Chronicles Terror and the City

Delhi is a city that is no stranger to terror. Since the 1980's it has seen wave after wave of terrorist strikes - from the 'transistor bombs' of the Khalistanis, down to the latest serial strikes of October 29, evidently by a group of Pakistan-backed terrorists. This last attack has been the most severe the city has witnessed, with at least 65 people reported dead, and over 155 seriously injured. But Delhi isn't the only city in India that has faced this threat, and there has been a long string of terrorist attacks across the country - the most dramatic being the Bombay blasts of 1993, followed again by rounds of explosions in that city in 1997, 1998, 2002 in 2003. Terrorists have executed attacks in Coimbatore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Ahmedabad… and an unending string of smaller towns - not to mention almost every urban concentration within Jammu & Kashmir and many of the States in India's troubled Northeast. But the danger is even greater than these attacks may suggest - hundreds of terrorist 'modules' have been located and neutralized across the country by law enforcement agencies over the past years. The reality of counter-terrorism is that it lacks the character of public spectacle that is the hallmark of terrorism, and its many successes are never as dramatic as its occasional failures.

Nevertheless, these incidents do not appear to leave any permanent impact on the city's administration, on the character of law enforcement, and on public consciousness and conduct. Through the past decades, there is no visible growth of a culture of greater security, of any dramatic transformations in the nature of law enforcement - beyond periodic, and inadequate, accretions to available Forces and equipment. It was only the attack on Parliament in December 2003 which resulted in some visible impact, as new structures, traffic patterns and security processes came up to protect India's most privileged. There is, however, little evidence of an awareness of the sheer magnitude of the threat, or of the scale and character of responses that are necessary to make our cities secure. Despite decades of terrorism, there has been no effort at evolving cities that are equipped to deal with and deflect the probabilities of such strikes.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, New York city underwent a complete overhauling of its policing structures. A city that had less than two dozen officers on the terrorism beat before 9/11 today has about a thousand dedicated full-time to counter-terrorism activities. The New Yorker magazine observed that crime fighting is still the NYPD's (New York Police Department's) primary mission, but counter terrorism has really expanded the operational and conceptual boundaries of traditional police work. There are NYPD detectives permanently stationed overseas, for instance, in half-a-dozen different countries. The NYPD has gone way outside the traditional police recruitment channels, looking for people with military, intelligence, and diplomatic backgrounds, people with a deep knowledge of international terrorist organizations, and the entire department has been "comprehensively persuaded to think of counterterrorism as a fundamental part of what the cops call 'the Job'". New York city's anti terrorism budget is now roughly $ 200 million a year, and is paid for almost entirely by the city itself. And, as The New Yorker put it, "there is an element of theatre to a lot of counter-terror work, and its not particularly edifying theatre. It's endless vigilance, no victory. Success means nothing happens."

The city will increasingly be the chosen battleground for terrorists in future, and this reality must be reflected in its structures and its administration. As one commentator notes, "issues surrounding international, military and geopolitical security now penetrate utterly into practices surrounding the governance, design and planning of cities and urban regions."

Regrettably, while some discerning city administrations may realize this and act accordingly, India remains entirely unaware of the imperatives of response. Worse, the Indian city lends itself far more easily to terrorism than the ordered cities of the West, and will prove infinitely more difficult to protect. The sheer size of some Indian metropolli (Delhi, for instance, has a population greater than 171 of the world's 227 countries), the pervasive and insidious contempt for law, the scant regard for municipal regulations, the absolute anonymity provided by the city's chaos and lack of a centralized and comprehensive identity system, and the indulgent attitudes of officials, have contributed to an air of encompassing license and disorder. No one is willing to accept a measure of regulation or discipline without force; and every attempt at enforcement is met with protestations of horror against the 'violation of rights' and 'state excesses'. For instance, the police have, for years, been trying to get landlords to cooperate in reporting new tenants to facilitate verification of their antecedents, but the levels of compliance remain minuscule.

How will our cash-strapped Forces mange to efficiently tackle the sheer enormity and complexity of terrorism unless there is some measure of support from policymakers and citizens? We cannot make up our minds on the need for a law against terrorism, or on the death penalty for extreme acts of terrorism - how will be fight the scourge? The Government and the Police spend crores every year on public service advertisements, but the public remains ignorant of its duties, responsibilities and even the steps necessary to protect themselves. The Govindpuri bus blast of October 29 is a case in point. The courage and initiative of the driver and conductor certainly saved many lives, but the unfortunate fate of the driver could easily have been avoided if he had followed procedures that have been widely published - the suspicious package should have been left alone for the police to handle, and the bus should simply have been abandoned.

The problem is that there is, in fact, no culture of security in India. After the two airplanes had struck the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and a fire was raging in the skyscrapers, thousands of people came down the stairs in single file, in a completely ordered and disciplined fashion, helping the handicapped and the injured, even while leaving half the stairway free so that firemen coming up were not obstructed. Here, instead, as was evident in Sarojini Nagar and Paharganj on October 29, panic, stampeding and the transformation of every event into a spectacle, a tamasha, is the natural reaction: people mill around the incident site, posturing in front of TV cameras, shouting at the police, obstructing rescue and investigative work, trampling evidence, and in general making nuisances of themselves. There is, of course, a minority of brave souls who help as best they can, but a majority of others eventually have to be chased away with lathis.

It is seldom realized that the 'great and free' countries of the West have - and their citizens accept - far more restrictions on their freedoms in the interests of security, and the state plays a very active role in the private lives of its citizens. In India, our freedom borders on license, our liberties recognize no limits, yet we keep complaining all the way. And enforcement agencies are required to do their jobs with their hands tied behind their backs, strapped for funds, equipment, infrastructure, training, personnel and, crucially, the political and public mandate to simply do what is necessary. A great deal will have to change before the Indian city can be secured against terror.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, November 03, 2005



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