Updated: September 1, 2009 18:36 IST

Contours of human security

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The Centre for Security Analysis (CSA) in Chennai has been rendering yeoman service in illuminating various aspects of security through well-planned seminars and conferences. This volume is a compilation of papers presented at one such seminar held last year. Participants dwelt on their individual experience in South and South East Asia and predictably, the area covered is vast, albeit broad-brush and uneven. Thus while some papers are relatively longish and cover up to 16 pages, others are a mere eight. Perhaps seeking some degree of post-conference uniformity may have been desirable.


General Raghavan, a distinguished soldier and an accomplished author, outlines the specific issues that are being interrogated in a pithy introduction. Identifying the contours of human security, the question posed is: “Civil society organisations and the state are both working for providing human security of some sort but at different levels. How has this relationship influenced either the state or the civil society or human security?”

The 11 papers that follow a thoughtful keynote address by N. Vittal, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner, are grouped under four heads: an overview of civil society and security; social security; conflict situations; and issues of governance. Slim though it is, this volume touches upon some very critical issues and raises many questions related to ‘human’ security – an existential reality that precedes the emergence of the entity of state as a construct.

Some papers examine, inter alia, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and the propositions of Hobbes and Locke, as also Hegel and Gramsci — albeit in a fleeting manner. When the collective of civil society transmutes into ‘state’ with its ruler or elected leader, as the case may be, the inherent hierarchy between the individual and the apex of the state leads to a sectarian interpretation of the concept of security and inevitably, the rhetorical commitment to equitable security is distorted.

Progressively the elite and those members of civil society linked to the powerful and the rich are accorded greater security. Here Joseph Chinyong Liow’s reference (in his paper on ‘uncivil society’ in relation to Malaysia) to the devious role played by civil society as a collaborator is apt. “Therefore, contrary to the liberal tradition that views civil society as a buffer for the rights-bearing individuals against the coercive state, civil society is instead the protective filter for the state, disguising its coercive rule with legitimacy. However, as with Hegel, Gramsci saw the potential of civil society and noted that while it is the site where fundamental classes legitimise their class positions, it is also a terrain for contestation where other social groups can express their particular interests, thereby providing an avenue to undermine existing values and inculcate new ones in the counter-hegemonic struggle against the capitalist state.”

Valuable role

The venality of the post-colonial state, now further constrained by the imperatives of imprudent globalisation and the deification of the profit motive, is an article of faith in most parts of Asia and has its greatest impact in many parts of South and South East Asia. The papers offer an insight into specific issues— the NGOs in Bangladesh, the rights of migrant women workers in South East Asia, and so on.

Chanakya of ‘Arthashastra’ fame had elucidated the concept of ‘yogakshema’ —– or the well-being of the people — aeons before the modern concept of human security entered the current security discourse. Civil society can play a valuable role in complementing the state and drawing attention to its inadequacies, provided the state and its elite are committed to the concept of equitable, sustainable, and harmonious security. The sad truth is that this is an elusive Holy Grail and this compilation highlights the myriad challenges. The Hanns Seidel Foundation is to be commended for supporting such an initiative.

CIVIL SOCIETY AND HUMAN SECURITY — South and South East Asian Experiences: Edited by V. R. Raghavan; Macmillan, 2/10, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 1050.

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