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Security at India’s Parliament makes that at White House a joke

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, July 31, 2014    

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DELHI, India — If you think that security is tight at the White House, home of the United States President, then a trip to the Asian country of India's capital city of Delhi to see where its parliamentarians meet would change one's mind almost immediately.

Security officials will justify that there is good reason for the nation's operatives to close-mark their legislators like vigilant defenders on a football field as there have been attacks on them over the years, some of which have resulted in death.

Delhi's Parliament building, an amazingly attractive structure located in the heart of the sprawling city of 15 million inhabitants, houses members elected by the people of the country, and comprises many of diverse religious persuasions.

Before a visitor enters the main Parliament building, he is subjected to three security checks, all manned by people with smiling faces, which remain so as long as there is cooperation from those being searched.

A museum of the Parliament, projecting, among other things, the images of the forefathers of Indian politics, reliving meetings of Parliament held several years before those conducting the tour were even a thought to their parents, and memorabilia depicting how parliamentarians in years gone by operated, whetted the appetite of visitors lowering their tongues in anticipation of a sumptuous feast of Indian political culture.

Upon entering the vast structure of the parliament building, a further seven security checks are done before visual access can be gained to legislators in the public gallery, and viewing time is limited.

"This is what you call real security, and I had to come to India to see this," said Fijian journalist Avinesh Anand Gopal, who, along with 14 other scribes from eight developing countries, participated in a familiarisation visit to that and other places of interest.

At the time of the visit by journalists, the 543-member House of the People, or the Lower House, was in session, with Members of Parliament vigorously and with deep animation, making their presentations on topical issues.

The Upper House comprising the 245 chosen from the 28 states of India, including 12 for people like authors, writers and social workers did not have a sitting that day.

The tightness of the security kept the visitors marvelling.

It was made clear even before the first of the multiple checkpoints was negotiated, that items like cameras and tape recorders, valuable tools used by journalists, would not be allowed inside.

Articles like wallets containing money, thumb drives, chapsticks used to moisten lips, credit cards, and health cards, were also arrested and held in custody until the visitor completed his trip.

"Even these things you can't go inside with," said Jean Paul Arouff of Mauritius. "Wow, this is really tight security," he added.

By the time the visitors got inside the session of Parliament, the public gallery was being monitored from afar by well-appointed, exceedingly beautiful Indian women, one of the many bright sparks of this populous country. Journalists were told that they had a connection to the police force.

The women did not smile, and no one dared to question them if they indicated where you should sit if told to occupy a certain chair.

In all of the animation downstairs by Members of Parliament anxious to massage their supporters with words in Hindi that they hope would reach the desired target, it was time for certain people to leave the gallery. Due to the high demand for people to view sittings of Parliament, security officials had to resort to people taking turns, so it would take longer to get into the visitors' gallery than remaining there when one finally gets in.

"I didn't like how it ended, we didn't stay long enough," one journalist said afterwards.

However, the sense of security had almost everyone convinced that it was a necessary ingredient in India's defence food stock of survival.

"Terrorism remains an important concern for India," said Indian defence expert Rumel Dahiya of the Institute for Defence Studies and Alalyses, in commenting on the country's state of security a day after the visit to the Parliament.

"When Parliament was attacked some years ago, it was a huge blow to India, and the public was upset that the most democratic institution in the heart of the capital could be attacked.

"Only certain types of vehicles can go into some areas of the Parliament ground and lots of security measures are in place. In the name of stopping one or two terrorists, the majority has been affected, but it is something that is necessary," Dahiya said.

As for the Parliament itself, it meets on average 92 times per year in its five-year life. Members of Parliament are not allowed to cross the floor and represent another rival party, as obtains in other Commonwealth states like Jamaica, unless that MP is going into a merger.

For journalists covering the proceedings, there are over 600 of them accredited annually, but the press gallery can accommodate only 123, determined on a first come, first served basis.

Accreditation is determined by the size of the media organisation. In the case of a newspaper, it is its circulation that is the decider. The Times of India, the country's largest newspaper and one of the top sellers among world tabloids and broadsheets worldwide with over two million copies sold daily, gets five accredited journalists to cover the proceedings.

"The media is absolutely unhindered in covering Parliament," said Keshav Vijayakrishnan of India's Lower House Secretariat.

"However, we have thousands of media in India, so all cannot be accommodated at once to cover the Parliament. So a committee comprising senior journalists selects or approves the journalists who will cover Parliament. It is the oldest committee and was started in 1921, long before India became independent in 1947.

"This is not a committee of Parliament, and has no political influence in its selection. The committee also tries to be fair and transparent in how it accredits journalists," Vijayakrishnan said.

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