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Assessing the Bodh Gaya Terror Attack

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 25, 2013

    The ‘serial bombing’ on July 7, 2013 at the sacred Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya marks the beginning of a dangerous trend at attacking symbols of India’s cultural heritage. As many as thirteen bombs were planted, of which three were defused, resulting in injuries to two monks. Fortunately there were no casualties.

    Bodh Gaya is a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO. India has as many as 30 such sites. Along with the rock-cut monuments of Ajanta caves and the stupas at Sanchi, the Mahabodhi temple is venerated by the Buddhists. These sites represent important milestones in artistic and religious development.

    Terror attacks have occurred on world heritage sites elsewhere, notable among them being the Bamiyan in Afghanistan (by Taliban) and Borobodur Temples in Indonesia.

    Some Representative World Heritage Sites in India and Neighbourhood

    Country Heritage Sites
    Afghanstan Has two sites.The Bamiyan Valley: (1st to the 13th centuries) combining  various cultural influences into the Gandhara school of Buddhist art.) In March 2001 the two standing Buddha statues at the site were destroyed ion an attack by the Taliban.
    Cambodia 1.Angkor
    2.Temple of Preah Vihear
    India Has 30 heritage sites.
    1.Ajanta Caves: (paintings and sculptures from 2nd century BC down to 6th century AD).
    2.Ellora Caves: has 3structures sacred to three faiths-Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism
    3. Sanchi monuments(2nd century BC)venerated by Buddhists (2nd century BC) A major Buddhist centre.
    4.The Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya: is significant for the most important event in Lord Buddha’s life- the attainment of Enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Its first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in 3rd century BC although the current brick temple dates to 5th century.
    Indonesia Borobodur Temple: Located in the island of Java, it dates back to the 8th century AD and has some 72 stupas.
    Japan Buddhist Monuments (made of wood, including in the Horyu-Ji area (7th or early 8th century),
    Laos Town of Luang Prabang: Fusion of traditional architecture and  European colonial architecture  (19th and 20th centuries)
    2. Vat Phou and associated ancient settlements 
    Malaysia Four heritage sites Gunung Mulu National Park, Kinabalu National Park,
    Historic cities of the Straits of \Malacca.                  
    Nepal Lumbini the birthplace of Lord Buddha (623 B.C)
    Pakistan Six heritage sites of which Taxila (5th c. BC to 2nd c. AD) located on Indus is the most well known. It was an important Buddhist centre of learning.
    Philippines It has five sites
    Thailand Five sites. City of Ayutthaya most well known, was founded in 1350,and destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century.
    Vietnam Has seven sites

    Source: Extracted from World Heritage website.

    The link

    Could the terror attack in Bodh Gaya have any link to the Rohingya problem in Myanmar? Circumstantial evidence would appear to point in that direction particularly Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Saeed’s twitter threats to strike on Buddhist holy places to avenge attacks on Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. If this is true, this would not be the first time that violence has been resorted to on Indian soil in reaction to Myanmar’s Rohingya problem. Some earlier incidents like a mob vandalizing the Buddha statue in the Buddha Park in Lucknow in August 2012 as a reaction to the treatment of their Muslim brethren in Assam and Myanmar suggests a dangerous trend. The Dalai Lama, it is reported, too received threats from extremist groups. Further, in October 2012 when suspected Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives were arrested for their role in 2012 Pune blast they disclosed plans to target Hyderabad, and Bodh Gaya.

    Myanmar’s challenge

    Myanmar, going through a significant transitional phase, is faced with many challenges. Possibly the biggest challenge before the new democratizing government is that of ethnic reconciliation. In 2012, violence had broken out between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Rakhine State which left 192 dead and 140,000 displaced. In March this year violence spread to other parts of the country including Meikhtila (central Myanmar) where 44 people died and 13,000 were displaced. In the past, U Nu had declared Buddhism the state religion and Ne Win’s ‘Burmese way to socialism’ made for a curious combination of Buddhism, nationalism and socialism. The Saffron Revolution in 2007 was the biggest anti-government protest since the 1988 uprising, in which the monks (who number around 500,000)) took active part and the Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon) once again came into spotlight. Then, as in 1988 some of the protesters sought refuge by crossing the border into India’s northeastern states like Mizoram.

