Dimensions of insecurity

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

The book traces the new dimensions of security by focussing on the ingredients of individual and group insecurity.

SO much has been written on the concept of security that yet another book is approached with some diffidence, perhaps apprehension. Both reactions turn out to be unwarranted. A sociologist of eminence has brought to the subject a refreshingly different perspective and has enriched the debate.

The traditional bastions of state-centric security were breached decades ago. New criteria for gauging security, relating to the totality of human condition, were added. The state remained a point of reference but conceded centrality to society and to the human condition within each society. Food, water, energy, minerals and other resources for modern economies, technology, ecology and environment emerged as equally relevant determinants. The debate moved from the a priori primacy of the state and its imperatives to those of what John Locke called the Commonwealth.

Prof. T.K. Oommen traces the recent debate on the dimensions of security by focussing on the ingredients of individual and group insecurity. He identifies five principal sources of it: income disparity, patriarchy, cultural and religious heterogeneity, externality and social hierarchy: "While the first two are found in all societies, the third is becoming common in an increasing number of societies. As for the fourth source of insecurity, viz., externality, it is spreading with migration across cultural frontiers. The fifth source of insecurity is unique to certain societies such as those of South Asia." These five sources "tend to feed on one another and aggravate the sense of insecurity". The dimensions of the problem are vividly summed up: "If 50 per cent of the human population experiences insecurity because of its gender, some 25 per cent of the human beings feel insecure because of their poverty." The sense of insecurity of groups (seeking recognition of identity on other grounds) adds to this in considerable measure and is demonstrated by a table (page 104) of `Minorities at Risk' in different regions of the world. The bulk of the population in any society, therefore, signals a sense of insecurity in some measure.

The argument of socio-cultural diversity is developed in terms of the nation-state with specific reference to South Asia: "First, nation-states could not achieve complete cultural homogenisation and hence collective rights are relevant even in them. Second, in the case of multinational and multicultural states, the preservation of collective identities along with individual equality needs to be pursued deliberately. Third, national self-determination is irrelevant for multicultural polities as the constituting ethnicities are territorially dispersed. In contemporary multinational polities, although self-determination is relevant, most of the constituting units do not invoke it; they are self-renouncing nations. Fourth, new nationalisms, emerging and crystallising all over the world, situated as they are in federal polities, simultaneously pursue individual rights and collective identities" (page 74). Pursuant to this line of reasoning, an interesting typology of South Asian nationalisms is developed (pages 76-77).

Another table, on page 10, indicates the falsity of a dichotomous approach and in favour of a notion of continuity between the security of the state and everyday security as well as the continuity between its macro and micro dimensions. Oommen therefore argues that an optimal view of security is provided by an analysis of three factors: genocide, `culturocide' and ecocide. Genocide can be executed by the state and/or representative of one or another group. "Culturocide attempts to dismantle the identities of collectives." Ecocide results when there is a deliberate attempt to destroy the ecological system of the enemy or when there is the reckless application of modern technology for rapid economic development. "A society free from genocide, culturocide and ecocide may be conceptualised as a secure society."

Commencing with Plato's Republic, the search for security has been the most pervasive of human pursuits. It has been argued, with justification, that insecurity refers both to the subjective feeling of anxiety and to the concrete lack of protection. Measured against the conceptual framework set out in the monograph, the shortcomings of all contemporary societies become evident. The instances of genocide and attempted cultural homogenisation cited by Oommen need no commentary. They reflect poorly on the claims of the modern states as guardians of security. A related question pertains to the role of socio-economic forces, and of political actors, in the construction of insecurity. To what extent do they fuel the subjective feeling of anxiety and participate in avoiding protection? These considerations propel thinking in the direction of an alternative paradigm.

The closing decades of the 20th century also witnessed perceptible changes in the very nature of the state and the society it professed to protect. The nation-state conceded ground in increasing measure to the forces of globalisation, to what Philip Bobbit has called the market-state.

It will be argued that Oommen's approach to security focusses on the avoidance of the undesirable and leaves out the desirable imperatives. Thus, while freedom from fear is one aspect of security, freedom from want is another, no less relevant. Both aspects were covered in the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report (2000): freedom from discrimination, freedom from want, freedom to develop and realise one's human potential, freedom from fear, freedom from injustice and violations of the rule of law, freedom of thought, speech and association and freedom for work without exploitation. Oommen, however, considers this approach `obese'.

The Delhi Policy Group is to be complemented for initiating its project on Non-Traditional Security aimed at creating a new awareness that the definition of the nature of security has to be made more comprehensive. Oommen's monograph is a welcome addition to a series of earlier publications on different aspects of this fascinating theme. A dimension has been added; the quest for comprehensiveness needs to continue.

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