Thursday, 8 September 2011

Dangerous days in Delhi

Today has not been a good day for Delhi. This morning, a bomb exploded at the high court - as I write, the death toll stands at 11. Apparently, an Islamist group called Huji ul-Jihad al-Islami (or just Huji) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Director of the National Investigations Agency calls Huji a "very prominent terrorist group", but I have to admit I hadn't heard of them before.

There are a scary number of such organisations targeting India, and attacks are a frequent occurrence. Most of the more high profile ones - the ones that get extensive coverage in Western media - seem to have occurred in Mumbai, but Delhi has been targeted aplenty too, with the last major attacks occurring in September 2008 in a series of marketplace bombings. Unsurprisingly, India takes security VERY seriously - you can't get on the Metro or enter a major hotel without first going through a scanner, having your bag put through an x ray machine, and undergoing a pat down from security guards.

This latest attack might be expected to leave people even more edgy. But this afternoon as I was out and about there was no obvious change in the atmosphere of the city. I had a meeting at a hotel where the security checks were maybe a mite more thorough than usual, but other than that the people of Delhi seemed largely to be getting on with business as normal.

But then what choice do they have? I have long been accustomed to living with the threat of terrorism - I grew up with it, as did pretty much everyone in the UK from the time the IRA began to be active. Of course we knew that we were potentially a target - indeed, my home city was the site of the IRA's biggest bomb on the UK mainland (though thankfully it did not claim any lives). Today the threat has changed, but we know it's still there. We also know, though, that we are much more likely to be killed on the roads than in a bomb attack (goodness knows that's true in India too). The choice is to hide in your house or just to get out and get on with life - and that's not really a choice at all.

Nature, however, is even more unpredictable than terrorists, and about half an hour ago she decided to compound the city's gloom with an earthquake. There are no official reports out as I write this, but the figure of 6.6 on the richter scale is being bandied about on Twitter. It certainly felt strong, but then the UK is very sheltered in this regard - I've only ever experienced one (very minor) quake a few years back when I was visiting my mum in Manchester. But my whole apartment shook visibly. I have to admit to being pretty damn scared for a moment there.

Sitting near the top of the plate on which India sits - which is gradually sliding under Asia and creating the Himalayas as it does so - Delhi is in a relatively active seismic zone. I have to admit I hadn't really thought about this particular risk before coming here - it's not really the sort of thing that occurs to you. But the city has a history of major quakes. This one only last a few seconds so hopefully the damage will not be too great.

In the meantime, it's been an unsettling day and a reminder that the regular run of life is something you can't take for granted - you never know when something will happen that will change everything. I've come through the day unscathed, but others here have not been so lucky. The city and I will carry on tomorrow, knowing that tomorrow could bring more or less anything.

At any rate, life in Delhi is certainly rarely dull.


Helen Gray said...

Of the two threats you've faced today I think it's mother nature that scares me the most. Thoughts are with you and the people of Delhi. I have to admit that I'm woefully under educated on the politics driving Islamic terrorists in India :S

Chris said...

To be honest Helen, I have to admit I am too. There are both foreign based groups (often from Pakistan) and domestic groups (including both Islamist and Maoist) active here. It's quite bewildering even trying to understand the threat, so trying to counter it and prevent attacks must be one of the toughest jobs going.