| September 20, 2020

National Insecurity States

National Insecurity States
For reasons grounded in geopolitics of Cold War, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan have always been national security states despite multiple regime changes

BENGALURU. Renaming cities is perhaps one of the most convenient ways of asserting newly constructed 'old' identities in post-colonial societies. Before the British laid the foundation stones of what they have turned out to be today, megacities of Calcutta and Bombay were fishing villages. Clerks of East India Company made Madras emerge as the most significant town south of Vindhyachal Ranges. However, buoyant Bengalese, belligerent Marathis and bourgeois Tamils would somehow like to believe that Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai had always been there as guiding lights of their cultural pride.
Despite remnants of an earthen fort of warrior Kempegowda and a wood and plaster mansion of Tipu Sultan in the city, Bangalore began to acquire its urban character only after it was turned into a cantonment town for the colonial forces. Other sobriquets followed in quick order—'no-fan station' of the armed forces, the 'garden city' for the rich, and the 'air-conditioned city' of the middle-class—that complemented its temperate climate year round. With no rivers nearby to flood its streets and no coastline to invite heavy winds that could uproot trees, it soon became a 'pensioners' paradise' of the region.

Visionary engineer Sir M. Vishweshraiya had leveled the ground for building modern temples of Nehruvian India with heavy investments of what was then the Mysore state in power generation, water supply, municipal administration and technical education. Independence brought in centers of excellence such as the Indian Institute of Science and 'high-tech' industries of its time like machine tools (not many remember hand-wound HMT wristwatches anymore), telephones and even aeronautics. Late Saibaba then put up his ashram at the Whitefields and devotees began to pour into a town that had never been a pilgrimage site.

With a mix of military metropolitanism, academic openness, municipal competence, technological enterprise and secular religiosity of newfound faiths, Bangalore was just perfect for the forever adolescents of the information age. The city became a cyber showcase by the late-1990s. And then the corporates began to hover over the city of affluence. Once they congregated into a critical mass, a new name became necessary. The loyalty of the cultural bourgeoisie is an effective insurance policy against any possible backlash from alienated masses left out of the prosperity race.

In the early 1970s, the Mysore State had become Karnataka. Almost four decades later, the capital transformed itself into Bengaluru. The paradox is striking—more modern the city, the more traditional sounding name it wants for itself.

The silicon miracle has plateaued. The biomedical revolution has failed to materialize. But the expansion of Bengaluru continues unabated. The profit-sector investments in education and health are main drivers of growth. Banking and finance as well as the horse racing are big draws. With trading and marketing companies basing their headquarters for peninsular India in a centrally accessible location, hotels seldom face difficulties in filling their rooms. Anticipating further urban sprawl, a cavernous international airport has been built almost 70 kilometers away from the main city. But infrastructures alone don't make a city modern.

People of Bangalore seem to be slipping down from their famed cosmopolitanism to narrow parochialism. More shops and offices have signboards in Kannada only than ever before. Despite more and more migrants pouring into the city for work—Bihari masons, Odiya craftsmen, Marwari businessmen, Bengali professionals, Telugu transport workers, Tamil handyman and vendors, Malyali accountants, and cyber-coolies of all backgrounds—its once-famous cinema halls screen only Kannada movies. The divide between 'outsiders' and 'locals' appear to be getting deeper.

Heightening paranoia

A bored young bureaucrat at the immigration counter of Kempegowda International Airport wants to know more details about the visitor from Nepal than is required to be filled into the obligatory form. The word 'security' after 'human' raises his first antenna. He needs a tutorial in human security before reading the form further. Then comes 'South Asia' and his second antenna also pops out. Will there be participants also from Pakistan? Possibly, though visa hassles before and security questions afterwards discourage many Pakistanis from visiting India. Now he wants to know much more than the respondent is capable of explaining. It takes a while to convince the officer from Uttar Pradesh that there is little security threat in allowing a visitor from across the border near his village to enter Bengaluru.

Heightened insecurity is a global phenomenon. It's no longer possible to travel anywhere without being frisked and more and more restaurants install metal detectors at entry gates. Ironically, the easier it gets to travel from one place to another in the globalizing world, the harder it becomes for the people to cross borders. Let alone refugees, scattered around the world due to humanitarian crises, even tourists are less than welcome unless they happen to be jet-setters with gold-plated guarantees of five-star addresses.

The Hindu tradition of pilgrimage to the four corners of Indian mainland meant that people traveled freely everywhere. Society was so open that dissent was norm rather than the exception—the Argumentative Indian of Amartya Sen was more of a garrulous Indian through most of its history. Now it can't tolerate a Kanhaiya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, an exceptionally articulate student willing to risk being voice of the voiceless. What really went wrong?

More than any security threat—though it will be futile to argue that it doesn't exist at all—perhaps it's the astounding prosperity and power of a very small circle of elites that has exacerbated paranoia of the ruling class. The Vijay Mallayas and Sri Sri Ravishankars have to peddle patriotism to remain who they are.

Nationalism is a powerful diversionary tactic that directs the gaze away from rising inequalities. Patriotism makes people forget their misery. In this day and age, it's difficult to imagine that territorial integrity of let alone India and Pakistan—the nuclear powers of South Asia—but even Bhutan or the Maldives are at the risk of external aggression. Threats are universally internal that need compassionate leaders rather than dispassionate soldiers or driven policemen.

States fearing its own citizens and people being frightened to by officers meant to ensure their safety are paradoxical realities of national security states in South Asia.

The doctrine of national security, said to have evolved from US President Harry S. Truman's resolve "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," comes with the baggage of intolerance of dissent, supremacy of the military-industrial complex, reduction of democracy into electoral charades, centrality of corporates in the economy, primacy of organized religion in society, division between 'them enemies' and 'we patriots' and attempted suppression of diversity to manufacture uniformity.

Indian heat

Just as the Truman Doctrine was meant to do away with the New Deal, the Indira Doctrine of Security in 1970s heralded the death of Nehruvian flirtations with welfare economy. Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi admires Mrs. Indira Gandhi more than he has the courage to admit. Something similar happened in Sri Lanka in the 1980s with tragic consequences.

For reasons grounded in the geopolitics of Cold War, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan have always remained national security states despite multiple regime changes. Perhaps the problem with paranoia is that the harder one tries to overcome it, the deeper it drives into the psyche pushing an individual or a society into a vicious circle. It needs a courageous leader to pull a country out of the pit without risking civil war, but few have the determination to face possible electoral rout by sacrificing long-worshipped goats of 'national interest'.

As long as India feels 'insecure', its neighbors other than China across the Himalayas, can't hope to live in peace. The corollary is equally true, unless countries in the vicinity of what is going to be the single biggest nation-state of the world in foreseeable future are comfortable with their neighbor, New Delhi can never hope to realize its global ambitions. In historical terms, three wasted decades is too short a period to write off the SAARC experiment. Someday, a leader will emerge in India to realize its true potentials.