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TERROR IN PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Print edition : Dec 22, 2002

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As the nation watched in stunned disbelief, a five-member suicide squad targets Parliament, taking the government by shock and greatly increasing the tensions in the subcontinent.

DECEMBER 13 will go down in history as the day on which a principal edifice of Indian democracy came face to face with terrorism. On that day, a group of gun- and grenade-wielding terrorists who stormed the seemingly impregnable Parliament House premises, were stopped dead in their tracks by security men as the nation watched in disbelief what looked like the climax of a spine-chilling crime thriller.

The incident exposed glaring lapses in the security system. Despite intelligence inputs pointing to the possibility of such attacks, no precautionary measures had been taken to keep a close watch on movements in the highly fortified area in the heart of the national capital. The extent of negligence becomes clear from the fact that a car sporting a Home Ministry label and a red beacon light atop and packed with 30 kg of RDX (Research Department Explosive) and bagfuls of hand grenades got inside the complex, breaching the first layer of security. It was only the lightning reflexes of personnel in the next two layers that prevented a catastrophe.

During the battle with terrorists at Parliament House complex, commandos and police personnel.

On December 13, as in the preceding three days, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned around 11-20 a.m. following the Opposition's protest demanding Defence Minister George Fernandes' resignation over the "coffin scandal". The members had either left the premises or were in the Central Hall or the library. At about 11-40 a.m. the apparent calm was broken by a loud blast, which was followed by a spatter of gunfire.

Initially people in the complex thought that it was the sound of crackers bursting in the vicinity of the Parliament House or of a car engine misfiring. But when they realised that it was a terrorist attack, all hell broke loose. While the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel posted inside the Parliament complex ran to take up positions simultaneously returning the fire, the watch and ward staff hastily herded everyone inside to safety, bodily lifting some Members of Parliament who tried to peep out. All the doors of the Parliament House were closed with lightning speed as J.P. Yadav, a member of the watch and ward staff posted at Gate Number 11, alerted his colleagues inside.

Outside, a pitched battle was on between the five desperate terrorists and the security forces. There was a continuous exchange of fire for about 30 minutes. The terrorists fired from their AK-47 guns and indiscriminately lobbed grenades that they were carrying in shoulder bags.

According to eyewitnesses, a white Ambassador car with a Home Ministry label and a Parliament entry pass entered the complex at a great speed, red light flashing, from the main entrance on Parliament Street. It sped straight towards Gate No. 12, the entrance to the Rajya Sabha. (The pass actually had slogans against Vajpayee and abuses against Advani scribbled on it.) The Prime Minister was expected to come to the Rajya Sabha that day. His arrival, however, had been cancelled because of the adjournment of the House.

According to security personnel in Parliament, the car grazed Vice-President Krishan Kant's pilot car, which was parked in front of Gate No. 11. The Vice-President was to leave the premises in a few moments. The driver of the pilot car stopped the Ambassador and shouted at the driver, protesting against the rash driving. The latter told him that he would be killed if he did not move away.

The commotion had already attracted the attention of the watch and ward staff. J.P. Yadav ran towards the Ambassador car from Gate No. 11. Those who were in the car panicked and tried to drive off at a great speed towards Gate No. 9, which the Prime Minister uses when he comes to the Rajya Sabha. The car, however, swerved off the road and into the sandy sidewalk.

Kamlesh Kumari, a CRPF constable posted at Gate No.11, also ran towards the car, shouting at the driver to stop. The occupants of the car abandoned it and tried to run towards Gate No. 9. They had started firing by now. Yadav and Kamlesh were felled by bullets and their bodies lay in front of Gate No. 11. The CRPF personnel posted in that area started firing, and three of the terrorists were injured. The injured terrorists, who clambered atop a wall to cross over to Gate No.9, were killed by the time they reached the gate. Their bodies lay close to one another near the gate.

Of the remaining two terrorists, one ran towards Gate No.5, which is used by the Prime Minister when he comes to the Lok Sabha. Another ran towards Gate No. 1, the main entrance to Parliament, which is used by Ministers, MPs, journalists and visitors. According to eyewitnesses, the terrorist running towards Gate No.5 was laughing as he kept firing and lobbing grenades all around. Even after being hit by bullets he kept firing, until he collapsed on the steps near Gate No.5.

