Securitising Civil Society in India

The Hijackers Of Hinduism

by Rishabh Yadav   15 July 2020

The trajectory of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India follows the similar script to that of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Andersen’s tale is about the two weavers who promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to people who are incompetent and stupid. Though in reality, they do not make any suit, making people believe that the clothes are invisible to them. So, when the emperor takes the tour before his subjects to display his ‘new clothes’ no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for the fear of being seen as stupid. However, a child shouts out at last, “But he is not wearing anything”. Similarly, the victory of Modi was hailed to drape India with new clothes of development, modernity and prosperity. However, just like the weaver, Modi and his ilk have not only been unsuccessful in draping India with new clothes of prosperity but have also left the old clothes of social cohesion, secularism, democratic ideals tattered and social contract broken.

Modi’s saga though moves beyond that of Andersen’s. In his fable, Andersen does not mention what happened to the boy who shouted that the emperor is naked. However, in present day India, the boy would have been imprisoned with the charges of sedition and UAPA; the cost of speaking truth to the power in the current times. This is what we have been witnessing in the midst of pandemic when the whole world is working to contain the spread of COVID-19; the Indian state forces are busy dismantling the antibodies of democracy. The recent arrest of students, activists and journalists under the draconian UAPA law, which allows the police to detain them for 6 months without producing charge sheets, validates the state’s meticulous efforts to suppress the democratic voices of dissent against the government.

Be it the stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood through post-democratic means or government’s reactions to any social movements, evident during the recent anti-CAA protests, or charging students, activists and journalists with UAPA, a coherent pattern has emerged whereby the issue of politics is transferred to the security apparatus of the state.

This ‘new normal’ which has pervaded India post-2014 by inducing a state of exception in Kashmir and suppressing dissent in mainland India has happened through a series of progression by ‘securitising’ civil society and generating a legitimate opinion about state behaviour thus shrinking the space for any oppositional voices. Following that, this space has either been encroached by State or delegated to ‘uncivil society’ who uses extra-legal means to coerce, intimidate and punish citizens on behalf of the state.


A state generally functions in two realms – political realm and security realm. In political realm a state has to go through various processes of transparency, accountability and oppositional voices, while in the security realm it can suspend all activities of ‘normal politics’ allowing it to use emergency provisions. By legitimising the use of emergency provisions that are not tolerable in conventional politics, the security as a value serves as a special value to the state.

Securitisation is understood as a process of shifting an issue from the political realm to the security realm. For the scholars of securitisation, there are no ‘objective threats’ but threats are constructed through discourse and inter-subjective interactions. Therefore, securitisation is seen as a ‘speech act’ which constructs an inter-subjective understanding to treat something as an existential threat to the referent object (in our case, a threat to Indian nation) and therefore allowing exceptional measures to be used to deal with those threats.

This process of ‘securitisation’ can be basically understood as a three part act. First act is a securitising move which corresponds to calling something/someone as an existential threat. Herein the securitising actor through his ‘speech act’, employing the language of security, claims a certain issue as threatening which needs to be neutralised. Second act corresponds to audience’s acceptance of the securitising actor’s perception of threat. This acceptance of the audience is vital because it allows the ‘securitising actor’ to suspend conventional politics and undertake extra-ordinary measures to deal with the perceived threat. This additionally allows the audience to tolerate the violation of their rights which otherwise have to be respected by the state in normal course of politics. The final act is to impose the extraordinary measures to neutralise the ‘threat’ which successfully indicates transfer of issue from political realm to security realm.

Civil Society and Securitisation

Civil Society is what brings democracy into practice. A dynamic and vibrant civil society is envisioned as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. It is the space where citizens enjoy relative autonomy in relation to the State and come together to preserve their values and interests. It is the site of civic engagement, deliberation, and celebration of multitudes of opinions and dissent. An attack on civil society customarily represents an attempt to weaken the autonomy of democratic principles at the expense of maintaining tight reins over the people through state structure.

Post-2014 there has been systematic attempts to curtail the space of civil society which voices its concern against the government’s authoritarian policies and practices. There have been continuous advancements to securitise the civil society and implicate its actors as harm causing agents working against the interest of the nation. Modi’s consensus built on atavistic cultural nationalism and ache din (Prospering Days) was based on creating an ‘other’ that challenges his construction of Indian nation, hence drawing a line between ‘genuine’ Indians and the enemies of the nation. This consensus is built on the discourse of fusing patriotism, jingoism and religious imagery with the concept of Indian citizenship. By creating such a discourse it has become easier for the ruling government to define, construct and reproduce the Indian citizens into the neat categories of ‘genuine’ Indians and the enemies. The ‘Genuine Indians’ are then produced who believe in the congruence of government and the nation. Therefore, by producing these subjects who will neither speak against the government as that would automatically tantamount to speaking against the nations, an obedient and willing citizenry is constructed that is blind in its faith towards the government.

Thus, the negation of this basic principle, of the congruence between government and the state, produces an ‘other’ which are seen as enemies of the nation, as those criticising the government are speaking against the development of nation. These enemies are those who look at government’s policies critically, speak against curtailing of rights and freedoms of individuals and institutions, and most importantly, are opposed to regime’s narrative of re-writing history and subverting democratic institutions and propagating disinformation. This ‘other’, the enemies are the political dissidents, activists, prominent intellectuals, students, journalists, and common citizens who occupy the space of civil society to question and challenge the government’s practices which violate the structure of the democratic polity.

