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Civil society as a moral moment

A strong civil society is welcome. But an overdeveloped civil society has a tendency to mimic the state, leading to the possibility of authoritarianism, writes Samir Kumar Das 

Civil society is usually defined as a space that -- although it lies between the state and the veritable maze of ethnic communities existing in a society as diverse and heterogeneous as India -- is distinct from both of them. While the articulation of this space allows people to make certain claims to rights that are not particular to any of the groups and communities, the very act of making these claims keeps the state from becoming authoritarian. At one level, it liberates the individual self from the ‘exogenous’ influences of the groups and communities she belongs to. The ‘disembodiment’ of the individual, in other words, is seen as a precondition of her liberation and autonomy. At another, it keeps the state from turning authoritarian by making these rights claims and asserting its autonomy. The very fact that it occupies, or at least is expected to occupy, the middle ground without being collapsed into either is what makes a body politic both ‘civil’ and ‘democratic’ respectively. Civil society is a watchdog of democracy.  

This paper seeks to argue that unlike what the great theoreticians of civil society would have us believe, (a) the liberation-seeking individual as the irreducible unit of civil society will have to be first and foremost a morally uncertain being, (b) the rules and norms that civil society sets for itself while asserting its autonomy from both ethnicity and the state are neither given nor unalterable but are constantly defined and redefined -- thanks to the churnings and struggles that take place within it, and (c) civil society has to put in place an auto-critical mechanism that guards it from turning into another state. This article, accordingly, develops these three sets of arguments in the following three sections.   

Civility as moral uncertainty     

The individual who seeks to liberate herself from the influences of her groups and communities is assumed to be a fully formed and self-sufficing entity who, being completely sure of her own self-interests, hardly nurtures any doubt about her own self. All interpersonal relationships within the space of civil society have to be ‘mutually fulfilling’ so that none of the individuals comprising it is either left out or breaks away. Civil society viewed in this light is based on a ‘system of needs’. The liberation of the individual has two-fold implications for society: for one, since all relationships within civil society are defined by individual interests, these are seldom governed along any given and predefined ethnic lines. That two individuals belong to two otherwise rival communities like Hindus and Muslims should not come in the way of their signing a business deal or protesting against the state excesses that both of them have to suffer. Thus, civil society as a normative concept calls for distinguishing those whom ‘we want to deal with civilly’ from those whom we like for being members of the same ethnic community or group we belong to. The distinction coincides with the one between ethnicity based on some kind of dualism and opposition to what it perceives as its other, and civility based fundamentally on a kind of non-dualistic orientation towards others. 

Viewed thus, I propose to argue that the rudiments of a non-dualistic ethic are implicit not so much in our otherwise distinguishable ethnic identities but in the very ethos of everyday living that ties people of otherwise rival ethnic communities together and makes them live together within the same locality or neighbourhood. The imperative of everyday living also advises us against rendering our ethnic identities enumerable in ways that mark the ‘we’ sharply from ‘them’. In West Bengal, for example, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee recently referred to the dissenting intellectuals on the Singur-Nandigram issue as ‘them’ (ora). This reference does not allow the non-dualistic ethos to grow. Any such ethos makes us appreciate our differences from others and vice-versa without being hostile towards them. As we discover grades of difference so we make compromises in our everyday dealings with others. This takes place on what a perceptive Bengali commentator calls “the shifting ground of morality”. The moral uncertainty of our demand calls for a moral commitment to others. Moral commitment to others is a tribute to our moral uncertainty. 

In 2003, the organisers of a Durga Puja committee in Belgachhia on the outskirts of Kolkata reportedly ran into huge debt and decided to put off celebrating Durga Puja -- West Bengal’s biggest Hindu festival. The area is a mixed locality where a few Hindu households are literally encircled by a large number of Muslims. When the Muslim neighbours came to know of it, they demanded that the festival be celebrated with the same fanfare and gaiety. They helped raise funds and came to the rescue of their Hindu neighbours. They did so not because their religion said so, for it is non-idolatrous in principle, but because they responded to the call of living as good neighbours and preferred to ‘forget’ the otherwise stricter rules and norms that separate them from their Hindu neighbours. These examples are by no means rare. 

Civil society as a site for struggle 

The space of civil society is supposed to be governed by certain rules and norms that lend it its ‘civil’ character. The presence of these rules, as I have argued elsewhere, makes it impossible for certain kinds of claims to qualify as rightful claims to rights and hence being voiced in the first place. What if claims are voiced at a time when the conditions for such voicing are simply denied? It involves great personal risk. 

