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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Bogey of Public Security

Although my major claim to fame is as a practitioner with a  flair for recalcitrance and controversy, I have always had an obsession for conceptual and theoretical explorations before undertaking any action. I have never understood the theory versus practice or policy versus implementation divide, believing as I still do, that poor theory and poor policy leads to bad practice and bad practices , in turn, generate still poorer policies. This is because we think that conceptual concerns are not very relevant to hard, down to earth issues like ‘public security’ where the  meaning is and should be obvious enough to everyone. But is it?

Have we ever paused to wonder why our sense of security has declined in inverse proportion to the growth of the ‘security’ industry- an industry which spans the bureaucracy, the military and the police, the private sector, the academia and the world of the security analyst and the security expert?  Thirty years ago, at the peak of the extremist upsurge in Punjab, I had no hesitation in travelling the length and breadth of Punjab with no ‘security’ without ever feeling threatened. Sixty years ago, Prime Minister Nehru could be spotted on Delhi roads being driven in a car with no escorts, no pilots, no accompanying security personnel and just a chauffeur. Was it bravado or was it a fact that most of us genuinely felt secure because in a hard won democracy, a free citizenry  was seen as the best safeguard against any threats to safety and well being? Is a Prime Minister who lives behind  electrified barbed wires and moves  around in a motorcade of forty bullet proofed limousines on roads which are sanitised before he can enter them more secure than a Raksha Mantri who just ten years ago had had the gates to his house removed so that anyone could enter his house at anytime without any let or hindrance? Were threats to security in relation to the times any less then than they are now?

I know it will be said that the world has changed after 9/11, 2001 or 26/11, 2008, or 31/10, 1984 or 21/5 ,1991 but the point is whether people are more ’secure’ today with the humongous investments we have made in providing more security, than they were thirty or fifty years ago and if they are not , is there not something fundamentally wrong with our concept of what constitutes ‘security’?

A major part of the problem lies in treating ‘security’ as a stand alone  analytical category and a value in itself, hoping that the inherent fuzziness of the concept will go away if one hyphenates it with ‘public’ or ‘national’ or ’homeland’ or ‘food’ or ‘energy’ or ‘environment’. The fact is that without conceptual clarity and definitional precision we have created a monstrous bogey which is used to justify the militarization of the state, the centralization of coercive authority, the proliferation of bureaucracy, the trampling of human rights, the severe curtailment of individual liberty and all this, paradoxically, has created conditions in which we all feel far more insecure than ever before.

There is a complete perversion of values involved here. The security of citizens is conflated with the security of the state , the state apparatus and those who control the state apparatus. The sovereignty of the people is conflated with the sovereignty of the state and its territorial integrity. Security is conflated with public order and democracy  and the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms  are seen as threats to achieving that order. So instead of ensuring that people feel secure in exercising their rights and enjoying their freedoms, we ensure that they sacrifice it at the altar of ‘security’ and that this sacrifice is seen as being in their own interests. Security , instead of being a means to achieve certain ends becomes an end in itself and no one knows what that end is. When and where have we reached that somewhere which can be said to be the destination for perfect security? An isolation ward in Tihar ? The jesting pilates of security will not stay for an answer.

The second set of perversions is achieved by the appropriation of security as a concern not of the public or the citizenry or the community but as a concern of a professional bureaucracy and the police or the military. They know better than we do what is good for our security. The citizen can question neither the arrogation of this power by the authorities nor the decisions taken ostensibly on his/her behalf. At its most benign it becomes a justification for a nanny state which takes away from a citizen the most fundamental of his fundamental rights and at its most malevolent, a justification for indescribable brutality and repression.

