India Bombing Highlights Muslim – Buddhist TensionsJuly 10, 2013 in India
The weekend bombing in India of one of Buddhism’s holiest sites showcases the growing problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout South East Asia. Visitors should be aware of the growing troubles across the region and potential for related terrorist incidents, particularly given that the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September.
This recent incident happened on Sunday, July 7th at the Bohd Gaya temple complex in Bihar state, a historic religious site. There were a reported 10 blasts in total throughout the complex between 5:30 and 6am during morning prayers, targeting both statues and areas of religious significance as well as a bus stop. Official sources said the bombs ranged from low to high intensity, and the explosions injured two monks (one from Tibet, another from Myanmar). The temple itself was not seriously damaged. A further 3 unexploded bombs were found at the site over the following days and defused. Security at Buddhist sites in India and throughout the region has been increased as a result.
New Delhi was quick to condemn the incident as a terrorist attack, and blamed the notorious Indian Mujahedeen (IM) organisation, though no group has as of yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. The IM has been responsible for several terrorist attacks throughout India since 2008. It is reportedly related in some fashion with the banned organisation Student’s Islamic Movement of India, and also has connections with Pakistani based Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most active terrorist organisations in South Asia. It has been classed as a terrorist group by the British and American governments as well as the Indian authorities.
So far, 1 local person has been arrested in connection with the attack due to his identity card having been found at the scene. Police have however released CCTV images and sketches of two others they are looking for. Named as brothers Sahidur and Saifur Rehman (originally from Bihar but now living in Scotland and Saudi Arabia respectively), authorities believe they are IM members who have slipped into Bihar within the last two months. Currently their whereabouts are unknown. Controversy has also emerged in India about the response of the authorities to intelligence received in the days prior to the incident, with suggestions from opposition politicians that warnings were not heeded and that the attacks could have been prevented.
The Bohd Gaya complex is one of Buddhism’s holiest sites, and includes the Mahabodhi temple, where the Supreme Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment and a UNESCO world heritage site. Yearly, Bohd Gaya attracts many visitors from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, China and Japan while the Dalai Lama makes frequent trips to the area. This is the first time Bohd Gaya has been successfully attacked, though police say they have foiled attempts in the past.
Nevertheless, attacks on Buddhists are rare in India, and Bihar state is more known for Maoist activity than Islamist attacks. This has led numerous commentators to draw an explicit connection between these attacks and recent problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the region, particularly in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).
Myanmar has seen extreme unrest in the past year between nationalist Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim people, leaving destruction, chaos and many dead across large swathes of the country. Many Rohingya, not recognised as citizens of Myanmar and officially stateless, have been attempting to flee Myanmar to other countries in the region. There are Muslim militant groups active in Myanmar, and these have been connected with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organisations in the past. These ethnic tensions have begun to have a regional impact, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia who have majority Muslim populations. Ethnic tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities are also on the rise in Sri Lanka, with the end of the 26 year civil war failing to bridge divides between communities. Further moves attacks on Buddhist sites in India could have extremely serious implications for regional security and stability, risking further exacerbation of ethnic tensions throughout South East Asia.
There are many Buddhist holy sites in India, and they could be potential targets of future attacks, particularly as the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September and will see hundreds of thousands of visitors to many sites. Caution and a high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times.