The Punjab administration must be held to account for the multiple lapses that have occurred.

The events which unfolded on the morning of 5 January 2022, over a period of five hours, are indeed very troubling. India’s Prime Minister was on an official visit to Punjab where he was to pay homage at the National Martyrs Memorial at Hussainiwala and thereafter lay the foundation stone for the PGIMER’s satellite centre in Ferozepur along with some other projects. Later in the day he was to address an election rally. The Prime Minister landed at the Bhatinda Air Force base at 10.30 am, but could not move by helicopter to Hussainiwala due to bad weather. Prime Minister Modi thereafter decided to continue the journey by road via the Faridkot-Moga Highway, a distance of 120 km, which takes about two hours.
Leaving Bhatinda at 10.50 am, the PM’s cavalcade proceeded smoothly without incident for over a 100 kilometres, when a large group of protesters, squatting on the flyover near Piareana village in Ferozepur district prevented them from going any further. The time was 1.40 pm and after waiting for about 20 minutes on the road, the Prime Minister’s convoy turned around and headed back for Bhatinda at 2 pm, reaching the Air Force base at 3.20 pm. The Prime Minister thereafter left by air and returned to Delhi.
What is shocking about this whole sordid affair is the total apathy and incompetence displayed by the Punjab government and its administration. The Punjab Chief Minister, Mr C.S. Channi, attempted to wash his hands of the affair, when he told the media that his government had no intimation that the Prime Minister would move by road. In the same interview, he contradicted himself saying that he worked till 3 am in the night, convincing farmers to clear all routes! Was Mr Channi really so naive or was he simply incompetent? Or worse still, was he complicit in what transpired? There are well laid down drills whenever a VIP movement by helicopter takes place and one of them is to cater for bad weather. A road convoy is always kept at stand by, to enable move by road should the weather not permit move by helicopter. This was known to all in the Punjab administration, which was why the road move had been catered for earlier, as part of contingency planning.
The lackadaisical attitude displayed by the civil administration and the Punjab police is equally baffling and suggests utter indifference and total incompetence. Why was the route not sanitised and picketed? This should have been done as part of contingency planning, even if the Prime Minister was moving by helicopter. But there are two more breaches which defy comprehension. Was the administration not aware of what the protesters were up to? And how did the protesters come to know that the Prime Minister was moving by road? The first implies intelligence failure and the second a security breach, wherein someone in the know, informed the protesters of the Prime Minster’s move to include the route and time plan. Both these aspects need to be thoroughly investigated.
It is also surprising that protocol was not followed when the Prime Minister landed in Bhatinda. As per protocol, when the Prime Minister visits a town outside the state capital, the Chief Minister or a minister nominated by the state government must be present to receive the Prime Minister. The two senior most executives and police officers of the district must also be present to receive the Prime Minister. In this case, anticipating the possibility of a road move, there should have been a senior police officer present to accompany the Prime Minister’s cavalcade to Ferozepur. It was his duty to see that the road was clear for the Prime Minster’s move and he should have moved ahead of the Prime Minster’s cavalcade. The SPG Act empowers the Director SPG to issue directives on all authorities to assist him in providing fool-proof security to the PM. It was thus the responsibility of the Punjab administration to have ensured that the route taken by the Prime Minister was clear.
The Prime Minister of India was stranded on the middle of a highway for about 20 minutes, with 200 odd protesters blocking his route. Anything could have happened, for even the public moving on the road below, knew the Prime Minister’s cavalcade had stopped. And if Khalistani groups were also involved, then, as they are in cahoots with Pakistan’s ISI, the possibility of a drone attack on India’s Prime Minister, on the lines of what happened in the Air Force Base in Jammu was also a possibility. The Punjab administration must be held to account for the multiple lapses that have occurred, for it was not just the Prime Minister who was exposed to unnecessary risk, but the entire edifice of India’s democracy.
What is needed is a quick investigation into the lapses that occurred and holding to account, all those who compromised the security of the Prime Minister. In the charged security environment in which we are at present, only quick and firm action will send the right signals, both to India’s external enemies as also to those who continuously undermine India’s security from within.
The author is a retired Major General and is presently Director, India Foundation.