At first glance, the Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai city is a model of foolproof security.
Policemen armed with machine guns and walkie-talkies guard the main entrances to the iconic 1,400-year-old structure, all pilgrims pass through metal detectors and no vehicles are allowed near the temple that receives 15,000 visitors daily.
But dig deeper and the problems start to emerge. Despite local police claiming a three-minute response time to terror threats, experts say the temple is poorly prepared to deal with lone-wolf attacks like the kind witnessed last month in France’s Nice, where a man driving a truck ploughed through a holidaying crowd, killing 85 people.
“Depending only on state police may not be such a wise thing to do. The state government should cast its net wide and get expert advice,” said former Central Bureau of Investigation director RK Raghavan.
Local authorities also aren’t equipped to deal with a suicide-bomber attack, despite being located in a state where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 in a similar fashion.
“Neither Tamil Nadu nor any police force in India is equipped to handle suicide attacks or hostage situations. Neither do we have professional negotiators in place, like in other countries that take such matters more seriously,” Raghavan said.
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This lack of preparedness to deal with new and evolving forms of extremist attacks make a national treasure such as the Meenakshi Temple vulnerable to terrorist strikes. Other national treasures – such as centuries-old temples and heritage structures that dot the state – are similarly exposed, analysts say.
But despite the concerns, the local police appear confident in the security apparatus.
Officials say they’re given the latest gadgets to leverage technology for policing while involving the local population to keep an eye out for suspicious elements, not just around the temple but also the city. Police have even developed an app that citizens can use to report threats.
“The moment the button is pressed, the headquarters receives a signal, along with the geographical coordinates as well as a satellite image of the spot from where the call originated,” said city police commissioner Shailendra Kumar Yadav.
Police say they carry out a weekly review of the security arrangement and ask even residents to keep their vehicles out of the high-security zone. No bags are allowed inside and even shopkeepers have to get their stocks checked and physically carry them for the last 200 metres.
A Raghavan, a 26-year-old businessman, said, “They do not allow even a key chain inside. People may get irritated, but it is necessary for safety.”
Police vehicles and fire service and ambulances are the only vehicles that can enter the zone, after going through check points.
“The temple and the city are absolutely safe and we are geared up to face any eventuality,” Yadav said.
But Raghavan warned against over-confidence and said authorities needed to be vigilant as extremists were constantly evolving their tactics
“Just because nothing has happened here, we should not be complacent. It does not mean that nothing can happen in the future,” he told HT.
This is especially crucial as Tamil Nadu is a treasure trove of architectural marvels in ancient temples and the loss due to their destruction after any attack will be incalculable.
“It may be a good thing to revive an old idea of having a special Temple Protection Force, charged with the specific purpose of safeguarding the temples,” he said.
The local police are doing a good job but the Centre should pitch in for more counter-terror experts because the threat from outfits such as the Islamic State is different from older organisations such as the al Qaeda, he added.
“The IS promises a separate country for its followers, which is very appealing for the youth who are drawn to it. And India can be a potential target,” he said.
A mix of human intelligence along with new technology would be crucial to ward off extremist attacks, Raghavan said, citing examples of the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati and Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple as having made innovative use of crowd-control and baggage scanning techniques.
This is where rigorous training, re-training and exposure to international practices would come in handy, he said. “Of course, security is a costly affair. But costs should never come in the way of increasing security,” he said.