India's terror tally: 6 days. 58 bombs. 3 cities. 53 dead.
Just before he kills his victims the villain of The Dark Knight, this summer's white hot Hollywood blockbuster, likes to ask them a question: "Why so serious?" The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, does not expect an answer. But as the victims realize the end is near, he relishes their rising fear – it suggests they hadn't been taking him seriously enough.
The terrorists who set off dozens of bombs in Bangalore and Ahmedebad last weekend and scattered handfuls more around the Gujarat port city of Surat seek a similar response. As with the Joker, the horrors have come rapid-fire, yet each has lingered longer than the last. Bangalore's eight blasts occurred over 15 minutes, killing 2. In Ahmedebad the 21 explosions took more than an hour, and have now killed 51. Surat residents discovered 21 slow-ticking bombs across the city over a period of nearly 30 hours.
A few of the Surat bombs were found in public garbage cans. One was placed behind a hoarding under a traffic flyover. Another had been secured in a low-hanging tree branch. Nobody knew where or when the next might appear, or whether it might reveal itself more rudely than the others. Was that part of the plan? Unsure whether the bombs were intended to explode, the police have theorized that they may have been a distraction, or a test to measure response times. Whatever the case, Surat may have been saved from physical damage but by all accounts the city is psychologically shattered.
Ahmedabad, too, has been scarred. Monday commuters leaped from a smoking city bus, later found to be suffering from an overheated engine. In the Ghodasar neighborhood an unclaimed tiffin prodded locals to call the police, whose investigations revealed the offending lunch case had been forgotten by a young boy. Residents have been phoning in false bomb alarms and mental health professionals in both cities report a spike in anxiety and stress disorders.
A Joker-like strategy of inciting fear is not the only cinematic homage hidden in this week's terror. The pattern of the Ahmedebad blasts closely follow the Bollywood film Contract, which arrived in local cinemas the previous week. In the movie a terrorist leader details his plan for a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai, followed an hour later with several blasts at city hospitals. The Ahmedebad bombs followed this very outline – with an extended first round of strikes followed by blasts at two major area hospitals, with the latter doing the lion's share of harm and ratcheting up the horror.
Dozens of analysts have outlined detailed policy proposals on the editorial pages of India's daily newspapers. Most cite the need for a unified central intelligence agency and various multi-pronged initiatives intended to redouble surveillance and security, increase Muslim development and foster community awareness.
Fine ideas all, but we should first grapple with what we are facing. These terrorists have three objectives: to incite widespread fear and make over a billion Indians ill at ease; to throw a wrench in India's widely lauded economic progress, its rise to superpower status; and finally, to sew religious enmity, particularly between Hindus and Muslims.
On the first score their success has been obvious and widespread. The fear has even reached Delhi, where the Japanese embassy was evacuated and shuttered Wednesday after receiving an anonymous bomb threat via email, and the southern state of Kerala, where a bomb-warning phone call panicked police.
On the second point the bad guys have made decent headway. Bangalore is a global IT hub. Ahmedabad is one of India's leading manufacturing centers. Surat operates one of the country's biggest and busiest ports. All three are now less attractive to local and international investors and businesses. Foreign trepidation has already risen its head; Japan recently warned its citizens about traveling in India. And in an email from Indian Muhajideen received minutes before the Ahmedabad blasts began, the attackers put leading businessman Mukesh Ambani and four major Muslim film stars in their crosshairs. These targets are well chosen; India's global profile has grown due in large part to its business dynasties – with the Ambanis, Tatas, and Birlas in the vanguard – and Bollywood celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan.
The third and most combustible objective has not yet come to pass, despite the seeming efforts of the opposition BJP. Party leaders have called the ruling UPA government "soft on terror," and a spokesperson said the problem "requires a Kashmir-type operation to tackle terrorism and root out the outfits supporting it." Strange choice of model, because India's war against a Pakistan-backed insurgency there has droned on for nearly two decades and resulted in some 50,000 dead. Further, this week the BJP urged residents of Jammu, the state's predominantly Hindu winter capital, to create a blockade in order to keep crucial goods such as meat, vegetables and dairy products from reaching the mostly Muslim Kashmir Valley. This in a region rife with long-simmering religious tensions.
The Dark Knight climaxes with the Joker's most insidious stunt. Two ferries – one full of criminals, the other full of law-abiding Gotham citizens – have been wired to explode. The Joker gives each boat a detonator for the bombs on the other boat, then gleefully announces to all passengers that if neither pushes their button for 30 minutes, both boats will blow. It's a moral dilemma, a deadly game of chicken, and Gothamites find it in themselves to stay calm and embrace life.
Can India do the same, or will its impressive progress be stalled by fear and communal rage? A good question, and just cause to get serious.
-- published in Aug 4 Tehelka, an Indian newsweekly.