Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fighting the terrorists

It is about a week since the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad and Bangalore, and a few days since the reports of 18 bombs being defused in Surat. India Today, among others, screams on its cover that India is soft on Islamic terrorism. Here are several thoughts:

Protecting planes is hard, and India seems to be doing that pretty successfully: the last "incident" was the Kandahar hijack, for which the security loopholes occurred in Nepal. Airport security in India seems pretty thorough but much more efficient and less intrusive than, say, in the US. I don't have to take off my shoes or my belt. I don't have to send my wallet or keys through the X-ray machine. They don't confiscate my shower gel or even my twin-blade razor -- both of which would be seen as lethal weapons in the US. (They did once make me check in a bottle of wine, though.) Subsequent to the recent attacks, I went through security checks in Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore airports and noticed no heightened security: clearly what is in place is felt to be adequate.

Protecting trains is much harder. They do routinely scan you and search your bag in the Delhi metro (again, not terribly timeconsuming, I found). But yesterday, at the (old) Delhi Junction railway station, was the first time I had to go through a metal detector to reach the railway platform. Still, given the sheer size of our rail network, there hasn't been much terrorist activity there either. On one recent occasion, I observed that the toll was as much due to lack of emergency exits -- and the practice, on that particular train, of locking all doors at night (for "security", of course), converting it into a steel jail -- as due to lack of security. If terrorists were to target, say, a cinema hall, this will be equally true: despite the Uphaar tragedy, the need for emergency exits is just not taken seriously.

Protecting public, open places is impossible. And public places were what were targeted in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Unless one puts up entry barriers for the entire city and vets each one of the several million residents of the city. The cost of that -- and I don't mean monetary -- would be unacceptable. This is true not just in India. One can bomb an open market anywhere in the world. In airports abroad, it would be easy to bomb the departure lounge. It's not so long ago that a terrorist with Indian origins tried to ram a blazing vehicle into Glasgow Airport. Terrorism is always a cowardly thing, but I suspect the reason this sort of thing isn't more common is that, even to the terrorists, targetting civilians in public places is too easy, too cowardly.

Yet reading all the rants in the Indian media and blogosphere, one would imagine that the recent acts are a catastrophic failure of intelligence and security. To listen to the BJP, one would think either that a draconian act like POTA would magically stop such acts of terror, or that this is so hard to do that the government must have conjured it to distract attention from the BJP's recent antics in Parliament. Nobody wants to point out the obvious: not only is such "terrorism" easy, it signifies the desperation of the terrorists who, unable to strike at even medium-security targets, are forced to hit the defenceless.

These are acts that will earn them only contempt, even from their "supporters", and they know it.


km said...

Traveling in and out of India feels so much easier than it does here in America. And I am convinced it's not simply a matter of expectations. Indian airports do handle the process more efficiently.

Terrorism is always a cowardly thing, but I suspect the reason this sort of thing isn't more common is that, even to the terrorists, targetting civilians in public places is too easy, too cowardly.

I am not so sure about that reason. I attribute it to India's internal Intelligence. (Cynical bloggers will think I am being sarcastic, but I am not.) There is a very good reason why a Kanishka or a "Black Friday"-type scenario has not occurred again in India.

Rahul Basu said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Targetting open public places is indeed (almost) trivial provided you can equip yourself with bomb making materials. But talking shops like our private channels, and printing shops like India Today have to make themselves saleable so they need screaming headlines.

The BJP's venality is, I think boundless. Could they stop Akshardham or much worse, the attack on Parliament? All they did was to keep hundreds of thousands of troops massed together in Rajasthan and other places, in the blazing heat, literally doing nothing for months together. It wouldn't even count as serious sabre-rattling I would think. And yet, they insist that this Government, unlike them, is soft on terror.