x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Coping with terrorism, quite often

The attacks in Mumbai demonstrate India's regional divides, as seen by the response in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // About 40 hours after gunmen took Mumbai hostage, I arrived in Delhi, which was fighting its own fear. The streets of Delhi, usually choked with traffic, were empty. "Don't stay in a five-star hotel, don't go to the mall, or a cinema theatre, Madam, and don't ask me to drive you to a temple," said my driver. "And please also don't go to see the Red Fort [a popular tourist attraction]." So I asked him what he would recommend. "The parliament house," he said. "They've already been there so it is safe."

He was being sarcastic. In 2001, terrorists stormed the seat of the Indian government and a gun battle ensued, which left six people and four gunmen dead. He, like most Delhites, could relate to what was unfolding in Mumbai. Less than two months ago, five synchronised blasts had rocked some of Delhi's busiest shopping areas and neighbourhoods. At that time, he was en route with a passenger to his residence. Instead, they parked on the side of the road and waited for more than four hours before they could drive again. In that time, both he and the passenger made frantic calls to their family and could not get through because phone lines were jammed. Now he listened to radio updates about Mumbai and occasionally shook his head, while managing to get through to friends in Mumbai. He had tried the day before but faced with jammed phone lines again he had given up till the next morning.

"We have already had our share this year," he said. "I hope they don't come after us again." I was told that the night before I arrived most hotels had hastily shut their doors after rumours spread across Delhi that the Taj Palace hotel in the city was also under siege. That morning, even the doorman used a metal detector to scan my luggage and me before admitting us into the lobby. Driving through Connaught Place and listening to reports about how the Mumbai police were ill equipped to handle the crisis, I noticed that did not seem to be the case in Delhi. Most military personnel (including some plainclothes officers) posted in front of government villas chatted in groups with AK-47s casually slung over their shoulders.

Even at the four-star hotels, police checked the underside of vehicles using a mirror and looked through the trunk of cars. Police barricades were set up in front of hotel entrances and exits as well on the roads, reducing a three-lane way to two-lanes. I had arrived from the south Indian city of Chennai, a two-hour flight from Delhi, but it seemed completely untouched by events unfolding in Mumbai. While I breezed through security checks in Chennai, the heightened security watch was evident on arrival in Delhi. The domestic arrival lounge was full of heavily armed men in uniform, walking around with AK-47s, while undercover officers and some airline staff randomly picked people and questioned them about the purpose of their visit to Delhi. With Mumbai to the west, Delhi to the north and Chennai to the south forming a triangle of India's most dynamic metropolitan cities - which are connected by more than a dozen flights every day - Chennai has never been hit by a terrorist attack. Unlike Delhi, FM radio stations in Chennai did not interrupt play to relay updated news bulletins. And the traffic police on the streets, who were trying to direct traffic through flooded streets, were convinced that Chennai was safe. One officer could not fathom what would make Chennai a target for an attack and since he had not experienced one, he could only briefly sympathise with Mumbai before going back to directing traffic. The north and south Indian divide was an intricate sentiment, said a friend whose family was from Punjab, the northern part of India, but she and her husband live in Chennai. The south of India has only recently woken up to such attacks. While in the past year, such southern cities as Bangalore and Hyderabad have been hit, they are still not as frequent a terrorist target as cities in the north, where separatist violence has raged in Kashmir and Punjab for decades. "As a north Indian, every time you hear of a bomb blast, you are instantly glued to a television, trying to find out details - which city, which neighbourhood and God help you if it is where family is." On Saturday morning after the last siege ended at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, and the chief of the National Security Guard declared a cleanup operation was under way, the most telling of all - a cloth banner - went up at one of Delhi's most popular eateries. Nizam's, famous for its kathi kebabs, had delayed its opening that morning to put up a show of solidarity. As lunchgoers eagerly waited outside, a banner painted in yellow and green was hung at the entrance: "The staff and management of Nizam's salutes all the individuals, security, paramilitary persons and Mumbaikars who helped wipe the tears of Mumbai and bear the inane, unnecessary and wanton loss of human life and spirit." sbhattacharya@thenational.ae