Personal Histories: Rahul Bedi

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Illustration: Manglambam Dinesh

THE HUMBLE bicycle was in the news yet again after it was employed by terrorists in the serial blasts in Pune, a few months ago. The low-intensity explosions, on a crowded Pune street in August, bore a chilling similarity to the May 2008 Jaipur bombings, in which 63 people died.

Bicycles have been used equally devastatingly in Assam, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Malegaon. In all such instances, the frame of casually parked bicycles, guaranteed not to arouse suspicion, was packed with malleable explosives. Once detonated, its steel frame becomes deadly shrapnel capable of causing widespread carnage. Anonymity is assured as such lethally armed bikes are indistinguishable from thousands of others parked alongside.

Bicycles have also been used by the Irish Republican Army in their bombing spree across Northern Ireland and subsequently by terrorists in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq and Russia, all driven by the same reasoning: they are never looked at with suspicion or subjected to security checks.

It is also easier to cycle into crowded places without being challenged, noticed or challanned. Cyclists are even granted immunity from feverish security cordons in Delhi’s broad avenues that VVIPs traverse in manoeuvres generically classified as “Movement” by hysterical policemen.

On my almost daily cycling peregrinations around the Capital, particularly the pampered and protected Lutyens area, I have become acutely aware of the cyclists’ capacity to meld seamlessly into the background. Over years of cycling up and down these wide imposing avenues and registering the residential roll-call of India’s political, administrative and military leadership, I have realised how the ubiquitous bicycle can be harnessed for nefarious purposes. Hordes of policemen on security duty rarely ever spare me, or any other cyclist, a glance. To them, I am just an ageing man pedalling my way along these wide roads. A handful of bored stiff security men, cocooned inside suffocating pillboxes across this former Colonial locality, even cursorily wave as I glide by. Doubtlessly, I provide them fleeting comic relief during their endless watch details.

Even during the Commonwealth Games, when threat levels were high and security at its tightest in the Capital, droves of policemen would insouciantly wave me down lanes dedicated to Games-related traffic, rendering it, without doubt, my best ever cycling experience in the city.

This reminds me of a delightful bicycle story dating back to the 1970s. Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet Union’s most powerful leader, was an avid bear hunter. On one of his visits to Budapest, where bears were virtually extinct, he expressed a desire to shoot one such animal in the Hungarian forests. Terrified of displeasing Brezhnev, the Hungarian authorities hatched an elaborate plan, dragooned a circus bear and let him loose in the jungle for the Soviet leader, who was perched on a machhan, to kill.

Things took a bizarre, almost comical turn. Happy to be finally free, the performing circus bear was merrily walking down a forest track when he chanced upon a hapless cyclist unaware of the hunting plan underway. The bear’s circus training kicked in and after slapping the rider and appropriating his bicycle, he happily pedalled past Brezhnev and his hunting party awaiting his arrival, the sights of their powerful rifles trained on the ground below.

Astounded at seeing the bear astride a cycle, riding casually by, a bewildered Brezhnev lost the bead on his target and the circus animal rode away into the safety of the forest, probably to be corralled sometime later by embarrassed zoo officials. The ubiquitous bicycle proved itself again.

Rahul Bedi is 60. He is a Delhi-based journalist writing on defence and security issues

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