Sunday, December 20, 2009

Writing about gender violence

I have been struggling to get an article written on internal displacement and gender violence. Part of the struggle, a large part, has had to do with my preoccupation? absorption? consumption by the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign preparation and programmes. Another part, which I am now experiencing, now that I am actually sitting with articles and trying to get started, has to do with some of the analytical and political challenges of writing about gender violence.
Let's start with writing about gender (and some of this is partly a response to having read FMR December 2000 a short while ago): Having never formally studied feminist theory and never quite having mastered the artifice of talking about gender, I myself default to talking about women when I say gender. I am really much more concerned about women in most situations. With the campaign, we struggle with this as a 'gender violence' campaign because most of our programmes end up being about women rather than men, transgenders, etc. But we actually have taken to clarifying that we mean the rubric to indicate our recognition that violence is experienced by all genders. With my own writing, I pretty much don't adopt the 'gender' rubric, and try and speak/write as simply as my mind thinks: I just use the word 'women' to mean 'women.' But the reality is the problem does go beyond just what women and girls experience.
The articles I read today in FMR described situations in which disempowered twice over by conflict displacement and by relief agencies (run by white men) taking over the caretaker's role in their families, men were feeling disempowered and out of place in their own families. Younger men replaced them as community leaders because they were more mobile, enterprising and able to quickly pick up and speak other languages. A couple of the articles highlighted the downside of women's empowerment--the sidelining of men. Or so it seemed. I found these both interesting and perturbing.
Must women's empowerment be part of a zero-sum equation? That seems to land us at the point where we begin, the point we seek to escape.
And that's the utility of 'gender': that we can attempt to find a non-zero-sum solution we can all live with. At least, we hope we can.
Another issue that feels like a stumbling block is the question of victimhood. When an act of sexual or gender violence is committed, someone suffers it. To call them a victim is to recognize that they did not cause or invite this act. On the other hand, victimhood is not a desirable condition or identity or tag. Survivor doesn't always work; not all victims survive.
Moreover, does casting women in victim mode preclude their agency? Or does recognising their journey towards greater agency diminish their victimhood.

I don't actually know the answers to any of these questions and yet, I do. There is a way in which these things will disentangle in my brain. I just hope that happens soon so I can get this article written before long.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chinks in hygiene and civic responsibility

Shombhit Sengupta, Chinks in hygiene and civic responsibility, Indian Express, November 8, 2009.

About 2.5 billion people in the world have no access to safe sanitation, and half of South Asia suffers the indignity of open defecation. This lack of hygienic facilities is a fundamental cause of disease leading to 1.5 million children dying every year as per UN figures.

Can India’s 2020 promise to become a developed country free from poverty be fulfilled without improving hygiene and civic responsibility?

Hygiene: Landing in Amritsar international airport a month ago, I felt really proud that India’s B class towns are becoming so advanced. A high-rise roof in modern glass and metal; the new baggage belt looking better than the latest German engineering. This thrill was knocked out by the foul-smelling toilet with insects running around.

On a routine market observation visit, a newly built public toilet in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar looked good as I saw it from inside the car. But on stepping out, its sharp stink immobilised me. On its left, a store was selling fresh flowers. I wonder how people differentiate floral fragrance from the toilet’s ammonia-and-faeces smell.

Most spectacular is Mumbai’s Rolls Royce showroom, just 500 metres from Worli Gutter, a putrid garbage drain that joins the sea. Just imagine this ambience when buying the world’s most expensive and sophisticated car. New Delhi’s upmarket South Extension displays the latest Japanese and Korean electronic products in neon-lit splendour, but their toilet on the floor above is ugly and dirty and it reeks. The purpose of a high-flying lifestyle escapes me when the fundamentals of better living are far from being in place.

Civic responsibility: When people sweep their own premises, it may not occur to them that they are gifting dirt to their neighbours. This aptly reflects our complete lack of civic responsibility as a people. Incidentally, India has developed an excellent hygienic habit in the jet washer in modern public WCs. This is undoubtedly superior to Western toilet paper that keeps the body unclean all day. Until you see water spots in the toilet seat, you never know if it’s water from the jet washer or a human body. The question is, how do you educate people?

I remember when I left for Europe in 1973, the toilet cleaning I was accustomed to in my refugee colony consisted of specified people carrying away drums of human excreta on their heads every day. I feel ashamed that this disgraceful profession still exists in India. Later at Kolkata’s art college, I learnt of the Indian-style sanitary toilet. But it was in the plane to Europe that I first saw an English-style commode. In the students’ hostel in Paris, we used a common toilet. A Greek friend was one day knocking on the bathroom door, but I didn’t reply. So he climbed over the open top and found me with my feet on the toilet seat, traditional Indian style. I didn’t even know that I had to put the seat cover down and sit on it as on a chair. It took me nearly six months to get used to this Western toilet culture.

Men’s habit of relieving themselves anywhere, with no shame that women are walking by, is total disregard of civic responsibility. Women need a bio-break too, but you never see them using the roadside. While working for a supply chain logistics company on how frontline staff should be customer sensitive with their packet delivery system, one of our researchers followed a competition delivery van of a globally reputed company with a camera. The van stopped outside a customer’s gate, the man got off, first relieved himself on the customer’s wall, and then went in with the package.

In every urban corner, you’ll generally find overflowing, odorous dustbins. Before India joined WTO, our public dustbins mostly had Indian products; now they also have beautifully designed, non-bio-degradable plastic wrappers from famous multinational brands. A few responsible Bangalore citizens took the initiative to collect garbage from homes for bulk disposal in large black plastic bags. The other day I happened to drive through greenery in Mutkur village off Varthur lake, and suddenly saw mounds of black plastic bags dumped alongside the village walkway. Vultures and poor children were rummaging through the garbage, breaking the bags to find some surprise.

This situation was not always so. The earliest recorded covered sewers are in the Indus Valley Civilisation cities. In 2500 BC, the people of Harappa had water-borne toilets in each house linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. They considered sanitation an important public health measure essential for disease prevention.

Today’s lack of hygiene and civic responsibility is damaging the aspirational value of all business. Whether an industry is in manufacturing or service, the real delivery to customer hands is from the shopfloor or frontline people. Did anyone check the difference between the factory workers’ toilet and the one in the corporate office?

The factor differentiating organised retail from wholesale, mom-and-pop or commodity markets, is housekeeping. But housekeeping is totally alien to those hired to maintain cleanliness, so the retail soon looks dishevelled. Inside an American fast food outlet in Delhi’s Greater Kailash, the dustbin was being cleaned next to people enjoying their chicken. You may mistake the car park behind the market as a garbage storeyard, but it’s surprising that even globally renowned companies mushrooming in India make no move to clean up the environment. Perhaps as part of 2020 development, the government should create a separate ministry for hygiene and civic responsibility to take serious action together with MNCs and Indian companies.

Hygiene derives from Hygieia, the Greek goddess for good health preservation and disease prevention. Let’s take her blessings to modernise India and teach people basic hygiene as an initiative in civic responsibility, which betters everyone’s body and mind for work and enjoyment.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Resurrection of Indira Gandhi

Somewhere out there, is a photograph of my being introduced to Indira Gandhi at a cousin's wedding reception. This part of the story I often narrate so will abbreviate here: I was 2 when she became Prime Minister; 11 when Emergency was imposed; the election that ousted her was held on my 13th birthday; she returned to power in the beautiful January weather of the year I was 16; and when she was killed, I was a devastated, bereaved graduate student very far away from home in every sense in Syracuse in the days before the internet and satellite television. I had grown up assuming the default gender for all Prime Ministers to be female. And I had learned about dissent in the murmurs, then trenchant critiques of Emergency excesses. All my growing years are associated with the ascent and influence of Indira Priyadarshini Nehru Gandhi.

