My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance

India needs comprehensive military reforms, not mere salary increases for officers

In today’s op-ed in Mint, Sushant & I argue that rather than merely addressing military pay and procurement in isolation, India needs to urgently conduct a fundamental overhaul of its armed forces. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance”

Expensive mistakes on national security (2)

A flip after the flop

And just one day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that his government has “no fixed, inflexible or ideological view” with regard to anti-terrorism laws, and that it was actively considering strengthening the legal framework in line with “global consensus”, his government has announced that it won’t be doing so after all.

“No, No, No. It is a draconian (law) and against human rights. If the present anti-terror laws are implemented properly, there is no requirement for additional laws,” Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunsi said.

“What do you mean by tougher anti-terror laws? Some of our laws are much more strong than those in the US and UK,” he shot back when asked whether the government was planning to bring in an anti-terror law similar to POTA. [TOI, emphasis added]

So this what what Dr Singh meant by not having a fixed and inflexible view. Depending on time of the day, day of the week and member of his cabinet, you get very different views. (Psst. Note that it is Mr Dasmunshi and not the home minister who is announcing these cabinet decisions, in the company of the home secretary.)

Expensive mistakes on national security

Yes, it was the UPA’s political persuasions that got in the way of fighting terrorists

On June 8th, 2004, the UPA government presented its programme in parliament, in the president’s speech:

My government is concerned about the misuse of POTA in the recent past. While there can be no compromise on the fight against terrorism, the Government is of the view that existing laws could adequately handle the menace of terrorism. The Government, therefore, proposes to repeal POTA. [IBEF, emphasis added]

In his address to the Governor’s Conference, on September 17th, 2008, four years and umpteen acts of terrorism later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared:

The public debate on the issue of terrorism has, unfortunately, tended to get driven by politics, and has centered on certain laws enacted or repealed by Governments of different political persuasions. Our Government has no fixed, inflexible or ideological view in this regardWe are actively considering legislation to further strengthen the substantive anti-terrorism law in line with the global consensus on the fight against terrorism. [PMO, emphasis added]

Dr Singh’s sanctimoniousness, as usual, is gratuitous. If the issue with POTA was “basically (related) to the procedural aspects of investigation and prosecution of terrorism related offences”, and the need was to “address the apprehensions”, then surely repealing the entire act (instead of amending it) is not merely about the UPA government being wrong its view about the efficacy of “existing laws”. It is about a deliberate decision to subordinate internal security to political persuasions.

As for attributing the need to change to a global consensus, Dr Singh is on an even weaker wicket. That global consensus—to the extent that the term is even meaningful—was much stronger in 2004 than it is now. Even so, that Dr Singh should say—even for the purposes of saving face—that the ‘global consensus’ should determine India’s internal security policies reveals just how lost he and his government are on this subject. (Mercifully, he did not think that the global consensus on nuclear non-proliferation ought to determine India’s nuclear weapons policy)

On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.

My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir

More than self-determination for the disaffected, India as a whole needs a dispensation where individual rights and freedoms are truly respected

A version of the following was published in Mint today.

Public consciousness in India received a rude shock a few weeks ago when public demonstrations erupted first in the Kashmir valley, and then in Jammu. For a public fed with accounts of a peace process with Pakistan, talks with Kashmiri separatists and a decrease in terrorism in the state, this return to a “1989-like atmosphere” was sudden enough to be incomprehensible. Coupled with a very sophisticated psychological operation (psy-ops) from Kashmiri separatists—and one that was met with a paralytic silence from the UPA government—this resulted some commentators despondently suggesting that it is time to “let go” of Kashmir.

But surely, it was always unrealistic to expect that just over five years of the Mufti-Azad government would reverse the impact of two decades of a violent proxy war that sharpened the differences between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri on the one hand, and Muslim and non-Muslim on the other. Since 2002, the geopolitical environment compelled Pakistan and the separatists to lie low, for their old formulations found no purchase in the wake of 9/11. The moment this began to change, politics in Kashmir took a turn for the worse. Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, being bandwagoners, could always be counted on to join the side they thought was winning.

