Bangalore shaken, not scared

The image of a peaceful, cosmopolitan IT hub driven by productivity has been shattered by the suspected involvement of the Bangalore-based brothers in the failed bombings in the UK. How far will the terrorist link impact the image of the cyber city, its brand value and business, finds out Jangveer Singh

With her small space shrinking further, the vegetable seller in Bangalore seems overawed by the presence of security personnel patrolling the city
With her small space shrinking further, the vegetable seller in Bangalore seems overawed by the presence of security personnel patrolling the city. — Photo by Shailendra Bhojak

Everyone knows how Bangalore evolved to its present state from a British cantonment to a centre for public sector undertakings. A residential city which acquired the sobriquet of ‘the garden city’ evolved to the status of the present-day IT capital of the country. Bangalore is the idea of a new India which is technologically driven and free from everything we associate with the badlands of the country—caste conflicts, riots, terrorism or simply an undoable business atmosphere.

The city is waking up to the fact that many from its trained force—be it software engineers or doctors may be linked to extremist groups who could strike at will in the city or elsewhere, thereby ruining the fair name of the city which has been built upon nearly two decades of inspirational leadership and effort.

So has Bangalore changed in the space of one week? The answer is definitely yes. The city, which is the most cosmopolitan in the country and whose people – the Kannadigas— are known to be one of the most peace-loving, are now forced to reckon with the enemy within. What is difficult is that the enemy is hard to define. The city till now has no experience of fighting terrorism. There is no laid down process to seek and weed out the extremist element.

"The image of Bangalore has been shaken, not stirred," is how Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consultants, would like to describe the situation. "I see two things happening. First, there will be more top-down security in the form of additional policing and a task force. Second, citizen security will be shaken up. This is a positive development as Bangalore is no longer a traditional small town. People and institutions need to be more concerned about security as they are becoming now".

Bijoor, a management expert, says such incidents do affect the psyche of the city. "No city likes to export or import terrorism", he admitted even while maintaining the city would ride out the rough patch. "Bangalore is a way of life. It is not split on religious lines and embraces everything". He said the present-day executive mood was relaxed. Professionals now have a heightened sense of acceptance of increased security but that’s all. Everyone has their deadlines and little time for anything else".

When you look at the issue from the IT industry point of view there is definite cause for worry. The IT industry is responsible for building theimage of Brand Bangalore and would like to keep it that way. The industry has had a dream run in the city. Now it has to look at the issue of background checking anew. Intel spokesperson Hemlata Varlani says companies were facing a dilemma. "If we were thinking of redoing Human Resource (HR) policies, how would we do it differently?" What she wants convey is that most companies have well-defined hiring norms which check the background of all candidates applying for a job. However, this check is often outsourced to a private detective agency which verifies the information given by the candidate as well as checking about him from his earlier colleagues.

HR people feel doing anything more is the work of the police and point out that in the case of Kafeel Ahmed, the man who rammed an explosive laden Cherokee jeep into the Glasgow airport terminal, it was the police which had failed to act on Kafeel’s actions. They point out that Kafeel had held meetings to protest against the alleged treatment being meted out to Chechnya Muslims and also held a protest rally against the Danish weekly which had carried a caricature of Prophet Mohammed. They point out that Infotech Enterprise, the IT outsourcing company which hired him to work on its aeronautics projects, did not have any information about Kafeel’s radical activities because of the failure of the State’s intelligence agencies and not because of any failure in checking of references or past employers.

Union of IT Services General Secretary, Karthik Shekhar, says "Nasscom, the representative body of the IT industry, had come out with a solution which would ensure vigorous checks on the antecedents of all IT employees last year". He said Nasscom had proposed that a national data bank of IT employees be built to help employers in accessing the talent pool available. Shekhar says the idea has not been implemented with some companies feeling a data base with contact details of every employee in the IT sector would encourage poaching.

Then there is the question of availability. Private recruitment agencies are perpetually under pressure to come up with qualified personnel to feed the IT industry which has very high attrition rates. "In such a situation intensive checks are sometimes given the go-by", said Arun Patel, a consultant. Patel recommends psychological checking of employees prior to hiring besides background checks to ascertain their state of mind.

Shun stereotypes

A speaker makes a point at a function of the Indian Union Muslim League in Bangalore
A speaker makes a point at a function of the Indian Union Muslim League in Bangalore. — Photo by Shailendra Bhojak

The function of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) held at the Guru Nanak Bhavan in the city was projected to appeal to the Muslim community to unite under one banner to increase its bargaining power. However the Bangalore link in the United Kingdom terror plot put paid to the plans of the IUML and leaders of the community were hard pressed to explain Islam as well as the hatred the religion was attracting in India and the world over.

Rehmatullah, an activist, put across the plight of the larger community by talking about how the symbols associated with their faith were attracting suspicion. "The beard and the burqa have been turned into symbols of terrorism", he said adding many people in the community were now thinking twice before taking on these symbols.