All my adult years belong to an age where she was an object of vilification, responsible for everything wrong with Indian politics. This is also an age that found her father a romantic fool whose capacity to lead a nation-state was overestimated by those who anointed him leader and those who adored him. And an age that had to be reminded about the Father of the Nation, with whom Indira came to share a last name, through a blockbuster movie. That's life.

This week, therefore, has been really interesting. Starting about midweek on Twitter, I began to notice tweets mentioning Mrs. Gandhi and attempting 140-character assessments of her contribution. They were from television journalists I follow, so I suppose they were preparing for programmes scheduled for her 25th death anniversary. (They have also been discussion the anti-Sikh riots that followed Mrs. Gandhi's assassination.)

India's Indira, NDTV.
Remembering the 'Iron Lady' of India, Times Now.

At the short programme held at Shakti Sthal, Javed Akhtar read his poetry. In Times Now's documentary shown on October 31, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Naqvi, Inder Malhotra and Kuldip Nayar were among those who offered assessments and reminiscences. Some of these people I remember as 'anti-Indira' at one time or another, or just plain, 'anti.' Hmmm, I thought.

Newspapers have had the most fascinating bouquet of articles. The Indian Express, Indira's staunch supporter turned foe, which published and distributed blank pages to indicate that it was being censored during the Emergency, carried these:

In the Times of India, never in confrontation mode, I found: MJ Akbar, Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes, November 1, 2009. Asian Age carried Inder Malhotra's article, Gudiya to Durga, October 31, 2009. Inder Malhotra, Pran Chopra, Kuldip Nayar... these are names I associate with the Indira years. As also, of course, Arun Shourie. Karan Thapar remembers Indira Gandhi in Hindustan Times, the paper most closely associated with Congress governments over the years. And in the Hindu, Pranav Gupte remembers: Twenty-five years later, October 30, 2009. Vir Sanghvi's thoughts appear on his website.

Twenty-five years mark a milestone, fair enough, but what accounts for the whiff of nostalgia in these reminiscences and revaluations? I have a few guesses apart from the most obvious reasons: the resurgence of the Congress party as a player in national politics and the appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family in its new, chastened avatar. I think people are tired of what the endless politics of identity conflicts has done to the fabric of this polity. Governance failures are not acceptable any longer and while Mrs. Gandhi did undermine institutions with disastrous results, people are now associating her with this UPA 2's resolve to try and address those issues. Twenty-five years is also long enough for most people to forget bad news and with two generations that can barely remember the past, a strong leader with a clear focus must seem appealing. We live in a technocratic age where the messy details of Turkman Gate and the innumerable arrests of the Emergency might even seem like inconvenient expediencies. These are my guesses, not scholarly analyses. Not today, anyway.

Is India ready to dispassionately evaluate Indira Gandhi's contribution to its politics, institutions and socio-economic change? I don't really know. What do you think?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A visit to the Ladies' Toilet in a Most Important Place

Caution: Gross details follow.
Yesterday, I visited the building where the headquarters of a very important government organization were housed. It was a long morning and as I waited for my meeting, it seemed like a sensible idea to visit the rest-room.
I wasn't expecting luxury, I assure you. I stepped in, gingerly. It was not very clean but I have seen worse in my lifetime as an Indian woman. I thought I would pull the flush.
The split second that followed was like a moment in the heart of the special effects of a horror film. Water rushed out in a torrent..... around my feet! I ran out of the stall as if chased by a vampire or an avenging banshee.
It took me a few minutes to compose myself. As I narrated this story later on, it was also funny. But outrage also remains with me.
This is the only ladies' restroom on the floor that houses the CEO of the organization. What if the CEO were a woman? What happens to the women who work there (and by the way, I barely recall seeing any)? What is the plight of women who visit for all-day meetings?

We organize a 16-day campaign against gender violence in Chennai and one part of the campaign addresses the issue of a good working climate for women in the context of workplace harrassment, but this is even more fundamental. How can you go to work in a place which doesn't bother with the upkeep of the most basic lavatory facilities for women? Perhaps the men's toilets are as bad, but is that an excuse or a consolation?

Why don't we care about these very basic amenities? How can a person go to work if their stomach is even slightly upset? How is a woman to work during her menstrual period or in the last stages of her pregnancy when she would need to use the toilet more often?

The conference room is airconditioned but the kitchen and pantry area are not built for hygiene. The executive office wears a designer label but the toilets are ghastly. The campus is manicured but the road approaching it is an open sewer. I am not writing about any one office or institution. This place is everywhere, and we have all suffered it.
On a day when the world is discussing President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, I suggest that the most appropriate recipient for this honour should be a person who has made toilets, hygiene and sanitation their priority--whoever it is.

PS: On my own bathroom water-banshee attack experience, I should add that when I ran out, I could not wash my hands because the soap-dispenser was empty and there was barely a trickle of water coming out of the taps. Luckily (for those who will rightfully worry) I always carry wet wipes and I could somehow assuage my own sense of 'ugh' before stepping back outside.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thoughts about Delhi 2

It's wonderful to be in a city which takes cognizance of India's diversity as much as Delhi does. This city has changed so much, from the provincial but accidental darbar seat of India to a truly multicultural, even cosmopolitan city. I have sensed it before, but this time I can really tell. Maybe Delhi has become more this way since my last visit and maybe the contrast with Chennai--and my life--is just that stark.
Chennai, on the other hand, feels more and more provincial. Determinedly monolingual, monocultural, insular, even xenophobic... at the risk of being inundated by hate-mail and worse, I have to write this. Chennai doesn't feel like India.
This is the India I grew up in. Delhi still has traces of it. A continental national vision that has slowly, steadily made a melange of its determinedly North Indian cultural base. Nehru's India is still alive in Delhi--physically and now, culturally.
I want to say I feel like a foreign tourist because Chennai doesn't seem to belong to this country at all. But more, I feel like an exile coming home.
Bombay also used to feel like another world. And I used to say when I worked here twenty years ago that I stayed and worked in Delhi but lived in Bombay. I would compare Delhi to Aurangzeb's darbar where I was like a visiting mansabdar with a very small mansab. Shivaji.
Now both Delhi and I have changed, I come from elsewhere, and this feels so delightful.

Last night, I was at the DIAF concert featuring Bhai Baldeep Singh singing Gurbani in Dhrupad style for the first hour and then Aruna Sairam singing Bhakti music in eight languages in the second. Aruna Sairam and I come from the same India: where all these languages and all this music is ours to enjoy and cherish. I also really enjoyed the first part, and relished the idea that I could access and learn about something new so easily here.

On another note, though, in a continuation of my earlier reactions to Delhi experiences, I heard the DIAF organizer say this was India's largest arts festival and thought: really? One whole month, Margazhi, dedicated to the performing arts and now spilling past the month on either side... that's surely a good contender for the title.
I could also understand why Carnatic performers enjoy their 'season' concerts so much. It must be so nice to just sing and not be in explanation/translation mode.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts from Delhi

I am in Delhi after almost a year and a half, and driving into the city in the fast-disappearing twilight, I cannot believe how much more construction there is everywhere. My memory tells me where we should be but I cannot spot any of the landmarks myself. Delhi looks like a growing, booming, dare I say, modern city to my eyes.
I am also struck by how clean it looks. As always.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Public health and security

Pulse readings: Public health and security, Infochange India, July 2009
Get the pdf version here.

Elections and security

Making tough choices: Elections and security, Infochange India, May 2009.

By Swarna Rajagopalan

At their best, elections offer a safety valve that can prevent difference of opinion from escalating into conflict. Conversely, an election gone wrong can be the final straw for mobilising public opinion against a particular establishment.

