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All in the name of VIP security!

President Droupadi Murmu is a well-liked and much-admired person.

So she cannot be thrilled by what the Gurugram Police are doing to her reputation. On 9 February, the President was due to inaugurate an all-India awareness campaign called “Empowering the Family” in the city.


In preparation for the visit, the Gurugram Police announced they would restrict all traffic on NH-8 for five hours. If you live in Delhi/NCR, you know how important NH-8 is to traffic flow. It controls access to the international airport and is used by people travelling from Gurugram to Delhi. After the announcement, some schools changed their timings and offices wondered how people would get to work.


   All this led to a huge uproar among citizens which, of course, did little to change the minds of the Gurugram Police. But then, Rashtrapati Bhavan got in on the act and protested that the restrictions were totally uncalled for.


   That did the trick. Suddenly, the Gurugram Police reversed their position. There would be no long-term restrictions, they announced. Yes, traffic would be stopped for five minutes as the Presidential motorcade passed. But that would be about it.


   This should have been enough but the Gurugram Police went a step further. There had never been any plans to restrict the traffic flow, their decision to backtrack seemed to suggest.


   Er, what about the tweet that appeared on the police handle announcing these restrictions?


   The tweet was ‘unauthorised’, they said quickly. Police Commissioner Kala Ramachandran declared that “some advisory was issued without authorisation from senior officers”.


   Really? From the official police handle?


   It gets worse. While the Delhi-Jaipur highway did remain open, many access roads to it were barricaded, making it difficult for motorists to get to the highway anyway. So, in parts of Gurugram, commuters who had been re-assured by Ramachandran’s disavowal of the ‘unauthorised tweet’ found themselves stuck in traffic chaos as the jams mounted.


   All in the name of VIP security!


   I sometimes wonder if India’s politicians and dignitaries know how much inconveniences ordinary people are put to, because of them. My guess is that they don’t. Rarely do the instructions to block roads emanate from the top. They are nearly always the work of local police forces. When dignitaries discover what has been done in their names, they are often as appalled as President Murmu seems to have been.


   What makes it even more bizarre is that all such restrictions do not usually apply to Delhi. Presumably the President would have to drive through Delhi to reach Gurugram. But the Delhi Police did not find it necessary to inconvenience citizens.


   Or take the case of Narendra Modi.  Not many would dispute that the Prime Minister is under threat. But he does not ask for all roads to be shut when he travels around Delhi.


"It is the complete failure of police officers to be able to offer security without shutting a swathe of the city down."

   The moment Modi travels to another city, however, its residents are made to suffer. I was in Bengaluru a few months ago when the Prime Minister was coming to inaugurate the new airport terminal. The PM’s people had tried to minimise inconvenience by arranging for him to travel from the city (where he had an event at the railway station) to the airport by helicopter.


   But the Bengaluru Police shut down roads all over the city and also announced that they would shut down the elevated road to the airport, anyway. But surely Modi was going by helicopter? Ah yes, said the police, but what happens if there is bad weather and he has to travel by road? Better to cover all possibilities.


   The police released a video in which an officer informed citizens of the innumerable traffic restrictions but said they shouldn’t mind because the one day of inconvenience would lead to years of benefit for Bengaluru.


   Would it? Would the airport never have opened if there was no VIP function to inaugurate it? Would Modi have refused to come to Bengaluru and deliver ‘years of benefits’ if residents had not been inconvenienced by traffic chaos?


   And there’s the continuing mystery: why does the Prime Minister become a target only when he leaves Delhi? Why are citizens of other cities inconvenienced in a way that the citizens of Delhi are not?


   You could blame VIP culture in general. But there is a specific reason. It is the complete failure of police officers to be able to offer security without shutting a swathe of the city down.


   Only in India — and in no other democratic country — do you shut down a major highway for five hours because the President will travel on it. In the UK, even when Margaret Thatcher was the target of assassination attempts by the IRA, she did not ask for roads to be shut when she travelled. Even the US President, who has the most security of any democratic leader, does not ask for highways to be shut for several hours when he is on the road.


   In those cases, the local police work with central security agencies to try to ensure security coverage with as little inconvenience to citizens as possible. In India, police officers are so under-confident of their ability to provide security that they like to mindlessly shut down parts of cities and create havoc for citizens.


   The Gurugram Police have a terrible reputation so they make soft targets. But all police forces (outside of Delhi) behave like this. And it has always been so. Way back in the 1990s, I missed my flight from Calcutta airport because of jams caused by the local police’s decision to shut down the airport road because a minister from Vietnam was visiting. And this kept happening again and again.


   Perhaps, police officers have reasons to be under-confident of their ability. The history of VIP security is replete with tales of police-failures. Let’s start with Indira Gandhi who was actually assassinated by the policemen assigned to protect her. Two years later, the police received a tip off from the Intelligence Bureau that a man would hide in a tree at Rajghat and try to kill Rajiv Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh. They searched the area and completely missed the assassin who calmly opened fire on the Prime Minister and the President as predicted. Fortunately, he missed.


   Often the mistakes are basic. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassin would have been foiled if there had been a metal detector at the meeting venue where she blew herself up. More recently, the Punjab Police failed to cover a route that Narendra Modi’s motorcade was taking. Talk to the agencies that specialise in guarding dignitaries (such as the Special Protection Group) and the horror stories you hear can be shocking.


   All police chiefs have a choice — either put faith in their forces or close down huge areas to protect the VIP. It is significant that so few of them choose to put faith in their forces and are always ready to make life hard for ordinary citizens.


   That, ultimately, is the basic flaw with VIP security. Our police forces are good at filling jeeps with armed ‘commandos’ who accompany VIPs and at providing automatic weapon-toting police bodyguards who serve as status symbols for politicians and their families.


   But all this is eyewash. When it comes to protecting our leaders, our police forces do not know how to do it without making life hell for ordinary people.


   So yes, it is about VIP culture. But it is also about the contempt that police forces have for citizens who they will inconvenience to cover up their own ineptitude and to ingratiate themselves with their political masters.



Posted On: 10 Feb 2023 11:00 AM
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