Just a few days before the Supreme Court red flagged the security obsessions about our VIPs, I happened to visit Sukhbir Badal at the Delhi residence of his MP wife, Harsimrat. As a reporter, we’re used to visiting high-security zones, but I remember thinking that the Badals must be a little more than paranoid. Not only were there the usual security guards, who otherwise are satisfied just with seeing our government accredited identity cards, there were x-ray machines at the entrance of his home and metal detectors. There were male and female friskers and when the woman was patting me down, as if I was entering a high-security zone like Parliament, I wondered if I was back in the ‘80s when Punjab was still plagued by militancy. After all, Badal’s neighbour was Finance Minister and former Home Minister P Chidambaram, and reporters had trooped in there for an event without any checks a few days before. The same was true for most other union ministers. So the mystery of the Badals’ security was a little beyond me, until of course, I discovered that Sukhbir had recently gained the prestigious Z category. And it’s no wonder I felt overwhelmed when I went to their residence — apparently when both senior and junior Badals are in town, their motorcade can be 50 cars long, all of them apparently essential to keep them safe.
And that’s where Supreme Court’s anguish comes in. In the backdrop of a city still shaken by the December 16 gangrape and murder, Justices GS Singhvi and HL Gokhale offered to give up their own security if it meant making the city safer. Because guess what, 10% of the entire police force in the capital is totally dedicated to people like Sukhbir Badal and other VIPs, including colleagues of the two honourable judges. And while the 4,000-plus protected people just in Delhi, may try to tell you that their security men and women do not come from the contingency that is meant to maintain law and order, police officers and common sense tells us it is a complete lie.
Forget the gunners and personal security officers, the other day at the airport, I saw a middle-level police official clear the crowds so that a High Court judge, his wife, and two grown up children could avoid security checks. The official could have been in a police station, making sure his subordinates are more receptive to filing FIRs, getting feedback from beat constables about anything odd in their areas, but thanks to our VIPs, he was busy babysitting a bunch of status-conscious people who think it’s infra-dig to stand in a queue at the airport.
I don’t know whether this petition in front of the Supreme Court will change anything apart from outraging us even more about how we, the aam janta, have to suffer so that a handful can feel special. It does, however, give amazing insight into how the system works, as it’s based on an original petition against the Z-category security given to Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, Pramod Tiwari. The high-level classification means that for the last 18 years, he’s had more than 50 security men at any given time looking after him which has cost us all hundreds of crores. And what’s the threat he faces? The petition cites Ministry of Home Affairs notes to say, “He faces threat from Sikh militants on account of his role in getting army recruits surrendered during operation Blue Star”, and that he has “acute rivalry with his political opponents.” I’ve been a reporter for 14 years and it’s the first time I’ve heard of a threat from Punjab militants to a UP politician.
It would have been interesting to see how Pramod Tiwari’s security concerns compare with the other people given Z-category security, but typical of Government of India, that’s all part of protected lists titled X,Y, Z and Z+, hidden deep in the Blue and Yellow books of the government, far away from questioning eyes. When questioned by Supreme Court, the Government said they would only submit it in a sealed cover, but I wonder why they’re so shy. I mean, obviously the VIPs love flaunting their huge motorcades and gunment, so why should their identities be veiled with sealed covers?
Which is why I appreciate the transparency of the Gujarat government in its affidavit to the Supreme Court. They proudly proclaim that they’ve given Z+ VIP protection to Pravin Togadia and his family, which includes at least 15 people with him at home and wherever he goes. The official reason for his need is that he faces “threat from muslim fundamentalist organisations”. Now I know that I’m not the Intelligence Bureau who assesses threats, but I have an idea, and yes, it’s crazy. What if Praveen Togadia was told to just stop the hate speeches? Wouldn’t that be much easier to keep him safe and cheaper too? Give up spreading communal hatred and maybe, the other side will stop wanting to kill you. There’s also PC Pandey, the man who was Ahmedabad police commissioner when the 2002 riots happened. He apparently faces threats from ‘anti-social’ elements and so he too has Z security. Is it fair that he still has three commandos guarding him round the clock? I’m not so sure. I just know that coming from a state which spends Rs304 crore annually on VIP security, Sikkim with its bill of just 44 lakhs, seems very appealing to me. Away from blazing beacon lights and sirens, no wonder Sikkim seems serene.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News. On Twitter: @sunetrac