw of that property.

 Soon Shrivastava got a call from Chhota Shakeel, who threatened him subtly - "Vakeel Saab, I think you have deposited the earnest money by mistake not knowing what you have done. Don't pay the remaining amount & get out of it". Shrivastava deposited the amount on third day after receiving Shakeel's call. More calls with open threats followed after that. Meanwhile, IB got inputs that there was a plan to eliminate him & he was provided security by Delhi Police.

 Shrivastava petitioned in Small Causes Court to get possession of the property. The respondent Haseena Parker avoided attending the hearings. Instead seven to eight men from Nagpada came in the court premises to intimidate him, he recollects. Shrivastava came in his lawyers uniform to avoid identification. After repeated hearings when Haseena didn't turn up, Shrivastava applied for an ex-parte order. This alarmed her and began taking the litigation seriously.

 In 2010 the court ruled in favour of Shrivastava & ordered the property to be given in his possession. However, the respondent went for appeal and the matter is still pending since then. In between Shrivastava offered to donate the property to Mumbai Police but then police commissioner A.N.Roy refused to give Shrivastava an audience when he got to know about the issue saying he was too busy.

Shrivastava has decided to pursue his legal struggle. "It not the question of occupying those two small shops. It the issue of challenging and defeating a terrorist", he said. Now Shrivastava is planning to bid for Dawood's ancestral home in Ratnagiri district.


Friday, 11 September 2020

The Red Ocean : Unfiltering Sushant’s Story & New Normal of TV News.

While pursuing my MBA, I learnt about Blue Ocean & Red Ocean strategies. Blue ocean is an unexplored market where there is no competition & ample scope to grow. On the other hand Red Ocean in management parlance is a market where there is cut throat competition and the players compete with each other to get the biggest pie. Today, TV news industry has effectively become a Red Ocean where all the players struggle to get maximum viewership. High viewership for a channel is important for its revenue and sustenance...but the channels don’t get viewership just by showing pure journalistic content (ask Mr.Roy)...hence you see the hyperactive reporters, the hysterical anchors, the chasing of cars, the lining up of OB vans outside residences of suspects & witnesses & offices of investigating agencies...And yes this coverage also gives you a feeling of time travel & takes you 4 months back, the pre-Covid days. There is no fear of infection ,no physical distancing & no precautions. (btw 3 young journalists across India lost their life due to Covid-19 during last 10 days) As soon as reporters see some suspect or witness arriving at DRDO guest house in Santacruz (where CBI team has camped) they pounce on them making everybody susceptible to the virus. The TV channels are giving maximum airtime to Sushant's coverage at a time when our GDP is going to Pataal Lok, figures of Covid infections and deaths are rocketing towards Aakashlok, China is expanding towards its west & floods have brought doom in India's north & east. Except one, for all other news channels Sushant's coverage was the most important news event of the nation. That one channel which didn’t cover Sushant like others remains at number 8 or 9 in the weekly ‘merit list’ of ratings. (I don’t know whom to blame for this) Here is my take on why the media arrived at this mess.


When the news of Sushant Singh's suicide came all crime seasoned reporters of Mumbai knew that the follow up coverage would stretch for many days to come. Suicide cases of Ziah Khan, Viveka Babaji & Pratyusha Banerji from the past suggest that such deaths from glamour industry are followed for long time and in great detail. However, nobody expected that Sushant's coverage would stretch over to 4 months and would overshadow all other national stories. Many channels had planned big coverage for 1st anniversary of abrogation of Art 370 in Kashmir & groundbreaking ceremony of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya but such was the impact of Sushant's story that these two events were confined to just one day coverage on most TV channels. Nothing seemed more important than Sushant’s story.


I don’t doubt Mumbai Police's line of investigation which treated Sushant's death as suicide with the initial inputs it had.(Yes, the CBI may or may not come out with a different finding).  Almost, all the crime journalists with whom I discussed the case concur with my view. Prima facie nothing came in Mumbai Police's hands to suggest that it was a case of murder. But then Mumbai Police & Maharashtra government made certain mistakes which are the root cause of mess which we are seeing today.




