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Executive Protection in India: Interview with Varun Kareparambil

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Protection of high-profile individuals and executives is a delicate and crucial task, especially in a rapidly evolving world where threats can come from unexpected sources. Executive protection in India, with its rich history and diverse cultural landscape, has its own set of unique challenges and practices.

Today, we have the chance to speak with Varun Kareparambil, a seasoned executive protection agent navigating its’ complexities.

So, sit back, relax and get ready to learn about the ins and outs of executive protection in India from one of its experts.

How do you see the current state of executive protection in India, compared to mature markets like the United States? What are the main challenges and opportunities in this field?

Executive Protection in India is still evolving. With most security professionals in India, Executive Protection is still not seen as a profession in which one would want to build their careers or specialise in.

To understand why this is the case, it is important to understand the societal angle. India is a country where socioeconomic status plays a big role. To be recognised as someone successful, one must be in one of the “leading” professions. This is the reason you would see Indians doing very well in technology related jobs, Indians make good doctors, we are very good in academia – basically anything which is intellectually recognised.

However, when it comes to Security, it was traditionally seen as a profession which would be pursued only if one wasn’t good enough to be in some of the “leading professions.” This mindset has been changing rapidly over the past decade. The Indian security industry has come a long way. With many international companies setting shop in India, the quality of security professionals has always gone up several notches.

So, when it comes to being recognised as a successful security professional, it is important for people to be in leadership positions. Industry professionals are usually pursuing the path of being a CSO. Not only is it a respectable role, in some sense it can be perceived as an intellectual job. When one has to present themselves in social circles, the CSO title checks most of the socially respected and recognised boxes.

However, when it comes to being an Executive Protection Agent, you are perceived as a “bodyguard.” The tough guy who protects important people, which is kind of cool to some, but it isn’t seen as an intellectual job. The average Indian wouldn’t have heard about Executive Protection. Their point of reference would usually be those “bodyguards” who protect celebrities or government dignitaries.

Many working in Executive Protection, are looking to transition into a corporate role, while some are there because they don’t have much of a choice. The percentage of professional Executive Protection folks who love what they do and want to keep excelling is miniscule.

Therefore, when we speak about challenges, it begins with the low availability of quality Executive Protection Agents who know and have what it takes to operate effectively.

The other challenge is the demand factor. Unlike in the United States, where business leaders or high networth individuals mostly understand the value of Executive Protection and engage professionals, it is not the case in India. Traditionally, Indians who use protection have done so because there has been a credible threat to their safety or because they want to come across as someone important.

Barring a few important people who have a professional Executive Protection apparatus, you would mostly see individuals opting for muscle. These would typically be the big brawny “bodyguards” who sort of bring in the deterrence factor and are expected to be an effective responder in the event of an escalation.

The current challenges are also the opportunities.

As the India’s growth story continues to motor on, you would see an uptick in the frequency of business leaders and other important people who need protection visiting India. It would mostly be for business reasons, however, I have seen the trend of leisure trips increasing quite significantly. The need for quality Executive Protection Agents is going to go up in a big way.

executive protection in india
Executive Protection in India: Interview with Varun Kareparambil

How do you assess the skills and capabilities of local EP agents and contractors in India? What are the criteria that international protectors should consider when hiring them?

Part of my response here is connected to the social factor and the mindset issue that I discussed above. Industry professionals are generally not keen on building a career as an EP Agent, hence, they usually don’t invest in professional development as an EP Agent.

Secondly and importantly, anybody can become an EP Agent in India, at least as of today. You don’t need a licence as such. You don’t need insurance. You don’t need any formal training. Anybody who looks the part (sometimes even that doesn’t matter), can become an EP Agent.

So, if I look at the current talent pool in India, the skills and capabilities are below par compared to what is expected in the West. Again, a small percentage of EP Agents who have been working with international protectors frequently, are of good calibre. Working alongside international protectors has helped them raise their standards. When you interact with someone who has the experience of working with international protectors and someone who doesn’t, you will immediately notice the difference. It would be a glaring one.

When international protectors are looking at engaging local EP Agents or contractors in India, my recommendations are:

