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.) 

Security lessons amid disaster ruins

Security lessons amid disaster ruins

Disasters like the tsunami are so destructive that in their wake, everything has to be rebuilt. This destruction actually leaves a blank slate upon which societies can inscribe more equitable norms, more sustainable structures and more rational processes, says Swarna Rajagopalan on the fourth anniversary of the Asian tsunami


Four years ago, early on the morning on December 26, my bed shook violently but I turned and went back to sleep, not thinking that disaster was about to strike Chennai in a little while. It had already struck the coasts of Indonesia and Thailand and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but in Chennai, lulled to a pleasant winter night’s rest by the music season, our wake-up call was still about an hour away. For everyone in a tsunami-affected area, this is a ‘where were you when…’ moment that we will never forget—either in grief or in gratitude.

In that moment when a disaster strikes, life changes irrevocably. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes and other disasters, natural and manmade, are milestones in the human story, serving both as endpoints and starting lines. The deluge that bookends mythical epochs across cultures as well as the words we use (disaster, catastrophe, calamity) reflect our awareness that disasters are significant beyond their physical consequences. The frequent clubbing together of disasters and conflicts in relief and reconstruction contexts as well as impact comparisons suggests that these are comparable in the way they reflect pre-existing insecurities and inequities on the one hand, and in their disruptive ways. The fourth anniversary of the Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami that hit communities all the way from Indonesia to Somalia is an appropriate time to reflect on what disasters teach us about security.

By causing death, destruction of property and displacement, disasters rend the social fabric of a community. Spouses are lost or killed, children orphaned and families separated so that the most immediate source of security and support is lost to individuals in affected communities. The home is the site where women work and spend the most time, and the loss of the home is more to them than the loss of a physical shelter. From this emotional trauma follow many practical challenges. Who will take in the children, especially adolescents? How bereaved parents will rebuild their families and who will make decisions about this, is another issue.

Disproportionately more women and girls die during disasters.1 Right after the tsunami, an Oxfam report provided several instances, such as Cuddalore where there were 391 female deaths to 14 male and Aceh where only 189 out of 676 survivors were female.2 The fact that girls don’t learn to swim, it was found, contributed to their inability to save themselves. As death, trafficking and displacement alter the sex ratio of a community, other insecurities arise, especially for women. Early marriage, forced marriage, forced polyandry and a loss of reproductive rights are some of these; after the tsunami, there were many cases where women felt they had to opt for recanalisation surgery in order to rebuild their families.

When women survive the disaster, the relief environment is often hostile to them at multiple levels. Their most immediate needs for privacy, hygiene and safe and clean sanitation are seldom met. Relief planning has traditionally been centred around male heads of households, and while this is changing, the personal needs of women and girls still get overlooked when camps are set up and amenities distributed. A place to bathe, change and wash that is safely accessible at all times without fear of teasing, stalking or molestation is a simple need which unmet, creates tremendous strain, insecurity and health problems for women and girls.

When livelihoods are destroyed, as the tsunami did when it destroyed boats, how are families to pick themselves up and start over? The loss of livelihood is a challenge that aid packages do not address. Where the development process has encouraged a diversification of livelihoods, through the teaching of other skills especially, people have something of a safety net. Where a community depends on one source of income and one kind of work, recovery is particularly long-drawn-out. Women preponderantly work in the agricultural and informal sectors which disaster seems to disrupt most. Finally, the organisation and delivery of disaster relief is also a problem when the heads of households are killed or displaced, and when the household is separated. Even today, disaster relief all too often is designed around male heads of households, making it difficult for surviving females, alone or as heads of households, to access any sort of help. In their consequences, natural disasters reflect and perpetuate existing injustices.

The loss of family and livelihood increases vulnerability to violence even as disasters, like other moments of crisis, seem to lead to increased levels of violence in society. Child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation are likely to become more common after a disaster, according to a 2005 World Health Organisation report.3

Disasters displace five times the number of people than are displaced by conflict, with the numbers being estimated to cross 200 million each year. The same report adds that displaced persons living in a disaster-affected area are especially vulnerable because they are already cobbling together a living, away from their homes and original livelihoods. Moreover, because the presence of large numbers of refugees sometimes contributes to environmental degradation, the area itself is more vulnerable.4 If there are multiple communities of displaced people in an area, resentments arise between them when the levels of international, state and community support to each community varies.

