Beware Falling Coconuts is an unusual title for a book written by an unusual man on an unusual period in the history of the global media, a period in which as Mark Tully says in his foreword ?a foreign broadcaster became more important than a domestic broadcaster with far more powerful signals and more extensive coverage?.
In the seventies and eighties of the 20th century, it may be remembered the BBC was a byword in fast news-breaking and reliability. Remember that it was from the BBC that Rajiv Gandhi heard about the assassination and death of Smt Indira Gandhi. Adam Clapham worked at BBC Television for nearly twenty years as a director becoming the senior execute producer in its documentaries department. He served in India as a documentary producer over three decades and probably knows more about India than most reporters.
As he puts it: ?A documentary maker can never be off duty in India because there are too many terrific stories waiting to be told?. Happily, Clapham recounts many of these stories some of which can surely be called blood curdling. For example he recounts the story of how the United States decided?without either informing Pakistan or seeking its government'spermission?to fire cruise missiles from US Navy destroyers and submarines in the northern Arabian Sea at Osama bin Laden'ssupposed training camps located at a place called Khost near Kabul in Afghanistan. The missiles had to overfly five hundred kilometers of Pakistan territory. At least two members of President Clinton'sWhite House Planning Team had warned him of the danger of Pakistan mistaking the American attack for an Indian one. But the US leadership could not care less. It was presumed that had Pakistan got to know of an aerial attack from unknown sources; they would only then need to be told that the cruise missiles were shot by Americans. It never occurred to the Americans that the Pakistanis might have mistook the missiles as Indian in origin and then begin a nuclear attack on Mumbai, without consulting anyone.
And what would have been the damage? Clapham quotes an authoritative source as saying that a Pakistani nuclear attack on Mumbai would have wiped out the city and state administration, annihilate commuters at Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and lay waste all the hospitals, housing banks and business houses in south Mumbai and result in the death of 2.3 million Mumbaikars.
Then there is the story of Soviet interest in India in terms of spies. Clapham quotes Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB officer who had defected to Britain in 1992 as saying that ?there were more KGB spies in India then anywhere else except the Soviet Union itself?.
Mitrokhin is also quoted as saying that the KGB funded the Congress Party, the Communist Party of India ?and paid bribes to twenty one non-communist leaders including four government Ministers?. Furthermore, reports Clapham, according to Mitrokhin, ten Indian newspapers accepted clandestine funds from the KGB and upto five thousand articles a year were planted in the Indian Press. And, Clapham writes: ?President Andropov personally turned down an offer from one Indian Minister who offered to sell him information.? And he adds, to the eternal shame of India: ?Shamefully the KGB had accumulated too much product. They had bought all they needed and more, at very reasonable prices, from the thousands of individual citizens and civil servants who put their personal financial advancement ahead of duty to their country?traitors.
In quite a devastating comment on the nation'smorality, Mitrokhin noted that the whole country was for sale. When all this was revealed by the publication of his book in 2005 it naturally became a major news story. There were some attempts to ridicule the author and contradict his conclusions but most Indians knew in their hearts that the story was true.
It will be a mistake to think that this is an anti-Indian book. Clapham, in fact, is more critical of his own country than he is of India, which he has now made his home. Interestingly, it is part history, part autobiography; it is also a lesson to all would-be documentary producers on how to function in India or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. It is also a commentary on how the BBC itself functions. Its staff obviously is thoroughly vetted by the M 15, the British variation of the FBI.
Writes Clapham: ?These days the M 15 vetting of (BBC) staff is much reduced, claims the BBC. Ho hum. In theory it is now only to be used to protected staff vulnerable to external political pressures. But I think we can be pretty sure that having been caught with its pants down so publicly on one occasion, M 15 is unlikely to attempt such media purges again.? Talk of freedom of expression! But then are British correspondents also functioning as spies for their governments?
Clapham says: ?In India I have mostly kept clear of spying?Spies are often easy to spot. Like the rest of us, when they are away from home, they appreciate the luxuries of life and need like-minded companionship. The more alien or exotic the part of the world, the less easy it is for the agent to camouflage himself. In truth, western spies abroad usually stick out like sore thumbs.?
However, he adds: ?Secretive retired British army officers used to hang around the Royal British Yacht Club, in a mildly gin-soaked way, half-heartedly looking for recruits to spy on the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. I don'tthink they were bright to enough to realise that the building just across the Apollo Bunder from the Club, once its headquarters, was by then the home of the Atomic Energy Commission.?
Being a journalist, especially a documentary producer, has its dangers. Writes Clapham: ?In all my professional life, I have only twice discovered that I was under surveillance, once in India and once, by my very own British spies, in London.? It sounds hilarious but only a professional journalist knows what it means to be himself spied upon.
Mark Tully'sforeword to the book gives it special class as do Mario Miranda'ssketches. Tully notes how ?the BBC'sinfluence in India led to many tussles with the government (and) made the Indian Government particularly sensitive about the programmes the BBC broadcast on television to British audience.?
No doubt, Clapham'sbook will, attract much attention in India, particularly in Delhi. But it is honest to a degree and very British in its wit and sentiment and a joy to read. The title, incidentally, is taken from a sign Clapham saw displayed prominently at the swimming pool of the Galle Face Hotel in Sri Lanka. But it is descriptive enough about the contents of the book.
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