My younger daughter, aged 13, had laid out the clothes she was going to wear for Sunday’s early morning Terry Fox run. The plan was to get to her school early on Sunday morning where she would join her classmates to run for the cancer awareness-raising event and then round it off with lunch with a group of friends at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Connaught Place.
By 6.30pm on Saturday, when images of the bomb blasts began beaming into our living room, her clothes were back in her cupboard, plans abandoned. Don’t panic, said Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit on television. “I’m not panicking,” I explained to my teenager. “I’m just not letting you out of the house tomorrow.”
That was pretty much my mantra in August, days before Independence Day. The house rules were simple: no movie halls, no shopping malls and markets, no crowded places. Nowhere, in short, except for friends’ homes and school.
But even school was apparently not exempt. In response to a news article that claimed that terrorists could be looking at such soft targets as schools, the school had sent out emails to panicked parents: yes, the children were being prepped in case of a bomb blast and the school had drawn up plans for evacuation.
Citing the Washington-based National Counterterrorism Centre, a 28 July New York Times report says that the number of people killed in India by terror strikes from January 2004 to March 2007 is second only to that of Iraq. If true, that is an astounding figure.
We are ostensibly not at war. But terror strikes—13 blasts in 11 cities over the past four years—have become a routine part of our urban landscape, striking at will and without warning at markets, malls, commuter trains, places of worship and even hospitals.
There is a sense of déjà vu with every new attack. Government functionaries, including our immaculately dressed home minister, make the usual sound bites about “heinous act” and “anti-national elements” and issue “appeals” to the people to maintain calm. The media churns out stories of individual heroism and points in one voice to the obvious intelligence failure. And then, life limps back to normal.
So immune have we become to the daily dangers we face that we meekly accept the sight of metal detectors and sniffer dogs everywhere we go, going so far as to taking refuge and solace in their presence, even as they remind us of our tenuous safety. Ironically, even as the bombs were going off in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was telling his party’s leadership that terrorism was one of the biggest electoral challenges facing the Congress party. At the same time, the Bharatiya Janata Party—with its national executive meeting in Bangalore—has indicated that terrorism will be its main plank in the coming state and Lok Sabha polls.
The party accuses the Congress of being “soft” on terror and sees the terror strikes as yet another instance of its “appeasement” policy. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that this is a plank that will find emotional resonance. Backed by his party, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has been pressing for tougher anti-terror laws. The Central government’s refusal to pass the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Bill, passed by the state assembly four years ago, he says, is evidence of its lethargy in dealing with terror.
While political parties seek to score brownie points against each other, life goes on for ordinary people: scared, vulnerable, yet faced with the gritty reality of having to survive and make a living.
A few weeks from now, Delhi’s citizens will be faced with a tough choice as they begin their usual frenzied Diwali shopping: do they stay at home where they are safer, or do they venture out into crowded markets with a prayer that there will not be a repeat of the 2005 pre-Diwali blasts?
For the past few years, the people of India have battled inflation, pollution and pathetic infrastructure in their daily struggle to lead routine lives. But even such mundane acts as going out for an ice cream, buying new clothes, visiting the temple, or mosque to worship, or just commuting to work are fraught with danger.
Who can say when the next bomb, hidden in a car, bicycle, autorickshaw, or, even, pressure cooker, or dustbin, will explode. We are all at risk.
To read all of Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/lookingglass
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org