The recent suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Dhaka and Saudi Arabia have forced law-enforcers across the country to tighten security at installations significant to the sect, but the supposedly pro-Muslim Uttar Pradesh government seems to have done the least in this regard.
In a short but gruelling drill conducted on July 10, an HT team accompanied by a security expert visited Lucknow’s Bara Imambara to assess the security arrangements at the Asafi Masjid – one of India’s most popular Shia mosques – as well as its adjoining structures. The findings were disturbing, to say the least.
Built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784, Bara Imambara is the grandest monument of the nawabi era in the state capital. As many as 10,000 people gather at the site on Fridays, and the number grows to 50,000 on special occasions like Alvida, Muharram and Eid.
The expert, former director general of police Sri Ram Arun, found that nobody was being frisked at the main entry point. “It’s surprising. Instead of frisking people, the guards are busy chatting with each other,” he said, stepping into the Bara Imambara premises.
Venturing further into the historic site, Arun came across another “grave flaw”. It was a small 2x2 cloak room that was being stuffed with bags by an official in-charge who scarcely seemed to care that any of them could be stuffed with explosives.
What’s more, many of the visitors could be seen moving around the complex with backpacks. “A guard should be deployed to ensure that all visitors deposit their luggage at the cloak room. This is another security misstep that could lead to grave consequences,” Arun said.
During the course of the 55-minute security drill, the expert cited the main entry point as the most vulnerable area of the Bara Imambara. Besides ensuring compulsory frisking of visitors and the construction of a bigger cloak room, he suggested that a private agency be roped in to enhance security at the monument.
The Hussainabad and Allied Trust (HAT) – custodian of the Bara Imambara – had sought door frame metal detectors and more security personnel from the state government in 2005. While they received two such metal detectors, the equipment couldn’t be put to use for want of qualified operators. “We did not get the security personnel we sought either,” said Nasir Naqvi, officer on special duty with HAT.
District magistrate Raj Shekhar – a member of HAT – said frisking wouldn’t be possible because the Bara Imambara was a religious monument. “But we have deployed security guards and trust staffers to assist visitors,” he said.
NK Pathak, superintending archaeologist, Lucknow circle, Archaeological Survey of India, said ensuring the security of the monument was the responsibility of the trust. “We only take care of its maintenance and repair,” he said.
Lucknow has around 1,200 Shia mosques, most of which avail of security only on important occasions. However, senior superintendent of police Manzil Saini said they are well-prepared for the eventuality of an attack. “The city has quick reaction teams deployed at strategic points. They comprise trained commandos,” she added.
Saini said the response time of these personnel are reviewed repeatedly through mock drills. “We ensure that the reaction time is less than 10 minutes.”
Besides this, Uttar Pradesh also has a crisis management committee to handle emergencies. “The chairperson of the committee is the state’s chief secretary. It covers all the negotiations and other strategic decisions to be taken at a time of crisis,” said Asim Arun, inspector general of the Anti-Terror Squad.