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A file photo of SPG commandos at Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi. Apart from being physically fit and mentally sharp, SPG recruits need to be younger than 35 years and have an unblemished service record. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of SPG commandos at Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi. Apart from being physically fit and mentally sharp, SPG recruits need to be younger than 35 years and have an unblemished service record. Photo: Reuters

The guardians of 7, Race Course Road

The SPG is in the spotlight following an RTI query filed by PM Modi's wife Jashodaben and the subsequent change in the elite force's leadership

Bhopal: At 11.10am on 13 December 2001, Harish K., a member of Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s Special Protection Group (SPG), was waiting in the porch of 7, Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s residence. Vajpayee was scheduled to leave for Lok Sabha at 11.18am but Harish knew that the Prime Minister liked to be early. “He came out at 11.14am and we wired all stations to get ready for Jupiter’s movement," he recalls. Jupiter was Vajpayee’s call name. That day, however, instead of getting into the car, Vajpayee decided to wait for a few more minutes before leaving. “At exactly 11.22am, the first shot rang out in Parliament as it was stormed by the militants. I radioed control immediately to find out what was happening and we stopped all movement." Vajpayee never made it to Parliament that day.

That was exactly the kind of situation the SPG was prepared and trained for. The SPG, which is responsible for not just scrutinizing but implementing every detail of the Prime Minister’s security, now finds itself under the scanner following a Right To Information (RTI) query filed by Jashodaben, the wife of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the subsequent change in the organization’s leadership. K. Durga Prasad was stripped of his charge midway through Modi’s tour of Nepal and replaced by Gujarat Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Vivek Srivastav. Prasad says his term ended on 2 November (it did) and that he had been told he would have to stay on till a replacement was found.

In her RTI query, Jashodaben sought details of her security entourage and alleged some of its members demanded special treatment, asking to be treated as guests. “I can assure you no SPG man will ever ask for a cup of tea from his protectee. We never break bread where we work," says S. Subramanian, the founder-director of SPG. As it turns out, Jashodaben’s security detail is actually sourced from Gujarat Police though an SPG team had visited Gujarat after Modi’s swearing-in on 26 May to assess the threat perception to her. According to reports, the findings of the team were personally monitored by Prasad. “Sometimes the local police is involved and the term is loosely used by them, but the SPG is a specially trained proximate protection force," says Subramanian.

How did it begin?

The SPG was conceived as a reaction. It was 1984 and the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s security was the responsibility of the local police force. “State police, municipality, everyone had some role to play; but there was no co-ordination. So the systems were in place, but the buck stopped with no one," recalls Subramanian. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984, the need was felt for one organization that would provide what securitymen term “proximate" security to the Prime Minister.

Officers of senior and junior ranks were recruited from the Indian Police Service (IPS), Border Security Force (BSF), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and standard operating procedures were laid down. This included everything from anti-sabotage checks, sanitizing of venues and personal security details. “We consolidated the responsibility. There was a person, the director-general, SPG, with whom the buck stopped," says Subramanian.

Today, nearly three decades later, much of what Subramanian put into place remains. “Every year, as SPG personnel are repatriated to their parent unit, the MHA (ministry of home affairs) sends a vacancy list to these organizations. This is forwarded to the different units who send a list of possible candidates," explains Harish, who was recruited from BSF and has guarded Vajpayee, H.D. Deve Gowda and Manmohan Singh.

Apart from being physically fit and mentally sharp, SPG recruits need to be younger than 35 years and have an unblemished service record. “It is a matter of great prestige to be part of the SPG and more often than not it is professional pride which makes us volunteer. Everyone knows the recruitment process is tough and the job that follows even tougher; but then, success does not come easy," says Onkar Tiwari, who, too, was a part of both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s security entourage.

The selection process

The first stage of the selection process is an interview conducted by an inspector general of police, or IG, two deputy IGs and two assistant IGs. The questions range from current affairs to why the interviewee wants to join the SPG. This is followed by a physical exam, a written test and a psychological evaluation. According to Harish, it is not unusual for an entire batch to be rejected with the process starting anew all over again.

