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Thursday, February 5, 2009

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.

Read in Detail this article by Swarna Rajagopalan:

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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