The vast array of reports on human rights violations in India emphasises the inability of state institutions to operate within the given framework of the Constitution and the body of laws. They point out how the multiplication of extraordinary legislations (Prevention of Terrorism Act, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Disturbed Areas Act, etc), institutions like the unified command structure and practices like ‘unconventional killings’ (a euphemism for secretly killing the relatives of people associated with insurgent organisations) in Assam have rendered the everyday constitutional and legal reality ‘shapeless’ and ‘fictitious’. Violation of rights, we are told, presupposes the presence of a rights-bearing subject -- dead or alive. Violations are after all etched in concrete human bodies. The disappearances and highly charred and mutilated bodies of the victims make identification impossible and violations difficult to establish. The killing of family members of cadres of insurgent organisations is meant to numb people into a state of shock and submission in which they will refuse to believe that the victims ever existed at all. It raises, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “doubts in their minds about their own truthfulness”. They simply lack the right to rights. In simple terms, these rights claims circulate within society without the freedoms, that is to say the conditions necessary for their circulation. A movement essentially with an alternative agenda of rights thus either goes underground or gets completely insulated and distant from the mainland.                             

As part of my fieldwork, I frequently visit river islands of varying shapes and sizes in the central and north-central districts of West Bengal. These islands are submerged and surface every so often thanks to river swings and large-scale riverbank erosion, particularly in recent years. I will never forget my experience of December 8, 2007, when, accompanied by some of my old contacts, I spent the entire day with villagers in Khasmahal Char, one of the newly-emerged islands. It was a pleasant winter day. The sun was about to set over a 14 km meandering belt of the river. As darkness slowly set in, we took leave of the villagers whose hospitality we had thoroughly enjoyed the whole day. The boat, fitted with a motor presumably discarded from a bike, roared to life and as we leapt one by one into the narrow keel we looked back one last time at the group of villagers, which included elderly women and little children, who had flocked in hordes to the ghat. Had they all come, we wondered, to see us off? None of them -- even the three-year-old child -- was wearing woollen clothes in the punishing cold. To our surprise, we discovered that each of them was armed with whatever they had -- lathis, machetes, spears and sickles, etc. The eldest -- a lean, shadowy skeleton of a man with only one hateful eye -- came forward and slowly became audible. He seemed to speak on behalf of the villagers and bluntly wanted to know the purpose of our visit. We groped for words, for we had no real answer. Research was mumbo-jumbo to them. Thankfully, he himself broke the silence: “You (aapnera) come and go. But our life remains unchanged. We are yet to figure out why outsiders come to visit us.” It had already become dark. The boat started inching forward. We felt relieved. After a while, the faces turned into what they look like from the mainland -- ghostly pale shadows. These people, who otherwise remain outside the pale of civil society -- ‘political society’, as an eminent commentator terms them -- simply refuse to enter into any kind of strategic negotiations with the captains of civil society, he argues, and seem to be striking back with a vengeance while asserting their right to be left alone. Do they live in ‘liberated areas’, I asked myself. 

Civil society, in other words, is not defined with reference to any given set of rules. It could just as well be a site where rules themselves have become an object of struggle and interrogation.               

Civil society as auto-critique 

Ironically, the strength and vibrancy of civil society can also be cause for alarm. A strong civil society is genuinely welcome. But a civil society that is too strong ceases to function as a civil society and shows a tendency to mimic -- if not actually become -- the state. An overdeveloped civil society does not allow democratic institutions to take root and become strong. Authoritarianism survives under the guise of a strong, overdeveloped civil society. Insofar as it becomes strong, it starts replacing the existing state and shows a tendency to project itself as one of its new incarnations. 

At the peak of the anti-foreigners movement (1979-1985) in Assam, when hundreds of people were rendered homeless (if not killed) on grounds of being ‘Bangladeshis’ and took shelter in relief camps, a delegation from a medical students’ association visited some of the camps, which housed only Assamese-speaking victims. On being asked why they had not visited the Nalbari camp, they said they had no desire to go to the ‘Bangladeshi camps’. Nirupama Borgohain, the famous Assamese novelist and litterateur, reminded them of what she called ‘daktoror dharma’ (doctor’s ethic) in these terms: “You are doctors, you are respected; to render service to the affected people is your religion; you should therefore make no discrimination…” At a time when society is highly ethnicised, such advocacy obviously fell on deaf ears. She describes the boy who humiliated her (“pierced her heart,” as she puts it) by using a very insulting word “in the presence of a bus full of passengers” as one “of the age of my eldest son”. It of course takes a lot of courage to stand against the diktats of civil society and voice one’s dissent. Borgohain had persistently held the ‘flag of dissent’ aloft, and thereby suffered a lot, while others remained -- as one puts it -- “safely indifferent”. It is this small minority of dissenters who keep civil society active even in the most difficult of times.  

Civil society, in other words, does not exist out there. It does not refer to any determinate space that can easily be identified or for that matter protected against onslaughts from outside. It exists as a moment, for it appears insofar as it creates the prerequisites of its own production and carves out a space for itself. Civil society thus explains its own being. A social space can be drawn only on the basis of moral certitudes. The moment of civil society deserts the social space when our moral certitudes rule out self-doubts, internal churnings and, most importantly, dissents that are otherwise supposed to mark it. 

(Samir Kumar Das is Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta, and President, Calcutta Research Group)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009