The ruling party initiated the first act of securitisation by constructing this ‘other’ as a threat to the geo-body of Indian nation. This discourse was propagated by framing this ‘other’ as either anti-national, urban naxal or a member of tukde tukde gang (Gang trying to break the nation-state). The discourse was further popularised by the media houses that chose to use the similar vocabulary against anyone who countered the government’s narrative or raised questions against the government. From the incidents of Bhima Koregaon to the tarnishing of JNU, these narratives were brought into public discourse making them highly popular. By the time BJP government completed its first term these discourses had become both popular and institutionalised, which was directly manifested in the oppositional voices coming out against the abrogation of article 370 and anti-CAA protests.

The manifestation, popularity and acceptance of this discourse were widely witnessed on traditional and social media as well as in public opinion. Anyone voicing out their opinion against the government, would invite an army of trolls harassing and shaming them. The words ‘anti-national’ and ‘urban naxal’ became part of the everyday vocabulary of the people against those who disagreed with the opinions of the government. This was equally observed during the assassination of prominent intellectuals like Gauri Lankesh and Kalburgi. Their assassinations followed the similar logic, of first branding them as ‘anti-national’ or subjecting them to harassment for their views and thereby, after their killings, celebrating the murder.

By employing words such as ‘anti-national’ or ‘urban naxal’, has given rise to twin processes in Indian society. First, the securitisation of civil society has taken place, which allows the government to adopt measures against the dissidents that would otherwise not have been possible in normal play of politics. Second, this discourse has led to shrinking of civil society, a space now taken by another set of non-state actors who continuously take law into their hands to police citizens. These non-state actors are both the organised groups belonging to various hindutva organisation as well as individuals who on normal days are invisible to the naked eyes but springs into the action as a group on the calls of saving the ‘nation’ by partaking in the acts of violence. These non-state actors can be best described in analogy to stormtroopers who were squads in Italy helping landowners to break strikes and assassinating union leaders. Arthur Rosenberg in his articleFascism as mass movement’ argues that stormtroopers are peculiar to fascist politics. Writing on the activities of stormtroopers, he says:

The activities of the stormtroopers of the fascist type are in complete violation of the laws. Legally, the stormtroopers should be tried and sentenced to prison, but in fact nothing of the sort happens. Their conviction in the courts is pure show, either they do not serve their sentence or they are soon pardoned. In this way the ruling class shows its stormtrooper heroes how grateful and sympathetic it is.

The everyday gory repetitions of lynching, hassling, and harassments against the ‘other’ are few of the activities of our hindutva stormtroopers. As described by Rosenberg, these perpetrators of violence either do not get punished or if even some who are sentenced do get legal help from the ruling party getting their sentences shortened. These perpetrators soon become heroes and models of right-wing social media circles, are hailed by the political leaders and hindutva organisations. Some even manage to secure themselves election tickets from the right-wing parties.

The construction, articulation and the inter-subjective agreement about the threats has allowed the political elites to not only securitise the spaces of dissent but also has allowed them to institutionalise this securitisation, meaning any event in these space would be responded through the security apparatus and not the political apparatus. The institutionalisation of discourse and embeddedness of securitisation of civil society was directly seen in the social movement of anti-CAA protest. The securitisation of public universities and civil society allowed the government to suspend political democratic norms, where a state enters into dialogue with protesters. Instead, it was swift to employ its security forces to attack university premises and crush the resistance. The act of entering universities with security forces, shelling tear gases into the premises and vandalising the infrastructure, within the normal rules of politics would have been criticised and frowned upon. However, the government was praised for taking such a tough stance against the students, as they were perceived as ‘threats’ to the ‘myth of Indian nation’.

The current spurt in arrests during the lockdown against activists, journalists and students involved in anti-CAA protest under the draconian UAPA law has taken the act of securitisation further. Whereas these political dissenters were earlier labelled as anti-nationals, the invocation of UAPA designates them as terrorists. These arrests in the midst of lockdown clearly show that the intention of government is to destroy the safety valve of democracy and create a psychological fear into anyone trying to oppose the government’s narrative. The securitisation of civil society is an attempt to erase the voices of dissent and manufacture a new past and thereby a new myth of nation. Nations do not just exist but are produced through historical, geographical and cultural invocation. The present project of the regime is to produce this myth of the nation based on an ahistorical and exclusionary notion, disregarding every notion of syncretic culture, democratic values and ideas. Ultimately, what these arrests further indicate is that anyone daring to call the emperor’s attempt of donning the nation with new clothes as nothing but naked will be held hostage by the security apparatus of state the and thereby will be marked as the enemy of the state.

The present government has resorted to the use of emergency means without even invoking ‘emergency’ to curtail the social movements by shifting them away from the realm of politics and presenting them as a security issue. The protesters articulating their voice through the ideas of the constitution are being portrayed as ‘dividing the unity of India’ and are incarcerated for expressing their democratic rights of free speech. The government’s decision to not enter into dialogue with the protesters, as a democratically elected government should, has shown that anyone speaking ‘truth to the power’ will not be tolerated in ‘new India’. The shift of civil society from the political spectrum, where it contests and engages with government and society, to the security realm, has shown that anyone contesting the government’s construction of nation as homogenous land for ‘ethnic Hindus’ will be perceived as a security threat and dealt accordingly.

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