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Civil society and the production of (in)security

Civil society must hold the security sector accountable. It must show a sustained interest in security issues and support informed public debate on them, writes Swarna Rajagopalan

 As the Sri Lankan army campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged over months, tens of thousands of people went from being citizens, albeit in an embattled state, to being internally displaced persons (IDP). Across the Palk Straits in Chennai, politicians went into activist mode and the public were mobilised to express solidarity with their ethnic kin whose lives were being changed, again, irrevocably. Chennai-based newspapers and magazines reported the crisis at great length. Human chains, rallies on the beach, public meetings, and that Chennai art form, the hoarding, made the Sri Lankan IDP crisis hard to ignore.

Can we characterise these as civil society responses to a security crisis? How does civil society generally concern itself with security issues?

Two conventional definitions form the point of departure of this essay. The first is an understanding of civil society as ‘not state, not market’. This umbrella understanding not only includes a wide spectrum of individual and collective actors but also leaves us with several grey areas when applied to a consideration of security issues. The second is the adoption of the traditional state-centric view of security as a filter for initially identifying actors and issues to include. The ‘security sector’ thus comprises the military, paramilitary, police and related armed agencies which execute the monopoly of the state over legitimate violence (which Weber considered a characteristic of statehood), and those organs and offices of government that make decisions about interstate relations, law enforcement and the use of force. Since this essay is part of a collective reflection on civil society, I will use this limited, traditional definition of security.

So what has civil society to do with security (and insecurity)? The first part of this essay pivots around six circumstances that raise important questions about this relationship. These inform the questions raised in the latter section.

Circumstantial evidence

Family matters

In 1990, Parveena Ahangar’s second son, only 14 years old, was taken by Indian forces who were looking for her neighbour’s son, a militant bearing a similar name. The distraught mother went from prison to prison across India, meeting officials and asking for her son. She filed a writ petition seeking information about him. In 1996, the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons was formed, bringing together families whose relatives had been similarly lost. Parveena Ahangar has become its best-known symbol.

Losing children or other family members, especially losing them to an unknown fate, changed the lives of many individuals who had hitherto been completely apolitical and whose concerns were almost entirely related to the private sphere. They stepped into the public sphere to search for family, but this personal quest often caused them to join the peace movement or to work with human rights organisations. The Association of Parents of Missing Soldiers and the Mothers’ Fronts in Sri Lanka have similar histories.

The Naga Mothers’ Association offers a variation. Their Shed No More Blood campaign has taken them across conflict lines to share the experience of bereavement and suffering with leaders and combatants, building lines of communication and trust. As part of their peace work, they also arrange funerals for conflict victims who remain unidentified. They have engaged with other social challenges too, such as drug addiction and trafficking.

Private grief and household hardship transform family relationships into core units for political organisation around human rights, conflict and peace concerns. The line between private and public is obfuscated because these private experiences remain the main agenda of very public, occasionally confrontational, activities.

The faith factor

In 2008, the Dar-ul-Uloom of Deoband issued a fatwa against terrorism, declaring it an un-Islamic act. The move was widely welcomed as evidence that the canon evoked by jihadi groups did not, in fact, support their acts. Commentators expressed hope that this would dissuade potential recruits. The intrinsic value of the fatwa and its efficacy are both beside the point; what is important is that Deoband is an influential seminary, whose conservative interpretations of the Islamic canon are considered authoritative far beyond South Asia. This influence extends to madrasas in the areas from which the Taliban and other jihadi groups recruit their soldiers.

Not just Islam; the authority of religious and spiritual leaders is sought to further the polemics of war and peace in other faiths also. Religious leaders participated in the kar sevas and yatras that preceded the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and several witnessed the demolition as well. Buddhist monks have spoken up at critical junctures during hostilities and peace negotiations in Sri Lanka.

Communities of faith and followers of spiritual teachers also engage in peace work. Quaker Peace and Service volunteers kept the lines of communication open between Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups and their various interlocutors for years, as they have in the Naga peace process. Art of Living volunteers have worked in conflict zones like Bosnia, Iraq and Kashmir, locating the source of conflict transformation in personal wellbeing. Development and rehabilitation work is undertaken as a service activity by faith-based and spiritual organisations and not just in the aftermath of disaster or war.