  • Opt for Experience: Reduce your risk of failure by opting to work with EP Agents who have the experience of working with international protectors. If not, look for individuals who have been contracted by reputed international protection companies.
  • Assessing Experience: Understand the quantum and quality of their EP experience, specifically in India. India is an extremely diverse country. Language, culture, mindset, operating environment, risk landscape etc changes from one state to another. It is always beneficial to have an EP Agent who has operated in various states across India.
  • See Before You Hire: Always have a video interview/discussion. It will help you in determining if you will want to put them in front of your client or not.
  • Seek References: Ask them for references whom you can talk to. One can bluff about their experience and possibly get away, but one tends to be cautious when they know that a reference check will be conducted.
  • Incident Management Skills: Understand what kind of incidents they have dealt with. Encourage them to go into details and share specifics.
  • Learning From Failures: Understand what kind of failures they have experienced. If one has not experienced failures performing EP operations in India then that should be a red flag. If that is the case, then either their experience has been pretty limited or there is a good possibility that they are trying to mask the truth.
  • Relevant Training: Know about relevant training needed to operate effectively in India. Example: The risk of gun related violence is low, but the risk of road traffic accidents is high and so is its impact. You would therefore, want to know about their first responder skills.
  • Insurance Coverage: It is highly unlikely that individual operators would have insurance coverage while operating as a protector. The law does not make it mandatory per se. Understand if they have the right insurance coverage.
  • Financial Capabilities: Many times, the protector may have to support their principal in the event that their credit card does not work or they forget to carry it or for various other reasons. The protector should be in a position to support the principal in such instances, failing to which could not only be embarrassing but also make the principal question the value of the protector.
  • Back Up: Understand what happens if they fall sick. Can they be backed up or will you be left high and dry? Always have other reliable resources on whom you can fall back immediately.
  • Support Network: Having the right connections is extremely important when operating in a place like India. It may not matter so much during routine operations. However, in the event of an incident, those connections can suddenly become extremely important.

What are some of the challenges and considerations involved in leading executive protection operations for foreign companies expanding their operations in India? Can you tell us some key aspects that should be examined when leading protective operations?

Every state in India tends to pose certain, unique challenges. However, these challenges depend on the nature of the company’s business and its profile. For example, concerns when protecting a fintech executive operating from a metropolitan city like Mumbai would be very different compared to a senior engineer with an energy company with its business interests in a rural setting.

However, regardless of where you are operating, there are a set of common risks to look at. These are:

  • Political risks
  • Socio-cultural risks
  • People risks (internal and external)
  • Infrastructure risks
  • Medical risks
  • Crime
  • Extremism

When leading protective operations across India, it is crucial to examine the following aspects:

  • Local Intelligence: The significance of ongoing local intelligence cannot be emphasised enough. A number of international companies who have been targeted locally, have either been ignorant to local threats or have grossly underestimated capabilities of local threat actors.
  • Threat Actors: Maintain profiles of all potential threat actors. Know their capabilities. Understand their modus operandi. Learn about what motivates them to act in the way that they do.
  • Company Perception: Understand how the company to which your protectee belongs, is seen by the locals. Is the company seen in a positive manner or in a bad light? A company which is perceived as a problem, attracts a plethora of risks, many of those can affect your protectee.
  • Protectee Image: Understand how your protectee is seen by the locals. Usually, potential malicious actors in India tend to identify individuals who hold the highest office. They gather as much information about the individual. When the time comes, they will target the individual accordingly to achieve their agenda.
  • Availability and Effectiveness of Supporting Resources: It is vital to have practical expectations from the resources at your disposal. The basic ground rule in India is to physically check and assess critical resources, and not solely rely on information that may be fed to you. There are good chances of discovering a difference in what you hear, what you see and what you get.
  • Expectations v Reality: What may be seen as a critical issue in the west, may not even receive much importance in the India context. For example: Usually, safety does not figure amongst the top priorities for the average Indian hence safety concerns vary massively compared to the west.
Executive Protection in India
Executive Protection in India: Interview with Varun Kareparambil

India has the fifth largest economy in the world, and World Bank said that the nation was “well placed” to steer through any potential global headwinds. What does this mean for local providers and foreign EP companies looking to get into the market?

When we talk about what it means for local providers, to begin with, I see a plethora of new opportunities flowing into India on the protection front. Based on the trend that I am observing, there would be a significant uptick in demand for quality protectors. Domestic companies and individual operators who are able to meet the minimum required standards to deliver protection services to international companies, are highly likely to taste success. But this also means that local providers should focus on capability building.

For foreign companies looking to get into the Indian market, the time is right. However, it is important to bear in mind that the Indian Executive Protection market is still evolving. It is a market where one has to enter with a long-term goal in order to succeed. One doesn’t usually start seeing immediate results in India. It takes time and one must be willing to go through a rather conservative early few years before scale is experienced. Although the option of going all guns blazing is always there if resource constraints are not an issue per se, my recommendation is always to start lean and then build as you keep growing.

India has a complex and unique cultural milieu. Do you have any advice for foreign operatives when navigating the cultural differences and ensuring effective communication with local stakeholders?

