Some time ago, I was struck by a small news item tucked away inside the pages of a prominent daily. It said the Ministry of Home Affairs had opposed the increase in the Foreign Direct Investment cap for broadcast and the print media from the current 26 to the proposed 49 per cent, saying this could affect national security.
According to the news item, “The MHA said big foreign media players with vested interests may try to fuel fire during internal or external disturbances.”
What is remarkable about this attitude is the presumption that Indians, who have lived through multiple crises and voted in numerous elections, are in need of the MHA’s protective services when it comes to exercising their judgment. Besides infantilising the citizens of this country, the MHA’s attitude is a manifestation of the national security state that we are becoming.
Curbs on rights
Such a state is one which tends obsessively to look at challenges through the prism of national security. It builds up a vast apparatus of military and police forces and arms itself with legal and extra-legal powers that end up curbing the rights of its citizens, all in the name of national security.
The ongoing spat between the Intelligence Bureau and the Central Bureau of Investigation over the Ishrat Jahan extra-judicial killing is another manifestation of this development. The IB’s argument seems to be that it is the guardian of security in the country, and hence should somehow be exempt from the operation of its laws, even when it comes to serious issues like extra-judicial execution.
On the other hand, the armed forces say that they need the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) if they are to operate against domestic insurgents. This would have been a reasonable demand, given the spread of insurgency to many parts of India. But instead of indemnifying its personnel against accidental killing, as the Act intended to do, the Army has been using the legislation to prevent action in incidents of deliberate killing such as the case relating to the murder of three villagers in the Machil sector in Kashmir in 2010. Other agencies, too, now vie for rights similar to the IB. They want powers to snoop into the private lives of Indians as comprehensively as the Stasi once did in East Germany and they see nothing wrong with it. You see, they are guarding our national security.
Of course, the Indian national security state has not emerged out of nowhere. Its roots lie in the massive covert assault the country underwent at the hands of Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s. To counter it, the state raised new forces, adopted new intelligence tactics, laws and procedures. Unfortunately what we have seen since is an expansion of those powers even though the worst has long been past, at least insofar as the country’s internal security challenges are concerned.
Punjab is a case in point where, in the years 1991-1992, the writ of the State ran in many areas only during the day time. Militancy in Kashmir has declined sharply and today, insurgents’ actions appear to be token reminders to people that they are still around. In the north-east, too, the ULFA is in disarray and the Naga ceasefire continues to hold. Even the Maoists, who once appeared menacing, are now finding the going tough. Yet, there is no effort to refine the tactics, restructure and retrench forces or alter the nature of powers, given the changed circumstances. This is clear from the mule-headed insistence that AFSPA continue to operate in Kashmir, even though the ground situation there has changed dramatically.
As for external security, few will doubt that Pakistan’s war-making capabilities against India have actually deteriorated because of the growing internal challenges that Islamabad faces and the steady accretion of combat power by the Indian military. It is true China’s growing military capabilities pose a significant challenge to India. In recent years, New Delhi has been aware of this and has significantly raised the budgetary provisions for upgrading the northern border infrastructure and the forces committed to its defence. But China’s challenge is as much through its economic prowess as its military capabilities.
While the emergence of the national security state poses challenges on the issue of privacy, human rights and personal liberties, there is another aspect that should not be forgotten — expenditure. Every challenge comes up with a new bureaucratic response in terms of new plans, organisations, forces and equipment. Somehow, the older and obsolete ones never seem to go away. So we end up with an ever increasing budget and institutions devoted to national security. The relentless growth of the paramilitary and armed forces has been one manifestation of this. While civil police forces remain patchy and ill-equipped, India’s paramilitary and army has grown astonishingly — from 430,000 in 1988 to 670,000 in 2004. Currently they stand at 850,000 and could go up by another 100,000 in the coming years.
Instead of reorganising and retraining the security apparatus to adjust to the changing nature of threats, our efforts have been to simply add layer upon layer of personnel and equipment. India could reduce the size of its armoured force but this continues to remain a huge component of its army that has little practical use. Along with this are forces such as the 60,000 personnel of the Rashtriya Rifles set up to tackle the insurgency in Kashmir.
Just how things have worked is apparent from what happened to the Parliament House following the December 13, 2001 attack. Until the 1960s, a city transport bus would actually let passengers alight near the front entrance of the building. Today, the guardians of Parliament have shut off roads adjacent to the Parliament House and sections of roads nearby. The perimeter of the Parliament House is covered by a CCTV system and an electrified fence; within, there are four layers of security, courtesy the Delhi Police, the CRPF and ITBP and personnel of the Parliament Security Service, the last-named entity being set up after the 2001 attack on Parliament. This arrangement is giving way to a new Parliament Duty Group made up of two battalions of CRPF and the PSS, equipped with high quality assault rifles, hand-held thermal imagers and so on. Personnel who guard the entry to the Parliament House have a variety of gadgets to disable rogue vehicles, in addition to providing radio-frequency identification of registered vehicles. But, typical of static security systems, Parliament’s security is oriented to fighting the last intrusion better than it is to deal with the next attack which could come in an unexpected fashion, such as one where a toy aeroplane landed on the grounds in 2009. This fortress has, in effect, denied access to the citizen, while not quite ensuring that it is secure.
Is a national security state more secure? The Parliament House’s security offers an apt illustration. First, despite the multiple layers of security at huge expense, there have been several breaches of the system over the years. Second, the exaggerated protection being offered is for a small elite of political leaders, while the public is left to fend for itself. This is despite the key lesson of internal security, that the leaders can only be as safe as its ordinary citizens are, and that the first and best line of defence against terrorists is good intelligence, which in our case is an entirely different matter.
Ensuring national security is an important attribute of a modern nation-state. But as the erstwhile Soviet Union realised, the threats to the state these days do not come from orthodox sources. And looking at India with its nuclear weapons and huge armies, it is even more difficult to believe that any combination of external and internal threats can actually pose an existential challenge to the nation. Indeed, the real threat is not that we will be overwhelmed by adversaries, but that our obsession with national security will sink the India that we cherish.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)