Column | The perils of populist hasty withdrawal of security to VIPs

Column | The perils of populist hasty withdrawal of security to VIPs

The central government will review the parameters to provide security to threatened individuals following the gunning down of young sensational singer Sidhu Moosewala after the Punjab Government abruptly withdrew security for 434 persons. The latter include politicians belonging to the Congress and Akali Dal, religious leaders, entertainers and bureaucrats who were provided security cover during the last decade.

Already a senior Congress leader, who was an MLA for five terms, has approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which has, in turn, extracted an assurance from the Aam Aadmi Party State Government that the security to 433 persons would be restored.

Meanwhile, fears of recurrence of violence are rife. The Intelligence Bureau which has doubled its number of operatives in Punjab is ultra-cautious, especially after the dangerous stranding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a flyover near the India-Pakistan border in February.

The case of Akal Takht chief

Among the 434 persons whose security was withdrawn the most vulnerable was Jathedar Giani Harmeet Singh, the head of Akal Takht, the highest Sikh religious body. The Jathedar, who is a renowned singer of holy verses and who enforces the religious laws in the community, was among those whose security was withdrawn by the state government in its zeal to release the guards for normal law and order duty.

The Union home ministry announced that it would provide Z-plus security, the second highest level after the Special Protection Group (SPG) cover for the Prime Minister, to the Jathedar. But the Jathedar showed nerves of steel when he said the security would be a burden for him as he travels extensively within and outside India, and he cannot change his habits of mingling with ordinary people, including staying in their homes. While he had lost six security guards from the Punjab Armed Police, the centre's decision involved providing him with bullet-proof cars, six commandos in each shift guarding him, and anti-explosive screening at places where he works, lives and visits.

CM Mann embarrassed

Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has been looking sheepish after Moosewala's murder as his attempt to claim that law and order situation has improved just by the transfer of power has fizzled out. There have been three political assassinations of local Congress leaders and gang wars are flaring up of late. The state police tightened security as there were intelligence inputs that pro-Khalistani elements would step up their mischief in June. But there was also shock among security experts about the naiveté of Mann's advisers in the state police, who proposed and implemented withdrawal of security to hundreds of protectees. Because of the large numbers, the full list became public, giving the vital information to Moosewala's enemies that he would not be surrounded by armed policemen. While a special investigating team has been set up to catch the murderers, Mann has also announced a judicial inquiry.

Unlearned hard lessons

The populist decision of Mann once again shows the need for depoliticising security decisions. In 1989, the National Front Government of Prime Minister V P Singh decided to withdraw the SPG security given to Rajiv Gandhi, arguing that the law had no mention about security of former prime ministers.

The Congress wrote many letters saying the protection by Delhi Police constables was not enough to protect Rajiv Gandhi who faced threats from the Khalistanis, LTTE and extremist organisations in the north east. When he was assassinated by a suicide bomber 18 months later, an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge said the hasty withdrawal of SPG protection and failure to create an equally strong alternate security grid around Rajiv had emboldened the inimical organisations to plot his assassination with impunity. Subsequently, the Congress Government of P V Narasimha Rao amended the SPG Act to provide protection to former prime ministers and their families as long as there was threat perception.

While subsequent governments withdrew the protection given to former prime ministers V P Singh, Chandrashekar, Rao, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, the protection given to Rajiv's wife Sonia Gandhi and her children was continued. While the Manmohan Singh and and Narendra Modi governments continued with the SPG protection to former PM AB Vajpayee till his death, the Modi Government withdrew the SPG cover to Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka, providing the alternative of Z-plus security by guards from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF).

Black Cat cover

However, there were objections that Sonia Gandhi and her children were not given Black Cat commandos belonging to the National Security Guard (NSG). But the government has argued that these commandos are needed for tackling anti-terrorist and hostage rescue operations. It also reasoned it was gradually phasing out the Black Cats from VVIP protection. Among the VVIPs who have Black Cat commando protection are Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah and Sarbananda Sonowal; Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, former deputy prime minister L K Advani; and former chief ministers Mulayam Singh Yadav, Parkash Singh Badal, N Chandrababu Naidu, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Raman Singh.

The centre says that withdrawal of NSG operatives will continue as and when more commandos are ready with other central paramilitary organisations. But two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir — Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti — have complained that their security is slowly getting downgraded after their state was made a Union Territory.

The threat assessment procedure

The central government has a threat perception committee headed by the home secretary and its members include special secretary in charge of internal security, who is a very senior IPS officer, heads of intelligence and paramilitary organisations. The committee meets regularly and assesses whether there is an increase or decrease in threats to the central protectees, who are divided into Z-plus, Z and Y categories. Similarly, the state governments have their own threat perception committees, which also get input from the Intelligence Bureau. When the Bureau says that the protection given by the state government is not adequate or that a protectee is threatened by the political party ruling the state, the centre intervenes and orders protection by the CRPF as it did in the case of Giani Harmeet Singh.

Last year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah ordered central protection for more than 100 BJP politicians in West Bengal, including the leader of the opposition Suvendu Adhikari, following complaints that the Mamata Banerjee Government was vindictive towards them. Mamata herself, when she was the Union Minister of Railways in the coalition governments of Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, had guards from the Railway Protection Force as she did not trust the police who reported to the then Left Front State Government.

With over one lakh protectees in Delhi and states who are protected either by huge platoons of commandos or a lone policeman, the Moosewala killing shows that the security process has to be strictly professional and that there must be strong oversight of independent experts, so that future tragedies are averted in the country where the gun culture is spreading.

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