India's Feeling Frisky

It isn't the first time that a bigwig, referred to in Indian security parlance as a Very Very Important Person (VVIP), has been bodily searched, kicking off a fuss. And in fact, there are lingering suspicions that a bodily search for a VVIP may be more than just a quest for explosives. It has sometimes been used to cock a country-to-country snook.

Despite protests by Indian security men, Kalam was made to take off his footwear and belt and physically checked in New Delhi before he could embark on his journey. He is regarded as a national hero for developing missiles and other weapons and led India's nuclear weapons tests in 1998. He was named the country's president and held the position until 2007. Nonetheless, he was forced to join millions of travelers including children, cripples and elderly grey-haired ladies who have been forced to do so by bored security personnel ever since the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was tackled on an American Airlines flight in December 2001 for attempting vainly to destroy the craft by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes.

Although Kalam, known for his down-to-earth demeanor, went through the security process without much ado, an uproar followed in India's Parliament, including demands that the American carrier be banned from flying into the country. India's civil aviation minister called on the prime minister to brief him while a police report was lodged to investigate the matter. Demands have been made that in response to such overbearing behavior by an American carrier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to India, should be put through security checks.

In the past, New Delhi reacted angrily to then-federal defense minister George Fernandes being searched (he had to take off his shoes and socks) by US security officials in a post-September 11, 2001, security check. Fernandes, known for his anti-US tirades, was apparently "disrobed", according to former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, not once but twice. Talbott, in a book chronicling the events, says Fernandes was angered by the incidents.

Last year, New Delhi took offense when Russian security officials insisted on searching Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was on a visit to the country. In Mukherjee's case, it appeared that Moscow wanted to convey its unhappiness with New Delhi's newfound bonhomie with the US that translated into more defense deals and the civilian nuclear pact. A feel-up was considered one way of conveying the irritation as Moscow does know a bit about Indian politicians' aversion to being body searched.

There have been plenty of domestic affronts to the thin-skinned as well. In the recent past, an offended junior minister Anand Sharma created a furor by arguing with officials at the New Delhi airport and eventually got the rule book changed to exclude him from being searched for bombs.

Somnath Chatterjee, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of India's Parliament, is also known to be particularly squeamish about being searched by airport security officials. He cancelled a trip to London, to follow up on a similar instance in 2005 to Sydney, even as frenzied diplomatic efforts by the Indian High Commission for an exemption failed.

The British Foreign office was clear about international security guidelines that "only Heads of States are exempted." However, Chatterjee was equally adamant, explaining that he cancelled the trip "because it involves the honor of the constitutional office".

In 2005 Chatterjee canceled his visit to Australia following a verbal war of words in the media. He also has had big problems with his wife being required to walk through a scanner while traveling within India.

Most ordinary citizens know about the rigors of security checks, including a physical rub-down, in times when terrorism is at an ugliest. However, some seek to be above this process, given its perceived damage to their importance and image.

Even as foreign security drills are more difficult to tamper with, the list of those eligible to forgo domestic airport checks has been drastically amended to suit individual interests in the game of political patronage, where outward show of power matters a bit.

In the 1980s, there were only five exemptions: president, vice president, prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme Court, speaker of the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) and state governors. Today it includes cabinet ministers, ministers of state, bureaucrats and sundry others with access to the powers-that-be.

Yet, there was some sympathy late last year when it came to the fore that India's military chiefs are by statute required to be frisked at domestic airports. This was considered a reflection of the unflattering status of the defense forces in India's civilian democratic setup, unlike in a country such as Pakistan.

On paper, the heads of the three armed forces, navy, air force and army, were supposed to be treated like civilians and required to be searched by security personnel before they could board a passenger flight despite the fact that the service chiefs are otherwise responsible for the security of the nation, protect the borders against incursions, command the second-largest army in the world and its sophisticated arsenal.

While nobody argues for the overbearing primacy of the military in civil society, what pinched was the list of exemptions that had been granted.

It was an irony that a private businessman, Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, and husband of Priyanka Gandhi, was exempt, as were some senior bureaucrats outranked by the service chiefs.

Following a bit of media furor, defense minister A K Antony took up the matter with the federal civil aviation ministry at the behest of the three service chiefs who had previously written a letter requesting an exemption.

Initially, the aviation ministry refused Antony's proposal, reasoning that other authorities, mostly civil servants who head ministries and are referred to as secretaries, would voice similar demands. The list now stands amended and the generals do not have to line up even if on paper.

The near obsession about freedom from airport frisking, however, is just at the tip of the exemptions and perks that are sought by India's power holders who still carry a colonial mindset and see themselves as above the law for the common rabble.

One hot tag is threat perception, especially from known terror groups such as al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Toiba. The highest Z-plus category accompanies the star label, VVIP. There is always a rush of supposedly important people wanting to include themselves in a higher risk category that entitles them to personal commandos (referred to as Black Cats due their attire and skill) and escort vehicles. The commandos mostly function as bouncers fending off private citizens, while the red-beacon, siren-fitted escort vehicles specialize in jumping traffic lights and shooing away nearby vehicles. Anybody driving in Delhi can vouch for this nuisance done in the name of ``security.''

Another sought after perquisite is allotments at the prime New Delhi bungalow area which are always very reluctantly vacated. If a minister or political leader dies, families insist (taking even legal recourse) on converting the accommodation into a memorial or museum, while continuing to occupy the same. Former Members of Parliament, ministers, retired officials have had to be physically evicted along with belongings. Bureaucrats are in a constant wrangle for dual postings to retain official apartments in the national capital.

Indeed, this power list can go on. But not being patted down remains a high priority. Even if a humble Kalam did not mind, there are others who do.

It is a question of high prestige, after all.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com