Understanding cultural nuances is one of the most critical aspects when operating in India. It can make or break things for a protector. Again, India’s cultural diversity makes it challenging to provide a fixed set of recommendations that will work successfully across India. Every state and city throws up a unique set of risks.  Nevertheless, here’s my advice for foreign operatives to ensure effective communication with local stakeholders:

  • Significance of Hierarchy: Although India has made great advancements in many areas, hierarchy remains deeply etched across the society. For a protector, it is important to quickly understand the hierarchy within each setting. The person at the top expects his position to be respected and hierarchy to be adhered to. For instance, if your primary point of contact is the CSO, then do not approach his subordinate without due approval.
  • Respect Honorifics: People tend to take great pride in titles which they would have earned, such as Doctor, Colonel, Sir etc. Before interacting with a person of authority, know how they prefer to be addressed as. If you are unsure, Sir or Ma’am are a safe bet. Getting this right will work in your favour. Getting it wrong can lead to several other undesired and unexpected challenges.
  • Decode the ‘Yes’: Saying ‘No’ does not come naturally to most Indians. Even in situations where one knows that they must be saying ‘No’, they are likely to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Okay’. For a protector who isn’t familiar with India or has not worked with Indian’s enough, it is very easy to believe that the person has understood their expectation and that he/she will be executing accordingly. When you need something done and you receive a ‘Yes’ or an ‘Okay’, take a pause, watch their body language as you will receive a number of clues. If the ‘Yes’ or ‘Okay’ lacks certainty, politely put across a couple of follow up questions to determine if they have firmly understood and will be in position to execute your request.
  • Careful with Straight Talk: While straight talk can be pretty efficient at times, it can backfire in India. While one might have the purest of intentions, with a focus on getting the job done, straight talk can rub people the wrong way. Diplomacy, politeness and empathy will go a long way in ensuring success in India. This is not to imply that people don’t engage in straight talk in India, it happens quite a lot. Also, you would need to use more of it during an emergency. However, the objective here is to know which approach works best.
  • Disagree Respectfully, Provide Alternatives: The way things may be done in the west is not how many things would be done in India. Disagreements are bound to happen when foreign agents are working with stakeholders in India. However, disagreements don’t necessarily mean that what needs to be achieved cannot be achieved. You are more likely to win, if you disagree respectfully but importantly offer a win-win alternative.

Can you discuss an example when you faced an issue that is specific to providing Executive Protection in India? How have you successfully navigated the situation to ensure the safety and security of your client?

There are several unique case studies but let me pick one. In January 2022, a client of ours had a death at one of their warehouses. Usually, a natural death at a place of work, although tragic, can be handled by following the right processes. However, if the death is caused due to an accident and especially if the victim is not an employee, then the case can take a pretty nasty turn.

In this particular case, an employee working at one of the warehouses, invited a friend of his to support  his work. Yes, the friend should not have been there in the first place but that’s a moot point now. In his efforts of helping, this man climbed up one of the high racks without using any of the safety measures. Unfortunately, he slipped and fell headfirst causing his immediate death. Panic ensued and the word of his death spread like wildfire in the village where the warehouse was situated. To further complicate matters, the person who had died was a political worker with a popular political party. Immediately, this accidental death became a political issue.

Local political leaders and hundreds of workers entered the warehouse, ransacking it. The employees present along with the Warehouse Manager were assaulted. Fearing for their personal safety, the employees at the warehouse refused to work. Owing to political pressure, the police were delaying the protection requested by the. Threats were issued to the company’s senior leadership – they were told that they would be “dealt with” at the HQ which was a 90 minute drive away. The other concern was the issue being politicised in the media.

I was asked to support the company in managing this crisis. My responsibility was to protect key people, provide the company’s leadership with real time ground intelligence and work with local law enforcement authorities to rope in their support in keeping the facilities (warehouse and HQ) safe.

The plan that I put together was driven by intelligence, which was critical in this case.  There were three immediate priorities:

  • quickly identify the key perpetrators, understand their motives and capabilities,
  • protect key people, and
  • get support from law enforcement to secure the facilities.

I had decided to operate from the company’s crisis management room; it allowed me to coordinate ground operations, feed the leadership with developments and work with them on mitigation strategies.

Ground intelligence teams helped in identifying the ring leaders. Their primary objective was to extort money from the company in the garb of compensation to the deceased’s family. To achieve this, they employed coercive tactics in the form of physical assaults, threats, vandalism and blackmail. However, once there was a thorough understanding of what was at play, the company’s senior leadership started working with the senior government functionaries.

Protection teams kept receiving relevant intelligence which helped in making changes to the protection plans accordingly. The advantage of becoming unpredictable was gained in the process. My team of protectors were able to avoid several planned confrontations, keeping their protectees safe and giving them much needed confidence to focus on their primary work.

By seeking support from our network of senior law enforcement officers, the sites which needed to be protected, received protection.

Over a period of 3 weeks, the company was able to resolve the crisis and get back to business as usual.

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