The blood of English shall manure the ground, and future ages groan for this foul act”: Ever since dangerous security lapses left Prime Minister Narendra Modi stranded on a highway in Ferozepur last week, there’s been something curiously Shakespearean about India’s political discourse. Smriti Irani has darkly hinted that vaunting Congress ambition led it to plot regicide; Giriraj Singh has invoked our childhood memories of the death-defying maut ka kuan circus escape stunt; Shivraj Singh Chouhan has turned to the occult.
Entertaining as the theatrics might be, India’s political leadership isn’t doing the country any favour: When the head of a nuclear-weapons State is stuck on a highway for a quarter of an hour, while the police and his élite personal protection force cogitate on what to do next, something is horribly wrong.
The last time India’s leadership failed to act on clear and present warnings of similar dysfunctions, a former prime minster was assassinated. That should be reason enough to be serious about finding out exactly what happened—and why.
It’s SPG job, primarily
In general, the law is clear: The protection of all VIPs, like the protection of other citizens, is the responsibility of state police forces. In the Ferozepur case, the responsibility of ensuring the PM’s safety thus lay with the Punjab government, and the state’s Director-General of Police. Instead of seeking to duck responsibility, Punjab chief minister Charanjeet Singh Channi ought to be asking his police chief some tough questions.
When it comes to the Prime Minister, though, the story doesn’t end there. The Special Protection Group Act gives the élite group that guards the PM extraordinary powers. “Every Ministry and Department of the Central Government or the State Government or the Union territory Administration, every Indian Mission, every local or other authority or every civil or military authority to act in aid of the Director or any member of the Group whenever called upon,” it reads.
To that, it’s important to add the intelligence services, especially the Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing. These organisations have no legal authority but their chiefs wield enormous de-facto authority over policing.
Like the three heads of Cerberus, the dog of Greek mythology who guarded the gates of hell, the SPG, intelligence services and police are supposed to work together, but also watch each other for failings, weaknesses.
The Act, though, makes clear that the ultimate responsibility of the Prime Minister’s security lies with the SPG. Either the Punjab Police didn’t provide the aid the SPG sought in Ferozepur—a crisis which should have provoked immediate termination of the Prime Minister’s visit—or, worse, the organisation didn’t detect important vulnerabilities.
An all-round failure
From what’s called Blue Book—prosaically titled ‘Rules and Instructions for the Protection of the Person of the Prime Minister of India’, similar to manuals for the President, Vice-President and Cabinet Ministers—we know what ought to have happened.
Long before the Prime Minister arrived at Bhatinda Airport, on his way to Hussainiwala, SPG officials would have met with Ferozepur Senior Superintendent of Police Harman Hans and the Intelligence Bureau’s station chief in Chandigarh to assess vulnerabilities and plan for contingencies.
Exactly what ought be done in the event of possible bombing or attack by an armed drone—both of which have happened recently—would have been gamed, along with more mundane prospects like bad weather or a bridge collapse. These exercises are conducted in granular detail, plotting multiple alternate road routes, dummy convoys, and even en-route safehouses to retreat to in the event of an ambush. Every inch of potential routes is subject to anti-sabotage checks, irrespective, again, of whether it is used or not.
Given that nine farmers’ unions had quite publicly announced they would protest against the PM’s visit to Ferozepur—and have demonstrated the ability to block roads using their tractors—no great intelligence was needed to anticipate this particular possibility. Indeed, farmers’ unions had called on members to blockade roads that very morning, to stop Bharatiya Janata Party supporters reaching the Hussainiwala function.
Things clearly did not go as planned. Local police posted along the PM’s route either failed to report that farmers had blocked the road—and that they, in turn, had failed to clear the obstacle—or higher officials in the Punjab Police and SPG did not respond to the warnings.
In addition, traffic continued to move in the opposite direction to the PM’s convoy, exposing him to grave threats from potential attackers. BJP supporters following in the wake of the convoy milled near his vehicles; someone even stood in front of the car used by the PM close enough to photograph him through the windscreen.
The SPG ought to have had real-time situational awareness of these multiple police failings, and taken prompt executive decisions to extricate the PM; that is, after all, why the organisation exists.
Also read: How the SPG Act destroyed the Congress party
Opportunity to ask tough questions
For some years now, the list of similar VIP security missteps has grown. In 2019, crowds breached the security cordon at the Prime Minister’s rally at Ashoknagar, in West Bengal, forcing his evacuation; in 2018, an impersonator talked his way past the SGP on to the stage; in 2017, police escorts led the convoy into a traffic jam in Noida.
An honest investigation of these issues would ask searching questions about system-wide competence and training. The sorry truth is that police forces across the country are run down, as a result of underfunding and poor leadership; the intelligence services are under-resourced. There isn’t a single special force in the country that ranks, except in Indian self-perception, with genuine Tier-1 élite organisations like Delta Force or Israeli Sayeret units.
The last time India had the opportunity to ask these questions, after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Justice Milap Chand Jain’s investigation ended up producing a bizarre, conspiratorial tale involving the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Khalistan terrorists. India just can’t afford to repeat that mistake again.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)