A member of the watch and ward staff, who witnessed the incident from close range, told Frontline that the terrorist shouted before collapsing: "Hamara mission poora hua, Pakistan zindabad" (Our mission has been accomplished, long live Pakistan). His accomplice, who was running towards Gate No.1, which had been closed by then, was hit by a bullet from behind. The bullet apparently hit the explosives-strapped belt that he was wearing; the explosives went off on the stairs of the main porch. The lower part of his body was blown to pieces and his right arm was severed. Though the place was cleaned up by the time Parliament assembled the next day, pieces of flesh were sticking to the walls and the roof, which also had on them patches of dry blood and the black marks and holes left by grenades and bullets.

Although the firing stopped after about 30 minutes, the grenades flung by the terrorists in all directions kept exploding for the next half an hour or so. By this time the complex had been cordoned off, the gates closed and the adjoining roads blocked.

Around 3 p.m., the evacuation process began under the supervision of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan. There were over 200 MPs inside Parliament. Among others inside the complex were Vice-President Krishan Kant, Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha Najma Heptullah, and a large number of Ministers including Home Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Law Minister Arun Jaitley and Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj. Congress president Sonia Gandhi had left the premises after the House was adjourned. A large number of journalists and visitors too were present inside the complex. First the MPs were evacuated, followed by Ministers, journalists and the Parliament staff.

The Parliament House premises resembled a scene of riots, with blood splattered all over, pools of blood in front of the main gate and Gate Nos.5 and 9, pieces of limbs and flesh strewn around. The red stones of the mammoth building had chipped off at various places under the impact of bullets and grenades. The bodies of the terrorists were not removed until late evening. They were suspected to have explosives strapped to their bodies. The car used by them, which lay in front of Gate No.11, contained apart from RDX, detonators, mobile phones, a number of cash cards and dry fruits.

Seven other persons - five members of security forces, one member of the Parliament watch and ward staff and a gardener who was watering plants near Gate No.11 - were killed. Eighteen people, mostly security personnel, were injured. Soon after the incident, National Security Guard commandos and personnel of the Rajputana Rifles arrived. The Army took charge and the Parliament House looked like a fortress. The Army was also deployed at major locations in the city, including around the Prime Minister's residence at 7 Race Course Road and Sonia Gandhi's residence at 10 Janpath.

The government, taken aback initially, recovered swiftly enough. The Prime Minister addressed the nation at 3 p.m. He declared that the attack on Parliament was a challenge to the nation and the nation accepted the challenge. "Now the battle against terrorism has reached a decisive moment. This is going to be a fight to the finish," he announced.

Soon afterwards, the Cabinet Committee on Security met. This was followed by a meeting of the full Cabinet. Briefing mediapersons after the meeting, Advani said the government had come across certain leads, which he hoped would help unearth the conspiracy behind the attack. Although he said that no group had claimed responsibility for the attack, the government seemed to know who was behind it. He admitted that "there were intelligence inputs to the effect that Parliament could be a target." Asked why the government had not acted on the basis of the inputs, he responded: "It is difficult to prevent fidayeen (suicide) attacks because if someone was prepared to die, nothing can prevent that person. But security was beefed up." His claim about heightened security, however, was challenged by many parliamentarians who said that they had not seen signs of any extra precautionary measures. Mediapersons covering parliamentary proceedings also did not notice any heightened security arrangements or procedures during this sensitive period.

Quoting a resolution adopted at the Cabinet meeting, Advani said the attack was aimed not merely at the building but at democracy itself. "We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors whoever and wherever they are," the Union Home Minister declaimed. According to him, there was no laxity in security. It was only because of the bravery of the security men even at the cost of their lives that a ghastly and dastardly act was prevented and the lives of the Prime Minister and other political leaders were saved, he asserted.

Investigations reveal that the terrorists' aim was not only to kill important political figures but also to create mayhem inside Parliament and take hostages. The presence of a large quantity of dry fruits and so on in their backpacks is seen as evidence of this. An intelligence official said: "They obviously had laid out their plans for some days. The fact that they carried unperishable food items indicates this. They also had plans to carry on detailed talks, which explains the presence of cash cards."

Many MPs shudder at the very thought of what the terrorists could have done had they managed to enter Parliament. Said Vaiko, a Lok Sabha member and leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam: "We would all have been reduced to pieces because there are no armed guards inside and they could have killed at will. Even if one person had managed to enter Parliament, it would have been a catastrophe." The members recalled with gratitude the sacrifices made by security personnel in their attempt to protect them. All MPs have decided to donate their one month's salary towards compensation for the families of the security personnel killed.

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