Where civil society is weak or exists in opposition to the state, there are simply fewer hands on deck; information and resource-sharing are problematic and political considerations trump humanitarian ones. The Maldives and Burma are good illustrations. The impact of the tsunami in the Maldives facilitated a brief period of cooperative engagement between nascent civil society groups, which seized the moment to draw attention to the movement for reforms. The grudging political concessions yielded in the aftermath of disaster became the first steps to the democratic transition the atoll-state saw in 2008. In Burma, while the space for political activism is extremely small, reports suggest that civil society organisations did manage to get relief materials and food to Cyclone Nargis-affected communities. The cyclone has provided an opportunity for them to prove their seriousness of purpose and also as in the Maldives, to draw attention to the military regime’s callousness and cupidity.5

There has also been some interest in whether disasters alter inter-state relationships.6The 2005 Kashmir earthquake necessitated the opening of transit points and communication links between the two sides of the ceasefire line between the two states, and thereby facilitated some confidence-building between the states. Conversely, the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir meant that sometimes the shortest route to deliver relief was not accessible to either side and in general, security considerations preclude joint disaster mitigation planning and information-sharing.

Disasters like the tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake and Cyclone Nargis are so destructive that in their wake, everything has to be rebuilt. This destruction actually creates a blank slate upon which societies can inscribe more equitable norms, more sustainable structures and more rational processes. But this is an opportunity that is squandered time and again.

Relief operations are predicated on existing social relationships and reconstruction assiduously puts back together the unequal playing field that nature destroys. Property rights are an example. If land titles are usually registered to men, it is hard to get that changed in favour of female heads of households. Assistance flows to those who are in a position to access it, and quite often that excludes those who need it most. In the aftermath of the tsunami, distribution of food in some parts of Tamil Nadu was organised along caste lines, recognising and reinforcing traditional dining protocols. Even the dire need of earthquake victims could not completely dismantle India and Pakistan’s anxiety about sharing intelligence and allowing overflight. 

Security for an individual begins with the right to life and is rounded off by the right to live well. Security for a community begins with the right to co-exist with other communities, explicated by cultural and economic rights. Security for a state should mean the security of individuals and communities within its territory as well as their institutions of governance, but it comes to refer to ever-narrower groups and sometimes to the survival of a specific political dispensation. Disasters undermine all these, and therefore, are arguably security crises in their own right.

Natural disasters do not target particular actors, groups or collective entities. Undermining national state and continental demarcations, razing to the ground resorts, government offices and tenements and engaging every willing hand in the operations that follow, they illustrate the limits of old ways of viewing politics (and the arena of policymaking) and security.

Deforestation on one side of an interstate border causes landslides and avalanches on every side. Floods redraw watershed maps without regard to administrative divisions. The use of air-conditioning in Hyderabad contributes to global warming and rising sea-levels which threaten coastal communities around the world. At the impact end, coping with a disaster like the 2002 Gujarat earthquake, all within one state’s limits, involves volunteers, resources and supplies from across the world. A global effort to coordinate relief and reconstruction was one of the earliest responses to the 2004 tsunami, with India using the moment to simultaneously assert its self-sufficiency and underscore that by despatching assistance to other affected areas. Natural disasters also pay no heed to the presence of security bases, battleships, cantonments and alas, nuclear installations, compounding every security threat manifold.

Disasters might in fact be described as security challenges. Recent scholarship includes ecological threats under the rubric of security; where environmental degradation causes disasters, by that logic, they are a security problem. On the other hand, the consequences of disasters create security problems in multiple ways whether through the economic pressure created by refugee flows, or the reconfiguration of landscapes, or the destruction of military facilities. Moreover, the frequent use of army, navy and air force resources for disaster relief underscores the disaster-security equation.

Disasters share with conventional security crises several characteristics. With the best technology and intelligence, they still catch us by surprise every time and just as we always prepare for the last terror strike we experience, we prepare for the last disaster and not the next. They present dramatic ruptures at the individual, community and state levels, and  disasters and conflicts alike illustrate how human actions, threats and vulnerabilities form a continuum or spectrum across these levels. The consequences of disasters and conventional security are both designated complex emergencies, with death, destruction and displacement being complicated by administrative crises, economic loss and the breakdown of order in everyday situations.

