The Indian Ocean breeze along Colombo’s Galle Face is so strong and the Lankan sky so clear that the fluttering Indian tricolour alongside the Sri Lankan flag makes for a pleasing combination along the length of the Sri Lankan capital’s premium avenue.
Despite various travel bans since the Easter Sunday carnage, ice-cream vendors and Indian tourists who have defied various international travel bans to spend their vacation in Sri Lanka are out on the seafront promenade in full force. It is not only because Sri Lanka’s superlative hospitality industry has taken a beating with a 70% loss in business and Indians love a bargain. It is also because PM Narendra Modi, whose government in its second coming has already shown a zero tolerance approach to terrorism, is due to arrive here today. And given India’s experience with tackling terrorism and the host country’s anxiety to ensure Modi’s visit goes off smoothly and safely, there can’t be a safer place than Colombo this weekend. Persons aboard an early morning flight from Delhi to Colombo earlier this week who did not wished to be named, remarked that if their PM can travel to Sri Lanka despite a supposedly high security risk, so could they.
In preparation for PM Modi’s visit, the Sri Lankan capital’s nerve center, its Galle Face where the presidential secretariat and most ministries are located, has been all but barricaded for much of the weekend. Kandyan drummers in jeans practised along the promenade a day earlier. Today, they’ll be in rich, Kandyan costume when Modi’s cavalcade passes. There are also hundreds of policemen, snipers, special forces commandoes and police units who have drilled and prepared to ensure that a security lapse of the kind that led to the Easter Sunday carnage does not repeat itself on Sunday.
There are the long-overdue baggage screening machines and armed troops outside all the hotels that came under attack. The Sri Lankan armed forces, whose men and women have spent the last ten years tending to the forces’ other ‘softer’ occupations like hotels, fruit farms and dairies, are now back to doing what they are meant to: guarding the country and stepping in to aid the police whose superiors failed them by ignoring India’s intelligence inputs, on the fateful Easter Sunday.
All dailies published detailed maps of traffic diversions for much of the day. There will be absolutely no traffic on the airport highway into town. There will be none on the Galle Road starting from the imposing President’s Secretariat, very close to the Shangrila, Kingsbury and Cinammon Grand hotels —which came under terror attack — for practically the duration of the PM’s three-hour visit.
The humblest of all venues, though, has the tightest security. That is St Anthony’s church, in the middle-class and bustling area of Kochikade in northern Colombo. Located on a crowded street, mosques and Hindu temples dot the streets across the church dedicated to St Anthony, one of the most popular saints for Sri Lankans of all faith for decades. The church itself is barricaded by scaffolding. A posse of policemen and intelligence officials in civilian clothes are so determined to get the main hall as clean as possible before the Indian PM visits, that they will not allow even locally accredited journalists inside the main shrine where the carnage took place and more than 50 persons were killed by a suicide bomber on Easter Sunday.
Worshippers outside have set up a makeshift shrine. With legendary Sri Lankan patience, they are waiting for two big days. The visit by the Indian PM and — the feast of St Anthony on June 13 when the church is expected to reopen to — all visitors, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim included.
“It was a terrible day,” says Father Jude Raj, a young padre who has been assigned to the makeshift altar to give blessings to those who need his services. “Yes, there were disturbances between the communities for a day or two after the suicide attack, but otherwise, all of us celebrate all feasts here together.”
At the makeshift shrine to the saint, there is a tattered poster bearing photographs of the scene of carnage too. In front of it, dozens of ordinary passersby stop to light candles which a church volunteer places inside two tubs filled with water and stands to hold them.
Memories of the bloodbath won’t die down that easily. Just last week, the bodies and shattered bone fragments of the suicide bombers were exhumed to collect fresh DNA samples. Many dailies carried pictures of the operation on their front pages. A suspect linked to the bombings was tracked and arrested in Myanmar. A boat with ISIS terrorists on board is said to have set off for an unknown destination on India’s south-western coast.
And yet, devotees have been flocking back to St Anthony’s, which is likely to be PM Modi’s very first stop en route to Galle Road today. What gives them the confidence to do so?
“It’s faith,” said Jude Raj.”It makes people stronger. That’s why they are returning.”
Jun 09, 2019 11:41 IST