Lack of Transparency:


The Mumbai Police on the instructions of Maharashtra government acted on the tweets made by some film personalities who cried that Sushant was killed due to nepotism (the same ones are now talking about drug angle after nepotism was ruled out and Rhea was made accused for abetting Sushant’s suicide) Calling of over 50 personalities from film world for investigation on nepotism angle was generating suspicion, more so because Mumbai Police was not officially coming out to speak what was being achieved from the said investigation. You may counter me by asking why the cops should reveal details of their investigation. Here, I feel that they should have been prudent by deputing some officers of DCP or above rank to atleast provide minimum details to media. People were called for interrogation just on the basis of an ADR (Accidental Death Report). It was not a criminal investigation as no FIR was filed. Lack of transparency damaged Mumbai Police. Lack of information often leads to misinformation which very soon began happening.


The Conspiracy Theorists of Social Media:


The misinformation campaign began with a Facebook post of one small time actor residing in a western suburb of Mumbai. His post linked death of Disha Salian, erstwhile manager of SSR with death of SSR. According to his post both had been murdered, Disha was pregnant & Sooraj and his accomplices were the culprits. He added that some politicians were also involved. He added 'Fw :' before draft of the post so that it looks like it was written by somebody else.


Following this actor's FB post there were many other posts spread by the Whatsapp University where photoshopped images of  SSR's dead body was shown with questions being raised about ligature marks. Such posts attempted to convey that SSR was killed & his murder was made to look like suicide. Some self proclaimed experts and video bloggers went into great detail explaining the `coverup’.  Meanwhile, some people added name of Aditya Thackeray, son of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray & a minister in his cabinet.


With adding of Aditya's name a narrative began against Mumbai Police. A campaign for CBI enquiry started & it was alleged that Mumbai cops were trying to protect someone powerful. 


Here, the fault of Mumbai Police was that it remained passive or unresponsive to the various conspiracy theories which were getting viral on social media. A stitch in time saves nine &  Mumbai Police should have acted as soon as rumour mongering began. It should have traced the origin of such social media posts & have pulled up the originators - "Tell us who told you all this? What is the evidence to corroborate your theory?" However, no action was taken in this regard. Infact, being perturbed by such viral posts Aditya Thackeray released a defensive statement saying he had nothing to do with the matter.


Enter the BJP:

The BJP which has been struggling to topple the MVA govt & find some issue to corner the incumbent jumped in the fray. With one shot the BJP aimed at two targets. Apart from pulling up the MVA govt of Maharashtra, the party also made an emotional appeal to the electorates in Bihar. It was quick to read the emotions of Biharis attached with the case & decided to capitalize in it. Last week a poster by Bihar BJP's cultural wing was released which indicates that SSR death would be the biggest issue in Bihar assembly polls. (sadly, a state where last months lakhs of people were displaced and hundreds died due to floods)

BJP demanded a CBI enquiry and the central government led by it also announced an investigation into financial trail by the Enforcement Directorate.

Then came Narayan Rane. Rane who is former CM of Maharashtra & MP of the BJP took a press conference and made all those allegations on record which were doing the rounds on social media without anything to substantiate. He alleged that SSR was murdered and the evidence was destroyed. His press conference & subsequent interviews to some news channels lent credence to social media conspiracy theories- "An ex CM will not speak anything without any basis. Right?"

Enter the Patna Police :

The media (except the vengeful anchor about whom we will discuss further in this blog) which had almost lost interest in SSR case got activated once again when SSR's father registered a case in Patna alleging that Rhea, her family members and others abetted SSR's suicide. He didn’t allege that he was murdered (but the vengeful anchor and social media conspiracy theorists continued to call it so) Patna Police instead of registering the case as "Zero Number FIR" itself began investigating the case. In view of my many lawyer friends it was absurd. As per the law Patna police should have simply transferred the case to Mumbai Police. Somebody asked whether a crime committed in Kanyakumari could be investigated by Kashmir police because complainant desires so? (later Supreme Court settled this debate with its own reasoning)


Four Patna Police officers airdropped to Mumbai and began their investigation. They hardly got any co-operation from their counterparts in Mumbai. In this case also Maharashtra administration made a mistake. When IPS officer Vinay Tiwari landed in Mumbai from Patna to supervise the investigation he was stamped and quarantined by the BMC & asked not to move out of his guest house. The BMC is ruled by Shiv Sena & the blocking of Tiwari in such manner gave air to various conspiracy theories that Shiv Sena was hiding something. In my view, Shiv Sena feared that Patna cops would drag Aditya's name in the case due to political colour the case has taken. The BJP is sharing power with JDU in Bihar.

