Security Studies in South Asia: Changes and Challenges
Prof Madhu Bhalla ·       

The focus on security issues has gained momentum in South Asia in the last decade. Anxiety over the nuclear buildup in the sub-continent has prompted reflection on definitions of security and the objectives of national security policies. This is particularly appropriate today when conflicts arising from domestic differences over the distribution of power and resources threaten the very existence of South Asia. In the circumstances the book under review ? the outcome of a regional seminar ? is a welcome addition to the literature on security studies, providing a critical review of the existing state of the discipline and opening up the concept of security to new meanings.

The book is organized around two themes: the nature of security studies as a discipline in South Asia, and a consideration of alternative definitions of security. This lends the ten essays in the book an overall coherence. All the authors hold that definitions of security need to be radically revised but the issue is really dealt with in the first two papers in the volume. These are thought provoking essays focused on revising notions of political and physical space as the first step towards a critique of the conventional view of national security. Jayapada Uyangoda sets the agenda by pointing out that the problem with current conceptions of security, and the discipline itself, is that it is constructed around the notion of the nation state that holds territories, boundaries and the position of dominant groups within the state as stable, and therefore not to be challenged. Given this ahistorical view of the nation, anxieties over the security of a ?nation? arise more often from the defense of what is ultimately negotiable.�

The author argues it might be more useful to conceive of the state in ways that make it capable of responding to and accommodating the aspirations of groups and interests. This may result in the redrawing of borders, the transfer of territory, or alternatively, the relocation of power from dominant elites to marginal groups and might even radically alter the face of the unitary state as it exists in South Asia. Since he finds no readily available alternative he argues for keeping the state but privileging the margins, for ?flexible borders and the state?.�

Critical of the state, Uyangoda is still on the side of the state, albeit radically altered. This reflects the current reality of South Asia where centers of power are being eroded by challenges from sub-national groups often operating across national borders, or by global forces, thereby making meaningless any notion of permanent borders or state sovereignty. Coming within just fifty years of the first arbitrary delineation of borders at the end of the colonial period in South Asia, the new challenge to the sanctity of borders is an object lesson for die hard realists in security studies.�

In a related contribution, Shaukat Hassan argues that the use (or misuse) of the physical space, and the attendant concerns and conflicts over the distribution of environmental resources, leads to a significant change in the concept of security. Hassan?s argument that environmental degradation causes measurable stress which becomes an underlying factor in conflict at various levels certainly stands vindicated, for example, in the case of conflicts in Africa. Interestingly, while Hassan?s discussion indicates that environmental insecurity cuts across national and regional borders, opening up a non-statal space for the consideration of security issues and challenging the verities of realism?s state-centric beliefs, the state is still central to the enterprise of managing resources and delivering the peace. There is little indication in this paper on the ways in which the realist state and its institutions should transform their relations of power with populations and with other states that are also subject to environmental insecurity and scarcity.

This effort to reground security studies is also reflected in the essays on the state of security studies in South Asia. The backdrop for security concerns differs in all countries with the Indian concerns being most broadly conceived. Indian concerns are related not just to the conflicts in the sub continent, but to events in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean and to the changing world environment. Two of the three Pakistani contributors note that the conflict with India has almost wholly defined security debate in Pakistan. For Sri Lanka the security debate has been defined by its Tamil problem and by the Indian presence to the north. For Nepal, by its effort to balance India and China on its northern and southern borders and by the fact that it perceives the civilization similarities between itself and India as a threat to its identity. Traditionally, security has been defined in a military sense but all authors are exercised over the fact that the changing global environment, as well as domestic developments, make it imperative that security be linked to people?s livelihood, social stability, good governance and to the better management of the material and environmental resources of the nation.

Thus, for example, Khalid Mahmud has tried to link governance, or the lack thereof, to national security thus shifting the focus of security to non-military security concerns. Mahmud decries the failure of governance in Pakistan as evident in the creation of a military culture, the degradation of the non-religious education system, and the rise of sectarianism and Islamic fundamentalism and, quoting Mahbub ul-Haq, argues for a concept of security that aims as safeguarding the people, not just the borders. Speaking to the concerns over developing a comprehensive view of security, Dilara Chaudhary?s paper sets up Bangladesh as the only country in the region that has a predominant non-military view of security. Given the history of the state, its crisis of governance, poverty linked to developmental problems, environmental degradation, and ethnic conflict with cross-border ramifications, the military-strategic dimension takes a back seat. Chaudhary?s paper urges for solutions to non-military threats in a regional space.

However, the contributors to the volume are aware that much of what they suggest in the ways in which security could be reconceptualized is limited by the lack of autonomy of the discipline and by the background of the practitioners in the field. The picture of security studies institutions that emerges across South Asia is that either the institutional structure for security studies is weak, or that it tied to the apron strings of the state. Social science scholars rarely, if ever, think of security studies as an area of primary concern, leaving the filed to ex-policy makers or defence establishment gurus. In the circumstances there is little scope for the creation of a critical intellectual space in the discipline.

As an exercise in setting up a debate on security studies in South Asia the book is interesting for the issues that the contributors agree on: that the conventional definition of security does not reflect the range of issues that constitute a threat to security in South Asia; that the South Asian state must reinvent itself to deal with these issues; and that
these issues have converged to create a series of security crises that are arguably domestic, but in South Asia have the capacity to transform themselves into the regional, if not global.�

Yet, the debate on what actually constitutes comprehensive security, as opposed to national security defined on the basis of military needs, seems nowhere near reaching any definitive conclusions. As the essays make it amply clear, the issue is peculiarly beset with empirical as well as pedagogical concerns. At the level of the empirical, security studies analysts cannot ignore the ways in which strictly non-military issues within domestic polities ? demographic movements, fundamentalisms, and land hunger ? create conflict between states. However, they feel the need to draw the line at including every domestic crisis with the remotest potential for conflict within the definition of security concerns at the risk of making the definition itself meaningless. This is also reflected in the pedagogical issue of how a broader definition of security will shape the discipline of security studies in the future. Will security studies be able to expand its parameter to enable analysts to interpret conflict in a critical and meaningful way, or will the boundaries of the discipline be so frayed by inroads from the main social science disciplines?history, economics and political science ? that it will surrender its autonomy? Or will the discipline, in a defensive response to the latter, remain what it is today in most South Asian nations: an adjunct of state policy?