The 13/7 serial bomb blasts is the 18th major terror attack in an Indian urban area, and fifth in Mumbai alone, since 2003. There have been several minor attacks in various Indian cities and towns since 1993 when the phenomenon of urban terrorism emerged in India. The victim cities include, apart from the most attractive Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Varanasi, Pune, Kanpur, Coimbatore, Srinagar, Jammu, Imphal, Agartala and Ahmedabad. All of these attacks have caused large-scale casualties, material damage, and disruption of routine life and economic activity. These frequent attacks indicate that the phenomenon of urban terrorism, characterised by its diabolical, constant, deadly, unpredictable and transnational nature, has taken firm roots in India. Common man is the most affected.
Urban terrain holds significant advantages for terrorists. As is the characteristic of urban areas, population is not only high, but also dense. Unlike in rural areas, inhabitants in cities and towns are more heterogeneous that gives more space for anonymity. Cities and towns are the nerve centres of a country. It is in urban areas where targets are most varied and abundant: laymen, officials, foreign nationals, corporate heavy weights, government buildings with symbolic/strategic value, bus stands, railway stations, airports, markets, foreign embassies, communication centres etc. Since the quality and quantity of terrorists’ ‘defined enemy’ is high in cities, the impact of a destructive act is more widespread as witnessed in blasts at Gokul Chat in Hyderabad, Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi and Mumbai’s Khau Ghali. Overall, an urban landscape facilitates terrorists in realising their goals: surprise, maximum damage with minimum risk, hyper media attention and subsequent disappearance. Present day terrorists want to watch more people watching more people dying.
Therefore, the key factor to counter urban terrorism is to secure support of the common man. The state and its forces cannot afford to be present everywhere. If ‘eternal vigilance’ is identified as a crucial component of response option, involvement of civil society is important. Only a firmly united people and stable society can help any government of the day in countering threats, external or internal. Without the eyes, ears and intuition of the general public, it is difficult to identify a terrorist who is anonymous and blends seamlessly into the environment in which he lives and operates. The “eyes and ears” scheme followed by police in some Indian metros like Delhi should be made mandatory for all urban areas.
For this, common public need to be sensitised on the gravity of threats and suitable responses. Strong security consciousness required to be created. Appointment of prominent persons as ‘security ambassadors’ can be considered to create awareness on the subject. People can contribute as informers, witnesses, and rescuers. All these should, in fact, be made their fundamental duty under the Constitution. The people have to keep a steady eye on tentative, errant behavior, or suspicious movements in the neighbourhood or in public places and share information with point persons in the police and intelligence agencies. For instance, on every New York City subway train, the message to passengers since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been clear: “If you see something, say something.” Had public would have been bit more carefully vigilante, the 13/7 blasts could have been averted. For this purpose, people must organise themselves into ‘neighbourhood watch committees’ through community consensus mechanisms, based on genuine concern to prevent future terrorist attacks. All communities should be co-opted in counter-terror measures instead of perceiving some as the “other”. On coastal security, the community of Indian fishermen should be made as ‘working partners’ to keep a constant tab on coastal waters.
For this, the local police should consciously develop these social assets by establishing professional and moral superiority over the terrorists, while at the same time honouring the rights and liberties of the people even in difficult situations. Most importantly, witness protection laws have to be strengthened; informers have to be safeguarded. Awareness creation among people should also include ‘golden rules’ to be followed by the people in case of a terrorist attack. Training of people in civil defence is important in post-strike scenarios. It has so far not been taken seriously. Every citizen should know basic tenets of first aid. Such familiarisation will not only minimise the lethality of terrorist attacks, but also reduce the consequent panic.
Dr N Manoharan is Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).