Posted by: John Elliott | November 28, 2008

Indian security is a ritual and a political tool – not an anti-terrorism weapon

“Security in India is a ritual and rituals don’t need to be efficient”, a friend said to me this afternoon (Nov 27) as we talked about the continuing terrorist activity in Mumbai.

That came home to me as I walked through a crowded market adjacent to Delhi’s Janpath this evening. There were barricades and check points at either end of the market, but there was no checking – at one end a policeman was strutting around aimlessly, and at the other end a policeman, holding an electric scanner, was playing with a small child..

When I was in Mumbai a few weeks ago there was little visible security at the Taj and Oberoi hotels that are at the centre of last night’s terrorist attacks. One could walk in with being checked – in the case of the Taj through three different entrances. In Delhi, cars at some hotels have to open their boots (trunks) for inspections that are so cursory they are a waste of time.

Security is also something that politicians use primarily as a prestige badge of importance, employing government (or private agency) security staff and fleets of jeeps and cars to follow them around and boost their image. Regional politicians are the worst – especially some chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, one of whom I have seen arrive at Delhi’s Khan Market with ten jeeps and saloon cars packed with AK-47-toting guards for a visit to a bookshop.

Security is also a political weapon. Those in power promote allies’ security grades (which earns them more public displays of importance), and demote it for opponents, with little care for individuals’ actual security risk.

But what security is not is a serious business of protecting people efficiently in a way that would minimise the chances of terrorist attacks like those in Mumbai last night.

Compounding the problem is India’s disastrous home minister who is widely regarded as useless, but seems to keep his job because he is trusted by Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress Party and the ruling coalition – dynasties like the Nehru-Gandhis often appoint people to sensitive posts more because of their family loyalty than their competence.

A televised address to the nation this afternoon by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, made some of the right noises, but Indian ministers are always better at statements than execution.

He said instruments like a National Security Act would be “employed to deal with situations of this kind”, laws would be tightened, and a planned Federal Investigation Agency would “go into terrorist crimes of this kind and ensure that the guilty are brought to book”.

He even made the inevitable criticism of un-named neighbouring countries (Pakistan and possibly Bangladesh) and said that the “use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated” – not that India is likely to be able to do much about it.

Nothing will really change – and India will not begin to get efficient protection against terrorism – till security stops being a ritual and a political tool and becomes a serious business.


  1. […] an aside, it is worth noting that dynastic considerations (see my last post) have not played a part in these changes. Patil was protected for a long time because Sonia Gandhi […]

  2. I agree that politics is what has counted, but I also think that there is the remains of an inbuilt respect for what looks like authority or “important” people. How many times are people like us waved through security checks because we are in big cars with drivers? Small people get hassled by the police, not the big dogs…

    What India has lacked (like the Aviation Minister failing to admit that doing nothing will not improve the infrastructure) is a national strategy to deal with a major terrorist attack, which you need before the tactical planing and training.

    When you know that these guys all had Blackberrys to keep informed on what the police were doing, you realise that we are in a new era… …But what is in it for the Minister in charge? Maybe this will bring things into focus but I fear that there will still be much posturing and no action.

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