Kangana Ranaut strutting out of Mumbai airport surrounded by commandos last week stood in stark contrast with fellow Bollywood actor Rhea Chakraborty wading through a mob of photographers and camera crew outside the Narcotics Control Bureau where she had been summoned for questioning.
While the former got Y plus-category security, a posse of 11 CRPF commandos from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) because her intemperate utterances could lead to a backlash in Mumbai, the latter was not even given an escort and left to deal with the pack of paparazzi wolves, not to speak of a frenzied public fed on rumour and innuendo.
Given the hate swirling in social media and her vilification day after day on prime time, there is every chance that Rhea and her family could come to harm. In fact, she has requested Mumbai Police for protection. After all, a retired Naval officer was beaten up last week by Shiv Sainiks for a much lesser 'crime’; forwarding a harmless cartoon of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
Actor Swara Bhaskar too is in the same boat as Kangana and Rhea because of the abuse and threats that she receives over her anti-establishment tweets. However, she has refused to seek police protection, saying that she’d rather see the money being spent in areas that require it. Not that the protection branch of the Mumbai police, which has 1,500 men, or the MHA are keen to offer protection to her or to Rhea.
On the other hand, TV anchor Arnab Goswami, one of those leading the witch-hunt against Rhea, enjoys the same security status as Kangana since 2016 because of the perceived threat to his life from Pakistani terror groups.
Another puzzling protectee is Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee News who was given X-category security (two bodyguards) in 2015. It is remarkable how the TV anchor went from being an accused in an extortion case to a protected person with the change in government.
Then there are Sangeet Som, BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh, accused of inciting riots in Muzaffarnagar, and yoga guru Ramdev Baba, with Z category security (22 guards).
What does this say about who gets police protection in India? That it depends not as much on the merits of the case as on the politics of the case. That it depends on who you are rather than what you are.
Just about anyone with a little bit of clout can manage to get police protection as a status symbol. In 2016, Mumbai Police pruned the list of 40 Bollywood personalities provided protection by half.
However, doing the same with politicians, especially of the ruling party, is another thing. Police insiders say there was a time when more than 2,000 cops in Mumbai were functioning as bodyguards without the necessary sanction. On the records of the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), Maharashtra had 74 protected persons guarded by 961 policemen in 2016-'17. One of them is Mukesh Ambani, who enjoys Z cover at just Rs 15 lakh a month.
The most coveted posting is a minister’s bodyguard. These bodyguards at times start functioning like fixers or as conduits for bribes. Earlier this year, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had one of the constables in his security detail removed after he was exposed threatening a complainant in a case against a senior police officer.
Of course, the protectees also throw their weight around and misuse their security. The redoubtable K P S Gill allegedly did it to outmaneuver rivals to become the hockey boss and on one occasion, even had to apologise when his bodyguards beat up two sports journalists for asking questions. Even judicial officers are not above it; one such person is known to have used his Z security during a visit to his village to intimidate someone with whom he had a land dispute.
VIP security also takes up a lot of manpower. According to a 2012 report of the BPRD, 47,557 personnel were protecting 14,842 VIPs across the country.
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, in the Z+, category was protected by 180 policemen, the strength of a small-sized Mumbai police station. His security was sought to be reduced but the move was dropped after strong opposition from the Sena.
Only if General (retd) Arun Kumar Vaidya had been provided with a fraction of the security VIPs get; a lone bodyguard in the retired general’s car was of no use when bike-borne Sikh terrorists pumped three bullets into him in revenge for Operation Bluestar. This, two years after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own security guards.
The cops who are so subservient to the powerful – even to gangsters like Vikas Yadav – are contemptuous of the common man seeking protection from the local goon, the mafia of any kind, the khap panchayat, the builder or the local politician.
No wonder, even street hooligans in a city like Mumbai have no fear of the law, as was evident from the murders of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez in an eve-teasing case.
Our system can not only be cruel to the common man, it has a special talent for neutralising those furthering his cause; journalists, RTI activists, whistle-blowers, labour leaders or for that matter, anyone who speaks the inconvenient truth.
Who can forget Shankar Guha Niyogi, who organised the iron ore miners of Chhattisgarh and was shot dead in his sleep by a hired gun?
Who can forget Satyendra Dubey, the project engineer with the National Highways Authority of India, shot dead for exposing corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral project in Bihar?
Who can forget Satish Shetty, who used RTI to expose a massive land scam along the Mumbai-Pune expressway and was knifed to death on his morning walk?
Who can forget rationalist Dr Narayan Dabholkar, gunned down, again on his morning walk? Was the police unaware of the threat to their lives? Why were some of them denied protection?
The National Crime Records Bureau lists as many as 204 attacks on mediapersons between 2014 and 2017. The most horrific case was that of Jagendra Singh of Shahjahanpur, who sought police protection against then Uttar Pradesh minister Rammurti Singh Verma, but was set on fire by policemen and criminals.
Lest you presume such things happen only in the cow belt, the Gauri Lankesh case in Bengaluru and the Sterlite protest firing in Thoothukudi will remove any misconception.
However, from 2014 onwards, there has been an effort to scale down security provided to VIPs, ministers, MPs, MLAs, judges, bureaucrats, and private individuals. The security of the Gandhi family and of Manmohan Singh have been downgraded from the top-level SPG cover to Z+ while Congress leaders Manish Tewari and Salman Khurshid have lost their security cover.
Prodded by the high court in 2017, Maharashtra modified the 17-year-old rules for providing police protection to private citizens, clarifying that it should not be considered a commodity, which can be purchased, or a service, which can be availed of by payment of charges. The only relevant factor would be the actual and factual threat to the life of the person, says the government resolution.
However, if the Kanganas, Arnabs, Sangeet Soms and Ramdev Babas keep getting security, the inescapable inference is that the X, Y, Z of security is the A, B, C of politics.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.