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Sport and security: India’s year of living dangerously. March 17, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

India is a rising economic star and also wants to be a world venue for major sporting events.  But violent jihadi groups have a strong incentive to undermine that image.  New Delhi’s Dayal Chand National Stadium, with its glistening new astro-turf, was therefore in complete lockdown for the opening of the Hockey World Cup.  Security was so tight that the President of the Federation of International Hockey, Leandro Negre, was stopped and searched.  Players were confined to their hotels when not playing or training and heavily escorted between venues.  As it transpired, the two weeks of competition went without a hitch from the security point of view.  (And for the record, Australia won).

New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium

The Hockey World Cup was a test bed for the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for 3-14 October, again in New Delhi.  Manpower-rich India tends to do such lock-downs relatively well, especially when events are contained in space and time.

The just-commenced India Premier League (IPL) is likely to prove more difficult to secure.  Crowds are bigger and events are spread over multiple venues.  The series lasts six weeks.  The stakes are also higher: the IPL is a far more glamorous competition in cricket-obsessed India than the Hockey World Cup or Commonwealth Games.

Two recent occurrences have brought the issue of security at international sporting events in India into sharp focus.  First, there was the attack on the ‘soft’ target of the German Bakery at Pune in which 16 died; and shortly after, a ‘warning’ was issued, as reported in Asian Times Online, by Ilyas Kashmiri of the 313 Brigade (an off-shoot of al Qaeda).  Kashmiri warned that foreign sports persons in India would be subject to attack should they attend the Hockey World Cup, IPL or Commonwealth Games.

But even before these events, foreign governments were anxiously consulting their intelligence agencies on Indian security at sporting events.  The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on 5 March 2009 set a troubling precedent, showing that such events were in the sights of violent jihadi groups.  And the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 also acted as a warning that foreigners are now specific targets of terrorists in India.

Ilyas Kashmiri’s warning lacks credibility.  He was probably trying to capitalise on the Pune attack.  That attack was more likely undertaken by an Indian group such as the Indian Mujahideen or Student’s Islamic Movement of India, in concert with a Pakistan-based group like Lashkar-e-Taiba, than by the 313 Brigade.  But that does not mean that foreigners are not vulnerable.  India has suffered frequent and costly attacks from home-grown violent jihadis, often acting in concert with Pakistan-based groups.

So foreign sports teams are right to asses the risks of travelling to India.  These are some of the things they need to know.

India, with its massive manpower consisting of paramilitary and police, is relatively good at ‘lock downs’ and perimeter defence in major venues. One can expect access to hotels, routes and sites to be significantly hardened at such events.  Air space will also be covered.  However, the IPL, for reasons given above, is somewhat more problematic.  But foreign players attend the IPL in their private capacity and at their own risk.

While India is relatively good at hardening specific targets, so-called ‘soft’ targets – either in the run-up to these events or during them – remain much more at risk.  A terrorist group could expect to achieve significant damage to India’s image and prestige by attacking soft targets prior to events and thus frightening away competitors.  (This may, indeed, have been a motive for the German Bakery attack).

Violent jihadi groups have a strong incentive to unsettle relations between India and Pakistan by mounting attacks on India for which Pakistan would be blamed.  Since the India-Pakistan rapprochement of late 2003, casualties in Indian Kashmir have fallen sharply.  This is in part a manifestation of the fact that Pakistan has been less forthright in supporting terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Indian Kashmir.  Such groups would like to reverse this situation by derailing the India-Pakistan rapprochement.  Given the current offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), violent jihadi groups also have a strong incentive to destabilise India-Pakistan relations so Pakistan will re-deploy troops from it western to its eastern border.

This vulnerability to attacks on soft targets in turn raises the issue of India’s pre-emptive capacity, as distinct from its ability to harden and lock down specific targets.  Despite extensive reforms instituted by India’s energetic Home Minister, P. Chidambaram (see South Asia Masala), it will take some time before India’s hitherto highly ‘stove-piped’ intelligence agencies can be made to operate more seamlessly.  Moreover, India is a vast, diverse country with porous borders.  It is required to deal with multiple security problems at any one time, including the extensive Maoist revolt in central India and various separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East.

With the best will in the world, it will be impossible fully to protect all soft targets at which foreigners congregate.  And even though the intelligence agencies can be strengthened, it will take a far greater commitment and many years to reform India’s crumbling police services so they can effectively gather intelligence, investigate terrorist attacks and break up terrorist cells.

It would therefore not be surprising were further attacks on soft targets to be attempted between now and forthcoming events.  This does not mean that sports men and women will not be relatively safe at the events themselves.  But were such attacks on soft targets to occur, it would give intelligence agencies some headaches in advising their governments whether national teams should attend, since any such attack would raise public concern about the safety of their sports men and women.

Australia also finds itself in a particular dilemma in making such decisions.  Given the current difficulties between Australia and India over the issue of Indian students, any decision by Australia to restrict teams from visiting India would be especially sensitive and would likely be very poorly received in India.

India, keen to host a future Olympic Games and to use the Commonwealth Games to showcase its capabilities, will be giving its all to show that it is a secure venue for major events.  This is not just a matter of sporting and national prestige, but also goes to the heart of international perceptions concerning India as a safe place to work and invest.  In the long run, the perception that India is a safe, modern environment is crucial to its globalisation efforts and rise as a major Asian power.


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