The Ides of December




Terrorism, in all its foulness, screams into Bangalore; and, security fears are
revisited

The
incisive crack of a terrorist’s bullet fractured the wintry air. On a cold
Wednesday evening of December 28, 2005, tranquil Bangalore lost forever its
pacifist tag. The pall of gloom, shock and fear which follows every terrorist
attack in Delhi and Mumbai would now extend its cold fingers into the mind of
every Bangalore citizen. When conference attendees at the prestigious Indian
Institute of Science (IISc) became a most unlikely terrorist target at 7.15 pm
that evening, Bangalore would soon realize the fact that no government
establishment or technology campus was free of the threat of guns; or, the
depravity of those who aim their weapons at the softest of targets.

Watched
by waiting accomplices, a gunman ran up the steps of the IISc’s JN Tata
Auditorium, and sprayed bullets of his AK56 rifle upon innocent people. Hours
after the blood had congealed on the auditorium steps everybody in their right
minds could not even imagine the motive behind the murder.

Those
leaving the auditorium at the end of a day’s conference were
academics-professors, tutors, research scholars, operations research policy
experts-whose deliberations on technology and its implications were far
removed from the world of the terror merchants. At least 24 hours after eminent
academic and IIT Professor emeritus MC Puri collapsed to the ground with a
hushed observation to those around that he had been shot, and Bangalore police
struggled to pin down Prof Puri’s killer and his accomplices. Lashkar-e-Toiba
and Jaish-e-Mohammed were the first suspects and, according to police, their
complicity was natural, given the fact that arrests of LeT operatives in Delhi
earlier this year had revealed plans to attack IT facilities and other important
government institutions in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. Besides, CDs
recovered from terrorist groups a week earlier, had only sharpened threat
perceptions across the country.

The
attack has unnerved companies in the city that is India’s technology
outsourcing hub. Already reeling under the shock of the murder of a BPO employee
earlier in December, the corporates moved in quickly to further tighten their
existing security set ups. Government affiliated research organizations-many
of them on the hitlist of terror groups-were tense. Police also increased
security in Chennai and Hyderabad. While the manhunt for the attackers
continues, the government also announced that it was setting up special squads
to comb the city, and also asking outsourcing companies to step up security
measures.

Pre-empting threats
While the Bangalore police said that no motive for the shooting had been
established, they were exploring the possibility that a prominent militant group
based in Pakistan could be involved. The rapidly prospering IT companies could
be targeted on ideological grounds, but the true symbols of Indian Government
continue to be the PSUs and key research institutions in Bangalore and Hyderabad
who have strong research and student exchange links with American and European
universities. Post the IISc attack, it has also been felt that anti-US
fundamentalist groups could target top outsourcing firms across the country.

    
The unprecedented attack inside the peaceful
environs of India’s most respected research institute has shattered
Bangalore’s cloak of invincibility. The minute-long shooting spree ended
in the death of IIT-Delhi Professor emeritus MC Puri and grieves injuries
to four others, including Puri’s colleague Prof Pankaj Gupta

However,
the Indian units of companies housed in Bangalore such as Yahoo, Amazon, Texas
Instruments, Cisco, Intel and Google, are likely to be on their toes when
allowing visitors into their premises, with more levels of security checks
thrown in.

One
clear lesson to take home from this shocking episode is that risk management and
resolution becomes difficult when the potential target is a research institute
like IISc or most large Indian universities-whose unprotected campuses are
scattered across large areas and are freely accessible by public roads. The
steps of the J N Tata Auditorium, where the shooting occurred, were just 50 feet
away from a public road. The gate had no security checkpoint, and all security
personnel were concentrated on the IISc main gate which is right across the
road. This, despite the fact that the compound was shared by the auditorium with
the Cipla Pharmaceuticals laboratory and Indian Institute of Forest Sciences.

The
issue to be addressed here was not just a question of security being more widely
dispersed across the campus or timely police warnings, but the question of
assessing the risk and narrowing it down to the auditorium. In this case, a
location-specific threat assessment would have required a high level of
intelligence gathering, which IISc alone would not have been in a position to
commit its scarce security resources.

With
India’s premier space organization, ISRO, headquartered in Bangalore, as are
its aircraft manufacturing facilities and top government laboratories, a mere
‘red alert’ from the side of the organization or the police, will not do.
Real security readiness would mean clear entry guidelines for visitors on a
need-to-visit basis and strong identity tracking systems in place. IT companies
have enforced rigid security checks at their facilities and campuses, which
include thorough frisking of visitors, metal detectors, and photographs taken by
Web cameras which are stored in a database for future reference. On the other
hand, foolproof security systems have been virtually non-existent at most
premier educational institutions in India.

Biotech pioneer and founder-CEO of Strand
Genomics Prof Vijay Chandru was the brain behind the development of the
low-cost Simputer. Prof Chandru had visited IISc to participate in the
operations research conference, which had over 300 attendees. He sustained
three bullet injuries in the attack, and survived death after hours of
struggle in a nearby hospital.

Come easy, go easily?
After the IISc shooting, police officials claimed that they had warned IISc of
the threat in writing, not once but several times. But raising risk perceptions
would mean nothing for an academic institution which has over six gates, big and
small and mostly unguarded, at various points around its main campus.

In
fact, IISc’s entry and exit points are typical of India’s larger
universities and research establishments. Gaining unauthorized entry into
Jawaharlal Nehru University is still a cakewalk. It is not uncommon to find
beggars, strollers and other persona non grata wandering inside the campuses of
many Indian universities and research establishments on any given Wednesday
afternoon. A fake student ID or a verbal reference to faculty members or other
employees would get an intruder past these gates too.

The
question of early police warnings to highly visible and visited establishments
like the IISc, Bharat Electronics, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bharat Earth
Movers Limited, DRDO and Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular
Biology, would be offset against the abilities of these institutions to assess
threats and follow the correct risk management procedures. Police and law
enforcement agencies rarely collaborate with institutions of higher learning in
threat-proofing their security set ups. IT companies and technology parks, with
access to professional security forces, and systems like motion sensors and
biometric fingerprint ID readers score better in this respect.

It
is clear that terrorism can be fought only through stringent security measures
at sensitive locations, corporate, educational and research-based, and by
creating greater awareness among people, especially those in the technology
sector.

It
has become extremely important that just like the IT companies, public,
educational and research institutions also invest in monitoring visitors and
individuals who work directly or indirectly in an organization and invest in
intelligence system in their premises. No cost would be too high to protect the
most valued intellectual resources our multifaceted organizations hold. A repeat
of the IISc bloodbath will prove detrimental to every grain of excellence,
enterprise and human dignity which we have so carefully nurtured over the years.

 

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