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Posted at: Sep 24, 2018, 12:17 AM; last updated: Sep 24, 2018, 12:17 AM (IST)

The price of ‘national security’

Shyam Saran

Shyam Saran
The phrase is misused by predatory States to wield power without responsibility
The price of ‘national security’
Hush-Hush: The 2013 Task Force on National Security report was never made public.

Shyam Saran
Former foreign secretary

The term ‘national security’ is a convenient catch-all for governments which wish to justify policies which abridge the rights of citizens. It is often used to deflect the need for transparency and hide incompetence and misgovernance. The shortcomings in one’s own defence preparedness and intelligence capabilities are camouflaged in the noise of blaming adversaries for their aggressive behaviour. Even when the spotlight is turned on one’s own failures in safeguarding national security, reports are kept from public scrutiny because, ironically, they may ‘compromise’ national security. Historians are denied access to archives even when these are decades old because, again, national security may be undermined. In sum, this means that citizens cannot be trusted with knowledge that might actually permit them to assess the performance of those who govern in their name. ‘National security’ is a magic phrase which allows predatory States to wield power without responsibility. In an age of international terrorism where citizens are rightfully fearful and anxious it has assumed even greater potency.

This phenomenon has become pervasive across the world, affecting democracies and non-democracies alike, though there may be differences of degree. But its impact is most corrosive in democracies as it erodes individual fundamental  rights which lie at the heart of democracy. The worst abuse of citizen’s rights appears to require no justification beyond citing national security.  Even courts are loath to question government actions when this phrase is bandied about darkly. India has not been immune to this international trend and successive governments have found this a convenient way of encroaching on the constitutional rights of citizens and evading responsibility for actually endangering national security through acts of commission and omission. Even on issues that do not directly relate to national security, such as data on river flows, public access is denied because such data is deemed to be ‘sensitive’. It should come as no surprise that we never seem to learn from our mistakes. Transparency is fundamental to democratic governance because only with transparency is accountability possible. And contrary to what governments may believe, it is the lack of transparency and accountability which represents one of the most significant threats to security. Behind this penchant for opaqueness lies the constant neglect of what is really required to safeguard the nation’s interest. Opportunities for corruption exist because facts can be hidden on grounds that national security may be compromised. This has been evident in several defence deals over the years. Governments make bona fide mistakes in managing security, but responsible governments submit themselves to scrutiny from respected and credible non-governmental entities to ensure that mistakes are exposed and acknowledged and remedial action taken. But even when governments have subjected themselves to such scrutiny they baulk at making  reports public. Even Parliament does not get a chance to exercise its role as a public sentinel.  

The Task Force on National Security, whose very comprehensive report on both domestic and external security was submitted in May 2013, was never put in the public domain. If the UPA government was wary of doing this, so has been the successor government. It is argued that publicising the report may alert our adversaries to our security gaps and that the government is taking action to implement its various recommendations. This is a specious argument. Without transparency there is less incentive to move with a sense of urgency to implement corrective measures and this is quite apparent in our continuing failure to deal with cross-border terrorism or to eliminate left-wing terrorism. It is really the weakness in governance and political corruption which have undermined our security. We should condemn Pakistan for engaging in cross-border terrorism,  but why is there little or no focus on drug smuggling and contraband trade which facilitate such breaches of our border defences? 

Security forces are deployed to defeat left-wing extremism, yet its economic and social dimensions are ignored. Without acknowledging this, it is difficult to see how the Naxal challenge can be met, whether in its rural or urban manifestation. Detaining social activists who raise such uncomfortable questions about the State’s misgovernance and its pursuit of discriminatory policies against the most underprivileged citizens of our country is not going to promote national security. 

Political sensitivity and desire not to be held responsible for failure are often the reasons for lack of transparency. But it is this political tendency which is most responsible for creating an insecure and vulnerable state. In-house inquiries do not deliver results because those guilty of mismanagement and even dereliction of duty are unlikely to make an honest assessment of their own failings or suggest reforms which may come at the cost of their personal or organisational interests. This is the reason why the constant examination and review of India’s security institutions and processes cannot be left to the discretion of political leadership or be subject to the veto of security agencies who have no interest in exposing their own failings and weaknesses. Finally, this points to the crying need for an Indian national security doctrine which alone can provide  a long term assurance of security in an era of rapid change. Ad hoc responses coloured by political compulsions will not do anymore. 

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