For most of us who were privileged to vote in India’s recently concluded elections, the conjunction of ‘election’ and ‘security’ is likely to conjure up the sprinkling of police or paramilitary personnel in the vicinity of polling booths as well as the endless discussion by talking heads as to who was ‘soft’ and who was ‘tough’ on the question of dealing with terror. Action and policy decisions on Kandahar, the parliament blast case and of course, the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 were dissected ad nauseum in the bid by each of the two major parties to look ‘strongest’. It might also recall the controversy over relocating the IPL tournament because the government would not guarantee security arrangements to anything else at the time of the elections. On second thought, it will not take too much imagination to realise that there may be more to the election-security correlation than first comes to mind.1

Elections need security

The first reports of systematic election-related violence that hit the national headlines came from Meham in Haryana where bitter political rivalry was first expressed through the forced capture of eight polling booths in February 1990. The Election Commission ordered two repolls but the climate of intimidation and violence did not abate.2 After this, it was impossible to overlook other instances of election violence, whether they took the form of intimidating candidates and voters, booth-capturing (which entered the Indian political vocabulary) and stuffing of ballot-boxes or the capture and replacement of vehicles carrying the boxes.

It is worth remembering though that when the Indian media brought election violence to public attention, one of the factors to which it was commonly attributed was the entrance of criminals into politics. The generation of freedom-fighters and social activists was being replaced in the political arena by a new generation of leaders and political aspirants, and some of them brought other rivalries, agendas and methods to their political careers.

Feudal relationships, for instances, carried over into the political arena. Surrendered dacoit Phoolan Devi entered politics and contested elections. More recently, Arun Gawli of the Mumbai underworld became a member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly. The politician-criminal nexus is one of popular cinema’s most commonly told stories. The symbiotic relationship forged between organised crime, politics and business has been identified as one of the triggers for the 1992-93 Bombay riots.

Today, it has become so commonplace to see MPs and even ministers with criminal cases pending against them, that where there should be no debate, we still consider whether Sunjay Dutt should be able to contest elections. Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Taslimuddin, Jaiprakash Yadav and Fatmi found a place in the council of ministers. And now, MK Azhagiri whose power and influence in Madurai derive neither from charisma nor a great service record will be a member of parliament and likely, a minister.

Hate speech and participation in communal violence both appear to be resume-builders in some quarters. Varun Gandhi has been elected to parliament from Pilibhit and the riot accused in Kandhamal, Manoj Pradhan, has won an assembly seat. Jagdish Tytler, whose role in the 1984 riots continues to be a sore point, was only recently sidelined. The Shiv Sena’s continued political significance over the decades is perhaps the best example.

In short, elections, violence, hate and criminality have become intertwined over the decades. Strictly implemented reforms that covered the election process end-to-end, from voter registration and identity cards to a code of conduct for candidates to the adoption of electronic voting machines, have largely succeeded in securing the actual election process. But as the afore-mentioned examples show, electoral democracy continues to be plagued by criminal elements, often marshalled to serve divisive ends.

Elections are a safety valve

Elections provide an institutionalised procedure for articulating difference and preventing contrasting perspectives from becoming conflicting interests. The 2009 Indian election arguably offered at least four distinctive worldviews that sometimes had intersecting interests—a centrist Congress view, a Hindutva view, the view of the left and the regional parties’ view. The contest between these views began in rallies and op-ed spaces and ended at the electronic voting machine. Without that safety valve, where else would their sometimes rather acrimonious differences seek resolution?

This positive description ends when a majoritarian, winner-takes-all system reinforces the political influence of a demographic majority. The first decade of Sri Lanka’s independent history created the conditions for precisely this. In 1948, two acts were passed that excluded the Tamils working in plantation areas from citizenship and therefore, the right to vote. Within a few years, a coalition of forces opposed to the intra-elite, pre-independence consensus that both Tamil and Sinhalese be adopted as official languages, swept the 1956 elections. The mandate they received allowed them to make Sinhala the only official language of Ceylon (as it was then called). The 1955 election is a watershed that features in every Tamil narrative of an alienation that grew over the years to crystallise into multiple militant secessionist movements. Sri Lanka has since adopted proportional representation but too late to put this genie back in the bottle without an intervening civil war.

Another instance where elections form part of the narrative of alienation is in Jammu and Kashmir. It is common knowledge that between 1947 and 1996, only two free and fair elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir. The first was in 1951 and returned Sheikh Abdullah with a resounding mandate. The second was in 1977. Besides the elections not being free and fair, governments with a popular mandate were also dismissed by the centre. These underscored a feeling that Kashmiris were second-class citizens in India, and election malpractices in 1987 were the trigger for the insurgency in the valley.

Free and fair elections bestow authority upon governments. Those who seek election, seek legitimate power. When the elections are not free and fair, the government that follows lacks legitimacy. Eroded legitimacy leads to alienation, a signal feature of insecurity.

Elections and conflict

Elections have a peculiar impact on conflict. Rigged elections contribute to alienation and insurgency. Holding elections in the context of conflict presents a special set of challenges. Fresh elections are often part of a conflict resolution process and one of the markers of a transition out of conflict.

For insurgent or nationalist groups, participating in the electoral process is an act that demonstrates the sincerity of their intent to give up violence. Ensuring a free and fair election is the State’s way of showing its genuine intention to resolve the conflict.

Apart from rigged elections and popular governments being deposed, the fact that the ability to participate in elections is a marker of citizenship is also a source of conflict. The agitation against illegal immigrants in Assam was sparked by a controversy over electoral rolls and who was included on them. The agitation and the accord that followed centred on defining citizenship through electoral rights.

There are several levels of challenges to holding elections in the middle of a conflict. First, there are the physical challenges of safely transporting personnel and election paraphernalia to polling stations in the conflict zone. Second, the campaign has to be secured and voters and candidates protected against intimidation and violence. This is no small feat, even in peacetime, where feudal patterns prevail and social hierarchies are reinforced by economic realities. Third, the legitimacy of the elections is tested on two counts. Often, the legitimacy of the state apparatus holding the elections is what is in dispute, and thus, the elections too are regarded as a dubious exercise. Further, when there are calls to organisations, potential candidates and voters to boycott the elections, their value is symbolic at best and debatable at worst. When turnout is low, for one reason or another, any election result may be challenged as representing much less than the general will of the people.

Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest the 2009 parliamentary election drew a lot of attention, but he is not the first person to have exchanged militancy for mainstream politics. The road whereby a political conflict is transformed into a militant movement is better-charted by scholars than the reverse. Sri Lanka has seen many walk this route. Following the 1987 accord, several militants laid down their arms and entered the political mainstream, contesting provincial and national elections. More recently, Colonel Karuna who broke away from the LTTE in 2004 formed a political party and contested last year’s provincial council elections. In India, the journey of the Asom Gana Parishad from student organisation to mass agitation to political party is well-known. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam also gave up a secessionist platform (although not a violent one) in the early-1960s in order to keep its place within the national political mainstream. Right after that, it swept the assembly elections of 1967, and since then, one or the other Dravidian party has ruled Tamil Nadu. In each case, contesting elections was a way of establishing the organisation or individual’s bone fides.

Free and fair elections, in turn, are a State’s way to prove that it is willing to move past the adversarial relationships of the conflict. Moreover, returning to the point about legitimacy, a State can point to the results of a free and fair election as evidence of consent to its authority. India has argued in the past, with mixed success, that elections in Jammu and Kashmir constituted a plebiscitary vote in its favour.

One consequence of long-term conflict is that society as a whole becomes militarised. There are more weapons floating around. People become desensitised to the exercise of force. As combatants desert, return with injuries or are demobilised for some reason, there is a larger proportion of civilians skilled in the use of firearms. Some, even many of them, may be unemployed or underemployed, and ergo, be available for hire to carry out small and large acts of political violence.3 Even beyond the conflict zone, thus, there is a rise in the level of violence.
Elections further human security

Elections are a procedural or institutional demonstration of democratic values and practice. As flawed as they might be, they by and large suggest that there is an aspiration in the polity towards the appearance of freedom of choice and freedom of political thought. It would seem that these are seen as positive values to espouse or to be seen as espousing. Elections are like a form-letter, a ready and easy means for people to articulate, express preference and choose what they want in terms of values, policies and leadership.