In times of social and political conflict, hostilities extend beyond the use of violence into platforms like public debates, special magazine issues and, certainly, social activism. There may or may not be formal links to the political parties or militant groups, but their ideology is clear and they become identified with one side or the other.

VIGIL-Public Opinion Forum organises debates, seminars and lectures to which the public is welcome. VIGIL’s political positions are broadly resonant of those of organisations in the Sangh Parivar. They take up issues of national importance, frame their debates and arguments along the Parivar’s ideology and, often, their speakers and writers are from the RSS, BJP or VHP. On VIGIL’s website, there is a section called ‘NGO Watch’ in which articles critical of NGO activities and reports auditing NGO expenditures are linked. Foreign funding is an important issue here, as is the credibility of left-liberal organisations and individuals. VIGIL obviously furthers a certain worldview and is well within its rights to do so; but that viewpoint is so easily identifiable with one strand in Indian politics that it is tempting to characterise it as a ‘front organisation’.

So closely is Rev Jegath Gaspar Raj known to be involved with the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that all of his other enterprises carry the shadow of those links. Tamil Maiyam is a non-profit organisation for the promotion of Tamil language and culture on the one hand and rural development on the other, both unexceptionable objectives. He has also launched a CSR initiative called Give Life which organises a fundraising marathon in Chennai. On the board of his organisations are eminent people from business and public life, including Kanimozhi Karunanidhi.

Even without formal affiliation, it is sometimes hard to overlook the ideological closeness of civil society organisations to more contentious actors. Whether in the middle of a conflict or just the usual push-and-pull of politics, questions about ideology, questions about sourcing and spending money, and questions about connections always remain in these cases.

The press and the people

Since the Kargil war, Indians have become accustomed to live reportage shot just a short distance away from every crisis. During the Mumbai terror attacks, it was possible to see the fire, to espy human silhouettes at windows, to hear gunshots as they rang out, and to see guests being stealthily ushered out of hotels and into buses. Television viewers also watched CC-camera footage of the terrorists attack Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus shortly after the crisis had begun. These images, and those of the anguished news anchors who waited for news outside the hotel buildings with the relatives of those trapped inside, will remain vivid memories for some time.

More to the point, they created a brief period in which citizens were determined to engage with security policy decision-making. The state was to be held accountable for this lapse in security. Citizen action took the form of candlelight vigils, mass attendance at the funerals of slain police officers and also symbolic gestures like black ribbons at Eid celebrations soon after. Television channels invited viewers to contribute suggestions towards enhancing security.

At other times, citizens have acted to prevent violence rather than to respond to it. The mohalla committees of Bhiwandi and Mumbai are celebrated instances, discussed elsewhere in this issue. Individual acts of protection and prevention are also known to happen wherever there is a riot or conflagration.

People-to-people initiatives

In the 1990s, South Asia witnessed a dramatic increase in people-to-people initiatives, usually in the context of the India-Pakistan conflict. Experts and retired officials met and continue to meet at Neemrana. Young professionals -- in academics, media and government -- from many South Asian states attended summer workshops and winter courses together on security-related topics. Random groups of pacifist individuals have taken trains across on peace-building journeys and attended peace conferences on either side of this beleaguered border. There are regular candlelight vigils at the border crossing in Wagah.

Terrorism and diplomatic tensions (and dare we add, belligerent television anchors) seem unable to dim the slowly and steadily growing tendency to take for granted some degree of contact and exchange between Indians and Pakistanis. On a PIA flight from Lahore, this writer even met people who said they came to Delhi every few months to shop! On this side of the border too one comes across a familiarity with food and shopping in Pakistani cities that belies the undercurrent of tension always prevalent.

Multi-track diplomacy is to international relations what the mohalla committees have been to communal riots -- they are civil society’s vehicle for engaging, in ever-larger numbers, with foreign policy and security.


India offers an interesting paradox. For decades, consensus was the order of the day on foreign policy and security issues, with some voices being granted a monopoly over authoritative opinion. These voices usually belonged to experts who had served in government or the armed forces at some time and who wrote prolifically in the media, and became associated with founding and/or building the first thinktanks on security. The paradox is that notwithstanding their claims, Indian thinktanks probably have less influence over policy than their counterparts in other countries.

Notable exceptions are the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, which is funded by the ministry of defence but functions autonomously, and the Centre for Policy Research during the V P Singh administration.

