The audacious attack on Sri Lanka’s cricketers on 3 March reminded me of the anxiety I felt during an Indian Premier League (IPL) game last year in New Delhi. For the uninitiated, IPL is cricket’s latest innovation, in which two teams play out 20 overs a side. It is a compressed version of one-day cricket, and hugely entertaining. It had rained the previous day and the approaches to the stadium’s various entrances were a mess; the thronging crowds made it worse.
While the entry was staggered and, hence, relatively less chaotic, the thought of exiting at the end of the game along with the rest of the crowd made me claustrophobic. The Mumbai attack hadn’t yet taken place, but at the back of my mind was the thought that we were all such vulnerable targets. My fear got the better of me and two of my friends. We exited before the game, a cliffhanger, ended.
As TV cameras beamed images of terrorists attacking the bus in which the Sri Lankan cricketers were travelling in Lahore, my fears were revived. Union home minister P. Chidambaram’s suggestion that IPL be postponed as the government was not in a position to provide simultaneous security cover for the conduct of the general election as well as this highly popular cricket tournament only reinforced these fears. The fact that eventually the government did a flip-flop and agreed to IPL taking place concurrently with the general election will not help in resolving the cricket fan’s dilemma: to watch IPL live or in the safety of one’s living room. If anything, the government’s admission that it was not in a position to provide security for both the election and IPL has made it worse.
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It is easy for politicians to preach that terrorists should not be allowed to dictate our lives and the show must go on. After all, politicians and VIPs, proceeding in convoys and waved through special entrances,?don’t?have to face the risks ordinary people do in attending such events. And the odds are only getting worse.
The pattern of terror attacks in the subcontinent shows how terrorists are now focusing their energies on soft targets instead of the police and the army—which possess the capability to hit back. Not only are they more vulnerable, they also yield dramatic results for the cause of terrorist groups. In the last year, they have struck spectacularly at citizens in public spaces across cities in India, culminating in the three-day siege of Mumbai starting 26 November.
The Mumbai attack was a real-time expose of how ill-prepared India is to cope with such terrorist strikes. Not only was the police response muddled and disorganized, it exposed the inadequacy of paramedical facilities in the country to respond quickly in such a crisis.
We may be loathe to admit it, but there is no doubt that terrorists are succeeding in forcing a systemic change in our lifestyles. They are making us more reclusive, forcing us to avoid public spaces and, most worryingly, they are instilling reactionary feelings among some of us who then vent their anger on other communities or ethnic groupings. And it is not as if this has happened overnight; it has transpired in an incremental fashion over the last three decades. As a result, it is surprising that the policy and political response—it took seven years, two regimes and the Mumbai carnage to enact appropriate terror laws—has been so slow in the making.
When prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, there were two sets of reactions. Mayhem followed after sections of the public reacted by targeting the Sikh community. At the same time, the security detail was ramped up and efforts made to sequester VIPs. Till then, regular traffic could meander through the premises of Parliament as it made its way towards Vijay Chowk (for those not familiar with Delhi, the square is the site of the annual Beating the Retreat ceremony). This was immediately stopped.
Similarly, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the detail of the Special Protection Group commandos became a way of life for us. After the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, airports turned into semi-fortresses across the world. And, more recently, the Mumbai attacks have led to hotels and most offices putting in place barricades and body searches at entrances. And, now, after the terrorist attacks in Lahore, watching cricket in the subcontinent will not be the same.
It is a tough choice to make: Ignoring the threats and continuing with one’s way of life will only ensure more vulnerable terror targets; but opting for the way of gated communities is to strike at the very roots of social interaction—the very basis on which societies and civilizations are spawned.
If you ask me, I would say let the games begin.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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