Strictures in the name of security

Indian paramilitary soldiers in Srinagar.   | Photo Credit: Dar Yasin

The Narendra Modi administration has used a number of arguments — security, economic and welfare — to justify its new Kashmir policy. While the economic and welfare arguments have been shown to be based on little or false information, and the Modi administration’s actions have been challenged on both human rights and constitutional grounds, there has been relatively little discussion, let alone analysis, of the security argument.

This lacuna is surprising given how often the security argument is parroted, especially on our television channels, and accepted as beyond question. Indeed, national security is a critical concern, not only for policymakers, but also for us ordinary citizens. That is why official assertions regarding security need to be examined and, if necessary, questioned.

Placing limits on rights

The key question is whether, and at which point, security imperatives can supersede democratic and human rights. Some will argue ‘never’, though it is generally accepted by most democracies that there might be occasions when security threats require some limits to rights. The issue has been hotly debated in the U.S. and Europe, generally in relation to surveillance and privacy rights. Whichever side those governments and their institutions come down on, the debate is vociferous, public and subjected to scrutiny in terms of the nature and scale of the security threat. Where do we stand in comparison?

On Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the official argument is that the dilution of Article 370 and demotion of the State to two Union Territories will enable better security. It is also argued that preventive detentions, curfews and a communications lockdown are necessary to prevent a security deterioration. The two appear contradictory: if the first slew of measures enables better security, what was the need for the second slew of measures? Conversely, if the second leads to better security then what was the need for the first?

Ironically, the figures that the Modi administration presented in their submission to the Supreme Court against humanitarian relief petitions actually belie the security claim. From a high of 5,938 incidents of terrorist violence in J&K in 1995, with 2,600 casualties, violence has steadily declined to 365 incidents in the first nine months of this year, with 237 casualties. Surely, these figures do not suggest a major or even imminent security threat. Nor has the Modi administration presented any evidence of a planned attack that might constitute so serious a threat that it could only be thwarted by the lockdown of over six million people.

In fact, the Modi administration acknowledges that the lockdown was necessary because widespread protests against its new J&K policy were anticipated. The government’s submission argues that “it was clear” that Kashmiri politicians would oppose the Modi administration’s decisions, “and they would not hesitate to attempt to ensure that the law and order situation deteriorates”. In other words, our government foresaw that there would be such enormous opposition to these decisions that it could only be quelled by tens of thousands of additional troops, hundreds of preventive detentions and a massive communications blockade.

Widespread resentment

If that is the case, two questions arise. First, if the administration knew their new J&K policy would be widely, even violently, protested, why did they adopt it? Second, has this new policy made our security more rather than less vulnerable and, if so, in which ways?

Certain facts are inescapable, and pose an immediate challenge for our forces. The Modi administration may not be able to keep the current lockdown in force for any length of time, though it was earlier rumoured it could last for as long as 18-24 months. Even with the lockdown, security forces have not been able to plug the gaps along the border with Pakistan: 60 terrorists have reportedly infiltrated in the past month. Given the widespread resentment not only at what has been done but also the way in which it was done, even the scant support our troops received from local communities may evaporate — indeed the threat of attacks from the rear is likely to rise exponentially.

Beginning 10 years ago, cross-border militants had started becoming unwelcome in the Valley and their sanctuaries were drying up. They might now have renewed sustenance. Moreover, with the suspension of mobile telephony, intelligence on militancy will be more difficult to collect.

These are formidable challenges for our security forces who have, unfortunately, been pushed back into the line of fire. The Modi administration is trying to compensate with better housing and allowances and there is some discussion within the Army about setting up integrated battle groups, but these would be for cross-border action rather than internal deployment. As defence and strategic analysts have long known, our security forces lack the range of protective equipment needed to deal with internal security, and their spans of duty are so long as to increase the stress that makes so many trigger-happy. We are yet to hear how the Modi administration plans to deal with these challenges. Perhaps we never will.

Cost to the taxpayer

In the meantime, there are other aspects of the security argument to consider. In the past month, at a conservative estimate, Kashmiri industry has lost hundreds of crores of rupees, and the Modi administration has spent hundreds of crores, if we add the costs of sending and maintaining 40,000 plus additional troops, enforcing the lockdown and apple purchases and transport. A slew of further measures has been announced, such as 50,000 jobs, scholarships and internships, which will cost the Indian taxpayer several thousand additional crores per annum, and will most likely be unsuccessful in the goal of appeasing Kashmiri resentment. As violence mounts, so will our security costs, both human and economic. Is this a price we are willing to pay for what may turn out to be a self-generated security threat?

The biggest cost, of course, is to the security of our democracy. Several millions of our citizens in J&K have been denied their fundamental rights of freedom of movement, commerce and expression for six weeks already, with no clear end in sight. In the U.S. and Europe, when security is allowed to trump democracy, it is for days, not weeks. The question is rarely if ever debated in relation to preventive detention, banning dissent, or blocking Internet and mobile phones — because in most democracies these concern fundamental rights that cannot be brushed aside in the name of security.

We appear to have exited this group of democracies. More galling still, we appear to have done so over an issue, Article 370, which is held by the Modi administration to have had little substance left in it anyway. What then is this alleged public celebration about? Have we become a people who exult in the humiliation of our own, as so many Kashmiris believe?

Radha Kumar’s latest book is Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir

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Printable version | Jan 13, 2021 12:01:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/strictures-in-the-name-of-security/article29550442.ece

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