Thinktanks are public policy research institutes that employ experts on cognate policy areas with the express mandate of generating policy ideas. They are most effective in the US, where the system allows experts to be absorbed on assignment both into the bureaucracy and into the cabinet and where there is space in legislative procedure for formal consultations and depositions by experts. In the absence of these channels in India (and I would venture to say South Asia), the influence of thinktanks depends primarily on personal networks. The preponderance of former government officials in thinktanks lends them leverage but not much room for departures from the consensus mode.

Reflections on civil society’s engagement with security issues

How does civil society concern itself with security and insecurity? The situations described above yield a grab-bag of insights. Family and personal concerns motivate people to think beyond their situation and act in the larger interest. But family is not usually considered a part of civil society, nor are individual actors. Familial relationships and traditional roles provide a structure for and validate individual action in the larger external context. Religious and spiritual teachers and the communities of faith they lead contribute significantly to the creation of security and the proliferation of insecurity. Non-governmental organisations explicitly associate themselves with or appear closely identified with ideologies or agendas that have security consequences. 24-hour news coverage of events like the 26/11 terror attacks prompts spontaneous citizen action and provokes a public response which is organised in the moment but may not be preceded or followed by sustained action. People-to-people interaction gradually alters the context of security and insecurity. Thinktanks have the potential to make an impact on the security situation around them, through their sustained engagement with policy issues.

One challenge is that many of these actors and groups are not usually recognised as constituting civil society. Family and interpersonal relationships are relegated to the private sphere, which is the invisible element in these discussions. Faith, religion, spirituality and the communities they bind are usually left out of analyses as pre-modern or reactionary. ‘Front organisations’ belong to a netherworld between the political system and civil society. Mainstream media may as well belong to the market sector, notwithstanding their role as a pillar of democracy. Thinktanks, staffed by professionals with expertise in policy areas, are not quite state or market; their engagement with state agencies and their consultative or fundraising models place them apart from the sorts of non-governmental organisations that usually represent the term ‘civil society’. Spontaneous civic actions or civic actions designed to look spontaneous -- such as candlelight vigils and human chains -- are one-of events intended to draw attention. Sometimes they marry the organisational ability of the state with the brand-building skills of the market, and yet, because it is individual citizens that make them happen, they are not entirely in the personal sphere either. But without all of these, what is civil society?

Moving on from this, we can also identify a variety of roles that civil society can play vis-à-vis security.

To the extent that ‘civil society’ can be reified, one of its raisons d’être might be said to be active citizenship. Keeping the state accountable for its decisions, insisting on some degree of transparency, and insisting on the rule of law -- these citizenship duties must apply to civil society as well. Civil society organisations can offer spaces for learning about security-related issues and for debating alternatives. Professional and expert groups can gather and disseminate information so that the ability to discuss and debate extends to a wider circle. More critically, they must think independently and creatively of ways in which citizens and communities alike can enjoy a secure life.

Locating the origins of insecurity in some of the areas that most commonly concern civil society organisations, such as development, injustice and civil liberties, this sector is uniquely placed to push the envelope on how we understand security and, therefore, insecurity. A broader understanding of security -- both in terms of whose security and in terms of what would make them secure -- is also an argument for a broader-based engagement with security issues for all of civil society.

Civil society also pays the price for the state’s security concerns, and examples of this are legion. Dr Binayak Sen’s case is one; a doctor serving the poor in areas where the Maoists are active, he was arrested on the grounds that he was a terrorist. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of movement can all be curtailed in the name of a security emergency. In tense times, such restrictions are not imposed just by the state but also elements of civil society itself. States place tight restrictions around the flow of money into the social sector as a whole, out of concerns about the flow of money into the hands of antisocial elements. Financial strain causes the closure of programmes and projects, which, in the development, public health and education fields contributes to another tier of insecurity altogether.

While resisting these pressures, civil society -- in its broadest sense, the citizenry organising variously -- must engage with the security sector. It must hold the sector accountable. It must show a sustained interest in security issues and support informed public debate on them. It must take the initiative to foster creative thinking and action for a sustainable peace. And in doing all of these, civil society must and will democratise that last bastion of power and privilege: security.

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a Chennai-based non-profit.) 

Infochange News & Features, November 2009