Saturday, December 31, 2005
Indian Institute Of Science, Bangalore. Now A Terror Target.
Visiting America, you experience first-hand how paranoid this country is about terrorist attacks. Justifiably perhaps. My fear is that India could get there. Unjustifiably. When terrorists attack something as unassuming as the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, you really wonder where this is coming from. And how ?
I’ve passed the Indian Institute of Science dozens of times on my way to Raj Mahal Vilas. That’s where my family lives in Bangalore. The IISc is out of the way, its not even in the heart of Bangalore or the happening part of it. For terrorists (or whoever planned this) to cart themselves and their AK-47s there in order to spray bullets into an unsuspecting group of professors or students calls for some motivation. Or some confusion in purpose.
As others must be wondering too. Why IISc ? Does it represent the best India has to offer in scientific pursuit ? In many ways yes. To the extent that an educational institution should become a terrorist target. I really wonder. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) headquarters are not too far from here, maybe a five-minute drive away, further out of the city.
But the ISRO would be well guarded. And they chose the Institute of Science. Possibly, as some speculate, because there was a convention with high profile names speaking right then. But that's not the point here lest this be seen as an attempt to sift out the most juicy terrorist targets.
Messing Up Priorities
There are two somewhat distinct issues here. First, Bangalore. The city has become a unwilling poster boy for everything that’s good with India. Perhaps the IISc was seen as one manifestation of the success that is Bangalore. It was also a sitting duck as many other such installations are. And like most educational institutions (including the finest in paranoid America) the IISc did not have gates and guards.
Even before terrorist threats began appearing on the radar screen, regular VIP visits (Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin for starters) caused considerable hardship to ordinary Bangaloreans. Traffic jams which are bad as it is get worse when VIPs arrive, typically to visit Infosys on Hosur Road or Wipro at Sarjapur. My fear is that parts of Bangalore surely need more security as other places do, but it has to be focussed and specific. As do other locations in the country perhaps and that's what one is talking about, here.
The second issue is that we have a way of messing up our security priorities. Instead of guarding installations with the appropriate, ideal combination of human resources and technology, we guard all the wrong things, exhaustively. By often quoting archaic laws. A kid sitting on a computer anywhere in the world can get a birds eye view on an Indian airport. But photography is prohibited at all airports. Including to media, unless special and painstaking permissions are taken.
I wonder why your tickets are checked when entering the airport concourse. No airport that I have been to, elsewhere does that. Once you have checked in, security check can be extremely stringent as it should be. In all American airports, boots, sneakers and heavy shoes have to be sent through the x-ray machine.
A few weeks ago, on my way out of Boston Logan International on an internal flight, I didn’t take my laptop out of my bag before sending it into the x-ray machine. Apparently I should have that. For some reason, this jammed the system. Couldn’t figure out how, but it shut down the line for a good ten minutes.
After which the security guys asked me to stand away from the bags, ran a chemical swab over the bag before handing it back. This is the airport from which two aircraft took off on the morning of September 11, 2001 and turned into flying missiles. Presumably, Logan is as paranoid as any airport can be. And yet, no one checks your tickets when you enter the terminal all the way to the check-in counter.
White House Tour
My best example is about the White House in Washingon DC. Do you know that you can walk around the main White House fence largely unhindered. Surely this must be one of the best guarded places on earth. I counted three people who looked like guards, when I last passed through. In India, entire roads to politicians’ houses get barricaded. Why, I wonder, do our leaders cower in fear (or appear to do so) and hide under their collective beds ? Who are they more scared of, terrorists or a discontent electorate ? Anyway, for more on visiting the White House !
Which brings me back to first point, on the Indian Institute of Science. One fear is that nothing will happen at all. The other is that we will overzealously guard everything that we should not. Or stop allowing the free flow of people. America overdoes it too. And faces citizen protest and much public debate. Like the one about whether the airlines should begin allowing some items back onto hand baggage. But debate about public convenience is as big as public security.
On Bangalore, the important thing is to respond effectively but be judicious on allocating and utilizing resources for security purposes. No one is saying don’t guard the IISc, but don’t guard it to an extent that you have to fill a form in triplicate if you are a student who wandered by for some information. It’s a fear. Maybe its unfounded but its based on real experience elsewhere.
Security As A Way Of Life
Its like the airport example. The four guys standing with guns at the enterance can perhaps be better used at the security check-in. Either way, a paper ticket which you have 3 seconds to glance is hardly a deterrent to someone wanting to attack the terminal building. Even with ammunition. So, these four guys could be posted elsewhere.
The point being made is general, about a larger malady. Tightened security is getting to be a way of life in many countries. Unfortunately, India may have to follow. Things could get worse for Bangalore. There are already more threats floating around. I read today that security has been stepped up for the chief minister and a five-star hotel in Bangalore. Predictably, perhaps ! In a later post, though, I intend to argue how bad it can really get.
Unfortunately, we are not used to much debate in these areas. We tend to dismiss or reduce it to unpatriotic behaviour. That’s one thing I rarely see happening in western democracies like America or Britain. You can call George Bush all sorts of names for attacking Iraq or eavesdropping on your phone calls (as people do in full page advertisements) but no one will call you unpatriotic for doing that. Its another matter that Bush might ignore you totally.
But managing such threats effectively in a populous country will be a big challenge. Particularly since the concept of public ownership and service is a little fuzzy here. Unchecked, over zealous or mis-managed security will further discriminate against our own countrymen.