August 10, 2006

Chariots of Ire

By H Natarajan

India, like the United States, is slowly learning to live with heightened threat from terror attacks. Preventive measures have been taken to foil crazed minds from carrying out their threats, but that has meant a lifestyle change for the masses and especially those targeted.

Mumbai was still in shock following the serial blasts on trains when news came of the threat to Sachin Tendulkar’s life. Tendulkar was among the nation’s prized jewels like Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Mukesh Ambani, Narayanamurthy and Azim Premji targeted by the terrorists.

But why Tendulkar, Amitabh, Shahrukh and the industrialists, one may ask? What have they got to do with the agenda of the terrorists? The answer is simple: they are mega-profile personalities and any harm to them will get the cause they are espousing humongous mileage in the media.

Security cover for all of them has since been increased. Tendulkar is now being shadowed by armed bodyguards. This is not the first time Tendulkar is facing danger to his life. One such threat came from Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1991, following which armed security cover was posted outside his residence in La Mer in the plush Western suburbs of Bandra.

Sourav Ganguly, too, was a Lashkar target. Militants captured by India had revealed that both Tendulkar and Ganguly were targeted to hold them as hostage in exchange for political benefits. Dhanraj Pillai had also approached the police after receiving threats from the Lashkar. In the wake of threats to the cricketers, the Indian team touring Pakistan got the kind of security cover normally given to heads of state. Entire stretches of road were blocked and the hotel virtually turned into a fortress. On cricket tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, I have experienced first hand the problems of having such security. For mediapersons working at frenetic pace and facing multiple deadlines, the delay caused by security checks adds immensely to the pressure. Reaching the players for an interview or clarification on some point is an arduous task.

What all this means is taking the joy out of watching sports in its purest form. Everybody entering the stadium is a suspect first and a spectator next. It’s an ordeal they have to necessarily undergo. When you see spectators at cricket grounds in Australia and South Africa, you realize how different it is for them watching a match. For some, it’s a picnic with their families. Many of them strip themselves to the barest clothes and sunbathe while watching the game. They come with beer and food to have a relaxing day at the ground. Contrast that with the way spectators in India have to watch; even water bottles of children are a taboo.

Munich Olympics, in my opinion, was the defining moment when it all changed. It was never the same again for spectators and sportspersons. The Black September group, a Palestine terror outfit, stormed into the village, and killed 11 Israeli athletes. In doing so, they also killed the innocence of sport. Willi Daume, president of the Munich organizing committee, initially sought to cancel the remainder of the Games, but fortunately or otherwise, that was averted. But the Olympic Games was suspended for an entire day, something unprecedented in the history of the Games. A memorial service the following day was attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes was held in the Olympic Stadium. The rest of the Games were fouled up with the Egyptian, Philippine, Algerian contingents packing their bags and leaving for home as did some members of the Netherlands and Norwegian teams.

What were the terrorists targeting in the Olympics? They were demanding the release and their safe passage to Egypt of 234 Palestinians and non-Arabs jailed in Israel, along with two German prisoners who were members of the Red Army Faction.

Security cover for sportsperson have been among the major concerns of all mega sporting events since those horrific killings at Munich in 1972 and heightened after the September 11 terrorist attacks in US. Today security planning is done years ahead of the event and millions of dollars spent to ensure that participating teams do not fall prey to crazed militant groups. When Greece staked its claim to host the 2004 Olympics, much before the 9/11 attacks, it was estimated that $122 million would be needed for security. But that figure spiraled to over $1.8 billion after the suicide attacks on September 11. Greece posted of 40,000 troops along the northern border to foil illegal entry. After the bombings in London last year and the fact that Britain is seen as a close ally of the United States, security for the 2012 games in London will be even tighter and more expensive than it was at Athens.

Cricketers have seen blood and gore in the past. In May 2002, the New Zealand cricketers abandoned their tour of Pakistan after a suspected Al-Qaeda suicide bomber drove an explosive-packed vehicle into a bus outside the Pearl Continental Hotel while the teams were having their breakfast. That bus would have passed within 15 metres of the bombed bus, five minutes after the blast.

When the Sri Lankan Naval Commander was assassinated in Colombo in 1992, the LTTE carefully chose a location outside the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo at a time when the New Zealand team was residing there. Taj Samudra is where teams are traditionally billeted while playing in Colombo and any violent acts around the area gives the militants the attention they want from the world media. Pressure from the family has made cricketers stay away from visits to nations with a history of terror attacks. The Australian and West Indies teams at the 1996 World Cup forfeited their matches rather than risk going to Sri Lanka for their matches where LTTE militants bombed the Central Bank a few months back that killed 90 people and injured thousands.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 and the suicide bomb attacks the world over has shown how vulnerable innocents are. The assassinations of Mrs Indira Gandhi and later that of her son, Rajiv Gandhi, shows that even the highest security does not offer fool-proof risk cover.

Having security tailing you like a shadow cannot be a great feeling. As TN Seshan, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, once said: “I feel like endangered specie!”When one is shadowed every moment, even spending a quiet candle-lit dinner with the wife is not possible. It’s an unwelcome intrusion, but that’s the price celebrities have to pay for their fame.


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