Facing a wave of violence, India is rattled
NEW DELHI: Over the past several years, terrorist attacks in India have become all too common.
In eastern Varanasi, a deadly explosion interrupted Hindu devotees as they lighted oil lamps to Hanuman, the monkey god, one Tuesday at dusk. In southern Hyderabad, a homemade bomb planted inside a historic mosque killed worshipers on a Friday afternoon. In Mumbai, India's largest city, nearly 200 commuters on packed city trains died in a series of blasts.
And, in the most recent attack, 17 back-to-back explosions struck shoppers and strollers on Saturday evening in Ahmedabad in western India, and then two blasts hit the very hospitals where the wounded and their relatives rushed for help, killing 49 people and wounding more than 200.
The targets seem to have nothing in common except that they are ordinary places that are easy to strike. In a country long familiar with sharply focused violence — whether sectarian or fueled by insurgencies in Kashmir in the 1990s — the impersonal nature of the latest violence is new and deeply unsettling.
Officials have said the attacks are attempts to provoke violence between Hindus and Muslims that have not succeeded so far. Yet virtually none of the attacks have resulted in convictions; a suspect in the Varanasi bombings was shot and killed by the police.
"This is different, because for the first time it's everyday, it's utterly anonymous, it's excessive," said Shiv Vishvanathan, a professor of anthropology in Ahmedabad. "The familiar becomes unfamiliar," he said. "The apple seller you meet might be carrying a bomb. It creates suspicion. It's a perfect way to destabilize society."
Reminders of the danger are everywhere. There are metal detectors at the gates of multiplex movie theaters and commuter trains, and even at the threshold of prominent temples and mosques. Yet they have had no bearing on the far greater number of easier, more densely crowded targets.
India's congested cities offer rich opportunities. A small bundle of explosives, hidden as they have been in lunch boxes, pressure cookers and on the backs of bicycles, can cause grievous damage. It is also why the attackers have so successfully eluded punishment.
A report last year by the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington concluded that from January 2004 to March 2007, the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq during the same period.
Ahmedabad, home to 3.5 million people and Gujarat's commercial center, is no stranger to violence. In 2002, a train fire that killed several dozen Hindus led to the killing of 1,000 Muslims over several days, one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence in India's history.
An obscure group calling itself the Indian Mujahedeen warned Saturday that an attack was about to take place "in revenge of Gujarat," plainly referring to the 2002 killings. The statement was sent in an e-mail message, written in English, to television stations just before the first blasts.
H. Singh, the city's joint police commissioner, said Sunday that some of the explosives had been strapped to bicycles in crowded streets and markets. Later in the evening, a pair of car bombs went off in front of two city hospitals. At one of them, Civil Hospital, the dead included husband-and-wife doctors and two sanitation workers.
The police said two additional bombs had been found and defused, in Ahmedabad and nearby Gandhinagar, Gujarat's capital. On Sunday afternoon, the police found two abandoned cars in Surat, an industrial city in Gujarat, one stuffed with bomb-making chemicals and detonators, the other with live bombs. The police said they were still tracing the cars' ownership.
On Friday, there was a series of similar low-intensity blasts in southern Bangalore, one of which killed a woman standing at a bus stop. Two months ago in Jaipur, synchronized blasts on bicycles killed 56 people; the Indian Mujahedeen sent an e-mail message claiming credit for those attacks.
On Sunday, a police official, P. Pandey, said "a single mind" was suspected to be behind the three latest attacks. The police said they had detained people for questioning; The Associated Press reported 30 were in custody. Officials offered no further details about who was involved in the group or a possible motivation behind the bombings.
The morning after the Ahmedabad blasts, residents of this sprawling Indian capital pointed out that while it was virtually impossible to take precautions against terrorist attacks, they had grown increasingly vigilant of the strangers around them.
Hari Om Suri, 52, stood outside a popular seafood restaurant at the Defense Colony Market, scanning the parking lot for anything that looked suspicious.
Mohan and Helen Nanjundan ordered a chicken sizzler for lunch at Moet's, a popular restaurant, and warily eyed the bicycles parked outside. Bicycles, a poor man's transport here, are common. "Every few months, there is another one in another city," said Nanjundan, 52. "Sometimes we tell ourselves to stay away from dangerous places, but it's hard to say where that is."
"I've never looked at a bicycle before," said Nanjundan, 56.
Puneet Gupta, 23, said he was trying to avoid crowded markets, but his girlfriend, Jyotsna Malhotra, 21, said she was determined not to let it get in the way of her fun. "We are not sure what is going to happen tomorrow," she said. "Better to live today, shop, get him to spend some money on me."
Last August, after a pair of synchronized bombs tore through an amusement park and a fast-food restaurant in Hyderabad, killing at least 40 people, an Indian newspaper called the violence "a war on the way we live."
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.