The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- In India, heightened security tends to reduce civil liberties

Three separate incidents that recently took place in different parts of the country: they nonetheless form a pattern. Militarymen occupying a compartment in a mail train hurtling along the plains of western Uttar Pradesh throw out of the bogey five innocent civilian passengers, who meet instantaneous death. On Republic Day last, an army contingent, marching along Hoja near Guwahati, find themselves hemmed in by a crowd of romping villagers; the troops get nervy at such undesirable confrontation and shoot down ten of the unarmed villagers. A slip of a girl, barely twelve or thirteen years of age, encroaches on the property of a power-generating plant in West Bengal ' to cut grass according to her neighbours, to pilfer coal according to the authorities of the power station ' a security guard cuts her down.

Each of these incidents should be an affront to those who place civil liberties and sanctity of life and living at the core of a democratic society. Insensitivity, however, has entered the soul. Following some temporary localized furore, public misgiving over these killings has died down ' as if shooting down citizens in this manner is a normal part of existence. In any event, what is loosely described as civil society has over the years travelled through a certain learning curve: horror stories of violation of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, the depredations of Border Security Force personnel along the Bangladesh border, rapes and killings in Manipur by members of army battalions. Army and security forces being on the rampage is now regarded in wide areas of the country to be as inevitable as natural calamities; they are accepted with equanimity. Those in charge of the nation's defence and security are regarded as belonging to a very special category; their occasional dalliances ' which could even include pillage and murder ' are not expected to raise any eyebrow.

But let us think a while. Is not growth of a social psyche of this nature a direct outcome of the obsession over security of late plaguing governments in country after country, India being no exception' In a way, this marks a noteworthy triumph for the American administration; its philosophy of terror has come to receive almost universal acclaim. Authorities in diverse lands have trained themselves to perceive terror and security risk in every bush. Outlay on security increases year after year. Both defence equipment and defence personnel keep expanding at a seemingly inexorable rate. The populace is being made aware that security has overriding priority, considerations of security precede the interests of the people. In case, for ensuring the security of the nation and that of the nation's leaders, civil liberties have to be curtailed, the people are supposed to accept such a dispensation without demur.

The parliament loves to indulge only in frivolities. There is, besides, an aura of hush-hush around budget allocations for defence and security. To question these allocations is, it is hinted, close to treason. It therefore happens that appropriations for security and defence measures are passed without a debate. These outlays rise with every year; no questions are asked from any quarter. All questions are reserved for the occasion when the government is urged to spend money on a rural employment guarantee programme or for midday meal schemes for children.

Where the issue is security, supply creates its own demand. The proliferation of security arrangements fosters a culture of security-fetishism. The prime minister and his/her kith and kin must be blanketed by security monitored by the Special Protection Group. Such prerogative belongs to former prime ministers and their families, near and distant, as well. Cabinet ministers and ministers of other ranks too enjoy near-identical privilege. Members of parliament and politicians of lesser breed do not like to be left in the lurch. Soon, a lobby develops. Entitlement to security provisions emerges as a hallmark of social snobbery. The rat race commences in right earnest: who can beat whom in the splendour of security arrangements emerges as an issue of life and death. Inevitably, pomp of security puffs up good-for-nothing politicians and similar species.

There is an inverse effect of this obsession over security. Army and security staff deputed to security duty or for surveillance in sensitive areas acquire inflated ideas about their usefulness to society. If the be-all and end-all of a politician's daily perambulations is security entitlement, personnel in charge of security gradually get their heads swelled up and soon tend to nurture grand illusions about their own importance. In their assigned spheres of responsibility, they begin to behave as entities who are the final arbiters of law and justice: people do not matter, only they do, and they can do whatever they like. Once they reach such a state of mind, they reckon they have the right to throw out at will civilian passengers from train compartments, to mow down innocent villagers moving in a group and to take the life of a teenage girl indulging in her little pranks.

Things have now descended to a level where security is no longer quite aimed at ensuring the life and limb of the people ' ordinary people; the latter, rather, are there to satisfy the whims of the defence and security apparatus. Perhaps politicians ' and other such extra-ordinary specimens ' who have turned security to the holiest of holy cows have lost their bearings as rational human beings. It does not disturb their aesthetics either that, in this still horrendously poor country, thousands of crores of rupees are spent in the name of their personal security. Perhaps their senses have been so dulled that they are not the least concerned that because they, the chosen ones, are traversing from one spot in a city to another one ' a distance possible to cover in two and a half minutes ' all traffic within miles of the route is suspended, and pedestrains are rudely stopped in their tracks, maybe for a full half-hour; as they pass in a bullet-proof car, four or five surveillance cars precede it, and the same number of cars follow, each car blaring obscene hooting sounds, the accumulating sound pollution breaching all norms.

Only a few decades ago, a statesman of stature had called upon his comrades to mingle with the people as fish mingle in water. Was that a levity not worthy of consideration, or are we now living in a different planet' It is not the contention that terror is an absent, unreal category in any country these days. But if arrangements to cope with the threat of terror grow into a monstrosity which negates civilization, certainly it is time to stop and ponder. Consider Sweden, where an incumbent prime minister was shot one evening even as he, after watching a film at a neighbourhood theatre, emerged in the street. Security for important people in that country has been beefed up following that killing. But such security is still demure as well as unobtrusive, the flow of civic life is the least disturbed. Or imagine, through some magic, Mahatma Gandhi is reincarnated in our country and he remembers the fate that overtook him on January 30, 1948. One can lay a wager he would still, refuse, furiously, the government's importuning to accord him Z-class security.

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