VIP security: A status symbol

For the third time in a matter of weeks the Supreme Court has had occasion to express its displeasure in no uncertain terms with excessive deployment of police for VIP security, thus ignoring the safety of citizens, especially women. Evidently, the apex court’s concern has been heightened because there has been practically no change in the incidence of rapes, including gangrapes, often followed by the victim’s murder, and other sexual crimes against women despite the eruption of massive rage after the horrific gangrape in a Delhi bus on December 16. The monsters to whom women are “fair game” seem undeterred even by the promulgation of the ordinance giving effect to some, though not all, of the Verma Committee’s excellent recommendations. For its part, the government has done precious little to review and reduce the over-elaborate arrangements for protecting the privileged few otherwise called Very Important Persons.
No wonder that last week the apex court was constrained to ask the states to “furnish information” on the number of policemen assigned VIP duty. It also observed that the police cover for VIPs should be “trimmed” so that more attention could be paid to the protection of citizens.
The problem which the highest judiciary is trying to resolve is acute and deep-seated, and calls for urgent remedial action. Not to beat about the bush, it is rooted in the dismal fact that India is one of the most “under-policed” countries in the world. The police-to-population ratio here works out to one policeman for 761 citizens, which is much lower than the average in most other democracies. Now, compare this with the way the VIPs are pampered. According to the statistics provided by the Union home ministry’s Bureau of Police Research and Development, 47,557 police personnel protect 14,842 VIPs across the country. This means three cops per VIP, but even this figure is misleading. For, many VIPs, especially the VVIPs, require more than a company of policemen or paramilitary forces to keep them secure.
What this calculation leaves out is the huge number of policemen who are asked to leave their normal duties of traffic or crime control to line up along the route whenever the Prime Minister or some other VVIP travels from his residence in Delhi to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The entire route has to be guarded and the traffic on it and on the roads reaching it is stopped. What this does to Delhi’s normally nightmarish traffic is not hard to imagine. In H.D. Deve Gowda’s time this torment increased manifold because of his weekly visit to Bengaluru, when he would leave home three hours behind schedule! The bedlam when the Prime Minister visits any city or town outside Delhi is beyond belief. The place is shut down completely for the duration because the local police and civilian authorities have only one objective: the VVIP should return home safely, to hell with the people whose life is disrupted.
Over three years ago Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was in Chandigarh to preside over a function at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research. One seriously ailing man died because the security men didn’t allow the vehicle carrying him to enter the renowned hospital from the usual gate, and, thanks to big crowds and overbearing police, the vehicle had to be diverted to a distant side gate. There was no doubt about the Prime Minister’s sorrow and regret when he heard of the tragedy. But his directions to avoid such situations in the future have been to no avail. The
Indian security system remains incorrigible.
It is, of course, no one’s case that our top leaders and those who serve the Indian state at great personal risk do not need security. They certainly do. Gen. Vaidya, who was the Army Chief at the time of Operation Blue Star, was assassinated in retirement in Pune while driving his car. No wonder the security of Gen. Sundarji, targeted by both Khalistani terrorists and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was so rigorous, first at Wellington and then in Delhi Cantonment, that he used to complain that he was living in Alcatraz. Twenty-eight years after Operation Blue Star Lt. Gen. (retired) K.S. Brar had to pay a price for moving around freely in distant London, where he was attacked with knife by four men in September last year.
Adequate security in all such cases — military men or civilians, the latter including such persons as Jagmohan, former governor of Jammu and Kashmir — is perfectly understandable. But the problem is that security is no longer based entirely on need. Instead it has become a coveted status symbol. Anyone holding a certain rank insists on security (the more ostentatious the better) even if s/he faces no threat. Those no longer in peril refuse to part with the security they enjoy. (Prestige apart, a supplementary reason for this is that security personnel can be used for domestic chores, too.) Even a necessary lowering of the security classification is angrily resented, as happened when the security of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s supreme leader Mayawati was brought down from Z to Y category on her ceasing to be the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She got the decision reversed almost instantly.
During the years when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, a funny thing happened during one of the Cabinet
meetings. His foreign minister, Dinesh Singh, raised the issue that his security was scant while that of the minister of state R.L. Bhatia’s was far more elaborate. This, he argued, was not at all fair.
Dead silence followed. Even the Prime Minister, taciturn at the best of times, didn’t say a word. The then Union home secretary, N.N. Vohra, now governor of Kashmir, ventured to point out: “Sir, the scale of security depends not on status but on threat perception.” It was known that Mr Bhatia, a tough Congress leader from Amritsar, was a special target of Khalistanis. No one commented. The meeting dispersed.

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