On January 5, TV visuals showed the exceptional image of a stationary black SUV, easily identifiable among a motorcade of white cars, on a flyover a few kilometres from the heavily guarded Hussainiwala border. The SUV, a veritable sitting duck protected by only a handful of officers, was carrying the holder of the office of the Prime Minister of India, one of the most important positions in the world.
The car could easily have been targeted by a well-positioned sniper or grenade-launcher, or faced an attack from a drone, an IED, or some other similarly easily-procured weapon.
The best way to understand the gravity of the security lapse that took place on the flyover between Bathinda and Hussainiwala is by beginning to imagine the chaos and confusion that would have ensued in the wake of an attack on the prime minister.
Such a process examines potential adverse events, the probability of their occurrence, the potential impacts on the wider community and the nation, and finally lays down lessons and amendments to protocols for posterity.
This approach recognises the obvious reality that while outcomes are a matter of chance, security breaches can be assessed as more or less serious depending on objective process-based criteria. The panel constituted by the Supreme Court to investigate the incident can be expected to follow such a course, and is therefore a welcome development amid coverage that has been dominated by political recriminations.
Politically motivated statements defy the common-sense view that the personal security of the head of government of the world’s largest democracy cannot be left to the vagaries of political considerations and the logic of prevailing electoral alliances.
No view of the incident on January 5 can lead one to suggest that the Punjab Police complied with the rules and conventions that govern the matter of the prime minister’s security.
The pre-decided alternate route was not adequately protected by the Punjab Police, which is clear from the uncontested fact that a large number of demonstrators managed to block the pre-decided route, nor were any serious attempts made to remove these demonstrators.
Nor do the local forces present near the relevant area appear to have provided any notice of the presence of the demonstrators to the SPG unit handling the “proximate” security of the PM, which at least would have allowed the prime minister’s convoy to stop in a relatively secure zone.
It is well known that the overall responsibility of securing the prime minister on his visits to states lies with the respective state forces—a rule that has in fact been codified in the SPG’s “Blue Book” guidelines. The Punjab Police’s actions, on any view of the incident, amount to a serious dereliction of their legal and professional duties.
One need only briefly note the arguments being proffered by politicians’ intent on minimising the extent of the security lapse to realise their absurdity. That the PM returned to Delhi unscathed is, from a professional standpoint, entirely beside the point.
The fact remains that the prime minister stood exposed on a narrow road at an elevation, and with little by way of an escape, for a substantial amount of time. So is the Punjab chief minister’s claim that since there were persons carrying the BJP banners on the flyover where the PM’s convoy was stranded, the PM could not conceivably have been under serious threat.
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It is worth remembering that the assassin who killed ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had in fact masqueraded as a supporter. The most dangerous response, however, comes from those trying to link the security failure to wider political developments.
The Punjab Congress president, for instance, publicly claimed it as a tit for tat for the “suffering” faced by the farmers on Delhi’s borders; one can at best hope that he is ignorant of the potentially calamitous consequences of such a major security lapse.
One must remember that the history of the Punjab is one of bloodshed and violence. If, God forbid, something had happened to the prime minister, the nation could have been thrown into a frenzy of violence and carnage reminiscent of our not-so-distant history.
Inane reactions and commentary borrowed from the world of comedy shows should surely not be allowed to dominate conversations involving national security.
One would also do well to remember that in 1984, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was advised on the basis of intelligence inputs, and in the backdrop of the anger being fanned within the Sikh community by divisive forces over Operation Blue Star, to remove Sikh policemen from her security contingent. She did not agree. She was shot dead in broad daylight by her own guard in her own house.
This resulted in widespread riots throughout the country in which goons and anti-social elements gathered under the banner of the Congress party in a tribal ritual of torturing, plundering and killing of the easily identifiable Sikh community. More than three decades later, the psychological wounds left by the events of 1984 are yet to be healed.
On a personal note, prior to 1984, I remember hearing the best “Sardar” jokes from Sikhs. After 1984, it is no longer possible to make such jokes without eliciting defensiveness from fellow Sikhs. This is perhaps one of the least serious, but also one of the most real, indications of the sense of persecution that many Sikhs feel to this day. It is of some significance that the NSG was in fact formed in this background.
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There have been many serious security breaches since that fateful incident, notably including the one that led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, but never perhaps one so brazenly politicised.
It is worth remembering that the Prime Minister of India is not just a person, but an office and an institution: the most important constitutional office in the country.
Similarly, his security is not just a question of his personal security but of the security of an institution that has a crucial bearing on national security, and indeed, on the life of every citizen.
As policemen, we are trained to appreciate the professionalism that is required in securing holders of constitutional offices. It would be worthwhile if the entire country, too, would realise the importance of emphasising the value of professionalism over politics in such matters.
After all, no one knows better than Indians the ghastly consequences that can flow from a failure to secure the prime minister.