Symbols of power and faith are the favoured targets for terrorists all over the world. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were prominent symbols of America's wealth and its military might. Dramatic attacks on symbols of power demoralise a nation and its leadership. India has been here before-the attack on Parliament House in December 2001 and a similar strike earlier on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in October 2001. However, terrorist attacks on places of religious worship in a country like India are perhaps more potent. With communal tension never far from the surface, they carry the threat of provoking large-scale sectarian violence. The first such attack, on the Swaminarayan temple in Gandhinagar in September 2002, took a heavy toll: 32 people lost their lives. Yet, despite the Godhra riots being still fresh in public memory, the communal fallout was contained.
The latest attack on Ayodhya, an infinitely more powerful symbol of Hindu faith and the centre of a volatile dispute over the land it stands on, could have had dangerous consequences had the terrorists succeeded in their plan to target the sanctum sanctorum. Despite the fact that they came dangerously close, the security forces deserve credit for foiling the attack. The Government acted swiftly and decisively in its handling of the sensitive situation. Yet, crucial questions remain. Terrorists with suicidal zeal pose the biggest threat to targets like religious places. The Ayodhya attack had the signature of J&K-based terror groups who are expanding their operations, using modules that merge with local populations in urban areas before launching a strike. How well equipped are Indian security and intelligence forces to deal with this type of threat? While creating communal strife was a primary aim, there was a larger game plan: to derail the India-Pakistan peace process.
For our cover story this week, we have a detailed report of the Ayodhya attack and how it was foiled. Lucknow-based Special Correspondent Subhash Mishra was one of the first reporters to reach the spot. Says Mishra: "Had the fidayeen succeeded, it could have resulted in a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions." Special Correspondent Sandeep Unnithan spoke to security experts on the threat from such sleeper modules and their preparedness to deal with it. We also analyse the broader impact on the India-Pakistan peace process.
Tackling terrorism and suicide attacks is an unenviable task for any government, requiring high levels of political and security crisis management. For the UPA Government, the latest attack is a reminder of how fragile the peace process can be and that India's commitment to secularism must be protected at any cost.