A series of terrible disasters hitting South Asia practically on-camera in the last decade, have raised our awareness of issues and challenges in disaster settings. We are also beginning to recognise the limitations of our responses, and that we do not seem to learn from our mistakes. A similar learning needs to happen with regard to security.

What could be some of these lessons that we learn, based on what disasters teach us? First, human beings, individually and collectively, belong at the core of any thinking about security, just as they do at the core of disaster mitigation and management. Second, you cannot secure one set of human beings while placing others at risk. Security, in any context, is truly indivisible. Third, just as collaborative and cooperative action improves the chances of mitigating disasters and minimising their impact, so do they improve the security environment for individuals and communities. Fourth, just as disasters are best mitigated by governance processes that are democratic, accountable and responsive, so in fact are security threats. In neither case does this mean that action should faithfully follow the rising and falling tides of popular opinion but that informed and thoughtful public engagement with policy is desirable. Finally, the destruction wrought by disasters represents an opportunity for creating a new, better society rather than fashioning a xerox copy of the old. A good security dispensation is one that serves all (or the preponderant number of) individuals and communities equally well, and so security crises, conventional and non-traditional, reflect failure and represent openings for renegotiating relationships, recrafting rules and redesigning the structures of a society and polity.


  1. The Global Fund for Women (GFW). 2005.  Caught in the Storm: The Impact of Natural Disasters on Women. (December) Accessible at
  2. Oxfam. 2005. The tsunami’s impact on women. Oxfam Briefing Note. March. Accessible at
  3. World Health Organization. Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention. 2005. Violence and disasters. Accessible at
  4. The State of the World’s Refugees 2006: Human displacement in the new 
    . United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, pages 26-28.
  5. After the Storm: Rethinking International Engagement in Post-Cyclone Burma, East-West Center, June 12, 2008,
    ; Post-Nargis Analysis–The Other Side of the Story, October 2008, Accessible at
  6. Kelman, Ilan. Disaster Diplomacy. Radix Online. ; Chaitanya—The Policy Consultancy. 2005. Post-Tsunami International Relations: A Sea Change?Chaitanya Brief. Volume I Number 2 (June 24). Accessible at

(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 (

Violence against women and security

Violence against women and security

As the Violence Against Women fortnight kicks off internationally on November 25,Swarna Rajagopalan analyses why women’s physical survival and safety must be viewed as a security issue and why violence against women is as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is consensus that something important has shifted in the real world that necessitates a shift in security thinking.  

It is now acknowledged that more wars take place within States than across them. State-building has been identified as a leading source of insecurity (for States by some, for everyone by others). Famine on a large scale challenges the survival of societies; as do disasters that can disrupt the fabric of social relationships. Climate change threatens small island-states like the Maldives, whose new president is now shopping for land to resettle his people in anticipation that the atoll-state will be consumed by rising sea-levels.  

Those who write on non-traditional security admit migration and trafficking into their research agendas, understanding that these challenge the very foundations of the nation-state system. Struggles over land, livelihood and food are also now recognised as admissible into this agenda in the same way as militancy is.  The reconstruction of society after a conflict, somewhere at the conjunction of the old nation-building and development agendas, is also accepted as a security subject. 

This catholic embrace stops short of women’s bodies. Violence against women is still not quite a security issue, unless it occurs in the context of one of the above situations or a traditional security crisis. Common, garden variety threats to the physical survival and safety of women are where the line is drawn, either out of an ingrained sense that home and person are not appropriate objects of interest for this field or as a compromise in the face of the protest that no field can include everything.  

As a prelude to analysing this discourse that excludes women’s physical survival and safety, let us take a quick look at some of the things we include under the ‘violence against women’ (henceforth, VAW) rubric. Women experience physical insecurity both by virtue of their position within a given socio-economic structure and by virtue of where they find themselves physically.  

Patriarchal societies value women first and foremost as mothers. Maternal health is therefore a useful point of departure for this review. A Unicef report states that one woman dies every five minutes of a pregnancy-related complication.(1) One in every 70 women is at risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes and the risk is even greater for women below 24.(2) The Maternal Mortality Ratio for Indian women is estimated at anywhere between 300 and 500 per 100,000 live births, depending on the source you consult.  