Indian elections actually do offer an example of how elections serve as a contest between various worldviews and ideals. If ‘bijli, sadak, pani’ are the catchphrase to describe the Indian voter’s demand for good governance, Indira Gandhi’s ‘garibi hatao’ slogan in 1971 may also be seen as an attempt to make poverty an election issue. The elections of the early-1990s are virtually the ‘Mandir-Mandal’ elections, placing on the agenda particular views of what India is and what constitutes social justice in the Indian context.

When national identity, development and justice issues are part of electoral platforms and debated in seriousness, elections come to serve three purposes. They provide an opportunity for learning from multiple perspectives. People are able to make an informed choice. Because these issues affect people’s ability to survive and thrive, elections ultimately further their overall security.


Elections are a means and a process; whereas security is a value, an aspiration and a state of affairs. At their best, elections create a climate in which issues relating to the welfare and security of citizens can be amicably debated and differences resolved. They offer a safety valve that can prevent difference of opinion from escalating into conflict. Conversely, an election gone wrong can be the final straw for mobilising public opinion against a particular establishment—a mobilisation that can in turn take many routes, including insurgency. Elections are a common way in recent times for easing the journey out of conflict, and participation in a free and fair election serves as an interaction between former combatants, the public and the State that builds mutual confidence. Thus, while those who discuss elections and those who theorise security seldom attend the same seminars, there is enough of a common political agenda that they could share for them to rethink the scope of their work.

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A good story: Tamil militants once, Orissa locals now

P.Sainath, Turning Tamil swords into Oriya ploughshares, Hindu, July 4, 2009.
One is a member of the Malkangiri District Cricket Association and custodian of its cricket kit. Another, a minor contractor in a public works project. A third runs a tiny shop. They’re all pretty rooted in Malkangiri. Not very different from any other small town group. Except that this one consists of a bunch of former Sri Lankan Tamil warriors settled in deep rural Orissa in one of the country’s poorest districts where they’ve been nearly 20 years.

Check out this story! It's worth it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Century of forgetting: The decline of humanities scholarship in India

Century of forgetting

Shared via AddThis, Indian Express, June 16, 2009

Wonderful article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on what we have lost as scholarship and higher education have ossified in India in the last century.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Gingee: Veni Vidi Vici

No, I am not talking about the Vijayanagara Nayakas, Deccan Sultans or Marathas. Nor am I talking about my family's visit to Gingee aka Senjikottai last week.
I am writing about Karthik, Siva, Seenu and Perumal. Azra also. And others who have attempted to match the fort architecture and the impressive rock formations of Gingee with their calligraphy.
Now that we all know they have been here, we can be confident about the future of our shared heritage.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sri Lanka: Campaign over, conflict remains

Those Southasia posts never happened, but in my defense, I did not set up a timeline for them! 

Today, it has been widely reported that LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been killed. 

For months now, we have been reading about the Sri Lankan army's campaign to "liberate" areas previously "liberated" by the Tigers. Lines moving back and forth on maps, thousands of people moving back and forth on the ground. As the SL government promised an end to the campaign in months, weeks, days, hours, the humanitarian crisis in the border zones acquired the proportions of an epic tragedy. 

The humanitarian crisis is not new. It may even be worse than recent reports have shown because in fact, it is a tragedy that has been unfolding, intensifying over more than two decades. Two generations have grown up in the shadow of war. Hundreds of thousands of people, of every ethnicity, have paid the price in the loss of family, limbs, property--those who died were luckiest. Families have been displaced not once, not twice. They have been separated. Young people across two generations have been dragged into conflict where they should have been in school, on cricket grounds, in reality talent shows, dreaming of ordinary things. Thousands of score children live in the separate ethnic universes depicted in school textbooks, about which Sri Lankan scholars like Regi Siriwardena and Sasanka Perera have written. 

The humanitarian crisis of the last few months is only the most dramatic, most gruesome tip of the iceberg. 

The military campaign may be over. Prabhakaran and his deputies may have been killed. Will the memories of those who were killed, maimed, displaced fade away as easily? The end of the campaign is a triumphant moment for its architects, but those who love Sri Lanka and those Sri Lankan leaders who are thoughtful will not pause for a celebration until the humanitarian crisis is addressed. If celebration overtakes concern, then those who cried 'genocide' will be justified in their accusation. If those who matter and those who make decisions, simply move on to take care of the displaced, dispossessed, injured and bereaved, there is still some hope for the people of this island. 

The LTTE campaign was sustained financially and politically by those who were not about to enter the fray and risk their own lives. That which they have nurtured at a low cost, will they now abandon as a lost cause? The Tigers have hurt Sri Lankan Tamils as much as they have the Sri Lankan state, but will anyone remember that in the romance and nostalgia that will probably envelop the movement's most prominent and recent martyrs? The idea of Eelam will not die with the dead Tiger leadership. Some cannot forget; some will not allow it to be forgotten. What new forms of Sri Lankan (and pan-) Tamil nationalism can we anticipate in the aftermath of this violent end to a violent movement? Or is it even an end? 

Beyond the campaign and the humanitarian crisis, remain the grievances that caused the alienation of the Sri Lankan Tamils from a state they had helped found in 1948. Any post-campaign dispensation that merely deals with humanitarian issues and fails to seriously re-engage with these in search for a political solution is simply a post-campaign and not a post-conflict dispensation. 

The campaign is over, not the conflict. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Southasian Worldview

Himal Southasian decided to spell South Asia as one word and I think it's time to introduce that style element into this blog as well. They have their reasons for doing this; to me, it reinforces the reality of our interdependent existence in this region: as a civilizational zone, as a region geographically set apart and as what Barry Buzan called, a security complex.

Living and working in Chennai, it is easy to forget you live in a large, extremely diverse world. If at all, conditions around you conspire to connect you to a universe beyond Southasia through Korean car companies, Finnish mobile phone manufacturers or American firms that have found new premises in the Chennai hinterland. But the rest of India and Southasia were probably never further away, and notwithstanding the grandstanding, this includes Sri Lanka.

I think therefore that it is time for this blog, this blogger to return to her home discipline and to take a look at what's happening in this region, one state at a time.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

That could be me

Swarna Rajagopalan, What it means to be a woman in India, New Indian Express, November 25, 2008.

What it means to be a woman in India

The most chilling news items remind you that you had a narrow escape. “That could be me.” India’s declining juvenile sex ratio is a good example. Take the decade I was born. According to the 1961 Census of India, there were 941 girls per 1000 boys and by 1971, this figure had declined to 930. What good fortune made me part of the 941 and 930 rather than the 59 and 70 girls who did not survive? Most rapists are known to be the victim, and a horrendous number (around 75 per cent) are members of the family or its inner circle. Most middle class Indians grow up in large extended families, open households where family and friends come and go. If we did not experience this devastating combination of violence and betrayal of trust, to what do we owe our good fortune? Marriage is all-important in our society; how many parents of brides are able to resist last minute demands for dowry? According to official records, the number of dowry deaths is actually growing from year to year. If we have not been charred by kerosene burns, what did we do to deserve that escape? “That could be me” comes with two imperatives: a debt to repay and the duty of empathy.

Our lucky escapes create a debt to society.

How do we make the world as safe for others as it has been for us? How do we show the less fortunate in our circle that we are not blind to their trauma? In a society that cloaks family violence as shame and codes violence against women in the public arena as “provoked”, what is the opportunity we make to end our silence? The second imperative is to acknowledge that there is no difference between those who have become victims and survivors of violence and those who have escaped this fate. Most women anywhere can recall some day, some time, some place, some person, and some trigger that makes them shudder inwardly at what might have been.

“That could be me.” And if there is no difference, then your trauma is my trauma and my strength should be yours.

