With the dire shortage of news in Bhubaneswar a naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal by INS Jalaswa and 7 other warships came as a pleasant distraction for the media fraternity.
The ship had already anchored 80 km off Paradeep coast. It was a good day for an outing, yet reporting the event a few days before the anniversary of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack made it a business of a serious nature.
It was a bright sunny morning at the Paradeep port city, and as we reached the harbor at the designated time; but only to encounter the first dampner of the day. A huge crowd on board, many on the ladder reaching upto the dock and a larger number still standing in a long queue. There were over five hundred people occupying almost all the open space on-board Jalaswa. It left all the media men wondering as to whether we were on a mission to cover a serious combat exercise or a carnival.
This was in sharp contrast to what the INS Chilika (the official coordinators of the trip) had given out in the press briefing.
One of the naval staff confided that while some of the crowd were common folks, the majority were the family members of naval and ex-naval personnel’s and their close, less close acquaintances. Another amazing thing was the large number of vehicles (70), including over a dozen of the government (despite it being a Sunday) from Bhubaneswar at the parking lot. Each vehicle was loaded with a minimum of four to five people. One could make out that the invitees were not limited to staff families. Anyone who could manage to find a link with the organizers was on board!
Media Plays 2nd Fiddle
The huge Jalaswa was anchored majestically at the berth and we could see people from all walks of life still waiting for their turn to get the passes to board the ‘mother' ship. The sight was encouraging as such a large crowd, mostly drawn from Bhubaneswar's elite, to witness a thing like a naval exercise, a serious business that normally does not go well with merry-making.
The second damper came when the electronics media was denied the third pass and a flat denial to accommodate the camera assistant, normally indispensable at such occasions.
"If you are three persons sir, there might be an over-crowding" one of the naval staff in-charge of entry regulation said politely. This even as we saw families with the passes and groups of four to five being generously led to the ladder. 'Media might not be in their scheme of things today' we thought. Then why did they call the media? A question I chose to swallow at that juncture. Subsequently, in fact, the space was full and we were literally left with no place to lounge even. So the word media vanished like a cosmetic confection barely an hour after we had boarded the ship.
It was like a chaotic carnival. The dock, the upper platforms and parasol like places were all occupied by the people numbering to about 450 and above by the time the ship did cast-off. Here and there umbrellas were pitched to accommodate the families of naval and ex-naval officers and about a dozen naval men in uniform could be seen supplying food items and cleaning the tables at a frenetic pace like any subservient errand boys in roadside eateries. The sight brought flashbacks of the feudal era. Can the men in uniform be made so easy victims to the charitable deception of 'mehmannawazi'.
There were tables laden with containers filled with mounds of Samosas, Sandwiches, Pastries and the combined aroma was distracting the guests away from the real business. There were quick beelines and quicker was the pace at which the items vanished from the containers. It was not difficult to guess the constraint the young crew of the ship were facing in matching their supply to the demand!
The scene at the working lunch (heavy snacks), hardly an hour before the lunch time, was equally interesting. The food disappeared with the same rapidity. Then came lunch-time and there was a 100 metre long queue of the guests of 'normal’ category and the media members were asked by one of the uniformed men, in a very official tone, to fall in line in that queue! Our disillusionment reached its climax with this. There was no point in brooding, we supposed, over this unapologetic behavior on board! There was a special arrangement on the upper platform for the 'special guests', where the media men were barred from going. At last the realization dawned on us that we were not the guests on that day, let alone 'special'.
Then the combat exercise! It was far less than what was advertised to the media during the briefing. No commando operation, no Missile launching and the whole gamut of the exercise was limited to some anti-aircraft gun firing and an on board replenishment operation. For the media fraternity it was a situation where each one was suffocating in that chaos under the bright sun like any other commoner in complete detachment from the purpose we were there for. There was no point in questioning the authorities on board a defence vessel so, the whole lot of us did beat a retreat from our journalistic sphere and searched for chairs to find some shreds of comfort in the cool oceanic breeze before the sun-down.