Questions after Akshardham

Extending a hand of friendship.

Extending a hand of friendship.  

IF THE Gujarat police were caught unawares during the attack on the Akshardham temple complex, it was because they refused to read the writing on the wall. If the intelligence reports received since the post-Godhra communal carnage had been pieced together, an attack of this nature could have been prevented. The reports may not have been Akshardham-specific, but the temple was considered one of the soft targets.

Why was Akshardham made the target rather than other religious centres such as Ambaji, Somnath or Dwarka which attract thousands of devotees daily? While security was strengthened at Somnath and Dwarka after tensions between India and Pakistan heightened, there was nothing of the kind at Akshardham. The temple security staff did not even carry a kitchen knife. Their only job was to ensure that no one smoked inside the complex or climbed the stairs wearing shoes. The Akshardham attack sends a strong message that if terrorists can strike at a place within a few metres of the State police headquarters and the southwestern air command base, they can reach anywhere in the State.

No group has owned responsibility for the attack nor has any progress been made in the investigation. Police are also baffled by the behaviour of the terrorist duo. While it will suit the political bosses to blame it on Pakistan, the two apparently did not behave like the hardcore terrorists the ISI trains.

There were at least 2,000 people in the 23-acre temple complex at the time of the attack on September 24. The two scaled the wall adjoining gate number three and began firing and lobbing grenades as they ran towards the main temple. During the 500-metre run to the main temple, only two persons were killed. At the main temple, the duo first went to the basement where the electricity control panels are located but failed to disrupt power supply.

Later they ran through the corridors of the huge exhibition hall firing in the air. They concentrated their attack mainly at the entrance to the exhibition hall where several hundred people were in the queue to purchase tickets. Almost all the people killed and injured in the attack were here. The two then climbed on to the roof of the exhibition hall through a service staircase.

However, as the panicked devotees ran helter-skelter, within striking distance, the terrorists did not fire a shot till the police later engaged them. A group of police commandos trying to rescue some people trapped in the main temple came under fire from the terrorists later in the night, but after only a short burst of fire in which six commandos were injured, the terrorists hid themselves behind a bathroom door. "We were like sitting ducks and were in no position to return fire, but instead the terrorists ran away. To me they looked like a pair of novices and not well trained," a senior police officer said.

If the plan was to take hostages, as is widely believed, the terrorists made little attempt either to break open the doors of the main temple which were closed by the volunteers on a message through the intercom after the terrorists entered the complex, or to capture a few people in the exhibition hall. As revealed later, there were at least 70 people trapped in the main temple and another 90-odd people were in the exhibition hall. They were rescued after the terrorists were shot dead by the National Security Guard commandos the next morning. About six unused magazines of 30 rounds each were recovered from the terrorists. Their behaviour has left many questions unanswered. Were there more than two of them and did the rest escape in the melee when the panic-stricken devotees were being escorted out of the complex? If taking hostages was the plan, more than two persons would have been required. The Government now insists that there were only two terrorists involved. However, the State Director-General of Police, K. Chakravarthi, said the attack could not have been carried out by two "rank outsiders" without at least logistic support from locals.

The terrorists are said to have emerged from the Ahmedabad railway station about an hour before the shootout and driven straight to the temple complex in a hired taxi. But the undergarments the terrorists were wearing, the dry fruits they purchased and even the plastic bag they carried all bear labels of shops in Ahmedabad. Apparently, coming out of the station was a ploy to mislead investigators.

The driver of the taxi in which they are said to have gone to Akshardham has also given conflicting information. Did the duo talk in the taxi, if so what did they talk about and in which language? The driver first said the two completed the 50-km journey without exchanging a word with him or among themselves. Then he is said to have told the police that one of them talked to him in Gujarati. It is also baffling why the taxi owner agreed to take them to Akshardham for only Rs. 120 when the usual rate is anything between Rs. 250 and Rs. 400.The identity of the two attackers is yet to be established beyond doubt, though the Intelligence Department has claimed that they hailed from Lahore and Peshawar respectively. Nothing is still known about the Tehrik-e-Kasas, the organisation whose name was inscribed on their bodies and which in Urdu means "movement for revenge". However, the police have dismissed it as yet another ploy of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to misguide the investigation. But be it a Pakistan-sponsored attack or an act of local militants to avenge the killings of over a thousand innocent Muslims in the communal riots, Gujarat seems to be in for a long period of violence.

Recommended for you