x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lives changed in wake of terror

Since India's version of 9/11 left almost 200 dead after a series of attacks, security has been substantially tightened across India.

A man waves an Indian flag outside the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the sites of the terror attacks, on the first anniversary of the incident.
A man waves an Indian flag outside the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the sites of the terror attacks, on the first anniversary of the incident.

It was supposed to be a fine dining experience, sitting by the pool of the Taj Residency in Bangalore, sipping a cocktail alongside well-heeled Indians and foreign tourists, enjoying the cool evening breeze, music playing in the background. But it felt eerie. A year ago, terrorists had come barging through the pool area at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, shooting indiscriminately at guests, and leaving in their wake upturned tables and chairs, and among them, the dead lying in pools of blood.

From one corner lay the partially hidden body of a man, probably a foreigner, in his white linen pants and blue shirt, one sandal by his side. I remember because I had scanned the photographs in print and online with dread, looking to identify friends. A group of them had planned to be at the Taj that night, but had been stuck in traffic and never made it to the hotel. Across six locations, three days and with almost 200 dead, a nation held its breath waiting for it all to end. It was one of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in the country's recent history.

It wasn't an anonymous blast in a crowded market place or explosions on a crowded train. If the terrorists were looking to make an impact, they certainly did. This was brash, suicidal and prolonged. With their targets - whether middle class Indians at the rail terminal, affluent Indians in hotels or Jews in the Mumbai Chabad House - they made sure the world noticed as well. When the financial capital of India, the linchpin of its surging global economic power, is under siege, it is hard not to feel especially helpless. Or outraged. Perhaps it finally drove home the futility of pointing fingers and playing the blame game with neighbouring countries; it was past the time to look inwards for a solution. The attack on Mumbai single-handedly changed how people viewed their own safety within the country.

Now, the common man's security was on everyone's mind, including the politicians. Hubs of anti-terror elite forces have been set up across the country so that if there were to be another attack, a city of beleaguered people would not have to wait for paperwork to be cleared in New Delhi before a plane load of commandos could take off from a distant base. Since India's version of 9/11, now popularly referred to as 26/11, sweeping security changes have also affected daily life.

You can no longer enter a hotel, mall, or temple without being frisked or "bleeped" through a metal detector or having your bags scanned. In urban centres or small towns, anyone who can has invested in some form of security service. If there is an asset to be protected, it is now likely to be protected by anti-blast walls, private security with AK-47s, or surveillance cameras. You can no longer take a romantic stroll down India Gate in New Delhi, buy a pack of roasted peanuts and watch the setting sun. Instead, you must watch it all from behind barricades set up two kilometres away, while a policeman impatiently taps the bonnet of your car and tells you to drive along. And when you bow your head at a temple in Hyderabad, you can also pay your respects to that soldier with a large automatic weapon who stands idly beside the deity.

Before you enter the Taj Mahal in Agra, they take away your cigarettes and lighters and inspect the batteries of your camera. Now, when a nation of a billion moves, it does so with even more hiccups than typically occupy daily life. A year has passed and talk about the immediate shock and horror has died down. Instead, at dinner parties, friends speak of how they are more patient while waiting for security checks yet complain about the shoddy protocol in most places.

What was put in place with great zeal a year ago is already falling apart (consider the wear and tear when a few million pass through your checkpoints each month). Some checks are merely symbolic while others are flimsy security drills. My college-bound nephew in Pune called the security arrangements in his city "old, casual and careless". But terrorism is nothing new in India. There were other attacks before Mumbai that rattled the nerves of my friends and family and made them pick up their phones and call loved ones to make sure they were not caught in a bomb blast.

Beginning in May 2008 there was a surge in terrorist strikes, with a series of blasts in the cities of Guwahati, Jaipur, Delhi, and Ahmedabad. This year has seen attacks in Kashmir, Assam and, by Maoists, in the heartland of India. And no one is convinced by the new security arrangements. Yet, the country carries on, broken scanners and all. @Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae