Modi’s Punjab Security Breach Calls for Clarifications, Not Politicking
The protection afforded to the top leadership of the nation ought to be beyond spin-doctoring and conjectures.
The assassination of US President JF Kennedy changed the global perspective on security for national leaderships, for posterity. The commission enquiring into the shocking lapse of security imperatives had noted rather naively, “certain shortcomings and lapses from the high standards that the Commission believes should prevail in the field of Presidential protection”.
Security Planning Is an Elaborate Process
In hindsight, by the exacting standards of the specialised security services, the lapses were glaring, shocking and perhaps, even avoidable. The first shot to have hit President Kennedy’s neck did not kill him and may not have done so, by itself. The second shot, after five long seconds (a lifetime in the context of Special Services, who are trained for split-second reflexes), was fatal.
The security in-charge, Roy Kellerman, was immobilised and had presumed a firecracker after the first shot. Similarly, the driver of the open limousine, William Greer, did not swerve or speed off instinctively.
The security staff in the trailing car who are trained to take the bullet for the Commander-in-Chief did not cover the President’s hit body with their own. Nearly 60 years on, multiple theories abound, and the case remains mired in much speculation amongst sleuths and experts, who have dissected the same from all possible angles, inconclusively.
However, where most concur is on the invaluable learnings pertaining to the security lapses. Today’s security paraphernalia entails the minutest planning, inter-agency alignment, scenario envisaging, secrecy and sophistication that involves multiple layers of security, route-clearances, jammers, counter-sniper units, assault teams and surveillance units; the US Presidential limousine is a virtual armoured vehicle, aptly called the ‘Beast’. The Presidential movement is subjected to an elaborate SOP that runs into 60-70 pages, detailing the advance planning/alignment with multiple agencies, contingencies, and relocations in case the motorcade is disrupted, as nothing is left to chance. It is the same in India.
India's Own Tragic History of Lapses
In democracies, there is a natural tendency for elected leaders to feed off the energy of huge crowds and rallies, thereby inadvertently exposing themselves to risk. The notion that the popular leader needs to be protected from his own is politically and optically enfeebling, thereby leading to sudden and willful compromises by the leaders themselves to defy laid-down security strictures or prior warnings. Tragically, India’s own violent history of security lapses is etched in blood with the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Without belabouring the details in both the cases, each had its own share of administrative degenerations, personalised overrulings and procedural lapses that resulted in the assassinations.
Neighbouring countries in the sub-continent have had their share of similar incidents, from Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the Nepalese Royal Family – somewhere, the mandated guard, alignments, and rigour in maintaining the security steel around the leadership slipped.
Even today, India is embroiled in multiple insurgency movements and security threats from across the borders, given the wounded and extremely polarised narrative that besets the country. Besides ‘active’ and often disputed borders, communities within have seen unprecedented dissonance and disaffection that challenges the security apparatus accompanying the national leaders.
Speculation Can Be Counter-Productive
The curse of over-politicisation of virtually every aspect of day-to-day life has even afflicted the sensitive realm of security, which is naturally given to secrecy, restraint, and apolitical professionalism. Sadly, it is not so in India, anymore. Everything has political value – even security successes or lapses. The aggressive face-offs and skirmishes in the summer of 2020 on the Indo-Sino Line of Actual Control (LAC) were milked for much partisan posturing, as the realm was subject to mealy-mouthed semantics and contrary statements instead of cryptic and irrefutable clarifications by authorised and competent functionaries. An unhealthy din was allowed to fester with neither the ruling dispensation nor the opposition benches holding back, and scoring their own brownie points. In all, nobody is any wiser on the actual status, and the collateral impact on the security forces themselves was left to drift and evolve for itself.
Matters of national security like cross-border tensions need a certain apolitical handling and clarity that necessitates distance from reckless and manufactured electoral context. Beyond the legal cover of the Official Secrets Act and a similar framework that protects privileged information for good reasons, common sense dictates that this domain is spared insinuations, speculations, and conspiracy theories, which might be political gold, but are always counterproductive for the security ecosystem in the long run.
The protection afforded to the top leadership of the nation, be it the President or the Prime Minister, ought to be beyond partisan passions, spin-doctoring and conjectures, because the constitutional chair demands that protective shield and dignity.
The onus is mutually on the citizenry and on the incumbents to the high offices to earn and uphold those apolitical stripes when it comes to matters of security or the ‘Uniform’. Clearly, matters of security today are perfectly kosher for political wrangling.
Loose Talk Won't Help Anyone
In this light, the latest incident of the Prime Minister’s security breach is extremely regrettable as it yet again points to unlearnt lessons from the past, toxic politicisation and unhealed ‘divisions’ within society that cannot augur well for the nation. Fractures are visible not just in the federal context of Centre-state breakdown or its political animus, but even in the inter-security-agency alignments (expected in any physical movement), who are supposed to work in tandem, clinically.
Ongoing political overdrive aside, the recent breach of security was not to just any political leader, but to that of the Prime Minister of India – and this is the only moot concern.
All subsequent rhetoric from all sides, including the ostensible ‘there was no crowd to listen to’ or the still-unconfirmed ‘Bathinda airport tak zinda laut paaya’ (could return to Bathinda airport alive) is tantamount to making political hay, which can have no real upside to improve the security ecosystem or culture.
Loose talk is the bane of weakening security apparatus and ethos and it must be curbed with demonstrated intent and clarification by all concerned. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has been knowingly allowed to metastasize in the season of political one-upmanship. Contrary to the known fate of previous committees, it is hoped that the three-member panel instituted by the State on the instructions of the Supreme Court does indeed result in prompt clarifications and corrective actions, as this issue is beyond that of a partisan disagreement, electoral stake or even individual. It is about the Prime Minister of India, who is constitutionally representative of the governance and the majesty of the sovereign.
In the coming days, do listen very carefully to the words that are either said or are allowed to be said, as they will be truly instructive of the real ‘intent’ at play, by all those concerned.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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