Among activists and scholars in this area, it is a truism to say that violence follows women through their life-cycle.

With pre-natal sex selection becoming more and more popular in spite of all the legal measures against it, even birth is a chancy affair. Sexual violence, structural violence and violence in the name of the community haunt their lives, making life a series of traumas or lucky escapes.

Unfortunately, as a society, we trivialise this violence. We are beginning to code sex selection as reproductive choice or family planning. We euphemistically refer to street sexual harassment as eve teasing. We are unflagging in our efforts to reunite battered wives with their abusive spouses and in-laws because we tag their attempt to survive as family dishonour.

We have an endless encyclopaedia of excuses for abuse deficiencies in the wife, failure to deliver dowry, frustration at work that are trotted out in our entertainment media uncritically as reflections of our culture.

The fact however is: Violence against women is violence. It is not passion. It is not lust. Not provocation. Neither catharsis, nor punishment. Just brute force, coercion, violence.

And once we open our minds to this, we know that violence against women is one strand in a larger story. It is related to other forms of violence against those who are powerless children and sexual minorities, for instance. The term “gender violence” recognises this interconnectedness. By “gender violence” we mean violence that is experienced by anyone by virtue of their being a woman, man, girl, boy or aravani. It includes sexual violence of all sorts as well as socially sanctioned practices like dowry-death, honour killings or sati.

Because women and sexuality are the most sensitive markers of a community’s identity, the inclusion of these practices in such a list is contentious than the practice itself.

Further, gender violence is related to other forms of violence in society. Although it gives the impression of being personal, with individual victim and perpetrator, it connects easily to other fault lines of violence, such as class, caste and community. It is easier to perpetrate across these fault lines and even stands in for these, almost as if thereby limiting collateral damage! That is, it would seem easier in a riot to rape women than to stage street fights. It would seem easier to abduct girls from refugee camps than to sit at a negotiating table. Certainly, those who would rape or molest or harass would be more likely to pick victims with less social power than they domestic workers, poor relatives, orphans.

Crises exaggerate existing vulnerabilities.

Thus, intimate partner violence and family violence rise with levels of militarization in a society. In times of disaster or conflict, levels of violence within the household and in the neighbourhood go up.

Now recognised as a public health crisis, because gender violence routinely affects those with the least power, it does not attract attention. Nevertheless, the cost to society of providing health care and counselling to victims and the cost to the economy of their lost working days mount, as do levels of violence. Children are brutalised by experiencing and witnessing violence; we are raising a generation prone to violence, desensitised to it and accepting of it as one language of interpersonal and social relationships.

November 25 is the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. This year in Chennai, Prajnya and partner organizations, including The New Indian Express, have put together a full schedule of public education events and activities as part of the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. A popular strategy worldwide, the 16 Days Campaign begins on November 25 and culminates on Human Rights Day, December 10.

Remember, this too could be you. Do your part. Speak out against this pervasive social malaise. Because gender violence hurts us all.

© Copyright 2008 ExpressBuzz

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Security and mobility

Security in a world of people on the move

Published in on March 31, 2009

Open societies, unfettered communication, easy travel, free interaction between people, ideas and goods are all desirable factors of an increasingly mobile world. But what are the security consequences of this increased mobility? How should one monitor or regulate the flow of people?

