By Jawed Naqvi, Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, The India Observer: IT wasn’t surprising in the end that the presiding officers of the two Houses of India’s parliament, both handpicked by Prime Minister Modi, suspended 146 opposition MPs en masse. This was unprecedented and worrisome for the troubled democracy. The MPs had hoped to ask layered and probing questions about a security breach at the Lok Sabha. Answering questions, however, is not Mr. Modi’s forte or that of his home minister. Mr. Modi openly relishes his reputation as India’s only prime minister who hasn’t held a press conference in 10 years.
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The current crop of questions from the opposition pertains to the two men who jumped into the Lok Sabha from the visitors’ gallery. It was an unsavoury incident for the spanking new parliament house, which Mr. Modi had inaugurated with gaudy fanfare and mediaeval ritual. The intruders had shouted slogans about unemployment and galloping authoritarianism. In 2001, on the same day, Dec 13, in the old British-built parliament house, under another BJP government, an equally curious breach of security had occurred. It had led to a terrifying military stand-off with Pakistan. Major embassies in Delhi moved out their staff over fears of a nuclear exchange. It was as bad as that.
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There was a third breach, earlier, again under a government with BJP’s muscular nationalist leaders as key ministers. But it was not deemed threatening since Madhu Dandavate, former minister of socialist beliefs, had smuggled an unloaded pistol into parliament. He was highlighting lax security under the Janata Party’s watch. Subsequent security lapses — in 2001 and now in 2023 — suggest that Dandavate’s alert had gone characteristically unheeded. On the two serious close calls, the government, habitually, stonewalled key questions. In 2001, a car with a home ministry sticker drove into the precincts, which were busy with MPs arriving and leaving. In the current case, instead of car stickers, the two men were issued passes at the behest of a BJP MP. In both events, parliament’s security should have been taken more seriously, the responsibility pinned on the powerful home minister of the day: Lal Krishna Advani then, and Amit Shah now.
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Luckily but strangely, in the first episode, the car carrying supposedly highly trained battle-hardened gunmen tamely crashed into a parked vehicle. That set off an alert, leaving five intruders and seven security men dead in the ensuing shootout. Intriguingly, none of the intruders was captured alive. Some MPs said they saw a sixth man on the closed-circuit TV, but the claim was spurned by the government like most other questions, presumably in national interest. The two men also ended their high-profile intrusion, tamely, making a spectacle of themselves by releasing yellow gas from canisters they had apparently smuggled in. They raised slogans but were roughed up by MPs and handed to the marshals. A redeeming feature of the latest security lapse was that Pakistan wasn’t blamed.
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The answers that opposition MPs expected from the government about the Lok Sabha incident would perhaps have been too embarrassing for the government to come clean on. The questions won’t go away. For example, how were the two men known to the BJP MP from Mysuru who sponsored their security passes? How did the government plan to respond to prevent a repeat? How were the men able to smuggle the gas canisters under the nose of a security detail that by its nature involves the protection of the prime minister and all senior and junior leaders of India?
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Two other colleagues of the intruders were arrested from outside parliament as they protested against unemployment and authoritarianism. This was the tricky part. Any discussion on the security lapse would have led to discussion on rampant unemployment, that too on the eve of crucial general elections. It would also have brought another troublesome discussion to the fore — on authoritarianism. The government obviously wouldn’t want any of that.
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The 2001 intrusion into the old parliament spawned similar questions. Several have remained unanswered to this day.
Arundhati Roy and A.G. Noorani raised these issues vociferously. For example, months before the attack on parliament, both the government and police had been saying that parliament could be attacked. On Dec 12, 2001, at an informal meeting then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned of an imminent attack on parliament. On Dec 13, parliament was attacked. Given that there was an “improved security drill”, how did a car bomb packed with explosives enter the parliament complex?
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The entire attack was recorded live on close circuit TV. Then Congress party MP Kapil Sibal reportedly demanded in parliament that the CCTV recording be shown to the members. The chief whip of the Congress, the late Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, said: “I counted six men getting out of the car. But only five were killed. The close circuit TV camera recording clearly showed the six men.” If Dasmunshi was right, as Roy wondered, why did police say that there were only five people in the car? Who was the sixth person? Where is he now? Why was the CCTV recording not produced by the prosecution as evidence in the trial? Why was it not released for public viewing? Why was parliament adjourned after some of these questions were raised?
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Importantly, the courts acknowledged that Afzal Guru, who was subsequently hanged as a conspirator, was a surrendered militant who was in regular contact with Indian forces, particularly the dreaded Special Task Force of former Jammu and Kashmir’s police. How could a person under their surveillance become a key conduit to conspire in a major militant operation?
Anyone who has seen the grilling of the British prime minister by the opposition every Wednesday, or has watched how US presidents are not spared scrutiny if the law warrants it, must wonder what the hullaballoo is about regarding the supposedly fabled Indian democracy.
First Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2023