First, a confession.
As a child, I sometimes sat for long hours in an Ambassador car with a rotating red light on its roof, accompany my father as he made day-long journeys, at least twice a year, from his bases in various towns on the Deccan Plateau to headquarters.
I felt exhilarated. I felt a sense of superiority — admittedly twisted — that comes from knowing you are possessed of some special power over the people outside. Somewhere deep down, I did feel this was an illicit pleasure, not mine to enjoy in this mobile cocoon of Indian authority.
When I entered adolescence, the vague sense of wrongdoing exploded into self-loathing. I refused to step into my father’s official car.
He, too, was not particularly happy with family in the car and agreed to travel in our dinky Maruti van on family drives. With his edgy personal security officer sitting next to me with pistol drawn, it wasn’t a pleasing situation.
But with an insurgency raging in Punjab, where my father’s paramilitary battalions were heavily deployed, I was persuaded to agree to at least this much.
Through life, I have carried that repugnance for the Ambassador with the flashing red light. Now that I’m not in one, I feel free. If there’s an ambulance behind me, I am happy to move over swiftly and fume at and abuse other drivers who do not.
But if I see a car or convoy of VIPs with flashing blue and red lights, I am happy not to budge, never mind if they are VVVVIPs or whatever new category of important person Indian officialdom has created.
Admittedly, this is a dangerous game.
“Marna hai kya?” Do you want to die, a grinning, young police guard in grey dungarees, cradling a Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun, yelled at me when I refused to run a red light after his master’s three-car convoy honked (one was a Porsche SUV with illegal, black windows), set off sirens, finally squeezed past me and ploughed through oncoming traffic.
We all see or make way for the important car with red or blue flashing lights, ‘flasher’ or ‘beacon’ in officialspeak. No one denies that some of these journeys are important, in the service of the nation, as it were.
But we all know most of these people do not require an emergency light, which is primarily fitted to declare, “Look at me, I am important, I have status and don’t you forget it.”
Only in caste-ridden India could an emergency light become a status symbol. It is now so widespread and widely abused that — who else — the Supreme Court is hearing a public interest litigation questioning its use and the security that accompanies its users.
Earlier this month, lawyer Harish Salve put forth the case of Pramod Tiwari, a Congress Member of the legislative assembly from UP. A quarter century ago, Tiwari was given ‘Z-plus’ security, the highest category possible, after he was threatened by Sikh militants.
The militancy is history, but Tiwari continues to be guarded by an elite police unit with automatic weapons and is driven around in a fleet of taxpayer-provided cars, all with flashing lights.
“Public servants,” justices GS Singhvi and SJ Mukhopadhaya remarked, “are actually servants of the public.” It is a timely reminder. The roving cars with their flashing lights are against all this country was meant to be — a democratic republic where public servants, such as MLAs, MPs and bureaucrats, are meant to serve, not rule us as the British once did.
Emergency lights, by their definition, should adorn emergency vehicles. In the West, blue lights are often for ambulances, red lights for the police, amber lights for public-utility vehicles.
In India, the lights on emergency vehicles follow no particular colour code. And with so many official cars flaunting top-of-the-line lights, most drivers regard the feeble, often-broken lights on real emergency vehicles with disinterest.
The hierarchy ingrained in Indian society and officialdom is reflected in these lights, and even if the Supreme Court were to order it, officials and politicians are unlikely to surrender this privilege.
Two months ago, the Delhi Police started a crackdown on the illegal use of emergency lights. Nearly 300 government officials — including paramilitary officers, the daughter of an MP, a roadways official, a sales tax official — were prosecuted for unauthorised use.
Instead of backing the unprecedented crackdown, a group of 100 MPs, across parties, requested the chairman of the committee that governs their privileges to allow them emergency lights (and toll-free passage on national highways).
The reasoning? Without red lights, their cars were being prosecuted for traffic offences.
The use of emergency lights by is governed by The Motor Vehicles Act, which allows specific officials to use red and blue light. Some lights can revolve, others must be stationary. The rules are comical, befitting a banana republic.
State governments randomly add to the list of official flashers, so to speak.
For instance, over the last five years, the Union Territory of Chandigarh has authorised emergency lights on tens of cars, including those of the director of health services, the director of the Post-Graduate Institution of Medical Education and Research, the director of hospitality, the chairman of an irrigation board, excise and taxation officers (blue lights); adviser to the administrator, district judges, police officials (red lights); college principals and CEOs of insurance companies (amber lights).
Okay, that last one was fictional, but, really, who can tell?