Debates over the woman’s right to choose versus the foetus’s right to be born are entering Indian discourse, obscuring the continuum between a prenatal death sentence by virtue of sex and the woman’s lack of reproductive autonomy. In India, statistics about sex selective abortions begin with the dramatic figure of about 10 million such abortions being performed over the last quarter-century and end with the horrific count of 3 million female foetuses being aborted annually. Both the right of the girl-child to be born and the long-term consequences for women and society are the issue here.  

Discrimination in matters of nutrition, healthcare and schooling apart, girls in situations of poverty are at risk of trafficking and early marriage. A majority of girls become victims of trafficking at a very early age, and about 35% of them blamed their families for their fate. Families are also responsible for forcing girls into early marriages. More than half of India’s girls marry before 18, and experience much greater risk of pregnancy-related complications as well as domestic violence. Add to this the threat of child sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of family members, and Indian girls do not seem to lead very secure lives. 

A serious impediment to simple improvements in a girl’s life is the threat of street sexual harassment. Being followed on the way to school, cat-calls at the bus-stop, being groped or pinched on a bus or being stalked foreshadow sexual violence. The threat of being harassed intimidates girls and, in a society that places a premium on virginity, persuades parents to stop their schooling at puberty. Lacking education, confidence or self-esteem, the girl has no inner defences against exploitation and society provides no external protections either.  

Marriage is seen as a solution to the problem of protecting a girl from the dangers of the public arena. Dowry, however, is one of the core causes of male-child preference. The practice of demanding and giving dowries has been spreading to communities where it was hitherto unknown. Dissatisfaction and avarice have combined to create social conditions where over 6,000 girls lose their lives annually in dowry-related deaths, according to the NCRB.(3) Strict laws do not seem to deter families from demanding nor from feeling like their prestige is attached to giving. 

A shamefully large percentage of Indian women experience domestic violence. Nearly 37% of married women have experienced violence at some point and, perhaps more alarming, 54% of Indian women believe husbands have the right to beat their wives, according to the National Family Health Survey.(4)  Social and economic compulsions keep women in abusive marriages and, given the magnitude of the problem, there are still too few helplines and shelters.  

Infamous advice from India’s mythical lawgiver, Manu, enjoins women to seek the protection of their fathers, husbands and sons. Where fathers and husbands fail women, sons often do so as well. The abandoned widows of Brindavan and Varanasi are only the most dramatic instance of the cruelty of Indian society towards its elders. In homes around the country, senior citizens, particularly elderly, widowed women, are often subject to neglect and emotional abuse. Where cultural mores still constrain many from actually abandoning their ageing parents, what seniors surveyed described as ‘disrespect’ in fact borders on physical abuse.  

This random review illustrates how unsafe women are in a variety of settings and roles. Considering that they constitute almost half a population of 1 billion, why does the survival and well-being of nearly 500 million citizens not find a place in security agendas?  

One reason is the binary view of the public and private spheres which security as a field inherits from traditional political philosophy. On the contrary, feminists argue that the personal is political. The contemporary exercise (reflected in this series of articles) of redefining security is the search for a middle ground between these positions. Somewhere between a social perspective that will not cross the threshold of a home or a relationship and one that would dismiss the distance between the two sides of the threshold, is an older political debate relating to personal freedom and privacy. How do we define where the limits lie in the relationship between the individual and the collective? Once crossed, what is an appropriate issue for intervention and what is off-limits?  

New security thinking has added a plethora of new referents for ‘security’ (a confounding plethora, traditionalists might say). That is, when we ask the question ‘whose security,’ we now answer with a much longer list than ‘State’ or ‘nation-state.’ Moreover, when we ask who creates insecurity, security scholars or policymakers shy away less from adding the State itself to the list. However, our view of who should create security still somehow ends up being State-centric.  

This blindsides us. Where we will not let the State step in, whether from a minimalist State perspective or otherwise, we still challenge its inaction (and its inability to act). Can the State enter kitchens in an anticipatory exercise to prevent kerosene from being poured over new brides? Can the State be a presence in the bedroom when a wife is repeatedly raped by her husband? Should the State uphold the mother’s right to choose to have a child or should it allow her to decide not to have a girl-child?  

