A security breach that must lead to sweeping changes

The incidents of December 13, 2001 and December 13, 2023 are a grim reminder that the monitoring and upgradation of Parliament’s security infrastructure need attention

December 21, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 08:40 am IST

‘One should not lose focus of the real lapse — the failure of access control’

‘One should not lose focus of the real lapse — the failure of access control’ | Photo Credit: ANI

At first glance, the incident, on December 13, of two young men jumping into the chamber of the Lok Sabha from the visitors’ gallery, shouting slogans against dictatorship and releasing canisters that emitted yellow smoke, strikes you as yet another form of democratic dissent. But, this breach of security, on the same day, in 2001, when nine personnel of Parliament — of the Delhi Police, Parliament security personnel and a gardener — lost their lives defending the same citadel of democracy from terrorists – has a much wider impact and ramifications.

It is unimaginable that there has been an incident like this in what is now a security fortress especially after the beefing up of security in Parliament House following the attack in 2001. There are spike barriers, bollards, drop gates with the latest technology, scanners, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices, anti-explosive checks, and additional manpower that form the layers of security. A phalanx of men and women from the central police forces are deployed in the outer precincts, while plainclothes men from the Parliament Duty Group, and the Delhi police manning the various stations and checkpoints in the inner environs.

So, how did the security lapse occur? The breach happened all along the various layers of security set up for the personal screening of visitors to Parliament. The door frame and handheld metal detectors check for metals in one’s possession. There is personal frisking — a body search for hidden items. But neither door frame metal detectors nor handheld metal detectors can check for plastic or rubber, especially when hidden in one’s shoes (as it was in this case). In fact, shoes are never checked in Parliament. The men who did the screening were following the usual standard operating procedure, which failed. Later, in the visitor’s gallery, the security personnel were not watchful enough, and the marshals down below in the House, only used to carrying out named Members of Parliament (MP) out of the House, failed to nab the two men hopping across the benches. It was some of the MPs present who were able to nab the intruders.

The importance of technology

Where does the responsibility lie? Certainly not alone with the men at the screening stations. They were only following the standard protocol. Were they briefed on the significance of the date which called for more intensive checks and innovative measures? Were watchers deployed to observe visitors? Is the new Parliament House equipped with the latest technology to screen visitors? A backscatter scanner can detect substances such as plastic and is being used in airports abroad. In fact, the United States and Europe have moved to using millimeter wave scanners. Those who are watchful move ahead with the technology of the times. There was an announcement recently by the Director General, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, that Delhi airport is to get full body scanners and computer tomography x-ray (CTX) machines to ensure more thorough but also faster screening.

The issue of responsibility

So, whose responsibility is the security of Parliament and the induction of new technology? The head of Parliament security is the Joint Secretary, Security — a post that is vacant at present. The posts of the two chiefs of the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force involved with Sansad security are vacant too. The inquiry into the breach has been entrusted with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) chief whose force is involved in the security set-up of Parliament. In the absence of the Joint Secretary, Security, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha each have a ‘Director Security’ to direct security operations. Are they expected to look around the world for the latest technology and have this introduced in Parliament? It is not like the Special Protection Group (SPG) manned by the best Indian Police Service officers, who are always engaged in daily operations, monitor them for improvements as also scour for the latest technology to induct.

It is the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that Parliament turns to for all its security needs. After 2001, it was the MHA which refurbished the security set-up at Parliament House. Even now, at the request of the Lok Sabha Secretariat, it is the MHA that is conducting the inquiry through the ITBP chief. The Joint Secretary, Security, is in overall operational control within the Sansad precincts, but is fully dependent on the MHA when it concerns the latest technology on access control or anti-explosive checks.

The question to ask is whether the MHA ever suggested the need to improve access control and personal screening measures. Whose responsibility was it to introduce the latest technology? It was incumbent upon the MHA to strongly advise the Secretariat on the induction of advanced technology into the set up. But it appears that the critical area of technology upgradation fell between the two stools of administration.

The political slugfest in the aftermath of the breach is helping no one’s cause. Neither is the debate on the jurisdiction of the Speaker of the House or the Deputy leader. The issue is about access control failure in Parliament that resulted in intruders getting right into the heart of Lok Sabha in close proximity to Ministers and Members of Parliament. Had the Prime Minister been there in Parliament that Wednesday, the SPG would have had to follow its drill and neutralise the threat by using their weapons while evacuating the Prime Minister from the venue. It was thus a matter of national security and incumbent upon the Home Minister to make a preliminary statement in the House, admitting the graveness of the breach and announcing a high-level inquiry. More so, as the intruders have been arraigned under Sections 16 and 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act relating to terrorism. And now that an inquiry has been instituted, the Opposition should also wait to have a meaningful discussion on the issue.

The targeting of the MP who recommended the issuance of passes to the intruders may be unfair. Right from 1952, MPs across the parties have been liberal in recommending the names of people eager to witness Lok Sabha proceedings. The visitors’ and Speaker’s galleries would often be full when the titans Ram Manohar Lohia, Prakash Vir Shastri, Mahavir Tyagi, Piloo Mody, A.B. Vajpayee or Madhu Limaye were present in debates. Though the MPs give an undertaking of knowing who the visitors are, it is impossible to carry out background checks in a day or a few hours. In some cases, passes are issued in just two hours. The real issue is not who the visitor is, but whether he is “clean” from a security angle, when he enters Parliament. While the pass issue should be streamlined, one should not lose focus of the real lapse — the failure of access control.

The youngsters involved in the incident on December 13 caused no harm, but they inflicted the gravest damage by revealing the gaps in Parliament security to all and sundry. Though the charge of terrorism may not stick, they must be proceeded against for unauthorised entry in a well-guarded place after conspiring to carry out the incident for well over a year.

Form a committee

A mere inquiry to look into the lapse and corrective measures may not be enough. This should be an opportunity to make sweeping changes in the security set-up using out-of-the-box thinking. The Secretary, Security, in the Cabinet Secretariat who supervises the SPG should also supervise Parliament security. Thus, the latest technology changes for access control and checks can be shared with Parliament too. A committee comprising five MPs from across parties should be formed. The committee could induct specialists from outside and within the security set-up to monitor arrangements regularly. Looking into the array of various forces guarding the Parliament, having its security set-up under the rank of a Director General for better coordination and with full responsibility and accountability on him would be ideal. Finally, MPs themselves should offer their complete cooperation with the enhanced security arrangements in place.

Newer times spawn new technology but also give rise to newer threats. The incidents of December 13, 2001 and December 13, 2023, are a grim reminder that any security arrangement can be breached. To protect the hallowed portals of our democracy, it is imperative that the security infrastructure is constantly monitored and upgraded with resolve.

Yashovardhan Azad is the Chairman of DeepStrat, a former Central Information Commissioner and a retired Indian Police Service officer who served as Secretary, Security, and Special Director, Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal

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