Entry of the Vengeful Anchor :

Whatever was being circulated on social media was soon picked up by a TV journalist who runs an English & a Hindi news channel. In my view this journalist had to settle a score with Thackeray Sarkaar & Mumbai Police chief. Few months ago he had targetted Sonia Gandhi & MVA government on his channel allegedly in a derogatory manner. A criminal case was filed against him & he was made to sit in police station for long hours.  Hence, with SSR case he got an oppurtunity to take revenge for his alleged harassment. On his channel he began to show the content & conspiracy theories which so far were floating only on social media. He alleged that Mumbai Police & MVA govt were covering up the case by calling it a suicide. His channel began the narrative of "Sushant Murder Case". His reporters were not allowed to call it a case of suicide or even "alleged suicide" but were told to call it a murder case. His animosity towards Maharashtra CM & Mumbai Police Commissioner reflected in the bitter manner in which he referred to them on screen.

Everybody is trapped by the Vengeful Anchor:

The Vengeful Anchor adopted a "no holds barred" approach in his coverage.  While doing live chats his journalists behaved like political leaders giving speeches. Their body language displayed aggression and they appeared fully committed towards "Justice For Sushant". The reporters of the Vengeful Anchor were at every location related to the case and chased any person related even mildly with it. An aggressive campaign began on his both the channels.

The Vengeful Anchor benefitted by his loud, hysterical campaign & toppled Aaj Tak from number 1 position & continued to do so week after week. This success of the Vengeful Anchor led to a bandwagon effect & most of mainstream Hindi & English channels focused on SSR's coverage with full strength dropping all other serious news events. Most of the channels air dropped 5 to 6 reporters from Delhi to join their Mumbai teams. From morning to night, airtime of all bulletins was occupied by SSR's coverage. However, the rivals of the Vengeful Anchor failed to notice that he had created his own pitch based on his histronics, venegeance, speculation & conspiracy theories. 

Now all the channels in the fray were playing on his pitch. He appeared to be impregnable. Aaj Tak inspite of getting long exclusive interview of Rhea lost to the Vengeful Anchor and it is enough to substantiate that everybody has fallen in his trap.

It appeared that all the news channels were compelled to focus on SSR coverage. However, TV-9 played smart by sticking to its India-China border dispute coverage which it has been doing since past few months & gave least importance to SSR coverage. By doing this the channel managed to keep itself at number 3 or 4 position in the weekly `Merit List’ of TRP.

Reporters: The Silent Sufferers.

TV reporters & silent? Doesn’t this sound ironical when you see many of them screaming and shouting on TV screens? The biggest recipients of admonishment and criticism have been field reporters. Being on field myself during this coverage provided me an insight of what they have been feeling. Most of them know that they are mere foot soldiers in this crazy war. They are frustrated and a major cause of their frustration is that they are part of a rat race where winner is the one who has come up with a strategy which is a cocktail of speculation, conspiracy theories, hysteria & arrogance. The channels have fallen into the trap and so have the reporters. Most of the reporters have been pressurised by their respective channels to get something exclusive in the case...some leaked statement, some Whatsapp chat, some pictures, some videos and so on. Anything mildly related to the case is being treated as 'exclusive' if the rivals don’t have it. Some of the statements I overheard from discussions of reporters who were posted outside the DRDO, the NCB office & the courts reflect their disgust, their helplessness & their unwillingness to be part of this coverage.

 A TV journalist who has been in the profession since past 20 years said -"No journalist worth his salt is part of this coverage with the approval of his conscience",

“I have to unlearn whatever journalistic skills I have acquired over the years to be part of this”, a Delhi based reporter spoke to his colleague.

A lady reporter working for an English news channel commented – “I am worried that the way mockery of spot reporting has been done & importance to conspiracy theories has been given, this will become a new normal for TV news. Every channel will emulate this”.

My counterpart in a rival channel whose journalistic career began alongwith mine called me in a depressed voice and said – “We must write a book to tell everybody what this profession was when we entered it over twenty years back and what it is today. Paani ab naak ke oopar jaa raha hai”.

(Disclaimer: This is personal blog of the author. Views & observations expressed in this blog are author’s own & doesn’t reflect the opinion of news organisation he works with.)