A perfect example of how treating ‘security’ as a stand alone concern can completely distort policy and practice is the case of Punjab my karmabhumi for a major part of my career. The surge of  extremist militancy that took place in  the decade of the eighties and a part of the early nineties meant that Punjab was kept under President’s rule throughout this period in the belief that the ‘security’ situation needed to be brought under control before normal democratic functioning could be resumed. The Police was given, not just a free hand to be as ruthless as they deemed necessary but also sweeping powers under special laws which provided legitimacy to their excesses. Human rights were suspended pending the restoration of order. ‘Supercops’ were imported and given the licence to kill if necessary. For ten years their sway was absolute. Each surge in militant insurgency was met with more ruthless repression and every such response was countered by an escalation of violence on the part of militants. To cut a long story short, it was not until democratic rule was restored in 1991 and an elected political executive put in place that the people turned away from violence, stopped providing sustenance to the militants and thereby enabled police action to become effective. So democracy is a precondition to peace and normalcy and order and not the other way round.

Any discussion of ‘public security’ must therefore be placed in the context of societal objectives and how conditions can be created in which people exercise their fundamental rights freely and without fear, in which they actively participate in the democratic decision making process, in which they are enabled to access the means to advance their social and economic well being and the means to realize their creative potential. If these conditions are not fulfilled or threats to the achievement of these conditions not substantially reduced then that constitutes a failure of security.

The achievement of these conditions is the basic purpose of governance in any democracy and keeping public order a means to achieve those purposes. Public order cannot be an end in itself. By elevating public order to a value by itself and then conflating it with the notion of ‘security’ we have turned governance upside down. The primacy of the basic values of democracy have therefore to be restored before issues of public security can be addressed. Not the other way round.

It is in this context that we have to locate the discourse on public security within the discourse on federalism. We often forget that federalism  is not just a power  sharing arrangement but has a deeper  threefold purpose- making diversity an organising principle of governance, deepening democracy by reducing distance between the people and government and protecting and nurturing individual liberty against the tyranny of the big state. So by federalism I mean not just a mechanical separation of powers between two orders of government, hierarchically arranged, but a means of creating an architecture in which governance is devolved to the smallest possible, viable unit following the concept of subsidiarity.

Viewed from such a prism public security has to be treated as one aspect of devolved and decentralised governance. This is completely at variance with the existing approach where federal devolution is seen as a hindrance or a constraint to achieving ‘security’. The argument offered is that since most threats to security operate at national or global levels these need to be tackled at the national levels both on account of capacity constraints at provincial or local levels as well as the need for centralized coordination. This is a specious argument because by that logic, taking terrorism as an  example, it can be argued  that since terrorist organizations do  not respect national boundaries and operate as a global network, it can only be tackled by a specialized global agency centred in the US of A.

We forget that almost all  public issues operate simultaneously at all levels and the impact at each level is different and specific to that local context. Unless these problems are  understood in terms of their specificity and tackled at that level, by the people who face that problem and unless those people have a controlling say in  the way in which the problems are tackled, we will suffer the same fate that the people of J&K for example are suffering from- a complete collapse of governance.

I would have  had much to say on how we can rethink the architecture of governance to make it at once more federal, devolved, decentralized, coordinated and networked and how resources can be pooled through innovative intergovernmental partnerships and collaboration , but that discussion will have to await another forum, another venue. Suffice it to say that public security and public order has to be subordinated to democracy and not the other way round.


Arup Dasgupta said...

A very well written piece. May I use some of your arguments to buttress my stand on the secrecy doctrine being followed in the context of mapping and surveying? Or better still, why don't you look at these and comment from your point of view?

amitabha pande said...

Arup Dasgupta- You know I spent five years battling for opening up mapping data of the Government and I came up against a dead wall. Please feel free to use any part of this, because going back to something on which I devoted so much time and energy is irritating.

conscience of the society said...

Hi Amitabha,
" Suffice it to say that public security and public order has to be subordinated to democracy and not the other way round" How true !

But sadly, modern democracy has subordinated greatly much more than security and public order to the base tents of the ideal..will you share our blog serial on the 'dire need of Reinventing modern democracy' at link:

conscience of the society said...

Hi Amitabha,
" Suffice it to say that public security and public order has to be subordinated to democracy and not the other way round" How true !

But sadly, modern democracy has subordinated greatly much more than security and public order to the base tents of the ideal..will you share our blog serial on the 'dire need of Reinventing modern democracy' at link: