In a country that has suffered numerous terrorist attacks which prematurely snuffed out the lives of soldiers, policemen as well as countless civilians, it comes as no surprise that national security is a highly emotive issue. You don’t have to be a national security expert to know that the ruling BJP is likely to go all guns blazing on national security as the 2019 general election draws closer. By now, anyone who has not been hiding under a rock has heard of the BJP’s “Pulwama edge”. The reference is to the terrorist attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir last month that killed over 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force and left dozens wounded.
That triggered a retaliatory strike by the Indian Air Force in Balakot in Pakistani territory. The target was a training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the terrorist group which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama suicide bomber attack. Whatever be the claims and counter-claims swirling around that strike, there is no doubt at all in anyone’s mind that national security will be a key issue in the coming polls.
But there is something missing in the all-pervasive security talk. And it comes down to how one frames the idea of “national security”. Conventionally, national security has been sold as the capacity of a nation to mobilise military forces to guarantee its borders and to deter or successfully defend against physical threats, including military aggression and attacks by non-state actors such as terrorist groups. Like the Jaishe-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terror attack.
But should the security debate be only about territorial integrity and protection of borders? Or is national security about all of these things, plus another critical element — social cohesion? Talk about the latter is missing in most mainstream conversations on security.
Ordinary citizens are neither “hawks” nor “doves”. They are concerned about territorial integrity. They abhor violence and fear terrorist attacks. Typically, in India, they have stood by the armed forces in the hour of a national crisis.
But to most people, a sense of security is as much about borders being protected and extremists kept at bay as protection of their own everyday lives and livelihood. If security is the big issue, it is equally important to make every Indian, cutting across class, religion and caste, feel safe and secure in their workplaces and homes.
A series of recent incidents in parts of the country show that high-decibel talk about national security, national unity, national solidarity are coinciding with a sense of fear and insecurity among specific groups of people.
Here are just a few randomly selected examples.
In the wake of the escalating India-Pakistan tensions, there have been reports of a spike in Muslim children being subjected to religious slurs, which have left their parents deeply shaken. Nazia Erum, an Indian, who wrote the book, Mothering a Muslim, has publicly said in a social media post: “Getting information from various cities that there has been a sharp spike in children being singled out, bullied and being told to ‘go to Pakistan’. From my maid, cousins, friends to Twitter acquaintances — everyone reporting this in.” Nazia advised parents to take time out and have a word with their children on the current situation in the country to allay their fears.
You could deal with Nazia’s concerns in two ways — label them “anecdotal”, or take them on board and recognise that many people, including some from the minority communities, are feeling genuinely insecure, and it is vital to listen to what they have to say. Individual citizens matter. Numbers matter. India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Making specific groups in our society feel as though they are being unfairly targeted or being made the subjects of undue suspicion, putting them through arbitrary “patriotism tests”, benefits no one.
It certainly does not help strengthen national security.
A second example — the case of Sandeep Wathar, a professor at Dr PG Halakatti College of Engineering and Technology in Karnataka’s Vijaypura district, who was reportedly forced to kneel and apologise to activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad for a Facebook post. Wathar’s crime? According to news reports, he had criticised the Central government for creating a public mood which bordered on war hysteria following the Indian Air Force retaliatory strikes in Balakot in Pakistani territory and allegedly praised Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. A BJP spokesperson claimed that the posts were an attempt to break the country’s unity and praise an enemy country. The professor has since deleted the Facebook posts.
One may or may not agree with Wathar. But surely, engaging with an alternative viewpoint does not weaken the basic fabric of a robust democracy of 1.3 billion which prides itself on its diversity.
A third example — the social boycott and reported attacks on Kashmiri students and civilians working and studying in other states in India in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack.
Reports of such harassment and attacks led to a petition by advocate Tariq Adeeb in the Supreme Court seeking protection for Kashmiris. The Supreme Court stepped in, and asked 10 states (Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra) as well as Delhi to take “prompt action” to ensure that Kashmiris living across the country do not face social boycott or attacks.
Security is a feeling. You can’t feel secure if you are simultaneously afraid. How can there be security if we “otherise” groups of people and stigmatise viewpoints that are different from that of the majority? What happens to social cohesion, integral to national unity and security, if we don’t take immediate corrective steps? Long-term measures for counter-terrorism are critical. There are no two views on that. But for that to succeed and be sustainable, to have every Indian feeling secure, you also need serious efforts to bring about social cohesion, so that even dissenting voices and the home-born disaffected, feel a sense of stake in the country and its future.
A country can’t be truly secure if there are citizens who feel disenfranchised, that they don’t belong here. Extremists thrive in milieus where social cohesion has been shredded.