Despite a security breach, India's Parliament belongs to its people

An investigation is necessary, but the decision to bar ordinary citizens from visiting the legislature should be swiftly revoked

Indian security personnel and Delhi police check people and vehicles heading towards the Parliament House in New Delhi on Wednesday. EPA
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Cruel irony came knocking on the Indian Parliament’s door, not once but twice, on Wednesday.

Exactly 22 years to the day since a deadly attack on the old Parliament premises in New Delhi, two people jumped from the visitors’ gallery of the newly inaugurated building right next door into the well of the lower house, and pulled out canisters emitting yellow smoke. Moments after it was established that no one was harmed, and five people were arrested, Speaker Om Birla barred visitors for the foreseeable future.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that there was a security lapse inside the country’s highest legislature on the anniversary of the worst attack against it, this was swiftly followed by the decision made by its custodians to bar the “demos” from accessing the so-called temple of democracy. The ban, it is hoped, will be revoked as soon as possible.

Wednesday’s incident is in no way comparable to the attack that took place on December 13, 2001, which left 14 people dead – eight security personnel, one gardener and the five gunmen who entered the premises with fake passes. After years-long investigations, the Indian state named Pakistan-based terrorist outfits Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba responsible for the attack and in 2013 hanged an Indian man for his involvement in the operation.

Yet a full two decades after the assault, not enough lessons have been learnt.

The solution to protect government buildings isn’t to shut them off from the citizens

Just as it is the state’s responsibility to keep its citizens safe and secure, so it is to shield public servants and their offices from attacks. This is particularly true for a country like India, which has lost two of its prime ministers to assassinations, including one in harness, and whose state faces sometimes violent troubles from across the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

Throughout the world, from the 19th century onwards, there have been at least 70 assaults reported on national legislatures, the most documented among them being the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riot and the one on the Brazilian Congress on January 8 of this year.

What these incidents, including the one that occurred on Wednesday, remind us is of the need for authorities all over the world to maintain what is a difficult balance – between securing the premises of public servants and bureaucrats so that they can work without worrying about their safety and allowing ordinary people free access to government buildings. This is important, not just so that citizens can get work done where there is the opportunity for it, but also for them to be able to witness for themselves how the government of the day discharges its duties – in theory, the noblest of causes.

It is a fact that any attack on a parliament or any other government building is an attack on the system or the state that runs that country. And often any rioting that takes place inside or outside these hallowed premises stems from this notion that the state somehow isn’t working for the people – and that it needs to be taken over through an insurrection.

The Indian Express newspaper reported some MPs as saying that the intruders were chanting slogans such as: “Tana shahi nahi chalegi [dictatorship won’t be accepted].”

But the solution to protect these buildings and the people inside them isn’t to shut them off from the citizens – for that would only serve to exacerbate whatever perceived distance there might be between the public and its servants.

It is possible for security to be tightened around all of India’s government buildings while at the same time allowing for its citizens – the very people who have voted this government and others to power – to enter their premises so that they can see governance, and indeed democracy, in action.

Wednesday’s incident is unfortunate, and it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. What it calls for is a thorough investigation into the matter followed by the enforcement of a better system to keep the country’s parliamentarians safe and secure.

And once the dust settles, Mr Birla must be convinced to throw the Parliament’s door open once again for the well-meaning citizens of the country to witness the debates and discussions that, after all, shape their very own lives.

Published: December 13, 2023, 2:37 PM