But how did they arrive at this conclusion? Well, because of a highly successful psy-ops that transformed concerns over a temporary transfer of uninhabitable land in remote snow-covered mountains into a narrative of a demographic invasion by ‘Hindu’ Indians. In a single masterstroke, this achieved something that two decades of militancy had failed to: generating ill-will for the Kashmiris among the Indian people. Kashmiris came out not so much to protest against the land transfer, but against a diabolic Hindu plan to reduce them to a minority in their own state. Non-Kashmiris saw this as a sign of Kashmiri religious intolerance. This led to, on the one hand, protests by the Hindu community in Jammu, and on the other, to suggestions that allowing Kashmir to secede would not be a bad idea at all. The UPA government in New Delhi was a feeble, non-entity in the entire affair. For instance, it took over 10 days to announce that Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz was not killed, as had been projected earlier, by Indian security forces at protest march. By the time M K Narayanan announced this, more damage had been done.

But let there be no mistake: there is a great affective divide between the Kashmiri people and the rest of India. The solution, however, is not secession. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir”

The grammar of anarchy challenges the idea of India

The right to protest does not imply that the protests are right

K Subrahmanyam’s piece warning against giving in to separatist demands makes a very important point—the tendency to tolerate and appease those who take to the streets to press their demands.

But the challenge facing India is whether we try to set right our governance and improve it or yield to the protesters. Disruption is being made part of India’s political culture by most of our political parties.

Not only Kashmir, but violent agitations elsewhere pose a challenge to the idea of India. The country has to seek a comprehensive strategy to deal with this challenge. Yielding to the Kashmiri secessionists is not a solution. It would be the end of the concept of India. [TOI]

Once the ‘grammar of anarchy’ is accepted as legitimate, accommodating the demands of those who use it—whether it is the Gujjars of Rajasthan, the Amarnath Samiti of Jammu or the Communists in various parts of the country—becomes merely a matter of rationalisation. Any number of principles can be trotted out for the purpose. Shouldn’t those who support yielding to separatist demands in Kashmir also support reservations as demanded by the Gujjars and oppose reservations as demanded by Youth For Equality? Does drawing the bigger, louder, angrier, more violent crowd help reconcile such opposing demands?

This is more than just about Jammu & Kashmir. It’s about the model that Indians accept as the way to reconcile the diverse interests of a diverse population. Mobs, general strikes and public demonstrations might be legitimate means for citizens to express their opinions. But this does not mean that society—and certainly not the government—should accept demands made in this manner. Here the media deserves a share of the blame: the profusion of media outlets has encouraged the tendency of “camera-friendly” agitations—remember Rage Boy—which in turn are blown out of proportion by breathless on-scene reporters and shouting anchors.

Related Link: The inaugural editorial of Pragati; and Harsh Khare calls for “a fundamentalist belief in the curative power of Indian democracy” (linkthanks Anand Sampath).

By invitation: No time to lose heart on Kashmir

The costs of giving in to separatist demands are exhorbitant

By V Anantha Nageswaran

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has arrived at, in more elegant prose, the same conclusions that Swaminathan Aiyar advocated in the Times of India and Vir Sanghvi did in Hindustan Times.

Dr Mehta asks: “Will (India) live with the permanent rebuke to its democracy that Kashmir represents, or will it risk a new paradigm that might achieve what this endless cycle of mutual suspicion has not?”

The problem with these columns is that they end with a tantalising question and with an implicit answer (explicit in Mr Aiyar’s column) that India let Kashmir go. Go where? To what state? What would be the consequences? Costs and benefits under different scenarios?

It is incumbent on those who advocate change from the status quo to spell out the rationale for change and make a case that it would improve things at the margin from their perspective. One presumes that that perspective is that of the rest of the billion-plus Indians. That the present is unsatisfactory is a necessary but hardly a sufficient condition to recommend change without even attempting to make a case for it.

[Update: Dr Mehta clarifies his position in a comment.]

