PM's cavalcade was stuck on an over-bridge as he was travelling from Bhatinda to the Hussainwala National Martyrs' Memorial. (ANI photo)
Any threat to the security and safety of the Prime Minister of India is a very serious matter, and a cause of national concern. The Prime Minister is not just an individual but a national institution, whose physical well-being must be supported by all the citizens of the country. For precisely this reason, what happened on January 5 in Punjab, when the PM’s cavalcade was stuck on an over-bridge as he was travelling from Bhatinda to the Hussainwala National Martyrs’ Memorial, is shocking. A thorough and impartial investigation is required to ascertain what went wrong, and those guilty of dereliction of duty or incompetence should be identified and punished.
Any attempt to politicise this matter is most deplorable. But unfortunately, this is precisely what the BJP did. Within literally minutes of this incident, Smriti Irani, a Cabinet minister, held a press conference, in which she accused the Charanjit Singh Channi-led Congress government in Punjab of this "khooni humla" — murderous attack.
Amit Malviya, the BJP IT chief, was even more blunt. In a tweet he said this was an "assassination attempt". Earlier, the PM, himself, appears to have nudged his key lieutenants to make such macabre allegations. According to reports, on his return to Bhatinda airport, he conveyed his "thanks" to the CM of Punjab for having come back alive.
What were these bizarre allegations about? Was Smriti Irani accusing the Punjab government of planning the PM’s murder? Or, was the democratically elected CM of Punjab being accused of planning the assassination of the PM? Anger and outrage at the breach of security is one thing. The attempt to portray it as a planned attack on his life, is quite another.
There are past precedents where it seems the BJP has sought to extract political capital from allegations that Narendra Modi’s life was under threat. Christophe Jaffrelot in his meticulously researched and majestic book, Modi’s India, has documented these. On January 13, 2003, Sadiq Jamal was shot and killed by the Gujarat police on the ground that he had been sent by the Lashkar-e-Taiba to assassinate Mr Modi. But the CBI found that Jamal had no link with any terrorist outfit, and instead filed a chargesheet against eight policemen of Gujarat for extra-constitutional killing. The following year, four Muslims, among them 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan, was shot dead by the police on the road between Ahmedabad and Gujarat. Once again, the Gujarat police claimed that they were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba out to eliminate Mr Modi. Five years later a magistrate ruled that it was a case of extra-judicial murder and entirely fabricated by the authorities. Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi were killed by the Gujarat and Rajasthan police on the same plea that they had been sent by the Lashkar to assassinate Mr Modi. The matter is still under investigation of the Supreme Court.
Whatever be the truth, the fundamental point is that no risk can be taken where the PM’s life is concerned. However, hurriedly made charges of assassination attempts are highly irresponsible, over the top, and indicate a desperate desire to extract political mileage, when the foremost priority should be a full, objective and thorough investigation. It is when such allegations are loosely and dramatically made in the full glare of the media that counter allegations surface. One of them is that the rally planned for the PM was poorly attended, and thus a diversionary tactic needed to be found.
There are several issues to which answers are needed. Firstly, why and who took the decision not to take the PM possibly more safely by helicopter as was the original plan? The weather was no doubt inclement, but the MI-7 choppers were equipped to handle bad weather, the Army Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at Ferozepur was well marked out, the visibility was one km, and there were no topographical impediments on the way. Secondly, given the last-minute change in plan to take the PM by road, was it possible to fully sanitise a 122 km stretch, and if so, who gave the assurance that this could be done? Perhaps the Punjab Police is culpable, but the final call on this matter would have involved the SPG. It is true that the SPG is responsible for close proximate security, but proximate security is unsustainable if its external perimeters are unsure or dangerous.
Thirdly, what were the intelligence inputs from agencies like the IB and the MHA on the safety of the road route, especially since it ran so close to the border with Pakistan? Fourthly, if there was a blockade on the road, why was this information not given by the advance security unit, and if it was, why was the PM driven right up to the point where the road was blocked? His cavalcade should have been stopped sufficiently away from the site of disturbance and not driven up a fly-over, thereby substantially increasing his vulnerability. Fifthly, once the cavalcade was forced to stop, why didn’t the SPG immediately remove the PM to a safe house, and why was he allowed to stay at the spot for as long as 20 minutes? Sixthly, who informed the protesting farmers of the PM’s imminent cavalcade, and was their gathering there spontaneous or pre-planned? It must be borne in mind that farmer’s protests at this time are endemic in Punjab. The PM was visiting Punjab in the aftermath of a year long agitation by farmers, including very large numbers from Punjab. Hundreds of farmers died during the agitation.
Several demands of the protesting farmers have still not been met. There is anger and resentment. Surely, such factors should have been considered by all intelligence and security agencies collectively before a last-minute decision to take the PM by road over such a long stretch.
It is good that the Supreme Court has now taken cognisance of this matter. Hopefully, under its supervision, an organised and thorough inquiry would be made into why such a massive security breach occurred, and who all are responsible for it. This would be the right response to the shrill and shallow level of political allegations that have saturated the public atmosphere thus far.