A bomb explosion outside the Delhi high court killed 11 and injured around 75 people, further tarnishing the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s image.
This was the second terrorist strike in the environs of the high court in 13 weeks, although the first one didn’t lead to any casualties. Analysts maintain that Wednesday’s blast highlights the inability of security agencies to enhance security measures and marks an intelligence failure as agencies failed to pick up any chatter of a possible terror attack.
The Delhi blast came after three bombs killed at least 25 people in Mumbai in July, the country’s worst terrorist attack in nearly three years. A smaller explosion had taken place on 25 May outside the high court’s gate No. 7. Top police and home ministry officials had said at the time that it could be a dry run.
There have been no breakthroughs in either case.
The death toll in Wednesday’s blast may rise as many people admitted to hospitals in New Delhi are stated to be “critical”. According to the home ministry, around 2kg of explosive was used and the blast created a crater 2ft across and 1 foot deep.
The Delhi Police has released sketches of two suspects based on eyewitness accounts, even as Pakistan-based militant outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) claimed responsibility, in an email to media organizations.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the attack.
“This is a cowardly act of a terrorist nature,” said Singh, who returned to Delhi on Wednesday after a visit to Bangladesh.
The terror attack comes at a time when the government is facing a series of corruption charges and criticism over its failure to contain inflation. It has raised fresh doubts over the preparedness of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the country.
The HuJI email warned that there will be more attacks against the country’s judiciary, including the Supreme Court, if the death sentence of Afzal Guru, convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case, is not repealed. HuJI also has a presence in Bangladesh, where it was banned in 2005.
Guru’s death penalty was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004 and the government recently advised the President to reject his mercy petition.
Home minister P. Chidambaram said it was too early to pin-point responsibility for the attack. The investigation is being handled by a 20-member team from the National Investigation Agency (NIA), an organization formed after the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks to probe all terror incidents in the country.
Hearings in the high court and the Supreme Court located nearby were temporarily halted, but the high court and some benches of the Supreme Court resumed proceedings later.
A security committee meeting was held by senior officials in the Supreme Court on Wednesday afternoon.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a Congress lawmaker, will forward recommendations on security to the court over the next few days.
The government has announced Rs 2 lakh compensation for the families of the deceased and Rs 1 lakh for the injured.
“People want corrective measures, not just demonstration,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank, referring to the visits by various political leaders to the blast site and hospitals.
The opposition criticized the central government for the failure of intelligence.
“This failure of the government and the intelligence security agencies is a matter of serious concern,” the Communist Party of India-Marxist said in a release.
The chief of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party Nitin Gadkari sought an investigation and said the government “should also look into the failure of the intelligence agencies”.
Senior officials in the home ministry and Delhi Police believe there are similarities between Wednesday’s blast and the explosion in May at the same location and that the two could be linked. Improvised explosive devices were behind both blasts and both used ammonium nitrate.
“It appears to be a well-hatched conspiracy with details planned” down to the last minute, said a top official associated with the probe. “Their target was to create panic,” added this person, who did not want to be identified.
The attack was staged on a Wednesday, when public interest litigations are filed in the high court, which, as a result, is crowded, said another security official, pointing to the precision in planning. This person, too, did not want to be identified.
Chidambaram told Parliament that “the briefcase (in which the explosive was kept) was placed next to a parapet wall that marked the space where visitors gather to collect their passes”.
The home minister added that Delhi was a target for terrorist groups. “When Parliament is in session and during certain other times of the year, Delhi is placed on high alert. Intelligence agencies constantly share inputs with Delhi Police. Intelligence pertaining to threats emanating from certain groups was shared with Delhi Police in July 2011,” he said.
Delhi Police special commissioner (law and order), Dharmendra Kumar, and home secretary R.K. Singh denied there was any specific intelligence. U.K. Bansal, secretary (internal security) in the home ministry, said there was general intelligence about imminent threats.
Bansal and NIA chief S.C. Sinha said there were no clear leads.
Nikhil Kanekal and PTI contributed to this story.