Sunday, May 5, 2019

Why I Searched Rajiv Gandhi's Aircraft in February 1985

Mohammed Mohsin was suspended, allegedly for checking Prime Minister Narendra Modi's helicopter during election duty. His fate is in contrast to former UP DGP A.L. Banerjee, who recounts the day he conducted a similar search. Why I Searched Rajiv Gandhi's Aircraft in February 1985
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Credit: INC

A.L. Banerjee

Last month, the Election Commission suspended an officer, deputed as a general observer in Odisha, for allegedly checking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s helicopter in Sambalpur. The commission argued Mohammed Mohsin, a 1996-batch Karnataka cadre IAS officer, had violated the EC’s instructions concerning Special Protection Group (SPG) protectees.

The EC was responding to a ground report sent by the district collector and the deputy inspector general of police.

The Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) later stayed the EC’s suspension order. The EC revoked the suspension and recommended disciplinary action against him.

Mohsin’s fate is in marked contrast to other government officials who have subjected VVIP aircraft to a physical search during the elections. In February 1985, A.L. Banerjee, then a superintendent of police (SP) for Gorakhpur Rural in Uttar Pradesh, had occasion to search the aircraft the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was using to campaign for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

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Banerjee eventually retired as UP’s director general of police. In a first person account, he describes what happened that day.


In 1985, elections to several state assemblies took place in February and March. They were preceded by Lok Sabha elections in December 1984, called ahead of schedule because of the assassination of Mrs Gandhi.

That year, I was posted as superintendent of police in Gorakhpur Rural, a place that had earned the epithet “wild west” from the BBC. I had served barely five years, including training. Gorakhpur was then a large district and sent three MPs to the Lok Sabha and had 15 MLAs.

The management and conduct of the police force for a massive exercise such as the Lok Sabha elections was a learning experience. It also helped that in 1982, I oversaw the management of the gram sabha elections. The management of assembly elections, from a police/security angle, was therefore, not new to me.

During the Lok Sabha elections of December 1984, I learnt to manage personnel, maintain law and order, routine duties for VIP visits and other election-related work. But I had not been exposed to a VVIP visit from the prime minister. This is managed on a scale and setup entirely different from a VIP visit. As luck would have it, the PM scheduled a visit to Gorakhpur for the assembly elections.

During an election schedule, visits of various dignitaries are categorised according to priority. The highest importance is always given to the prime minister’s visit. Elaborate security protocols, liaison visits, a rehearsal, briefings and checks for explosives or inimical persons are undertaken in detail.

Each officer has a specific task and is held responsible for its smooth conduct. The entire procedure is outlined in a ‘blue book’. After the creation of the SPG, specifically for the PM’s security, things were more elaborate.

With Indira Gandhi’s assassination still on everybody’s minds, the protocol, procedure and checks for the PM’s duty were in a heightened state. The local police is not responsible for the proximate security of the PM. The route, perimeter, vehicles and the second and subsequent cordons are within the ambit of the state police.

The PM was scheduled to land in early February at primarily an Air Force station, with a single daily commercial flight. From here, Rajiv Gandhi was to fly in a helicopter to Basti and address a meeting before returning to Gorakhpur. He would then leave to Jaipur.

In the charter of duties, I was made in-charge of the Gorakhpur air field. This meant securing the perimeter and the airfield, ensuring there is no untoward access to the base and see that the flight is properly guarded. My duties also included checking all vehicles to ensure safety within my jurisdiction.

I spent a whole day scanning the area, assigning duties that had been worked out in coordination with the Intelligence Bureau, the State Special Branch, the local police and administration. A day before, a full dress rehearsal was held and the lacunae were sorted out.

On February 11, PM Rajiv Gandhi landed and took off by helicopter for Basti.

I was now the senior-most officer left at the airport. I went around the perimeter again, checked all the vehicles and then came back to the tarmac. Five policemen were guarding the plane with rifles. An Air Force officer too was with me, for purposes of liaison, as it was an airbase and the Boeing flight was being piloted by the Air Force.

It then struck me that I had not checked the plane. I asked the Air Force officer to accompany me while I check the VVIP plane. He was not sure, so he went to the office and asked the station commander. The commander gave us the go ahead. I went underneath it and had a good look. I did not see anything amiss.

Then, along with the Air Force officer, I entered the flight, going from cockpit to tail. It was a differently partitioned Boeing with a cabin, a press area and seating area. In the cabin was a large chair for the PM. I sat on it to feel what it was like. Nothing seemed out of place inside too.

The inspection over, we returned to the tarmac.

The PM left in the evening in a plane duly checked by the local police.—The Wire

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