Monday, November 21, 2005

Attack on Parliament House

Two things come easily in the Parliament building, once you get in, that is: good, cheap food and access to politicians.

Little surprise, then, that the place should attract so many hangers on. And in India, as we know, hanging around is an occupation in itself. So what better place for it than Parliament House, walking whose corridors makes you feel as powerful as the people who preside over it?

The hangers on blend well with the crowd. If they wear kurta-pyjama, they can look like politicians (or their chamchas). If they are clutching a file, they can be mistaken for one of the PAs of the numerous ministers. And if they are carrying note-books, they can be mistaken for journalists. (Some of them actually take pains to become journalists, working for newspapers that exist only on paper. But they make it a point to sit next to the politician addressing a news conference: the idea is to be seen sitting next to the politician on television, which establishes their 'proximity' to him).

But there is one thing, if you look carefully, that distinguishes them: they always keep to themselves. Just as you will keep to yourself if you are gatecrashing a wedding. The bride's side takes you to be a member of the groom's party; and the groom's side thinks you are a member of the bride's family. You keep them guessing, have a good time and scoot. During the five years that I did Parliament reporting, I became familiar with at least a dozen such faces. I could never get talking to them. Their names and occupations remained a mystery. But they were all over the place-in the canteen, in the corridors, in the library and, at times, even at press conferences (but never in the press galleries of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha because entry there is strictly controlled).

So who are they? They could be anyone - those who get a kick by rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, wheeler-dealers, racketeers, aspiring politcians, or those who want to get something done. But then, they could be terrorists too, familiarising themselves with the building before they struck. Even the five terrorists who stormed Parliament House on December 13 were familiar with the complex. They were obviously briefed by someone who had been there before.

That brings us to the question: how do such people get in? That's not difficult. If you even remotely know any minister, MP, or a member of their staff, it is fairly easy to get a pass made. The pass is valid only for an hour, but once you are in, no one cares. The first time I got into Parliament was without a pass: a friend in a television channel got me in as his lightman or something like that. More recently, I got in with my mobile phone on several occasions. So did many others, especially women reporters. That's because the security staff get friendly over the weeks and months you cover a session and often don't check you. They can tell from your face that you are harmless. But that's hardly a guarantee.

Most of the frisking takes place only when you walk into Parliament House. First, when you enter the reception. Second, when you leave the reception for the main building, and finally, when you enter the main building. But if you come in a car bearing a Parliament sticker (a new one is issued every session), you can drive straight into the complex, skipping the first two levels of frisking. And if I am a killer, I don't need to go through the third level of frisking. I can simply park my car, walk up to the main entrance of the circular building (gate no. 1) with a gun in my pocket and wait for the VIP I want to shoot. Sooner or later the person will show up.

Alternatively, I can ram an RDX-laden car into the entrance immediately after an adjournment and cause a catastrophe. Sheer providence that such a thing did not happen on December 13. Things will obviously change now. The point is, December 13 could have been prevented since intelligence reports had warned the government of a possible attack. Security (and security checks) in India have always been more about fuss and less about common sense. They frisk a human being, but do not check a car just because it bears a Parliament sticker, no matter how many kilos of RDX it might carry! This is just one lapse. There are many others.

In the West it is the reverse: more of common sense and less of fuss. Who could be more protected than the President of the United States? But when Bill Clinton, in March last year, addressed a joint news conference with Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Hyderabad House in Delhi, not a single Secret Service agent was in sight in the compound. That does not mean they were not there: it's just that they were doing their job without any fuss.

December 2001

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