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Re-imagining civil society

South Asia has witnessed unprecedented changes in the last two decades, including globalisation and the shrinking role of states. How should civil society respond to these changes? Amitabh Behar has some suggestions

The history of South Asian civil society strongly underscores its active role in the region’s struggle against imperialism and for social justice. Civil society has continued to play a very important role in these post-colonial societies and can be given significant credit for deepening and strengthening democracy in the region. The level of influence and success of civil society in deepening democracy and the movement for social justice varies from country to country and depends on the level of democratisation of polity and the state in each country. However, the vital role of civil society in this quest is unquestionable, as we saw most recently in the people’s struggle in Nepal. This role of civil society in deepening democracy remains significant, notwithstanding the new definitions of civil society which are including identity-based non-transformative groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) (Neera Chandhoke refers to these groups as ‘a-civil society groups’). 

In post-colonial times, civil society in the region has primarily played three kinds of roles. First, and most significant (particularly in a country like India), has been its critique of the state and its functioning from the perspective of marginalised people, while seeking rights (including basic services) and justice for all. The second role has been of working in alliance or partnership with government to ensure effective and quality delivery of services, particularly to the last frontiers of survival. Third has been a non-state-centric role, where the focus has been on transforming society to achieve a just and humane order, countering social and cultural conditions and structures from the perspective of equity and justice. Several examples from the women’s and dalit movements can be identified to illustrate this aspect.  

Civil society has been successful to an extent in fulfilling these roles; on the other hand, the continuing colonial and feudal character of all South Asian states, polity and society also reflects the limitations of civil society in the region. Similarly, in spite of the third role of civil society -- of engaging with social processes with a transformative agenda -- it has experienced serious limitations due to the state-centric social and political discourses of these countries. This limitation becomes more glaring when we look at the engagement of civil society with markets, political parties, mainstream political systems, and religious spheres.  

Changing socio-economic and political context 

In the past couple of decades, South Asia has witnessed unprecedented changes in almost all arenas of society, polity and economy. Globally also, this has been a period of rapid change, leading to globalisation, rise of neoliberal ideas and a unipolar world order, which have had a serious impact on the operational spaces of civil society, presenting new challenges. It would be worthwhile to flag some of the key changes to help us in our endeavour to re-imagine civil society. The following is not an exhaustive list and should be viewed as just a starting point for discussion.

  • The role of the state is shrinking. The state is moving towards the role of facilitator, with limited arenas for state action. Many would view this as an abdication of the state’s primary responsibilities as it moves away from providing even basic services like education and health.
  • The spaces being vacated by the state are being occupied by the market and large private corporations (often operating without boundaries as transnational corporations). The private sector is growing in size and clout and has much more direct impact on the lives of people than before, even in poor regions like South Asia. Ideas of free market and trade, which are being promoted by agencies like the WTO, are deeply impacting, influencing and altering governance and economy in all countries, including South Asia.
  • Rapid technological changes and growth have had a deep impact on the societies and polities of South Asia. The growing power and impact of the media after the satellite and Internet boom is a case in point. The role of the media has become extremely significant in these countries and it needs to be viewed as an independent and important actor in guiding the destiny of the region.
  • Post-liberalisation and globalisation policies have given rise to an extremely large and powerful middle class, which has benefited tremendously from these processes of ‘opening up’. The middle classes are extremely vocal and have a disproportionate impact and power in the country, compared to their size.
  • Politically speaking, ideas of democracy have taken root and more and more marginalised groups are getting empowered. The dalit movement and the women’s movement are examples of the democratisation of polity and society. On the other hand, we are also witnessing the rise of fundamentalist movements like Hindutva in India.  

Questions for civil society 

It becomes imperative for civil society to adapt to these fundamental changes by quickly re-imagining and redesigning itself in order to continue to work towards the core objective of social justice. How should civil society respond to these changes? What could civil society’s new role/s be, and how could these be operationalised? What are the possible strategies and challenges for civil society in the new context? What are the new innovations and ideas already being experimented with in response to these changes? Below are some critical areas for discussion:

  • Engagement with the state: In the new socio-economic and political milieu, how should civil society continue to engage with the state and simultaneously work towards state accountability?
  • Engagement with social structures and religious fundamentalism: Many scholars believe that civil society focuses too much of its energies on engaging with the state and is unable to address the basic questions of inequity emerging from social structures like caste and patriarchy. In the changed context it would be important to continue working on these themes. An additional challenge would be to deal with hierarchical and primordial identities being promoted through fundamentalist movements like Hindutva.
  • Engagement and expansion of the base amongst the middle classes: Civil society needs to find new ways of engaging with the influential middle class. It would also need to identify ways of expanding the base of civil society for social justice amongst the middle classes.
  • Engagement with the media: We are all aware of the power of the media and its role in deepening democracy and making governments accountable in countries like India. However, the engagement of civil society with the media is limited and sporadic. It is important to find organic linkages with the media and build a systematic strategy for this engagement.
  • Engagement with the private sector and markets: This is one area in which civil society has the least experience. Given the growing importance and clout of the private sector, meaningful engagement is essential to build a robust civil society. But our limited experience of dealing with the market and private sector often leads to a confrontationist approach. There is no doubt that civil society must invest significant time and energy in understanding and building a grammar for this engagement. This does not mean that confrontation as a strategy should be given up; in fact, new forms and strategies are required to handle this confrontationist engagement with the markets. On the other hand, it is equally important to find spaces for constructive engagement with the private sector, which could lead to greater accountability of markets and strengthen the contribution of corporate bodies towards social justice.
  • Engagement with the political system: This is, again, an arena where civil society work in South Asia has remained weak. Given the important role political parties play, there has to be a conscious attempt to engage with the political system with the objective of democratising them. Similarly, in spite of a lot of talk over the past decade, civil society has not been able to engage with other actors in the political system like trade unions, farmer groups, etc. This could also be viewed as an attempt to broaden the base of civil society.
  • Accountability of civil society: Looking at the lack of accountability and transparency in some sections of civil society, it would be equally important to work towards building strong and clear strategies for accountability within the sector.
  • Expanding space for democratic action: In nascent democracies like the ones in South Asia, civil society has an additional responsibility of deepening democracy and enriching the language and tools for democratic action. In the subcontinent, new initiatives like budget analysis, right to information, etc, have added value to the range of democratic actions. These must be further enriched. It is equally important to view the protection of civil society’s operational space (both in political and legal terms) as an integral part of expanding the country’s democratic space.

(Amitabh Behar is Executive Director of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS), Pune)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009