Some of these questions have been resolved in practice. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 is an example, as is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2006. But their failure to completely stop the practices they condemn suggests that even a State with tremendous reach, awesome enforcement capability and reasonable political will cannot stop individuals from perpetrating violent acts sanguinely. Neighbours, extended family and alert local civil society organisations can go much further than a battery of laws and a police force. Social pressure and ostracism are greater deterrents than the likelihood that the victim or her supporters will term their experience as ‘abuse’ and report it to the police. Those who mistreat women must take comfort in the lack of social support options available to them, so that they must return to the site of abuse sooner or later.  

The next frontier in this exercise of re-imagining security then is to explore the role of civil society in creating security (and insecurity). Citizen-driven initiatives are the order of the day with regard to most other issues, be it mohalla committees to preserve communal harmony or neighbourhood environmental groups like EXNORA. What is the scope for citizen action to create security for women within and outside the home? What ethical and political issues are involved with initiating such action? Realistic assessments of what can be achieved are also needed, for which documentation of existing civil society efforts is important.  

There is another factor: cultural relativism and the reluctance of contemporary State and society in an age of political correctness. Patriarchal politics makes of women’s bodies easy shorthand for the politics of group identity. Women then carry the burden of socialisation, cultural preservation and physically standing for the community’s integrity and survival. If attacks on women are an easy way of expressing hostility towards a community, restrictions on women are a way for the community to articulate its borders—“We are X-Y-Z and therefore we require this or that of our women.” The rationale is ‘protection’—of the women, ergo, the community. A strange liberal inhibition prevents us from completely challenging these for fear of offending others or limiting the right of each community to define itself uniquely. Eggshell-walking and dogma are both inimical to an idea of security that is equitable as well as liberal.  

Why would we want to include violence against women in the security agenda? The most obvious reason is a political argument that anything that affects the survival of such a large part of society belongs in any discussion about survival and well-being. Second, using the term ‘security’ adds political leverage to any issue—visibility is greater, resources flow more easily and a sense of urgency is generated that may otherwise be lacking. Third, where violence is involved, collective attention and consideration are a must, and whether it is the State or society, it is imperative that one kind of violence merits the same attention as another. We cannot choose to which category of violence we will pay attention on the basis of motivation or victim identity.  

Arguments can also be made that link violence against women to larger consequences for society and State. Unbalanced sex ratios increase the likelihood of violence in society. Violence against women has epidemic qualities that place a large burden on the public health system. Fewer adults able to work optimally and children desensitised to violence are other consequences. However, these instrumental arguments—take care of this so you can move on and do other things—are less persuasive than the argument that the security of female citizens is intrinsically a good thing and as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism.  

From intellectual and political standpoints, a discussion about violence against women as insecurity raises very interesting questions. Are there drawbacks to ‘securitising’ violence against women? Who will act to assure their security? What can we say about the relationship between State, society and female citizens based on the level of willingness to take action on this issue? Violence against women and women’s security also provides another instance for debating the freedom versus security, private versus public, universal versus relativist and minimalist versus pro-active State binaries that are actually among the oldest questions in politics. Thus, what we have been calling an exercise of redefinition or re-imagining ‘security’ is in fact also an exercise of remembering those fundamental political questions revisiting which is a pre-requisite to alert, vigilant citizenship.  


  1. Roopa Bakshi, Maternal Mortality – a woman dies every 5 minutes in childbirth in India, UNICEF India,
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  4. P M Kulkarni, Estimation Of Missing Girls At Birth And Juvenile Ages In India, UNFPA, September 2007, Page 16. Accessed atHttp://Www.Unfpa.Org/Gender/Docs/Studies/Missingirlsatbirth_India.Pdf  on November 3, 2008.
  5. P M Nair, A Report on Trafficking in Women and Children in India 2002-2003, Volume 1, NHRC-UNIFEM-ISS, 2004, page 104, Accessed at on November 16, 2008.
  6. Centre for Social Research, Child Marriage Prohibition Act openly flouted, as the practice continues unabated, Press Release, February 1, 2008, Accessed at
    0Act%20openly%20flouted,%20as%20the% 20practice%20continues%20unabated
     on November 16, 2008.
  7. National Crime Records Bureau 2006.
  8. National Family Health Survey 3, 2005-2006,National Fact Sheet India, Accessed at, on November 16, 2008.   

(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 (