Blasts at India Temple Underscore Regional Tensions, Local Vulnerability

The Bodh Gaya temple complex, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in the northern Indian state of Bihar, was hit by nine explosions on Sunday

  • Share
  • Read Later
STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

A part of the Bodh Gaya temple complex, in India, is damaged following a series of explosions on July 7, 2013

A series of bomb blasts rocked one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist sites in the early hours of July 7, injuring two people and drawing widespread condemnation from the global Buddhist community. Nine blasts were set off in and around the Bodh Gaya temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the northern state of Bihar and home to the bodhi tree, under which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. Authorities say neither the inner areas of the temple nor the tree were damaged in the attacks.

The Indian government was quick to call the blasts an act of terrorism. “Our composite culture and traditions teach us respect for all religions and such attacks on religious places will never be tolerated,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Bihar police said on Monday that they have arrested at least one suspect. Despite being the birthplace of Buddhism, less than 1% of Indians adhere to the faith. Four-fifths of the population is Hindu, with Islam the next largest religion at around 14%.

(MORE: In India, Prism-like Surveillance Slips Under the Radar)

Many worry the weekend attack is a sign that India is getting swept into larger Muslim-Buddhist tensions brewing in the region. In Burma, human-rights groups estimate as many as hundreds of Muslims, including the Rohingya, have been targeted and killed by Buddhist mobs over the past year. Wary of possible reprisals against Buddhists in India, the Home Ministry has asked states to step up security at Buddhist temples and Tibetan enclaves throughout the country. The Dalai Lama’s office has also reportedly tightened its security. Though this is the first time that Bodh Gaya, visited by hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world each year, has been successfully attacked, police say they have intercepted earlier attempts. Footage from over a dozen CCTV cameras installed around the temple after a previous threat is now being used to look for suspects after Sunday’s blasts.

“It’s been brewing for some time now,” says Ajai Sahni, head of the South Asia Terrorism Portal in New Delhi. Though Sahni’s organization has tracked extremist elements in Rohingya communities in the past, he says there is no indication that militants from the largely stateless ethnic group were involved in the Bodh Gaya attack. Earlier threats on Buddhist targets in India have come from groups with links to Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and the India-based Indian Mujahideen. Though some have been quick to draw a potential link between the Rohingya and the other insurgent groups, Sahni says there is no evidence of any explicit cooperation at this point.

What there is concrete evidence of, however, is yet another failure for India’s anemic counterterrorism apparatus. Less than half a year after at least 17 people were killed in twin blasts in Hyderabad, the attackers made it well past temple security checkpoints to plant the bombs, which were set off by timers. The breach underscores the continuing vulnerability of high-profile, known targets throughout the country nearly five years after officials swore to ramp up counterterrorism efforts after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. “The very idea that you can have foolproof security in India is foolish,” says Sahni. “We don’t have the necessary personnel, we don’t have the necessary training, we don’t have the necessary technology. If we do have the technology, we don’t know how to use it.”

Bihar, where Bodh Gaya is located, is one of the poorest states in India and considered particularly vulnerable, having been notoriously mismanaged for years before the current administration of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar came to power. But even after reforms initiated by Kumar, the state security system appears to be underperforming. Private security was hired to protect the temple after a recent threat came to light, but ultimately, Sahni says, “The state is the first guarantee of security to the citizen. If I need private security, the state has failed.”

VIDEO: The Growing Maoist Threat in India