Until recently, the Gandhis would travel with the SPG till their first location abroad, after which they would send the personnel on a return trip home, preferring their own privacy.

 

NEW DELHI: In what is being viewed both as a measure to streamline the security cover accorded to the Gandhis and also an attempt to keep track of their movements, the Special Protection Group (SPG), which provides proximate protection to them, has been furnished fresh guidelines by the Centre. The Gandhis have been informed that when they travel abroad, it would be mandatory for the SPG personnel to accompany them at all times. In case this was not acceptable to them, there could be curtailment on their foreign visits on account of security considerations.

Till most recently, the Gandhis would travel with the SPG till their first location abroad, after which they would send the personnel on a return trip home, preferring their own privacy. They would proceed to destinations of their choice, thereby making themselves susceptible to risks. For instance, if any of the Gandhis was travelling to London, the SPG would escort them till there and thereafter fly back to New Delhi. From London, the family of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi would be on their own, either touring Europe or going to the United States, with Indian missions coordinating with the local police for ensuring their safety.

The SPG was formed in 1985, as a protection unit for the Prime Minister, following the gory assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own security guards. It was set up after the submission of the Birbal Nath committee report, and formalised under an Act in 1988. To begin with, S. Subramaniam became its first director, and sharp shooters from the IPS, as well as other ranks from various state police organisations, paramilitary outfits and the intelligence agencies were inducted into the elite squad. Today, the SPG has more than 3,000 personnel who guard Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi and her son and daughter, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, respectively.

Following the issuance of the new guidelines to the SPG by the Cabinet Secretariat, the Gandhis would be required to submit every minute detail of their travel plans. They have been asked to supply information of their past few tours as well. The direction will also enable the Centre to keep track of their movements while ensuring their protection. Presently, the standard operating procedure is that whenever a protectee arrives in any country, it is the duty of the Indian mission there to coordinate with the local police and other authorities to ensure the security cover. The SPG only provides proximate protection. This arrangement will remain unaltered except that the SPG would have a more noticeable and pronounced role.

The arrangement of the SPG being ever present with their protectee had existed in the past as well, but the financial implications had compelled the then government to review the terms of engagement. When former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh had travelled abroad for medical treatment, remaining there for nearly 90 days, the SPG personnel accompanying him continued to stay with him during that prolonged period. The result being, that the expenditure incurred on the SPG turned out to be more than that spent on the treatment of the former Prime Minister.

The SPG cover given to the former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh was withdrawn towards the end of August though he continues to enjoy enhanced security arrangements. The Gandhis are recipients of this protection since their threat perception is considered very excessive, and after the assassination of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, no government would take the risk of depriving them of this privilege. Senior police officials and security experts had held the view that if the SPG cover had not been withdrawn from Rajiv Gandhi by the V.P. Singh government, he may not have lost his life in the manner in which he did. After his death, a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi had stated that Sonia Gandhi had lost complete faith in the Indian security apparatus and till the SPG was provided to her, she continued to be guarded by private security personnel hired by her well-wishers.

In the past, the SPG has been used to keep surveillance on the protectee. To illustrate the point, when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister, the SPG personnel deployed at 10, Janpath were mostly drawn from the Intelligence Bureau so as to keep tabs on who all were coming to meet her. There could be a repeat of the same show. However, if on a foreign tour, if any of the Gandhis were to have a closed door meeting with someone of their choice, the SPG would not be able to give any kind of information on what had transpired.

The Centre is also considering a proposal, wherein the SPG Act could be once again amended, so as to include only the serving Prime Minister and perhaps the President under its jurisdiction.

To start off with when the SPG was constituted, it had handpicked officers. The original group under Dr S. Subramaniam included Bharat Wanchoo, Vikram Srivastava, Vijay Raman, Ashwani Kumar, R.N. Sawani, R.R.P.N. Sahi, Devendra Singh, M.R. Reddy, T. Madial, Vijay Kumar, R.S. Sharma, Rajiv Mehta, Thakur Singh and Chaman Lal. The fact of the matter is that security requirements have to be constantly and consistently upgraded in accordance with the need of the hour, based on threat perceptions inferred by the intelligence agencies.