Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is known for his calm and composed demeanour even in the most critical of situations. But addressing the media at his official residence on 27 October, he certainly looked a worried man.
Seven blasts had rocked the election rally of his arch political rival, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, killing six people and injuring over 80. The first explosion took place at the Patna Railway Station, around 3 km from the venue of the rally. Preliminary investigations over the next couple of days revealed that a total of 18 bombs were planted at various places across the city before Modi’s Hunkar rally.
A number of questions arise over security lapses, an ill-equipped bomb squad and the handling of the casualties. One also wonders why Modi went ahead with his rally despite being forewarned. According to sources, he was told about the attack the moment he landed at the Patna airport and was advised to keep away from the rally, but he refused to comply.
“It’s tragic. We condemn it. To carry out serial blasts on the day of BJP’s highly publicised rally is a conspiracy to vitiate the atmosphere in Bihar,” Nitish told the media on 27 October. “All the perpetrators will be brought to justice… Family members of the dead will be given Rs 5 lakh each… I thank the BJP leaders for helping maintain calm. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) will carry out a probe.”
All this while, the chief minister was allegedly aware that it was a terror-related attack with links to Ranchi, capital of neighbouring Jharkhand. Even while Nitish was addressing the press conference in Patna, the Jharkhand Police was conducting raids on suspected terror hideouts in Ranchi.
Gandhi Maidan has been sealed. Policemen swarm the Patna Medical College Hospital where the injured are undergoing treatment. The discovery of more unexploded live bombs in the city has added to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
The Bihar Police has claimed that the blasts were carried out by the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Six people have been named as the key accused in the FIRs, and three have been arrested so far. The first to be arrested was Imtiaz Ansari, a resident of Ranchi. Ansari was arrested at the Patna Railway Station a few hours after the blasts. The FIRs name him as the mastermind of the attack. This was followed by the arrest of Ainul alias Tariq, who also hails from Ranchi. Ainul had been seriously injured while allegedly planting a bomb in a toilet at the railway station. Another suspect, Tabish, was arrested on 29 October from Bihar’s Motihari district in a joint operation mounted by the NIA and Bihar Police. Tabish is said to have been in constant touch with Imtiaz.
Another suspect named in the FIRs is Tehseen Akhtar alias Monu, a resident of Bihar’s Samastipur district. Police sources claim that Akhtar, who is on the list of most-wanted IM operatives active in Bihar and Jharkhand, had organised the group that carried out the Patna blasts.
Although Nitish denies having received any prior intelligence on the attack, former Bihar deputy chief minister and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi claims that the state government had been warned on 23 October of a possible attack on Modi’s Hunkar rally. “We received a routine letter on 23 October, which had directions regarding terrorist and Naxal activities,” says Director General of Police Abhayanand. “We had made arrangements for Z-plus security.”
State BJP leaders have pointed out flaws in the security arrangements made for the Hunkar rally. “The bomb squad only inspected the dais, not the other likely places where bombs could be planted,” says Mangal Pandey, state president of the party. “In a meeting with the state authorities on 25 October, we had discussed several other security arrangements: security personnel would be posted at all the gates of Gandhi Maidan; everyone would be thoroughly checked before entry; no one would be allowed to scale the boundary walls; even the ids of policemen would be verified. But all that was overlooked.”
Sushil Modi recounts, “While we were on the dais, I received an sms from a wellwisher in London enquiring about the blast. I immediately called up the top police officials of Patna, but they were clueless. What could be more surprising and tragic? We did not want the public to panic, so we announced that it was only crackers and appealed for calm.”
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders, too, have not spared the Bihar CM. “The fact is that the government did not learn anything from the Bodhgaya bombings,” says Abdul Bari Siddiqui, senior RJD leader and MLA from Alinagar Darbhanga. “After his arrest, IM operative Yasin Bhatkal had told his interrogators that a man named Tehseen might be operating in Bihar. How can the CM claim that there was no intelligence input? And if indeed there was no input, isn’t that too a security lapse?”
Intelligence officials in the state are also miffed with the CM. One of them told Tehelka on condition of anonymity that the state government had been alerted several times about the possibility of such an attack.
Nitish’s detractors allege that compared to the arrangements for Modi’s rally, there were less security lapses during JD(U)’s Adhikar rally held at the same venue last year. High-resolution cameras had been installed at the venue and there were cctv cameras on all major roads leading to it, one after every kilometre. Five thousand policemen, including 1,000 in plainclothes, had been deployed, besides 5,000 additional personnel brought in from other districts. Senior police officials had kept a close watch on the security arrangements from a monitoring room in the police headquarters.
in comparison, only 18 Deputy Superintendent of Police-level, 60 Inspector-level and 850 Sub-Inspector/Assistant Sub- Inspector-level officers were deployed for the Hunkar rally, besides 3,350 unarmed, 150 armed and 200 female constables. Though four units of the Special Task Force had been engaged, in addition to two investigation teams and two bomb squad teams, one wonders how so many live bombs could still go undetected.
Interestingly, it is the BJP that seems to have gained the most politically from the blasts. Many people are impressed by the way its leaders managed to avert a stampede at the rally following the blasts. And right after the Bihar government’s announcement for a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the dead, the BJP also announced a compensation of the same amount. The party’s state leaders have been attending funerals of the dead and calling them “martyrs”. Their ashes will be carried in a ‘Kalash Yatra’ from 31 October to 5 November and their statues will be installed in their native villages.
For Nitish Kumar and the JD(U), however, the political fallout of the Patna blasts — adding to the bad press earned by the Bihar government because of the mid-day meals tragedy, Naxal attacks and the Bodhgaya blasts — may prove to be a little too much to handle.
Translated from TEHELKA HINDI by Naushin Rehman