of the concept of civil society
perspective of Civil Society in India
The concept of civil society
may be defined from various perspectives e.g. social, economic, political,
historical, cultural so on and so forth. This happens precisely because the
concept of civil society is highly dynamic and abstract and it would be an
injustice to make an attempt to capture the concept of civil society with
respect to one single yardstick. The concept of civil society is thus highly subjective
and has undergone impactful evolution over time.
The entire spectrum of the
concept of civil society today is not merely comprised of Non-Government
Organizations (NGOs) but also includes the entire gamut of vibrant and wide
range of groups, both organized and unorganized. New actors in the civil
society arena transcends the boundaries between fields and sectors with new forms
of organizational reforms.
Today’s world is even witness
to a changing role on part of the civil societies. Civil societies now act as
service providers, facilitators, advocates, conveners and innovators. In
addressing societal challenges, the private sector is also demonstrating an
increasingly visible and effective role. Influential sources of societal
capital has been the natural culmination of increased faith in civil societies.
Moreover, there is rapid
transformation of the context facing today’s civil societies. The developing
economies are now being regarded as the growth engines of the world economy and
the world geopolitics is also changing keeping pace with the changing times.
Technological advancements have ushered in a sea change in the way civil
societies interact with other stake holders in the ecosystem. The means of
social engagement have shifted dramatically and also political interventions
constrains the sphere of activities of civil society in many countries. All
these factors pose challenges as well as create opportunities and thus demand
flexibility and speedy adaptation on the part of civil society actors.
Furthermore, the IMF and the
World Bank pursues the concept of civil society as prerequisite for good
governance and hence, development. Although this approach has come under
scanner by political scientists and social theorists, the World Bank, through
its application of the civil society theory and institutionalism, has changed
its neo-liberalist stance into a more complex social and economic theory. Using
developmental aid as a tool to coerce its member countries, the World Bank
tries to achieve democracy, promote market economy and implement good
governance in which civil societies are considered a key ingredient.
Civil society theory is often
criticized siting its historical background. It is often argued that this
concept is essentially a product of the West and might not be relevant to other
countries around the globe. This paper endeavours to investigate this issue in
the light of the present day Indian Democracy. It will try to explore the
various roles played by the Indian Civil Societies and analyse whether this
active role of civil societies in India has been constructive in terms of
development and maintaining harmony among its diverse citizenry.
of the concept of civil society
Although the concept of ‘civil
society’ may be traced back to the days of Aristotle, the term carried a
different meaning back then (Keane,
1988; Hall, 1995; Cohen & Arato, 1992). In comparison to
present day approach when the concept of civil society largely deals with
segregation of the civil society from the state, the early concept emphasized
the need for a powerful state for the success of all forms of social life
including civil societies. Even contract theorists such as John Locke and
Thomas Hobbes, though differed in their opinions about state and civil society,
concurred that state protection is required for smooth functioning of civil
society. However, it is to be carefully noted that the context which compelled
Locke and Hobbes to come to the above mentioned conclusion has observed
dramatic transformation in subsequent times. Locke also highlights the
importance of granting certain rights to individuals unconditionally and thus
indirectly pointing to a restrained government with justified accountability.
The existing fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution might
considered as a step in this direction (NCERT, 2015).
Also, it is worthwhile to mention the celebrated Right
to Information Act 2005 which mandates timely response to citizen requests for
government information (Training,
Around the middle of the 18th
century, Western Europe witnessed economic development, religious freedom and
new political ideas which changed the perception of the state. All-embracing
despotic European states led to popular resistance on one hand and a
development in political theory on the other. The nature of the state began to
be considered as potentially totalitarian. In this context, Thomas Paine
regarded state as an anti-pole to civil society. He opined that minimum control
of the state over societies is beneficial for the people, especially when the
nature of the state is oppressive and despotic. (Paine, 1995)
Furthermore, theorists such as
Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith highlighted the importance of regarding the market
and the civil society as one single entity while maintaining a clear
distinction from the political society. This idea is echoed in the context of
today’s India which is observing high economic growth and where economic
factors have a tremendous impact on the society. The role of civil society in
bolstering India’s pursuit for achieving development is undeniably evident.
