In the aftermath of the Bodh Gaya bomb blasts in Bihar in mid-2013, the Nitish Kumar government unleashed a security-enhancing and shops-demolition drive. This has increased the sense of insecurity among residents and shopkeepers who sense a wider conspiracy behind it all.
In the early morning of 7 July 2013, Bodh Gaya – the place where the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment – was rocked by a series of low-intensity timed explosions. The first blast took place at 5:15 am with several explosions in quick succession over the next hour. Four of the bomb blasts took place within the Mahabodhi temple complex injuring two Buddhist monks from Myanmar and Tibet. Five additional blasts took place at the Tibetan Tergar Monastery, the 80 ft Buddha statue and the nearby bus stand. Only peripheral damage to the structure of the world famous Mahabodhi temple was reported but the ramifications of the blasts have been enormous.
In recent decades Bodh Gaya has changed from a relatively small town based on agricultural economy to a rapidly urbanising international destination that attracts tens of thousands of Asian Buddhist pilgrims and visitors each year. As a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site with a nearby international airport, Buddhism has become big business for the state of Bihar and elsewhere in India. According to data collected by the union tourism ministry, Bihar attracted a larger number of foreign tourists in 2009 than the popular seaside destination of Goa.1 For these reasons, tourism promotion, alongside “development” and “improved governance” has been the cornerstone of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s image branding of a state that was once regarded as the poorest and most “backward” in the country. Laying claim to the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, and several other ancient Buddhist sites, such as Nalanda University, these important symbols of transcendence help to reposition Bihar as a global destination open for both spiritual and financial investment.
Shortly after the serial blasts in Bodh Gaya the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel were deployed there and bureaucrats and politicians rushed to the spot. Kumar vowed to strengthen security and resolve the crisis to ensure the continuing religious and economic patronage of Bihar’s greatest cultural export. But despite a great deal of rumour mongering and speculation in popular Indian media, there was little progress, at least initially, in tracking the bombers. Unlike other prominent terrorist outfits that seek to maximise impact and carnage, no group had claimed responsibility for the gas cylinder bombs.
Despite the speculation in the aftermath of the bombing, the state government undertook a massive cleansing drive of the nearby bazaar demolishing 58 shops along the popular footpath near the front entrance of the Mahabodhi temple. These shops belonged to different organisations like the tourism department of the state government, the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee and the Nagar Panchayat (the local municipal body). Only a few shops connected with the Shaiva Mahantsamadhi graveyard remain intact. Couched in rhetoric of security building (especially for the protection of VIP guests) and promoting serenity around the shrine, the demolition of shops that lined the temple premises under the guidance of the Chief Secretary Ashok Kumar was swift and substantive. This popular marketplace and pedestrianised zone has long served as an important commercial interface and social nexus that supports the pilgrim and tourist traffic, especially during the busy winter season. Residents of Bodh Gaya have built a reputable business and devoted clientele over the years specialising in Buddhist crafts, trinkets, souvenirs, malla(prayer)-beads, jewellery and other devotional items along with general stores, tea stalls, restaurants and internet cafes.
There is a long history of displacement in Bodh Gaya that precedes the recent levelling of shops along the popular footpath. Since the Mahabodhi temple was designated a world heritage site in 2002, there has been added international pressure to preserve the sanctity around the temple. Under the UNESCO conservation guidelines, there should be no new construction and repair/renovations of existing structures within a 500-metre radius of the shrine walls – regarded as the “buffer zone”. Shortly after the world heritage designation was awarded these guidelines were enfolded in a comprehensive “master plan” and town development strategy built on large infusions of capital designed to transform the place of enlightenment over the next 30 years. Underlying the ambitious town development plan are implicit hierarchies of value that are reflected spatially through an elaborate set of buffer zones that expand like concentric circles outwards from the temple complex. Hoping to attract the shop owners, two commercial complexes were constructed about a kilometre from the Mahabodhi temple and it was envisioned that the businesses would eventually relocate. Not surprisingly, the impact of the bomb blasts and the recent demolition drive has been devastating for several local shopkeepers who relied on the proximity to the religious site to support their livelihoods.
Security and Polarisation
The government is in the process of raising the height of the shrine boundary wall and the former bazaar area to 20 ft. Additionally, a number of checkpoints and metal frame detectors have been introduced, and there are plans to install guardhouses and high-resolution closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. There are a significant number of gun-toting military personnel in army fatigues alongside the multicoloured Buddhist robes en route to the temple. What was once a space of remarkable conviviality that helped foster a sense of community in an intensely socially heterogeneous place is now being replaced with surveillance, suspicion and heightened communal polarisation.
Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories abound. Many shopkeepers whose shops have been destroyed believe that the bombs were planted by politicians to bypass tedious bureaucratic entanglements over compensation and local resistance. “Why bomb the Mahabodhi temple in the off-season, the warm summer months, when few pilgrims are to be found” asked one shopkeeper. “How is it that there were very few casualties and the temple was hardly damaged? How did the so-called ‘terrorists’ get access to the temple despite the presence of temple security personnel?” asks another.
When pressed about the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and its alleged role in the episode, I was frequently told “they simply do not exist” and that the recent low-intensity “firecrackers” at the temple were all part of a calculated strategy by the state government, the temple management and the district administration to push through their own economic agenda and eventually replace the shops with new private contracts. Like the recent ascendance of the Abraj Al-Bait Hotel Towers a little distance away from Islam’s most sacred site, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, many fear the removal of shops in the bazaar are part of a wider corporate takeover of the public commons that works productively with the state government through the heritage brand.
As a cultural anthropologist who has been working in Bodh Gaya since 2003, during a short visit in December 2013, I could not help but feel that the recent turn of events were a setback to a town that is normally quiet and peaceful. For those shopkeepers whose businesses have been forcefully removed and/or are now cordoned off by large cement walls out of the sight of pilgrims and tourists, it is insulting and degrading. Several poor families from Bodh Gaya who struggle for a basic subsistence wage and need loans to survive during the summer months are the hardest hit. When I visited the new commercial complex to speak to the former shopkeepers from the bazaar, the entire area seemed like a ghost town. Despite its location adjacent to the bustling seasonal Tibetan refugee market, nearly all the shutters in the shopping complex were locked, there was little signage or advertising, trash and waste had begun to accumulate, cows meandered through grassy patches and dogs lolled on the dusty sandstone tiles.
Sunil, a shopkeeper who chose to relocate his general store to the new complex, expressed his disappointment with the government,
Unlike other shopkeepers who have been able to find a new location closer to the temple, I have not been so lucky. It is very difficult for me and my family. When we were on the footpath, I was paying the Nagar Panchayat Rs 350 per month to rent the space. Now I am required to pay the tourism department close to Rs 3,000 per month and there are no visitors. What am I to do?
Like a bomb that explodes and unleashes destruction within the blast radius, the generated effects enforced by the state government in the surrounding area have been significant. Among the several visitors and families who come there often and whom I spoke to in the aftermath of the demolition drive there is a growing sense of resentment towards the Nitish Kumar government and its handling of the Bodh Gaya bomb blasts. “Since the bombing, I no longer go to the temple for puja”, one shopkeeper said. “I used to go every morning and evening to feel the peace of Lord Buddha, but now I only feel anger.” If security remains central to Kumar’s response to the terrorist attack, the cleansing drive has deepened a climate of insecurity for many residents. “What is the cause of terrorism?” I was asked by one shopkeeper, “It is desperation and injustice! This is exactly what Nitish Kumar is sowing here in Bodh Gaya.”
Adding salt to the wound, the vaulted dome of the Mahabodhi temple was coated with upwards of 300 kilograms of gold given by the King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej. The gold plating of the temple structure, alongside the new hi-tech lighting system ensures that the glittering dome can be seen during both day and night in the surrounding areas where poverty and scarcity of basic needs are unyielding. Although some of the Buddhists I spoke to find the metal detectors and daily “frisking” a headache, for most pilgrims the Mahabodhi temple complex remains the same: a place of practice and an opportunity to move closer towards the goal of enlightenment. Although the bomb blasts have affected numerous livelihoods, Bodh Gaya still remains a safe and welcoming destination for pilgrims around the world. In fact, some Buddhist pilgrims have welcomed the new security provisions, especially that banning the use of mobile phones within the complex. Thus, while the mystery of the bombings continues and thousands of Buddhist pilgrims continue to throng to the Mahabodhi temple in large numbers for prayer festivals and meditation, the Buddha remains quiet.
When the abbot of the Burmese monastery U Nyaneinda, who is well known for his wry sense of humour was asked about the recent developments in Bodh Gaya, he shared the following story,
Shortly after the blasts, the police asked everyone in town about the brains behind the explosion. But they could not find anyone. With growing frustration, they decided to visit the Mahabodhi temple and ask the Buddha himself. Inside the temple shrine, they approached the main image of the Buddha with great reverence, knelt before him and asked ‘please tell us, great teacher, who was behind the bombing so we can catch them and put them in jail’. But the Buddha remained silent. Pleading, they asked a second time, ‘you are here day and night throughout the year, you see everything with your all pervading wisdom, please tell us who was behind the bombs so we can catch them and justice can be served’. Once again, the Buddha remained silent. So they decided to put the Buddha in jail.
1 The Government’s India Tourism Statistics report shows 4.2 lakh foreign tourists visited Bihar in 2009, with Goa drawing about 3.7 lakh. Quoted in The Times of India, 26 November 2013.