You may have read the same articles that I have on how vast contingents of India’s security apparatus are being used to safeguard the lives of our very important people.
You’ve also probably read about how our police force is under tremendous pressure to do its regular policing—protect citizens, nab criminals, stop the murder of old people—simply because it’s too busy guarding these very important people.
The debate on VIP security—how much is too much, how should it be done, who ought to be protected, how do you objectively assess threat perceptions—is not new and has raged for nearly 25 years.
While it’s easy to dismiss security cover as an unnecessary luxury, especially now when politicians have become public hate object No. 1, we have to acknowledge that some people are under threat either because of the office they occupy or the decisions they take as leaders. As a nation, we understand that an assault on a politician’s individual safety is an assault on what this country stands for and believes in.
That said, the debate on VIP security just got a fresh lease in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror strikes. Conventional wisdom has it that our VIPs don’t deserve the security they are given and that VIP security comes at the cost of the security of the common man and woman.
Some reports suggest that only 25% of those who are protected by the state, genuinely need it. For the rest, it’s just a status symbol.
Certainly there is no sense of awkwardness in being surrounded by men armed with automatic weapons. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav even posed along with his commandos for a magazine cover in the 1990s. And several worthies think nothing of sauntering around Khan Market in New Delhi with their black cat commandos in tow.
My point is: if you are in a high-risk category, then please be prepared to sacrifice some personal freedom. I don’t mind paying for your security but I certainly don’t want to be one of the innocent bystanders caught in a crossfire should an attack take place in a crowded public place.
The Delhi high court has asked the government for clarifications about VIP security. It has raised questions about the protection given to 71 people, including seven under so-called Z category, 26 under the Y category and 38 under X. It questions the whole approach to security through highly visible commandos. Surely, something more unobtrusive is called for.
When the Hindustan Times (which is published by HT Media Ltd, that also publishes Mint) filed an application under the Right to Information Act on the government’s security policy, the newspaper was told to bugger off. The actual language, I believe, went something like this: “It is stated that the policy on personal security and related documents are secret/confidential/classified and these cannot be shared with you.”
My friend and former colleague Aloke Tikku was, however, able to get some details. According to his story, the pool of VIPs needing security in India grew 20% between the years 2004 and 2005. All over India, he wrote, 45,846 men guard 13,319 VIPs. Another news report claims that 1,000 men have been earmarked for the protection of the Punjab chief minister and that 1% of the state’s 70,000 security personnel are used to guard VIPs all over in Punjab.
After reading these report, I called the official spokesperson of the home ministry.
Who are these people who are being protected by taxpayer’s money? Could I have the list? Could I at least have the break-up (how many in Z category, how many in lesser categories and so on)? Could I have state-wise figures, without naming names?
To all my questions, the answer was no. It was against government policy to reveal these figures because they would compromise the personal security of individuals concerned.
Also Read Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns
It’s a bogus argument if I have ever heard one. For instance, the world knows that the US president is guarded by the US Secret Service. The fact that we know that he is protected doesn’t make him more, or less, safe. Do our own president and prime minister become less protected because we know that they are protected?
When Amar Singh’s security classification went from Z to Z+, soon after his party bailed out the United Progressive Alliance government during the no-confidence vote, it was on the front page of every newspaper.
Newspaper reports tell us that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s car is allowed to drive up to the tarmac at airports for security considerations. So, the argument that the home ministry cannot release a list of those on the protected list because it will somehow compromise their personal security, is rubbish.
Home minister P. Chidambaram has already scored brownie points by refusing to upgrade his security status from Y to Z. A healthy second step would be far greater transparency in letting citizens know who is entitled to protection. After all you and I pay for it.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org