Hegel promoted the idea of a
healthy society-state relationship as an essential tool for conflict management
and pacifying public unrest. Interestingly, Marx was of the opinion that the
interaction between society and state is not a panacea for all problems in a
capitalist environment that led to unwanted social tensions. Tocqueville
emphasized the role of society in connecting the people with their
representatives (Edwards, Diani, & Foley,
In a diverse country as India, the representative democracy, although quite
strong, fails to capture the aspirations of all the sections of the society
which leads to dissatisfaction among the people. It is then that the role of
civil societies become imminent in ensuring holistic representation of the
society, giving voice to the last mile citizen who otherwise might not get a
chance to be heard and acting as a nodal point to express and articulate its
stance to the government.
perspective of Civil Societies in India
The history of the concept of
civil society in India can be traced back to the concepts of daana or zakat as in Islam (donating) and seva (selfless service). The major religious beliefs in India such
as the Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism etc. emphasize
the role of rendering unselfish service as a means of practising spirituality.
Voluntary service rendered by individuals till date draws inspiration from
religious ethos. The beginning of civil society movement in India may also be historically
attributed to the exposure to western ideas and thoughts of liberty, equality
and fraternity. The early decades of the 19th century saw many
social reformers flung into activity to rid the society of its malice such as
the child marriage, caste system and Sati
( Self-immolation of widows). The period which witnessed many revolutions
opposing discriminatory acts imposed by the colonial rulers, has rightfully
been identified as the Indian Renaissance and may also have sowed the seeds of
future civil society movements in India (Agarwal, n.d.).
The character of the civil
society movements observed a gradual transformation during the early decades of
the 20th century. Reform movements that started as a means of
uplifting people from the social evils now strongly denounced oppression and
took the shape of resentment and protests against the British rulers. People
became aware of their rights and the civil societies provided the umbrella
under which they could unite and place their demand to the colonial rulers.
During this time, emergence of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian political arena
redefined civil society movements with the introduction of concepts such as
non-cooperation, civil disobedience and satyagraha
(non-violent civil resistance). Gandhi successfully used these tools in
mobilizing the masses across India, uniting them under the banner of Indian
National Congress and pressurizing the colonizers to quit India subsequently.
Gandhi’s methodology not only motivated freedom struggles in other countries
reeling under similar colonial oppression but also inspired many generations to
follow. Even today in India, the major modes of protest are candle light march,
hunger strike etc. The uniqueness of Gandhi’s methodology in the context of
civil society movement lies in its mass appeal and sustained commitment till
the goal was achieved.
The post-independence era in
India saw a remarkable shift of the focus of the civil society movements.
Rebuilding the nation and restoring its past glory was the prime objective of
the civil society movements during the period. The government tried to push
forward various socialist reforms and the civil societies maintained its role
as the watch dog. With many government schemes failing to achieve their desired
developmental goals, the civil societies again sprang into action and protest
movements were launched all over India. Some of these movements also took to
violence to pressurize the government to accede to their demands, the most
notable being the Naxalites. One Jai Prakash Narayan, a strong influential
leader, lodged a strong movement against the wrongs of the then government
headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi which subsequently led to the imposition
of National Emergency in 1975, a condition when many fundamental rights of the
citizens were curbed. This is the first time that India tasted a social order
close to autocracy during the post-independence period. But the people of India
gave a vent to their frustration against the existing holders of Office by
ousting Ms. Gandhi in the next national elections in 1977. This had been
possible only due to the existence of a vibrant and powerful civil society
environment which were able to mobilise public opinion successfully.