Rehmatullah, while talking about the community, said it was sad that Muslims had not benefitted from the IT revolution in the city. "The fact that Muslim women still lagged behind in education was partly responsible for this as nearly half the work force in the IT industry in Bangalore consisted of women", he said. The activist said the community needed to dwell on this issue to ensure education for women who then could pass it on vigorously to the next generation.

The community is in no mood to explain the actions of the Ahmed brothers, saying they cannot be responsible for actions of fringe members of their community. Former MP G M Banatwalla while speaking on this issue, questioned why there was no such term as Hindu terrorism. He said Islam preached peace not war and it was up to the parents as well as religious leaders to ensure youth did not get swayed by provocative slogans.

Meanwhile, besides the larger community, even the Tablighi Jamaat, whose members Kafeel and Sabeel are said to be, says it does not preach extremism. Its Karnataka Vice President Atharulla Sharif says he does not know whether the Ahmed brothers were Jamaat members. He says there is no reason to believe the two brothers were indoctrinated to turn to extremism in the state as the Jamaat teachings were completely contrary to this. "They could have been influenced during their stay abroad", he added. Sharif says though isolated cases of terrorism had occurred earlier too in the state, there was more concern among the educated class amongst the community due to the involvement of youngsters who were definitely privileged. He says this could have an effect on the image of Brand Bangalore but it again depended on how the incident was projected. "We must understand this was an aberration rather than a trend", he added.

Noted historian and writer Ramachandra Guha too feels there is a need to avoid ghettoisation. "It is bizarre to see parents being asked to explain the actions of their children", says Guha asking whether the media also questioned the parents of Naxals and Hindu fundamentalists in the same manner. "We can find misguided youth everywhere", he says adding the issue of "highly educated youth" taking to terrorism was not a new phenomenon the world over. "Greater education could result in greater frustration also", he says, adding "Bangalore and its brand image will outlive these incidents".

‘Fighting terror has been low priority’

Increased security outside the Vidhan Soudha in the wake of the heightened threat perception
Increased security outside the Vidhan Soudha in the wake of the heightened threat perception

"These elements are more dangerous than the rogues on the streets", was Karnataka Home Minister M.P. Prakash’s reaction to the emergence of highly educated extremists in the State after the Ahmed brothers, Kafeel and Sabeel, were suspected to be involved in the failed United Kingdom bombings. It is to be seen how a government, which has failed to fish out extremism from the "street corner" from which Prakash says it used to emerge earlier, will counter educated and well-indoctrinated youth who many say are working as ‘sleeper cells’ for extremist organisations is anyone’s guess. The latest buzz is formation of an Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) on the lines of the one functioning in Mumbai. The proposed squad’s personnel will get 30 per cent more salary than regular policemen and the State will provide free education to their children and also assure increased security for their families. The State will have to do more to ensure the squad is a success and does not meet the fate of the present Anti-Terrorist Cell. Nearly 50 per cent of the posts in the cell are lying vacant. Much of the present staff is deputed to gather information about rival parties by the ruling dispensation making it ineffective.

The transition of Bangalore has been slow. In fact, till a few years back terrorist activities were unheard of. Police sources say things started changing after the 9/11 blasts. They say a survey a few years back in Muslim pockets near Queens road and Ulsoor had revealed that youth were typing the words ‘Laden’. ‘Saddam’ and ‘Taliban’ very often. The cafes are located close to areas where the education level among Muslims is very poor.

The first mass terror strike in Karnataka occurred when activists of the Deendar Anjuman sect blated bombs in churches in Hubli, Gulbarga and Bangalore. The terror tentacles following arrests of several youth were traced back to Kashmir and Pakistan. Investigations revealed that a large number of Kashmiris had settled down in these areas and extremists among them had influenced the local youth.

The shoot-out incident in the Indian Institute of Science (IIsc) in December, 2005 truly brought terror to Bangalore. Though the police has been unable to crack the case till now, one of the Al-Badr activists arrested in the case was a postgraduate in analytical chemistry. The police failed to capitalise on this lead and monitor radical activism in the city which could have unmasked the alleged Glasgow bomber Kafeel Ahmed, an engineer, who was involved in protests in favour of Chechnya and even giving lectures condemning atrocities on Muslims.

Bangalore City Commissioner N Achyuta Rao says it is still to be determined whether the Ahmed brothers who are alleged to be responsible for the UK bombings were indoctrinated while in the city or during their visits abroad. He however admitted that the recovery of Kafeel’s hard disk indicated that part of the conspiracy could have been hatched from Bangalore. The Commissioner said the intelligence network needed to be strengthened for which a request had been made to the state government. As regards whether the Brand Bangalore image had been dented after the recent incidents, the Commissioner said this depended on how the situation was projected by the national and international media.