No one is an island; this cliché reflects the peripatetic nature of the human experience. In our own region, far from being isolated and unchanging, Indians have always been part of a world in motion, encountering traders, missionaries, scholars, explorers, monks, raiders, invaders and settlers as part of their everyday social reality, across the length and breadth of this subcontinent. In turn, people from the Indian subcontinent have also travelled outside. What has changed, as writers on this present phase of globalisation point out, is that these encounters have become more numerous, intense and frequent. Moreover, they occur in a climate of greater interconnectedness, both in the sense of interdependence and connectivity.
The most common metaphors for the international state system in traditional scholarship are balls on a billiards table and sealed, mutually exclusive, black boxes. During all of the decades that theories were written about these, humans were bustling about, moving from here to there, across greater and greater distances. Needless to say, there are many ways in which security affects this predisposition of humans to reach out, move and interact; and this mobility makes a difference to security.
In South Asia, since the 1980s, the idea that increased travel, trade and people-to-people contact would build confidence and trust between adversarial neighbours has become conventional wisdom. The scope of multi-track interactions and dialogue programmes slowly expanded far beyond the elite Neemrana process (which continues) to include many other sections of Indian and Pakistani citizenry. Some of these initiatives also brought in professionals from other South Asian countries. Increased interaction and exchange in sports, arts and entertainment have further extended this to popular culture. And over almost three decades, it seems clear that these processes have wrought what might be an irrevocable change in the climate surrounding India-Pakistan relations.
On the flip side, not double-bolting the door would seem to make it easier to break the lock and enter. That is one lesson that has been read from transborder training and transport of militants and the Mumbai terror attacks. The ease with which money is now exchanged, apartments rented, SIM cards bought and replaced and calls made back and forth in the middle of shoot-outs, suggests that opening doors is tantamount to opening the floodgates to insecurity.
The relationship between increased contact -- specifically travel and migration -- and security is hardly a straightforward one. That is the proposition that this essay explores.
The impress of migration
In this day and age, a person who has never moved, never met anyone who has and has no family history of migration is most likely a fictional character.
Most of our lives bear the impress of migration over generations. Many of these took place in search of employment or better prospects. Sometimes relocation was necessitated by disaster or ecological damage. Sometimes people were displaced by conflict or had to move for political reasons. Families carry the memories of these multiple migrations as oft-repeated stories, treasured photographs, food habits, celebrations, a taste for particular colours or practices and quite often, nostalgia for lost worlds that in fact no longer exist. Individuals inherit these and on occasion, craft and articulate from these elements ideologies of belonging and alienation.
In addition, the worlds of international education and multinational companies contribute millions of individuals who move for long periods, but not necessarily permanently, to new places. So do government officials on delegation abroad. Such individuals come to belong to many places at once, and combine their cosmopolitan experience with particular memories of belonging and alienation and a consciousness of identities that could transcend political divisions.
Salman Rushdie is a good example. As much a New Yorker or a Londoner as a global Indian, his writing expresses the repository of his Indian memories and imaginings as much as it does the cosmopolitan nature of his own experiences.
But migration is not just an international experience, of course. Within a nation-state, within India too, people move for years on end without changing their ‘native place’ or their ‘permanent address.’ Students in hostels, including the long-term residents of university hostels, leave their homes and meet and live with people from across the country, homesickness and discovery twin strands of their interaction. From their shared experience and in their conversations, each cohort fashions a new India. So it is with Indians who have what we describe as ‘transferrable jobs’. In their homes, housing colonies and clubhouses, they forge a new community within India’s existing mosaic—those who belong everywhere but go home to their ‘native place’ in the summer.
Less exalted but as omnipresent are migrants without address or appointment letter. Many of them pour into cities looking for a livelihood, leaving an agrarian India that is in distress. Sometimes the distress is compounded by disaster or economic policies like Special Economic Zones.
Forced migration is a category unto itself, and conflict, disaster and trafficking are three contexts in which it takes place. Forced migration not only affects the most vulnerable in a society, but also reinforces their vulnerability to further exploitation.
This rubric of ‘people on the move’ (used also by the Commission on Human Security) must also include those who undertake short-term travel, for business, for pleasure, on missions (humanitarian or evangelical) and for meetings as small as a seminar and as large as the World Social Forum. These journeys expose travellers and hosts to difference and diversity, and create albums full of impressions and experiences that add new colours to their worldview. The political economic structures and the amenities that facilitate short-term travel of this sort have their own impact on security, as we will see. Armchair travel through mass media and the Internet is another dimension, but we will place it on the backburner for now.
So what? Lessons for security scholars
Embedded (but seldom explicitly articulated) in the way scholars and policymakers viewed security is the view that change is not a desirable option. But the narrative of a world full of people on the move is a narrative of change at many levels: location, story, experience, identity and attitude at the individual level, and law, permission to enter, assimilation and integration at the collective level. Mobility creates an altered context at the point of departure, the transit points and the host setting, as well as the traveller/migrant and people along the way. On the one hand, we inhabit a time and place where nothing and no one stands still, and on the other, we embed 'stability' into the way we understand security, adding tension to the complex interplay between reality and concept, mobility and security.
The search for security as a push factor for mobility
Like every other term we use to describe human experience, ‘the search for security’ is really a continuum of conditions: from acute physical insecurity (for instance, those fleeing genocide) to a search for better livelihood security (such as migration following drought). Flight is the one category of migration that is most obviously admissible into an exploration of the relationship between mobility and security.
Genocide may be the most dramatic reason for human flight, but whether a political situation may be described as genocide is often a central conflict issue. Violent political repression nevertheless constitutes one reason for people to move. Examples, unfortunately, abound—for instance, the Holocaust, the flight of East Pakistanis in 1971, the Rwandan genocide, recent crises in Burma and Darfur.
Conflicts, between States, within States and between groups within a State, create unliveable conditions for ordinary people. Rivals in the conflict create the conditions for evacuation as they repeatedly ‘clear’ villages. As the battlelines get drawn and re-drawn across a conflict-affected area, people are shunted from camp to camp. Sometimes the journey takes them back to their original hometowns, but with streets and homes altered beyond recognition. Tamils and Sinhalese living in the borderzones of the Sri Lankan conflict have lived this experience for a generation.
For some refugees, displacement does not just become a way of life, but also their identity marker. Jews and Palestinians both exemplify how a history of flight and dispersal can come to mark the collective identity and political agenda of a people. Closer home, more than 60 years after the partition of India, those who moved to Pakistan from different parts of India are still Muhajirs. Recognition of a separate identity on this basis has been a political issue for representatives of this community. The departure of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir at the start of the insurgency and Tamils from Sri Lanka after the July 1983 riots are recent examples.
Violent conflict, insurgency and military action all have the consequence of displacing people. But obviously, people have also fled for other reasons. Religious repression or persecution and a fear of cultural extinction are also push factors. Zoroastrians fled Persia, the Pilgrim Fathers Britain, Jews Nazi territories and most recently, Tibetans Tibet for this reason. Flight and the circumstances preceding and/ or following it continue to colour their identities.
Migration also follows natural disasters. Dramatic disasters like the 2004 tsunami, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, destroy homes, families and livelihoods. In some western States, asylum is now occasionally extended to encompass other humanitarian grounds such as escaping harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation or honour killing.
The search for livelihood security takes migrant workers to urban centres and even foreign countries, where they may or may not settle and assimilate. The search for survival often means just a minimum wage job and a space on the pavement to sleep -- no more than a step away from the original bad situation. However, the migrant seems to stand out and provoke nativist ire, whether it is the non-Maharashtrian resident in Mumbai or the North African guestworker in Europe.
In fact, in most of these cases, migration does not necessarily create security; it merely removes the individual or the group from one set of immediate dangers to another set of vulnerabilities.
People on the move = proliferating insecurity?
A world of people on the move, for security or other reasons, has consequences for security as well—within and across borders. Here we look briefly at four categories of problems that emanate or are exacerbated by population mobility.
Insiders and outsiders
In India, Bombay/ Mumbai has been the ultimate dream-destination for generations. But in the last 50 years, we have witnessed increasing xenophobia in a city whose greatness was built on the enterprise and effort of migrants from many communities. A twinning of anxieties—cultural and economic—creates situations in which nativist groups hold to ransom the security of individuals and families and this creates a law and order crisis in the city. The security crisis that follows affects economic activity and is sometimes so acute, as with the Bombay riots of 1992-93, as to prompt migrants to reverse their journeys.
But nativism is not restricted to Bombay or even just cities. There is an impulse in contemporary politics to identify land with language/culture and define jurisdiction in terms of this territorialised entity. Furthermore, people realise and political leaders exploit and mobilise, around the political consequences of demographic change in a majoritarian democracy, where the numbers of one community are perceived as rising faster than others. The Assam agitation of the 1980s was a response to such a perception. Migration, largely illegal, from Bangladesh was seen as upsetting the electoral balance in Assam. Assamese-speakers already felt that their space was diminished by the creation of new states in northeast India. The appearance of migrants’ names on electoral rolls raised questions about belonging, citizenship and the right to vote that snowballed into a very violent student-led agitation.
Nor is this restricted to India. Where access to employment and opportunity are predicated on knowing the host-country’s language, the inability or refusal of migrants to learn that language locks them into a marginal existence in the host-country. With growing numbers, the market sometimes turns bilingual or multilingual, long before society is ready for it. Debates in the US over the adoption of Spanish as a second language and controversy in France over head-scarves presage the kind of violence that suburban Paris saw a couple of years ago in immigrant neighbourhoods.
What form should the integration of the migrant take? Should the migrant assimilate? Should a society embrace its emerging multicultural identity? Migration and the presence of migrants thus return us to questions about the founding, composition and nature of a given polity, pointing to the potential for these questions to become security crises.
Forced to move, future uncertain
Those forced to move are more often than not below the radar, undocumented, unprotected, disenfranchised and unrepresented. As such, they face every kind of insecurity, and having nothing to lose, are ripe for recruitment for a variety of purposes—from sex work to criminal activities to militant operations.
Those who move because of the outbreak of violence or because of a disaster do not necessarily move to a better situation. Sometimes they remain homeless for a long time; their ability to earn a living is often diminished and their children's access to schooling interrupted by their shifting from one transit point to another.
The internally displaced are the worst-off. There are no legal frameworks or protections that govern the way they are treated. They are both visible as intruders into a new space and invisible as populations needing special assistance. In the crowd of the city (which inevitably draws them), they are indistinguishable from other migrants and therefore, unprotected from nativist ire although they may have had far less choice as to whether to flee and where to go.
In some cases, especially where flight from a conflict is to specially designated camps, conflict parties use these spaces to indoctrinate and recruit. The Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan became the nursery for the Taliban, with young soldiers replenishing the ranks of fallen mujahideen.
For women, camps create special insecurities. The incidence of gender violence rises in any crisis situation and displacement is certainly one. Absence of simple amenities creates health problems, and project designs predicated on patriarchal conditions sometimes leave them no access to nutrition or compensation. Women and children become very vulnerable to both sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Trafficked women and children form a last category of forced migrants. They have virtually no bargaining position even to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases or HIV and AIDS. Their insecurities patently increase after they are trafficked, and on every level. In turn, unable to protect themselves, they unwittingly become the vectors of disease with their clients, contributing to a public health crisis that is large enough to constitute a long-term security threat to most societies and States.
Diaspora support for conflicts
The role of diaspora communities in supporting conflict is well-documented. For every political refugee who lands on new shores to rebuild her life in a quieter environment, there are expatriate communities active in the politics of either or both their host-State and their home-State.
The United States is home to several examples. Irish-Americans as a community were divided along the same lines as the conflict in the country they had long left behind. Jewish-Americans have been a key factor in the making of US Middle East policy. Most recently, Indian-Americans replicate both the cultural and political divisions of India in the US, and lobby US lawmakers to promote their viewpoints. As with the Irish and other groups, Indian-American groups are also engaged with Indian social and political issues, lending support to organisations with which they sympathise.
Two recent examples of South Asian militancies that have received enormous expatriate support are the movements for Khalistan and Eelam. Both have become textbook cases for global mobilisation, fund-raising, diversification and networking.
In some cases, the expatriate community is also an easy target for extortion. Guilt and nostalgia work together to make them donors towards causes that they have actually tried to escape.
Expanding horizons, proliferating risks
Short trips for business and pleasure and long stays for business and education have become more common in the last 50 years than at any time in history. In order to promote business and tourism, States have eased visa and currency regulations so that it is possible to make a trip on impulse to another country, get a visa on arrival and withdraw local currency out of an ATM to which your own bank affiliates. If you travel to this destination frequently, you might even own a local phone SIM or a phone which accommodates multiple SIMs. But it is not just business travellers, tourists, students and Indian parents and their NRI children who can avail these facilities.
Replacing the old hawala transactions and cloak-and-dagger entries into a new State, are the conveniences of a shrinking world in the age of globalisation. Transnational criminal organisations were the first to avail these facilities but terrorist groups have not been far behind. In fact, these changes in the political-economic environment have certainly facilitated linkages between transnational criminal organisations and terror outfits.
Another consequence of which we have become aware in the last decade or so is the threat to public health. The world learned an important lesson when avian flu first broke out: travellers inadvertently become vectors of infection. Travel advisories are now issued in the interest both of the traveller and the public health scenario in a given State. Nevertheless, the spread of the epidemic has been rapid each time.
Moral of the story
Is insecurity the cause of mobility or its opportunity cost? The answer appears to be “all of the above”.
The most common visuals to symbolise ‘security’ are all about denial of access: padlock, locked door, gate, wall, an encircling fence. Ironically, the feeling of security is experienced as freedom, breathing easily and a relaxed state of being. Where the impulse to open up the fortress and the imperative to pull up the drawbridge exercise an equally compelling appeal, we act out this very contrast.
This essay has described both the way in which different kinds of insecurity prompt short and long-term, forced and voluntary migration, as well as the security ramification of various migration and travel situations. The question that remains is the practical one: What to do about this?
Where insecurity causes people to move out, the answer is simply stated but merely points to several other Pandora’s Boxes: solve the problems that make people leave. For now, we will leave it at that.
The challenge of dealing with the security consequences of mobility is greater. There is enough that is desirable about open societies, unfettered communication, easy travel, free interaction between people and exchange of ideas and goods, and arguably, the preferences, habits and systems related to these are too entrenched to change even if it were not desirable. Therefore, the answer lies in finding ways to monitor, even regulate, the flow of people rather than stop it.
However, the moment you say ‘monitor’ or ‘regulate’ you step into grey areas: how much, how, who decides, who arbitrates? The ancient freedom versus order debate is relevant again, and all of human thinking related to it. It reminds us that these questions are not new, that many answers have been tried and this open, interconnected world in which we live may in fact be the best answer for this time. So we return to the drawing board to think about who we are and how we relate to each other—crossing lines all the time, on the map and elsewhere.
(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.)
InfoChange News & Features, April 2009
Nayan Chanda, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, (2007) narrates humanity’s peripatetic history.
Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, “Globalization: What’s New? What’s Not? (And So What?),” in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, 2nd ed., ed by David Held and Anthony McGrew. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005: 75-83.
There has been a great deal of writing on these initiatives by participants. A sampling: • Sundeep Waslekar, Track-Two Diplomacy in South Asia, ACDIS Occasional Papers, 1995,• Aqil Shah, Non-Official Dialogue between India and Pakistan: Prospects and Problems, ACDIS Occasional Paper, 1997,• Navnita Chadha Behera, Paul M. Evans and Gowher Rizvi, Beyond boundaries: A report on the state of non-official dialogues on peace, security & cooperation in South Asia, Ford Foundation, 1997;• Chetan Kumar, “Citizens’ Initiatives in South Asia: Lessons from the Indo-Pak Conflict,” in Security and South Asia: Ideas, Institutions and Initiatives, edited by Swarna Rajagopalan, Routledge, 2006, 179-199.
This is a point that Benedict Anderson makes in his now-classic Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991.
“Chapter 3: People on the Move,” Human Security Now, Final Report of the Commission on Human Security, 2003,