Societies in today’s India
Now that democratic
institutions have been firmly established, the present day civil societies in India
have started focussing more on the issues pertaining to social, economic, political
and environmental problems. The civil society movement spearheaded by Mr Anna
Hazare, a prominent figure in India, tried to address the issue of corruption
through the implementation of Jan Lokpal Bill, a Citizen’s Ombudsman Bill (Shah &
The greatest achievement of the civil society movements in India is the Right
to Information Act under which it is obligatory on part of all government
offices to furnish all relevant information to the members of the public within
designated timeframe (Training, n.d.). Furthermore, all
the citizens of the nation took to the streets showing their solidarity for the
mass movement against government failure to protect the safety of women in
response to a rape case of a 23 year old student. Without the active role
played by the civil societies in India, the rising of the entire nation to the
occasion might not have been possible (BAKSHI, 2017). Also, civil society
movements have led to judicial activism.
In order to ensure better
communication, integration and interaction among the civil societies in India,
a platform under the Poorest Areas Civil Society
(PACS) Programme have also been developed where the civil societies can
co-ordinate, engage and co-operate among themselves to achieve shared common
goal. One government scheme where this approach has been extremely effective in
fulfilling its objective is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The
scheme is to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the
households in rural areas of the country by providing at least one hundred days
of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose
adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Civil societies have
worked in tandem with the government for successful implementation of the above
mentioned scheme in all the target districts in the country. They even
organized rallies and plays to generate and promote awareness about the scheme
among the people. Moreover, civil societies also became the conduit for
grievance redressal for the members of the public who otherwise might have been
politically dominated. The societies also became a mechanism for the government
to receive 360o feedback from the grassroot workers involved in the
implementation of the scheme. Government became aware of hindrances to
implementation such as discrimination in the distribution of job cards,
corruption, political intervention at local level etc. (Ministry of
Rural Development, 2005). Contrary to the popular approach of
protest and demonstrations generally adopted by civil societies to build
pressure on the state, PACS methodology became an instrument of good governance
for the state.
between government and civil societies also helped in materializing other
government schemes such as forming Self Help Groups for the upliftment of the
rural poor, the Right to Education Act in order to increase literacy rate and
the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education for all). The government has identified the
potential of civil societies in delivering public good and thus has taken up
the responsibility of funding and capacity building of many such societies.
However, these by no means indicate that civil societies in India have
refrained from constructive criticisms of the government. The Narmada Bachao Andolan,
Chipko movement, India Against Corruption Jan Andolan and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti
Sangathan are just to name a few movements which have captured the aspirations
and the dreams of the Indians.
Another incidence of civil
society activism is Vidarbha Civil Society Collective
established in the Vidarbha region of the state of Maharashtra in India. The
farmers here had long been reeling under neglect from the government. The
amount of investment by the government in this region has been abysmally low,
development has been poor and the region is way backward than other parts of
Maharashtra in terms of infrastructure development. Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti
(VJAS) and Vidarbha Civil Society Collective have been the mouthpiece of the
peasants in this region to draw attention of the government towards their woes.
Furthermore, present day civil
societies are mainly composed of members from the middle class. One of the main
reasons for this is more and more people in India are entering into this
category and enjoys immense strength in terms of number and intellect. That the
proportion of middle class in India is increasing is evident from the fact that
the international e-commerce giants such as Amazon, Uber, Alibaba etc. all are
vying to tap the potential market created by the burgeoning Indian middle
class. This middle class, after having satisfied their basic needs of life i.e.
food, clothes and shelter, have the capacity and resources to challenge the government
decisions on equal footing. In contrary, the other two sections of the society
i.e. the poor and the rich, do not become that important an actor when it comes
to civil society movements. The rich already exercise significant political
clout to influence decisions whereas the poor are easily gullible or dominated.
So the role of the middle class in the success of civil societies in India
cannot be denied.
of civil society and its role in governance
role of civil societies in India
ideologies behind protesting must be contrasted against the present trend of
strikes, violent protests, rioting, and vandalism
but the ten day long protests
caused much more loss due to services being shut and property being damaged
without much concrete response from the Government.
