Two decades since the 'Black Cats' " National Security Guard (NSG) commandos " were enlisted for VIP protection duties, the Centre on Monday decided to completely withdraw the elite counter-terror force from the task, and direct the personnel into the counter-terrorism and anti-hijack operations the force had been originally conceptualised to tackle.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is of the view that the NSG commandos should concentrate on its original charter of handling specific tasks of counter-terrorism and anti-hijack operations and that the task of securing high-risk VIPs was proving to be a "burden" on its limited and special capabilities, PTI reported.
"The NSG needs to go back to its original mandate of counter-terror and anti-hijack. That is the reason behind the latest move," a senior official in the security establishment said. The removal of VIP security duties from the NSG will result in freeing about 450 commandos, who will be used to enhance the fighting components of the force that is spread across five hubs in the country and the main garrison in Gurugram near New Delhi.
The force currently provides proximate and mobile security cover under the 'Z+' security to 13 'high-risk' VIPs, which entails about two dozen personnel for each of them.
The move to remove the NSG commandos from VIP protection comes a few months after the SPG (Special Protection Group) cover was withdrawn from the Gandhi family and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, among others. The NSG protectees currently include Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Uttar Pradesh and Assam chief ministers Yogi Adityanath and Sarbananda Sonowal, former chief ministers Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, Prakash Singh Badal, Farooq Abdullah, and former deputy prime minister LK Advani.
As per a plan being worked out, the security of the VIPs under NSG cover could be handed over to paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which already provide security to about 130 prominent persons jointly.
The CRPF was handed over the security of the five ex-SPG protectees: Singh and his wife, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and her children Priyanka and Rahul. On 9 January, the Centre also withdrew the VIP security of Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister O Paneerselvam and DMK chief MK Stalin, The New Indian Express reported.
Who are the Black Cats?
One of the NSG's most memorable operations is 'Operation Black Tornado', when personnel were deployed in the wake of a massive terror attack on several iconic locations in Mumbai on 26 November, 2008. NSG commandos stormed the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Oberoi Trident hotel, and the Nariman House and in coordination with personnel of other forces, killed all nine terrorists who had laid siege on the sites by the morning of 29 November.
Set up 1984, the National Security Guard is a 'Federal Contingency Deployment Force' with the aim to tackle all facets of terrorism in the country. According to the official website, the force is intended to be deployed only in exceptional situations, and not meant to take over the "functions of the State Police Forces or other Para Military Forces".
Counter-terrorism, counter-hijacking, bomb disposal, post-blast investigation, and hostage rescue situations are some of the tasks the NSG is trained to carry out.
While discussion over whether the force should be relieved of its VIP protection duties has been on the table since 2012, when officers foresaw an event where simultaneous terror attacks could be witnessed at one time on multiple centres in the country and the commandos will have to be rushed in different directions.
"The 26/11 Mumbai attack involved some 400 NSG commandos over three days. Considering we have multiple terror hits at one go, NSG needs to have a good number of fighting commandos and some in the strike reserves to replace them," a senior official had then said.
After a major security review by the Modi 2.0 government in July last year, 1,300 commandos had been freed as the Centre removed or scaled down the security cover of as many as 350 politicians and former and present lawmakers.
"In the review it was seen that many dignitaries were being given security from two ends and due to which large manpower was being wasted so the security of some was pruned and some was modified," an MHA official was quoted as saying by NDTV.
After the review, the Centre directed that most of the VIPs being accorded the high-level security should be given cover by the state's police, the report added.
Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Yadav, former BJP MPs Kirti Azad and Shatrughan Sinha, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, the grandchildren of former president Pranab Mukherjee, the daughter and grandson of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, RSS leader Indresh Kumar, Union Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Uttar Pradesh deputy chief minister Dinesh Sharma, Uttar Pradesh ministers Suresh Rana and Brajesh Pathak, Vaishali MP Veena Devi (LJP), former MP Uday Singh, BJP leader Anupam Hazra, former scientific adviser R Chidambaram, and Congress leader Deepender Hooda, BJP Rajya Sabha lawmaker OP Mathur, Congress leader Acharya Pramod Krishnam, former BJP MP Udit Raj and BJP's Etawah MP Ram Shankar Katheria were among the VIPs who lost Central security cover after the review in July 2019, NDTV reported.
The decision was cemented after the 2016 Pathankot terrorist attack on the forward IAF base in Punjab, in which at least six security personnel were killed.
Why is this move necessary?
Apart from insulating the elite force from the push and pull of politics and being a symbol of prestige regardless of the threat perception, the move to withdraw the Black Cats from the duties of personal protection also makes space for the force to focus and strengthen the chinks in its armour.
In December last year, The Tribune had reported that even though the deployment of NSG teams was increasing, the force was without a "dedicated" range for training snipers, which is a "critical component of any special force".
While the deployment of the NSG teams for immediate backup support was 47 teams in 2018, including alongside the Indian Army and the local police in Jammu and Kashmir, there was no appropriate infrastructure for the specialised training.
"Adequate training infrastructure is available with NSG for special training except a dedicated sniper range. Ad hoc arrangements are in place to undertake sniper firing," the report quoted an MHA statement as saying.
"Given the NSG's mandate of counter-terrorist operations in urban areas, hostage rescue and neutralisation of high-value targets, snipers are a very important element of its strike component," The Tribune said.
In July 2019, the Mumbai unit of the NSG was equipped with an indoor shooting range, The Times of India reported. The 50-metre range, with six lanes, "offers automated multi-function targets for advanced combat practice". An official of the NSG was quoted as saying, "The main role of the group includes counter-terror operations in congested urban environments at close proximity."
With inputs from agencies