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India under siege

india Updated: Aug 04, 2008 00:59 IST
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The priest was chanting hymns. The video cameraman shot unrelentingly. A few metres away from the pile of wedding gifts, the red pillars and the ageing peepal tree, an innocuous bag containing a pressure cooker lay unnoticed. It wasn't another wedding gift. It was a powerful bomb. It went off.

Within 20 minutes, another blast rocked the railway station. Twenty-eight people died that day, the evening of March 7, 2006.

<b1>What followed - and the months that had preceded those moments - was a snapshot of all that is wrong with India's battle against terror.

The man who allegedly planned the bombings could do so because of weak anti-terror laws - he was out on bail in another case - a suicide attack at the Ram Janmbhoomi complex. Forensics evidence was taken six hours late, and yielded nothing - though even a drop of sweat at the bombsite could have given the DNA of the bomber. The police were not trained to tackle terrorism and burdened with duties that had nothing to do with law enforcement. A man was killed in an unexplained gunbattle. And the most powerful defence system - the beat constable - had collapsed years ago.

Six hundred kilometers away, another wedding ceremony - a hundred times more grand - was plodding on. When Varanasi was bombed, a large number of 4,500-strong police force was missing. Many senior police officials and others were in attendance at a wedding in the family of then-Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. Many other policemen had gone to Jaunpur to guard the route of the state governor at a function.

<b2>That wasn't unusual at all. The 2.2 million-strong police force, the first and strongest line of defence against terrorism, often are made to do dozens of jobs that have nothing to do with law enforcement - like guarding and organising VIP weddings.

In Varanasi, like across the country, the force wasn't known for anti-terror skills as well. The previous year in May, three months after a blast killed seven people on the famous Dashwashvamdh Ghat, a container packed with the deadly explosive RDX was found in a heavily guarded area of the Gyanvapi Mosque, due to a network of CCTVs, a rarity in public places in India.

Rather than hand it over for forensic tests - and seek fingerprints and DNA samples, which help solve terror cases all over the world - the RDX was thrown into the Ganga.

When the debris was cleared at Sankat Mochan temple, Ritesh Upadhyaya was among the dead. Out of excitement, he and his brother Rajesh had accompanied a local cameraman Harish Bijlani - the man who was shooting the temple wedding. Rajesh Upadhyaya was so traumatized did not step out of his house for a whole year.

"Even my other son is no more. He was so cheerful -- after he recovered at a hospital he became silent. He didn't talk to anyone, he is always lost," said their tearful father Sushil Upadhyaya, a booking clerk in the railways.

More than six hours had passed after the bombing. Politicians were beginning to fly in. That is when the local forensics team arrived, just before UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was to reach Varanasi with Home Minister Shivraj Patil.

"When we got the forensic evidence, there was nothing - nothing! There were no fingerprints and little else. We got no lead from the site. We do not use scientific evidence in India to fight terrorism," said a senior intelligence official in New Delhi.

Most districts do not have sniffer dogs or bomb disposal squads. UP has 71 districts - but only 22 anti-bomb units.

The only lead had come from 14-year-old footmat seller Chandan, who had sold one to the bombers. As they began to walk away, he had cried out to them: "You left your bag behind!" They had smiled, said they would pick it up in a few minutes after shopping some more - and disappeared.

The street vendor alerted the police. Bomb experts Kishanpal Singh Rawat and his assistant Amarjeet Singh - who wore a bomb suit -executed the only victory of the day. With five minutes to go for the blast, they defused the bomb - another five-litre pressure cooker with wires connected to a table clock, concealed by a bed sheet, a pair of underwear, a toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a copy of Outlook magazine.

"It was a high pressure situation for us ... the bomb was timed to go off after 25 minutes of the railway station blast. We had only a few minutes left," Rawat said.

The case was turned over to the state's Special task Force (STF) - who promptly gunned down a man identified as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba's state chief Salim alias Salar the next morning, saying it had solved the case.

It was a baffling killing, and investigators in New Delhi were unsure how the suspect was linked to the Varanasi blasts.

Days passed. Investigators had chased all possible leads - including a detailed scrutiny of the wedding video and questioning of the three strangers who the groom's family could not recognize.

"In the meantime, completely disconnected to all this, two boys who had received training in Balochistan (Pakistan) had been arrested. They were being tracked for months after our inputs," said an intelligence official in New Delhi. "They mentioned a man who they said had carried out the Varanasi blasts."

That search led them to the Islamabad Masjid and madrassa near Allahabad, to the bearded, short and stocky Mohammed Waliullah in Phoolpur town.

Waliullah was arrested, and stunning new details emerged. He was being tried already for harbouring three allegedly Bangladeshi suicide attackers who carried out the July 5, 2005 attack at the Ram Janmbhoomi complex in Ayodhya.

Sir Waliullah named Mohd Shamim, the Bangladeshi living in Ali Nagar, 20 km away from Varanasi in Chandauli, for two years - the police couldn't manage to get his sketch all these years.

"If we had a beat constable system he would have noticed three strangers at the seminary and inquired," said a senior investigator in New Delhi.

But the strongest life of defence against terrorism has long collapsed. Beat books - in which constables are supposed to document all suspicious activities and people in the area - have not been written for up to nine years. In Varanasi, they had not been filed for up to three years in 17 of the 23 police stations.

It works: a beat constable in New Delhi got four militants arrested two years ago because a PCO owner told him about their calls to Pakistan. But no terror related drills have been conducted for constabulary anywhere in Uttar Pradesh.

"The beat drill failed, and the Ayodhya attack happened. Then Waliullah was charged, but the absence of POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) made it easy for him to get bail," the officer said. "When he got bail, he went to Bangladesh, and set up a network to send Indian youth to help carry out bombings with training in Pakistan," the officer said.

During its tenure, the Mulayam Singh government had also chosen to not oppose the bail of 23 other SIMI state leaders and workers. All jumped bail.

Meanwhile, the Anti Terrorist Squad has little idea of where things stand. It has not filed a chargesheet even eight months after the arrests of four men - though it has to be filed within 90 days, or the suspects have to be released.

"Shall I tell you things out of thin air? Ask the Varanasi police," said Jai Prakash, a local ATS officer.

Into thin air is where Sushil Upadhyaya's son, the wedding cameraman's friend, went - but he did not let the death go in vain. His son's eyes were donated - they gave vision to an infant in a family of national award winning potters in Azamgarh and an elderly woman in Bihar.

"I lost my son to a tragedy. I didn't want to waste his death. At least those two can see through his eyes," said Upadhyaya. "Somewhere in heaven he will be happy."

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