    The continuing violence against the Rohingyas mars Myanmar’s claims of reform. The Rohingya population (mainly concentrated in the Rakhine state) has been denied citizenship and has been discriminated against. It is confronted with a “two child policy for the Rohingyas” and a proposed legislation to ban Buddhists marrying Muslims. In addition the vitriolic pronouncements (directed against the Muslims) of the Mandalay based monk, Wirathu who leads the 969 Movement, have further inflamed a worsening situation. The national leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken any forthright and bold position on this issue. With the holiest of Buddhist places of pilgrimage such as the Shwedagon Pagoda located in Yangon, Myanmar would have a vested interest in preserving its priceless heritage.

    Regional Implications

    Myanmar’s Buddhist majority nationalism has sometimes been compared with the situation in Sri Lanka under President Rajapaksa where the Muslim and Christian minorities feel increasingly threatened. As the original home of Buddhism, the conflict involving Buddhists in each of these countries does not augur well for the region especially for India which has a plural society.

    The Rohingya problem once again has called into question the ASEAN principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members. While the Buddhists are in a majority in Myanmar, they are in a minority in many neighbouring ASEAN States. The separatist movement in southern Thailand has made Buddhists their target. Buddhists have also been attacked in Malaysia and Indonesia.

    The volatile situation in Myanmar has the potential to create instability in Southeast Asia and the Myanmar government may be forced to rethink its Rohingya policy.

    Implications for India

    The Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai led a delegation to Nay Pyi Taw for the 13th Myanmar-India Foreign Office Consultations. Meeting only a day after the blasts, the two sides exchanged views on the subject, especially as a Myanmar monk was among the two injured by the blast. India and Myanmar have a track record of cooperation on security matters. Perhaps the time is now ripe to intensify and enhance this dialogue. This was reinforced by the Indian delegation’s meeting with Myanmar C-in-C of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing regarding enhancing cooperation in the defence sector through cooperation in training, border region management and combating drugs in the border region.

    Provocative acts of terror or hate speeches have the potential to disturb the ethnic and religious harmony in India, which is already under various pressures due to economic transformation and modernization.

    The intent and purpose of the serial blasts in Bodh Gaya is to create societal fissures. India will, given its pluralism, always remain a target for terror attacks and therefore strengthening the security apparatus is of utmost importance. The economic consequences of such selected attacks are also stark and could adversely impact on the flow of tourists to the country. Bihar attracts a large number of foreign tourists, majority of them visit the Mahabodhi temple. Many dignitaries from Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Japan, Nepal, etc mark Bodh Gaya in their itinerary.

    Not surprisingly, the Bihar government has demanded a professionally trained security force to guard the Bodh Gaya sites. The blasts there have come as a warning; luckily the damage to life and property was limited. Religious places and cultural sites are centres of huge gathering and conglomeration with visitors from all over the world. Given the crowd and the hustle and bustle such places become targets of terror attacks. Recently, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, regarded as the biggest human gathering, fortunately did not encounter any untoward incidents.

    The Way Forward

    The incident in Bodh Gaya raises at least two important challenges to India’s security – the threat to both its architectural heritage as well as the warp and woof of social fabric. While law and order is a state subject, but because of India’s international obligations to protect the heritage sites the onus is on the centre. Increased cross-border mobility, instantaneous access to information, easy reach to small arms in tandem with low-intensity conflict, have combined to increase the burden of responsibilities for both the centre and the states. This often leads to lax implementation of standard operating procedures. As the challenges to state security multiply, there will be a greater need for closer consultation and coordination among the centre and the states.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.