“The relation between a personal security officer and the protectee is akin to that of a mother and a child. In times of danger, the mother will sacrifice herself to save the child, and that is the ethic we looked for," says Vijay Raman, former special director-general of CRPF and a member of the founding SPG team.

The first phase of SPG training is for three months and includes extensive lessons in unarmed and armed combat, and a weekly test. Those who fail to make the grade in training are transferred to the next batch. If they still fail to clear it, then they are returned to the parent unit. Today, the SPG provides protection to the current Prime Minister, his family members, the Gandhi family and Vajpayee. Former prime ministers are provided security for a year after giving up office; this is reviewed depending on threat perception.

Earlier this year, Aseem Takyar, a Gurgaon resident, had filed an RTI application seeking information on whether SPG recruits men only from a certain community. The application was rejected by the Central Information Commission on the grounds that SPG is exempt from having to provide any information.

“I tried to argue that denying recruitment on grounds of religion is a human rights violation, but my requests were not entertained," says Takyar. The SPG men interviewed for this story refused to answer the question. “I don’t have anything to say about this," said Tiwari.

But how does one get to be part of the PM’s entourage?

“A cool and calm demeanour, physical fitness, ability to think on your feet and being a sharp shot are some of the qualities required to be a part of the PM‘s close protection team," says D.P. Tyagi, a former CISF commandant who was part of Rajiv Gandhi’s entourage.

“Close protection team probables are sent back for a further training period of three months. Then they are assigned as understudies before they are elevated to the main entourage," says an SPG official who wanted to remain unidentified. Even when on duty, SPG men have to report for physical training. “Every month we are supposed to report for five training sessions. It’s non-negotiable," says R.P. Yadav, a former SPG officer from CISF.

The standard uniform of an SPG member is either a safari suit or a blazer and tie. The men are also trained to be polite and unobtrusive. There are detailed operational procedures in place specifying everything from how many men will accompany the PM when he alights from a car, to how many will be with him when on a dais. The SPG also maintains a strict check on who is allowed to meet the Prime Minister and who is not.

“It is not enough that the Prime Minister is good friends with a person or the visitor is a family member or a cabinet member. The SPG has complete authority to pick up the phone and ask the Prime Minister directly if he wants to meet the visitor," says Raman.

SPG members, including drivers, are rotated regularly. And if an SPG member goes for leave longer than a certain number of days, it is not unusual for the local police to carry out discreet enquiries as to his whereabouts.

“Physically, it is a taxing job. A man should be able to act in a split second; the capacity to think and react quickly is of the essence here. You need to know whether people are euphoric or antagonistic at the visit of the Prime Minister," says Subramanian.

Harish recalls a rally in Cuttack when someone from the audience threw a cloth ball at Vajpayee. He stopped it with his hand.

On the job

The decision to give SPG cover to former prime ministers was taken after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. After the election of Modi as PM in May, the SPG took over his security immediately. Every event of his, be it election rallies or state visits, sees an unprecedented security drill, including the deployment of sharpshooters.

An SPG tenure lasts for six years but extensions are not uncommon even though Subramanian believes in frequent rotation, including a fixed two-year tenure for the director. “The longer you stay, the more you take things for granted. There can be no chinks in our armour if we are protecting the democratically elected head of a country."

Apart from the prestige associated with being a part of the SPG, there are other perks, too. Members are given allowances that take their pay up as much as 50%, depending on the nature of deputation. Those who are involved in the administrative section get a hike of 25%. “Foreign tours, a comfortable lifestyle, good pay package, supportive seniors, these are the perks which make it very difficult for a SPG official to adjust with their parent unit once the tenure is over," says Yadav.

Indeed, stories of harassment at the hands of superiors in the parent unit and punishment duties are common. This combined with the siren call of politics and business means many former SPG men, including most of those Mint spoke to, end up protecting CEOs, businessmen, and political leaders.

On the job, SPG has had a significant measure of success, although there have been slips, including, if media reports are to be believed, a recent one where an individual who wasn’t supposed to be on the dias, shared the stage with PM Modi during the swearing-in of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Securitymen are only human, explains Subramanian, resorting to a statement attributed to English politician Oliver Cromwell.

All we can do, he says, “is to trust in God and keep our powder dry."

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