The demerits of protests and strikes
can be studied through another example- the north eastern state of Manipur
faces year round protests where people enforce a blockade of the National
Highway 2. The only link of Manipur with the state of Assam, a blocked highway
causes efficient supplies of goods to suffer resulting into higher prices the
brunt of which is borne ultimately by the public.
The protests did build pressure
and ensure fast tracking of justice but like many protests in India vandalizing
elements caused much damage to property and loss to economy. The ultimate
essence of the activism to sensitize the country for security of women in India
lost its voice as the protests dimmed.
This was an indicator that the engagement of civil society
and the youth must prepare and guide the youngsters to methodically adopt ways
to express themselves and ultimately ensure long term solutions and
improvements (Jain, 2012).
Nearly ten million households
in India reported volunteering (PRIA, 2002). Times of India reported lack of
takers for Masters in Social Work and this coupled with an N.G.O boom in India
spells to be a lack of capacity and managerial skill building promoted in
organisations. This effectively trickles down to be the cause of an extensive
volunteer base being unable to bring about sustained changes.
According to a report by
Society for Participatory Research in Asia in 2002- Indians actively
participate in giving as well as volunteering with nearly two-fifths of Indian
households participating in charity work. This however does not transcend into
a sustainable solution for emancipation because of the lack of an organized
system that could have directed donations for capacity building of the people.
It is high time the approach and
methodologies of civil society organizations are improved to ensure that an
effective impact is made without any adverse effects.
The modes of engagement of the civil
society with the authorities also need to be strengthened to improve the
articulation of public dissent with the government.
The modern society of India at
present is enjoying the advantage of the demographic shift of the population
towards becoming members of the middle class. As a section of the population whose
numbers and powers are increasingly growing, there is an urgent need to
capitalize on their abilities in ushering public action towards ensuring good
governance. This primarily involves a revolutionary approach towards building
awareness of their rights, powers and most importantly, their duties.
This approach must be supplemented with civil society
organizations facilitating capacity building and also undertaking to rid our
society of its orthodox discriminatory and restrictive practices.
It is thus increasingly important for civil society
engagement with the youth to be sustainable, effective and long lasting in
building virtues that ultimately lead to a progressive society striving for
overall national development.
Civil society organizations provide their members a planned
and systematic approach to address issues and to work for the social good
through direct methods of voluntary action and charity or indirect methods of
research and advocacy. These organizations must encourage, inspire and promote
participation of the Indian youth ultimately channelizing the energies and
opinions of the youth to constructively solve problems.
Building a setup for constructive interaction of civil
society members with the government through active participation of the youth
is essential for making efforts towards enhancing democracy as a large
population dividend allows the youth to be effective participants. This
interaction would also ensure any potential dissent and discontentment
belonging to this large population of youth to be represented and addressed
The responsibility to encourage ideation to be a part of
governance not only resides with civil society as it inspires youngsters by
being critical of problems that exist; it also resides with the political
society to maintain an untainted reputation to look conducive as a choice of
civil society specifically must
ensure that the activities of such organizations is carried out under the rule
of law and is not engaging in socially and nationally damaging activities. This
can be achieved through social audits, an active media and a state of good
governance that allows for proactivity in the case of rogue organisations. (Tandon,
The emerging civil society in India is comprised of the
middle class mainly but the study conducted for this paper concludes that the
effect of popular social initiatives is short lived and fails to induce a
larger section of the middle class. The reason for this has been identified as
the compulsion to return to routine life and being led by the media that is
compelled to only conduct a rapid and short-lived coverage of issues without sustained
follow up. There is an urgent need of inculcating a realization of the power
that the middle class holds in its ability to organize and participate in
promoting good governance. This calls for a revolutionary remodeling of the
civil society engagements with the government while assimilating with the
judiciary, executive and the legislative.
Civil society must strengthen the youth in developing a
mature understanding of information and its overload.
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