Continue reading “By invitation: No time to lose heart on Kashmir”

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On socialism, constitutionalism and curbing intolerance

For contemplation on Independence Day—on the need to expunge socialism from the Constitution in letter and spirit; on the norms of public activism; and how competitive intolerance might be reined in.

Related Links: Three thoughts on Independence Day 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 & on Republic Day 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Your intolerance is scandalous

India’s First Amendment

A lurker on Atanu Dey’s blog pointed to two fantastic reports from TIME magazine’s archives.

May 28, 1951…Part of the Indian press, said (Nehru), is dirty, indulges in “vulgarity, indecency and falsehood.” To teach it manners, Nehru proposed an amendment to India’s constitution that would impose severe restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. He asked for power to curb the press and to punish persons and newspapers for “contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offense.” Nehru told Parliament: “It has become a matter of the deepest distress to me to see the way in which the less responsible news sheets are being conducted . . . not injuring me or this House much, but poisoning the minds of the younger generation.”

Nehru said his measure was aimed at Communist and Hindu extremist agitation. His real targets: Atom, Current, Struggle and Blitz, four Bombay-published sensational weeklies which have consistently attacked Nehru’s domestic and foreign policy, scurrilously attacked the U.S. [TIME]

In the event, parliament passed the first amendment that placed curbs on fundamental rights, including on the rights to speech and property.

June 11, 1951…A small but determined parliamentary opposition, led by Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, former Minister for Industry, bitterly attacked the amendment.

Mookerjee (to Nehru): You’ve got 240 supporters in this House, but outside in the country millions are against you.

Nehru (shaking his fists) : [Your] statements are scandalous . . .

Mookerjee: Your intolerance is scandalous . . .

Nehru (shouting): Any person who says that this amendment of mine curbs the liberty of the press utters lies . . .

As Nehru explained it: “We should not only give the press freedom, but make it understand that freedom.” There was a lot of doubt whether Nehru himself understood the meaning of freedom. His excuse for requesting the law: the scurrilous outpouring of Indian scandal sheets. But as the All-India Newspaper Editors Conference pointed out: there was nothing to prevent the government from using its new powers against the legitimate press when & if it chose. [TIME]

Nehru’s followers have been consistent in following in his footsteps. Dr Mookerjee’s modern-day followers would do well to heed the position of their political-intellectual forefather.

By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable

Because it is not for them to provide solutions

By Salil Tripathi

[Background: This is Salil’s response to the criticism that “human rights folks, at least in India, are terribly context insensitive. In practice, you can’t even talk about enjoying human rights (as opposed to possessing them) unless the state is capable of maintaining rule of law. By relentlessly criticising the government, and not having much else by means of a positive solution (beyond platitudes), human righters are hampering what capability that already exists. That’s contradictory. That they have for company, intellectuals who condone and incite political violence in the name of whatever cause, makes them all the more suspicious.”]

Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

Whether it is ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights defending the indefendable folks in Guantanamo Bay cases, or Liberty supporting some committed Jihadists in Belmarsh jail in London, they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t get caught out. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail. (Pastor Nimoller’s poem about not speaking out when they came for
gays, leftists, Jews, etc).

Guantanamo prison, like Abu Ghraib, has many bad people. But it also has some innocent people. The state should not be allowed to get away with that.

I remember reading about Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, who had to leave China – after several years in jails. In “Bad Elements” Ian Buruma paints a very gripping and vivid picture of him—of Wei driving through red lights in America, ignoring traffic discipline; smoking in places where smoking is banned. He is stubborn, because the only way he can deal with authority that he has known—China—is by being uncompromising. It does make him look “uncouth” in civilized company.

And yet, unpleasant though he might be, Wei matters. Just as Solzhenitsyn matters even though when he came out of the Gulag, and once he started talking about Mother Russia, he sounded like an embarrassment.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

Think Franklin.

This is, again, not to defend or condemn the human rights brigade, but to explain why they are the way they are. In some ways, they are like evangelists, which makes them suspect for some, saviors, for others.

However, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is
bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating neanderthals (my words)? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I suppose it is that correlation/causality argument again, right? Joyce, his hand, kiss, writing, doing a lot of other things?