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Security and democracy

Security and democracy
Published in on January 28, 2009

After the Mumbai terror attacks a loud and angry public called for anything from action to revenge. On the other hand, the government chose to react slowly and diplomatically. What was the correct democratic option? Swarna Rajagopalanexplore the labyrinthine relationship between ‘security’ and ‘democracy’

There is a profound, complex and symbiotic relationship between security and democracy. Most typically, civil rights activists see security concerns as inimical to democracy, and security sector decisionmakers rue the constraints placed by democratic processes on their functioning. The terror attacks in Mumbai and their aftermath suggest it may be time for a more thoughtful reading. 

Live reportage by 24-hour news channels brought the full horror of the attacks and the efforts of security officers into millions of homes around the world. Reporters stood just outside the line of fire, trying to get updates where they could, functioning as professionals but reacting like human beings to this completely new experience. News was leaked and interviews were given. Reporters probed survivors and stopped short of giving terrorists air-time. Those who were ‘handling’ the terrorists also watched television updates of security operations in real-time and communicated these to their operatives. Emotions ran high everywhere, onscreen and off, onsite and off. 

These emotions have found outlets in the large attendance at police funerals; candlelight vigils; protest rallies and countless online initiatives from petitions to groups on social networks to acrimonious discussions on listserves. Television channels have vied with each other to pay tribute, with news channels inviting entertainers and entertainment channels incorporating courage, martyrdom and patriotism as themes in their programming. 

“Something must be done; I must do something.” While this feeling has been expressed as outrage and solidarity by citizens across India, on television in particular, it has taken the form of an aggressive push for accountability and a steady pressure for firm, assertive and unforgiving action against the perpetrators and their backers, especially Pakistan. At first glance, with so many giving up their customary apathy, there seemed to be a democratic revolution brewing in middle class India. But at second glance, many complex issues are visible. 

Should war and peace decisions be made emotionally? Where do we draw the line between expecting the government to be responsive to popular pressure and using its discretion?  Similarly, how far should citizens trust the government to make good decisions based on intelligence when intelligence failures allowed the attack to happen? 

There are four values that democracy imposes on all policy arenas, including security. These are transparency, accountability, responsiveness and rule of law. Traditional security thinking on the other hand depends on discretion (if not secrecy), room to manoeuvre, authority to act and impunity. In this article, we explore the various facets of the labyrinthine relationship between ‘security’ and ‘democracy,’ rubrics that we will treat as monolithic and axiomatic for now. 

Security and democracy: Free-fall in tandem 

The various conflicts subsumed under the shorthand ‘Kashmir’ clearly illustrate how State-formation related issues are  key to security and democracy and how the two can interface to their mutual detriment.  

When there is a dispute regarding the physical limits of the State, the State’s security is challenged. However, the process of staking and consolidating territorial claims comes with a cost to democracy. Stationing armies, cordoning off areas and limiting public access are starting points, often followed by press embargoes and therefore, limited public access to information. The outbreak of hostilities from time to time underscores to each side in the dispute the importance of militarising the disputed area. As anxiety about territorial security mounts, control over political processes begins to seem desirable. Merely stationing and equipping army units does not feel like an adequate measure. 

In Kashmir, this meant interference in elections and state governments. Democracy was undermined, at least partly under the guise of security considerations. The consequence was that the Indian State’s legitimacy was eroded in the Valley. The insurgency followed, with the additional complications of cross-border training and infiltration and linkages to global jihadi trends. The Kashmiri dream of self-determination was once more articulated in the course of the insurgency. A third party was added to the contentious question of what territories (and peoples) make up India and Pakistan. 

‘Kashmir’ illustrates how security and democracy decline together, each facilitating the other in free-fall. Border disputes lead to militarisation; militarisation leads to restrictions of movement and information flow; restrictions are reinforced by political manoeuvres; these erode the legitimacy of the State; challenges to a State increasingly perceived as illegitimate and the State’s defence are expressed through escalating levels of violence. This expands the referent of security from the State to its citizenry, caught in the crossfire, constraints placed on their freedoms. 

