Memories of Another Visit

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Between the Clinton and Obama visits, US perceptions of Indian security haven’t changed

It was supposed to be a big affair. An American President was to arrive in India for the first time in almost a quarter century. The Monica Lewinsky scandal safely behind him, President Bill Clinton would land on 19 March 2000. For Indian journalists like me, working for TV news at the time, it was a nightmare come true. My editors thought that since I knew a couple of information officers at the US Embassy, it would be a cakewalk for me to file regular reports on security plans. In hindsight, I think they expected an entire blueprint of US security arrangements. Clinton was supposed to be staying at the ITC Maurya, the same hotel where his successor George W Bush and now Obama would stay. It has always been an ideal pick—close to the US Embassy and Indian defence establishments. 

Weeks before Clinton was to arrive, US personnel had inspected the hotel many times over. Now, as we waited outside the hotel—we were not even allowed in—all we could see was tall men and women in black with ear pieces, looking stern and moving heavy pieces of equipment around. Thick wires hung from various rooms and corridors above us. From the very moment of Clinton’s landing, his security would be handled by his own men. The entire Maurya was taken over—with Indian security personnel not even allowed anywhere close. As a senior police officer told me then: “Boss, we have absolutely no idea what their arrangements are. We are just managing traffic.” Across the road, Delhi Police had pitched their tents, and some of them were clearing bushes with their lathis. Everything else was under US charge, from food tasters and sniffer dogs to their own super-secure communication lines. 

In the absence of any dope on the arrangements, exasperated editors asked us to throw other forms of ‘colour’ into reports of the visit. So most of us ended up reporting the menu of the restaurants chosen, the colour scheme of his suite, and so on. At the Ashok Hotel, where an official banquet was to be held for the US President, a helpful general manager took a liking to me. “You are very well behaved,” he remarked, as he began to whisper details in my ear as if he had the latest on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Anyhow, we got an exclusive story: Clinton would be served cottage cheese for the first time in his life. And mango ice-cream for dessert. For a defence correspondent who fancied himself sending dispatches marked with such words as ‘somewhere on the Western front’, this was now my job: to sit at a table where Clinton was supposed to sit, and get camera grabs of the menu. Fortunately, or unfortunately in this case, the serious world intervened soon enough. The massacre of 36 Sikhs in Kashmir, which coincided with Clinton’s visit, drew media attention back to the grim realities of the day.

Ten years later, as Obama comes visiting, he will stay at the presidential suite on the 14th floor of the ITC Maurya. Again, we will see the same sort of media coverage, even as all security stays firmly under US control. 

Just days before he arrives, the Mumbai attacks’ plotter David Headley has revealed that the Chattisinghpura massacre was the handiwork of Lashkar terrorists. Some things always recur. Let terror not.