A Pre-Emptive Defence of an Idea of India

As I write, the siege is not yet over. These words may thus appear to some to be premature, to others alternatively unpatriotic or blasphemous. Perhaps this is precisely the reason to write them now: a pre-emptive defence of what will and has already begun to emerge as the next siege: calls for security, for intelligence, forsurveillance, for safety, for blame, and for control.

How does one answer these undoubtedly understandable calls at a moment of shock and fear? There is no doubt that we must ask difficult questions of ourselves and think about how to make our cities safe once again. The problem is not the desire to want to be safe and secure, but the power of those desires at this moment of fear to allow us to compromise the very freedoms, dignities and civil liberties that we are trying to protect.

Following the Sept 11th attacks on the US and the Dec 13th attacks on the Indian Parliament, we saw a rash of legislation in both countries that suspended judicial process, that heightened surveillance, that re-branded witch hunts as intelligence, and that attacked civil liberties in democratic nations. In both countries, these were targeted endeavours, and some citizens were always more suspicious than others, always guilty until proven otherwise. Calls for tighter laws, censorship, surveillance and anti-terrorism legislation with heightened border control have already begun to emerge in the mainstream press. How do we respond to these calls? How do we prevent the worst versions of the POTAs and Patriot Acts from entering the language of our democracy again? How do we strive to balance calls for security with the real need to protect democratic freedoms?

The first thing we must do is to pull these claims apart and break their inevitable connections in mainstream media and governmental circles. “More secure” does not necessarily have to mean more surveillance, more restrictions, curtailed freedoms of speech, more monitoring of different opinions, more control over minorities. How these restrictions make us safer, and not just make some of feel more abstractedly comforted, is far from certain. What they do to us as a society is far more sinister. “Intelligence” does not just have to mean rounding up the usual suspects, re-branding all Muslim citizens as terrorists, and making neighbours distrust each other along already existing fault lines. There are other kinds of surveillance: eyes on the streets, relations of trust between communities, feelings of city and national solidarity across difference. This kind is a mutual surveillance, not an act of power but of reciprocity. It is this system of surveillance that is in crisis, this sense of trust that has rapidly slipped into disaffection for so many. It is this system that also has to be strengthened — this other kind of surveillance. We cannot allow supposed “external threats” to turn into our own internal divisions.

Analysts writing in the aftermath of the attacks are both deriding the weakness of Indian intelligence systems but also calling for them to have more and wide-ranging powers. There is a danger in giving more power and less accountability to institutions that when it is generally agreed that they are already struggling with their mandates, especially without increasing their capability, efficacy or providing direction and frameworks to them. We must ask what kind of “intelligence” work has to be strengthened, not just call for the noose around our everyday lives to be tighter. Let us look at arms trades, transnational networks of terror, but at actions and actors, not people, nations and communities; through active investigation based on real evidence, not discursive battles that target identities, faiths and belief systems.

Analysts have called the strikes on hotels and state institutions attacks on “the idea of India.” I would argue that we have to defend this “idea of India” in its most inclusive and expansive sense. An India that will not allow grief to move into blind anger, either at a national scale towards our neighbours or inside our own borders towards some of our citizens. An India that will remind itself that, in the long-run, safety, security and freedom must separate themselves from and rise above fear, suspicion, surveillance and control, which
will only build a vicious cycle towards more disaffection and more sieges. This is a call, in the end then precisely for patriotism, a protection of an idea of India that leaves us safer but also still free.

[This is written for a national daily that will hopefully carry it in the next few days. Sharing here on Kafila.]

5 thoughts on “A Pre-Emptive Defence of an Idea of India”

  1. I’m not an apologist for the right wing, so you don’t need to look for any agenda behind my comments here. Many civil rights groups disapproved of the British Government’s decision to compile biometric data during visa applications. It’s nothing, in fact, it is just a five-minute procedure, but civil rights groups made it look like harassment. But the procedure seems to be working — Britain has not had a single attack after the last series of blasts.
    Similarly, when they decided to install CCTV cameras all over the place, there were plenty of protests by people who assumed it infringed on their civil rights. CCTV surveillance cannot prevent an attack, but it helps establish patterns and is crucial evidence.

    Why do you assume tighter laws necessarily mean the crackdown on peaceful civilians (Hindu/ Muslim)? Why do you bring religion into the picture? Why do you tie the government’s hands even before it has contemplated action? The government is lax as it is. Its human rights record is terrible, but what you should be talking about is harder steps without impinging on human rights.

    I’m willing to forego some of my civil liberties if it means better security. I don’t mind being checked at airports or shopping malls or theatres. These are essential procedures in this world. Please remember that the only visuals we have of the terrorists is through the CCTV at CST.

  2. … but I agree with this part of your analysis: “Let us look at arms trades, transnational networks of terror, but at actions and actors, not people, nations and communities; through active investigation based on real evidence, not discursive battles that target identities, faiths and belief systems.”

  3. Gautam thanks: makes sense: There are other kinds of surveillance: eyes on the streets, relations of trust between communities, feelings of city and national solidarity across difference. This kind is a mutual surveillance, not an act of power but of reciprocity.

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