The task of an analyst or news anchor is substantially easier than that of a government decisionmaker. The location of the decisionmaker within a labyrinth of favours and compromises and a legacy of precedents leaves her looking at options with a zero-sum lens. Given a contentious physical definition, should she move to resolve that issue in her favour or should she prioritise the ideational self-definition of her democratic State over its physical consolidation? 

Security and democracy: The governance connection 

If Kashmir illustrates security and democracy in mutually reinforced free-fall, is there a circumstance in which security and democracy reinforce each other in the other direction? Backsliding from previous articles in this series, so far, this article has taken a traditional view of security. What if we were to return to looking at security as referring to more than States and physical safety? Would this democracy-security relationship look less like a zero-sum game? Would these two values reinforce each other? 

In the many conflicts in northeastern India, a common thread relates to governance failure. In Assam, for instance, the failure to take cognizance of the changes in the demographic as a result of migration and the carving out of smaller states, led to an anti-migrant agitation. In Tripura, furthermore, an overall breakdown of law and order plus a piecemeal attitude to reconciling the interests of various groups within the state has created an untenable situation which is neither secure nor conducive to public welfare. 

In Sri Lanka, responding to majoritarian demands led to alienation of the minority. Pacts signed between the government and the Tamils were repeatedly repudiated. Repeated breach of trust culminated in the rise of militant groups. Violence escalated and governance failures snowballed. Sri Lanka’s early lead in development indicators and the efforts of a vibrant civil society have preserved the process and practice of democracy in circumstances least conducive to it. 

In the Maldives, under the long Gayoom presidency, civil rights remained notional and while elections were held, the peculiar circumstances of Maldives’ geography and society meant they served as endorsements rather than elections. Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture in what the opposition termed the ‘Dhoonidhoo Hilton’, the atoll-state’s most notorious island prison, were commonplace. Lack of democracy and the absence of security for individuals went hand-in-hand. 

Equity and fairness, law and order and the rule of law are important elements of good governance. They are also critical to both security and democracy. Afghanistan illustrates how the absence of security endangers democracy even as the Maldives illustrated how the abandonment of democracy creates insecurity. Is good governance then the common ground between security and democracy? Quite possibly. 

Democratic voices, security concerns 

After the Mumbai attacks, when people on the street, commentators and television news channels argued with increasing vehemence for swift action, commandos moved cautiously and the government seemed almost reluctant to act. The commandos’ caution was explained in terms of the need to save lives and not indulge in indiscriminate firing. Going beyond accusations of incompetence, what slowed the Government of India’s response? 

International relations theorists in the last decade or so have delighted in their discovery of a near-theory in a field that abounds in contradictions and intangibles. The ‘Democratic Peace’ theory holds that democratic States do not go to war with each other. One explanation for this is that the process of decisionmaking in democracies is slow. The movement of a plan of action from one arm of government to the other is determined by due process. This also allows civil society to weigh in on alternatives, and governments have necessarily to respond to the questions and demands of the public. 

In the context of the Mumbai attacks, it seems as though two symbols of democratic decisionmaking were antagonistically juxtaposed. On the one hand, a loud and angry public called for anything from action to revenge. On the other hand, the government seemed to choose this very moment to react slowly and diplomatically, reflecting the cumbersome nature of decisionmaking in a democracy. What was the correct democratic option? What was the democratic option that furthered the State and the citizenry’s security? 

The answer, in the case of security issues, we are led to believe, often lies with experts and practitioners. The role of secrecy in strategic thinking and security action comes to colour all security matters. Because secrecy is associated with security, only a few people are privy to information relating to security, and because information or intelligence is a critical component of decisionmaking, over time, the right to speak about and contribute to decisions in the area of security comes to be restricted to a small network of experts. In fact, scholars note that to label something ‘security’ is both to raise its priority level in the political arena as well as to throw a cordon of secrecy around it. 

The idea that decisions should be informed and thought-through is universally acceptable. The catch is that experts do not necessarily have perfect information, and that communication failures also abound in government circles. In this age of online news and 24-hour channels, many experts also gather their information from the same resources as lay citizens. So who should get to speak about security? 

Democracy’s answer is: everyone. Especially because everyone feels the impact of security decisions or inaction, there should be no bar on who can speak their mind and expect a hearing. In an Aristotelian turn, democracy’s dilemma is whether to yield to the security oligarchs or the emotions of the crowd. Neither choice is perfect. While security is indeed too important to be left to experts, the citizenry at large do not take a sustained interest in the issues and when they demand action, it is in an emotional moment, unfettered by perspective or responsibility for consequences. Had we listened to the loudest voices of late- November, what would the ravages of war have been in the subcontinent as 2009 dawned? 

In India, for decades, foreign policy was sacred and the establishment worked around a consensus. There was not much by way of debate. Think-tanks were and are largely populated by former government and military officials. There is continuity in their thinking that reinforces this consensus culture. The media is increasingly willing to challenge security thinking, but it exists in a symbiotic relationship with decisionmakers and is limited by this. Social movements have an episodic interest in the traditional security sector and their positions do not reflect an evolving alternative strategic vision. 

What then does democracy mean in the context of security decisionmaking? The workings of democracy slow down security decisionmaking. The fear of electoral reprisal dissuades leaders from making dramatic changes and taking tough decisions; it also makes them vulnerable to popular pressure. Citizen journalism is yet another factor now. The increase in the number of actors, media and fora results in a corresponding increase in the number of gatekeepers—editors, censors, regulators—who make the call of what is ‘security’ and therefore, out of bounds, and what is grist to the democratic mill. The tightrope between the secrecy of security considerations and giving a free media the right to report results usually in excesses on either side. The right to information has been recognised but its limits for the security sector are not fully tested as yet. 

Citizenship, civil society and security 

Sometimes an active civil society can mediate between the anxieties of a State and the aspirations of its citizens. Civil society however, is an amorphous category that comprises both benevolent actors such as social movements, religious organisations, neighbourhood associations and civic initiatives, as well as malevolent actors such as the political fronts of extremist organisations and charitable fronts of organised crime. A broad schedule of rights, laws and platforms provides the frame for the interaction between State and civil society in general. In order to curtail the activities of the less-than-civil elements within civil society, sometimes this frame needs to be modified. 

For instance, Dawood Ibrahim’s gang orchestrated the 1993 blasts in Mumbai, using the freedom of movement and association they were guaranteed by India’s democratic Constitution. However, their actions took several lives, placed countless others in limbo as the journey to justice dragged on and highlighted urban India’s vulnerabilities to others who have exploited them many times over. 

In the context of this security-democracy discussion, how could this have been prevented? Arguably, the track record of Mumbai’s underworld would justify restrictions on their movement, association and access. However, democracy requires that without evidence, such restrictions be placed across the board or not at all. You cannot pick someone out of the crowd and make a different set of rules for them without a convincing case for the same, heard by a neutral arbiter. Similarly, in the context of riots of the sort the preceded the blasts, are people to be free to propagate, teach and train hatred and violence? 

Each set of blasts and each communal riot opens up this question about balancing security and democracy. The challenge is not rhetorical, however, but that of teasing out the threshold between two extremes of bans and censorship on the one hand, and literally, a licence to kill on the other. 

To conclude, this discussion actually brings us right back to our refrains of ‘what is security’ and ‘whose security’. What is clear is that when security is defined very narrowly to refer to those in power, there is an automatic degradation of democratic values. The security and survival of a regime matters more than the rights and freedoms of those who are outside that regime. When security refers to the State itself, its territory, people, values and institutions, it is more inclusive and therefore more amenable to rules about transparency, responsiveness and accountability. When security goes beyond survival and beyond the State to refer to the safety and welfare of individuals, it becomes something bigger than a policy area: it is now an attribute of good governance. To the extent they choose to participate, the right to define, the right to interpret and the right to participate in decisionmaking debates extends to all who are being thus secured. The once-antagonistic values of security and democracy are now mutually inalienable. 

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.)