Starting today, March 15, The Hindu offers its readers a series of unprecedented insights into India's foreign policy and domestic affairs, diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual – encountered, observed, tracked, interpreted, commented upon, appreciated, and pilloried by U.S. diplomats cabling the State Department in Washington D.C.
The range of subjects, issues, and persons covered by the India Cables is extraordinary. While the trained diplomat's eye is almost always on the ball – the developing Indo-U.S. strategic relationship and everything that helps or hinders it – the range includes India's relations with its neighbours, with Russia, the European Union, East Asia, Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the rest of West Asia, Africa, Cuba, the United Nations. It covers issues and actions relating to defence cooperation, nuclear policy, arms control, terrorism, intelligence sharing, export control, human rights, Indian bureaucracy, environment, AfPak, and much more. There is a special focus on 26/11, Kashmir, India's policy towards and dealings with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, and where the Indian polity is headed.
Politicians of all shades, diplomats and other officials, sleuths, businessmen, journalists, busybodies, bigwigs and smallwigs figure in the WikiLeaks India Cache – which comprises 5,100 U.S. Embassy and consulate cables relevant to India (not all of them originating in India) and aggregates an astonishing six million words.
These American diplomats have been trained to listen, probe and prod, massage egos, milk sources, report, and write (supplying accessible and, at times, witty and elegant headings and sub-headings) to inform, analyse, and amuse – as though they were full-time journalists. Many of them work like wire service beavers: long lunches, yes, but very often, same day reports of important meetings. Few things escape their notice. Most of the time, they see Indian men, women, and matters through the reflected mirror of U.S. strategic interests and policy.
The India Cables have been accessed by The Hindu through an arrangement with WikiLeaks that involves no financial transaction and no financial obligations on either side. As with the larger ‘Cablegate' cache to which these cables belong, they are classified into six categories: confidential, confidential/noforn (confidential, no foreigners), secret, secret/noforn, unclassified, and unclassified/for official use only.
Our contacts with WikiLeaks were initiated in the second week of December 2010. It was a period when Cablegate had captured the attention and imagination of a news-hungry world.
On November 28, 2010, five major western newspapers (The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais) and WikiLeaks made a huge splash by publishing a selection from the cables that provided readers worldwide with what WikiLeaks has described as “an unprecedented insight into U.S. government foreign activities.” These newspapers had put the cables through a painstaking and painfully slow process of ‘redaction,' applying varying criteria according to their lights. They drew on the cables to publish dozens of stories, ranging from the sensational through the instructive to the amusing; the newspapers' journalists provided context, background, analysis, interpretation, and comment.
But by now WikiLeaks was under siege. An organisation committed to openness, transparency, and justice and its charismatic Editor-in-Chief, Julian Assange, had come under fierce, concerted attack orchestrated by the United States. The attack dogs were after Mr. Assange's blood and the organisation had to use the utmost ingenuity to continue to function.
That it was able to do so and even spread its wings in a matter of weeks speaks to the tremendous vitality and technological power of “this new form of indestructible publishing” (to borrow Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger's phrase) and the solidarity and practical support this mission, which Mr. Assange considers an integral part of journalism, has been able to inspire among thousands of people round the world.
The WikiLeaks database made available to the five newspapers comprised 251,187 cables from 280 U.S. embassies and consulates in 180 countries. The total word length of the cables was estimated to be 300 million. From the start of our interactions with WikiLeaks, The Hindu had its eye on the India Cables, reported to number in the thousands, of which only 40 have been published (http://188.8.131.52/origin /60_0.html).
Hopes of getting our hands on the entire India Cache rose in the second half of December when Julian Assange spoke, in a newspaper interview, of “the incredible potential of the Indian media” in a context of “a lot of corruption” (waiting to be exposed), a rising middle class, and growing access to the internet – and specifically mentioned and praised The Hindu.
To cut the story short, our active contacts with WikiLeaks resumed in mid-February 2011. A breakthrough was achieved without any fuss, resulting in a detailed understanding on the terms and modus of publication, including redacting (where, and only where, necessary) and compliance with a security protocol for protecting and handling the sensitive material – and we had the whole cache of the India Cables in our hands in early March.
Unlike the experience of the five western newspapers, which were involved in a prolonged and complex collaborative venture even while making independent publication choices (described in two books published by The Guardian and The New York Times), The Hindu's receipt, processing, and publication of the cables is a standalone arrangement with WikiLeaks, which, as in the case of the five newspapers, has no say in the content of stories we publish based on the cables.
We quickly assembled a team of experienced journalists – writers, including foreign correspondents, and editors – as well as digital information and data specialists for the India Cables publication project, to which we gave no particular name.
The team worked long hours in a secured office space, practically without a day's break, sifting through the data, categorising, segmenting, and speed-reading the cables, searching with keywords, redacting if necessary, making a large first selection of what seemed most relevant and interesting, and re-reading the cables to write dozens of stories, formatting and uploading the cables online for global reach. Quiet, controlled excitement reigned for the most part within the confined environment, even when fatigue set in and nerves were frayed. It is still work in progress.