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We, the people

An introduction by Swarna Rajagopalan

Democracy and development, both central concerns of the Indian polity and society, depend on a proactive citizenry, and in order to act effectively, citizens had best act in groups rather than singly. The ‘NGO’ has become an important fixture in most post-colonial settings, speaking for alternative views of a better life, articulating concerns about policy choices and global issues and/or serving as a lightning rod in debates about what is appropriate, what is indigenous and what is politically acceptable.  

But what exactly is civil society and what is the range of organisations and activities that people include under this rubric? What should civil society do and what does it do? What is its role in society? What is the nature of its interface with other actors? When you step beyond the platitudes in the first paragraph, these questions confront you squarely. 

We invited activists, mediapersons and scholars to reflect on these questions in their contributions to this issue of Infochange Agenda. There are common reference points here, theoretical and empirical, but there is a great plurality of perspectives and politics, which reflects the very nature of civil society. Indeed, more than arriving at a consensus definition, the articles in this issue define civil society and its work simply by presenting such a broad range of sometimes mutually incompatible views.  

This issue is organised into six sections, five of which cluster articles around particular questions and the last a compilation of introspective essays about changes and trends in civil society. What follows is merely an indication of the richness that has resulted from this symposium of views, and far from a good summary of the contents.  

Nuanced reflections that draw on histories of events and ideas answer the definitional question, “What is civil society?” that was posed to the writers in the first section. Civil society, TK Oommen points out, exists in a relationship of reciprocity with the state and the market. In India, civil society organisations have worked in a cooperative relationship with the state on development issues and in confrontational mode on issues relating to democracy and civil rights. Samir Kumar Das argues that the moral uncertainty involved in compromising some part of our principles or customs in order to work with others is an essential predicate for a good civil society. When this ambivalence is crowded out by certainty and absolute views, there is no space for civil society. That civil society cannot replace the state is reinforced by Neera Chandhoke, who also assigns to civil society the task of providing “but the political and the politicised context for the state”. Amitabh Behar points out that civil society goes beyond working with and against the state to also working on its own to transform society. His contribution includes an overview of the main relationships and issues with which civil society might engage.  

The three articles that follow reflect on the ways in which civil society has been able to address social issues. Kamla Bhasin tells her interviewer that the issues raised by the women’s movement 20 years ago have finally made it into statute books, even as she rues the nexus between patriarchy and corporate interests. Jyoti Punwani writes about initiatives that have worked to build bridges between communities in a climate of increasing communalism but also argues that in addition to sustained effort, a broader and grassroots-driven approach, it is important to tap into the “solid foundation of Hindu-Muslim ties among ordinary people”. She asks: “Is there such a total disconnect between what is called `civil society’, and the people it seeks to represent?” Suma Varughese asks the same question in another context. She writes about how she has seen spiritual organisations organise and carry out their seva (service) projects. The spirit of seva inspires generosity and hard work, she finds, asking why this is not better-harnessed towards developmental goals.  

Dunu Roy sees that while civil society is acquiring prominence from the point of view of certain sections of society, the space for its activity is physically shrinking. Citizenship is acquiring a technocratic dimension. Aseem Shrivastava wonders if civil society is no longer able to play the liberal role that it has been assigned by theorists and is now fated to play a supporting part to present-day power structures. Nityanand Jayaraman and Yashashree Gurjar present opposite perspectives on corporate social responsibility, which is the most common mode now whereby the market sector engages with the social sector. For Jayaraman, CSR is window-dressing as long as companies are not publicly accountable for their actions. For Gurjar, CSR allows companies to give back to the communities in which they are located and candidly, is a channel through which they can build trust and credibility. The section concludes with Sunita Narain challenging the private-public partnership idea altogether, suggesting that in India, those who most need services are not in a position to pay for them.  

How to make civil society work for democracy is the concern of the next two sections. Rudi Heredia states, “Civil society is the social infrastructure on which the political edifice must be built”. His concern is that democracy will be limited to its procedural aspects without a strong civil society that is able to set the political agenda. Yamini Aiyar describes several tools that civil society organisations use to promote accountability—budget analysis, social audits and policy evaluations. Through a symposium of five interviews, Pamela Philipose explores the relationship between civil society and media, both of which are ostensibly interested in accountability and democracy.  

Aruna Roy says that rising public awareness is what has brought about a climate in which accountability is important, and differentiates between campaigns and movements, saying that the latter create democratic space. The next two articles by Rajesh Tandon and by C V Madhukar and Tonusree Basu argue that civil society must actively engage with the political process in order to further democratise it. Capacity-building through training and providing information are the means their organisations adopt at different levels of the political system.  

Pradip Phanjoubam reflects on the nature of civil society in a conflict setting, drawing on Manipur and Northeast India’s experience to argue that the media, professionals and youth organisations should be included in the rubric of civil society which tends to become polarised to reflect the lines of conflict. Swarna Rajagopalan argues that civil society’s engagement with security should not be sporadic but sustained, because security issues impinge on the community in multiple, profound ways.  

In the final section of this issue, we invited senior practitioners and scholars to reflect on changes in civil society. John Samuel considers that civil society has gone from being an analytical construct in critiques against authoritarianism to being an instrument and space for socio-political transformation, locally and globally. Ingrid Srinath enumerates opportunities (political, technological) in a world that is opening up and shrinking at the same time, and wonders whether civil society organisations would be up to seizing this day. Vijay Nadkarni recounts a growing willingness among Indian civil society organisations to adopt transparency and accountability practices. These are standards they would like to impose on states and corporations, and with which they are now choosing to comply. Pratap Bhanu Mehta thinks it’s time that professional associations acted beyond their narrow interests and became part of ‘civil society’. And Anmol Vellani closes the issue by cautioning civil society against developing a vested interest in the very miseries it seeks to abolish. In his words: “Working for the interests of the disadvantaged, committed to a certain understanding of development and democracy, civil society actors must believe that they could find nothing more fulfilling than to become inconsequential!”  

What is civil society? The essays in this issue unpack the term and draw our attention to actors and initiatives it might not bring right away to mind: Umbrella descriptions like ‘women’s movement’ which subsume a plurality of initiatives and groups; citizen and neighbourhood initiatives; spiritual organisations; organisations set up through corporate initiatives; media; professional organisations; family roles extended to the public sphere. It could be argued that arriving at a comprehensive final definition is actually not important at all. Perhaps, those who value inclusion should work with a definition that is open and inclusive!  

Other issues are flagged as arguably more important to those concerned everyday with civil society and democracy, their work and their survival. It is important to understand the circumstances in which civil society is able to play a positive role. It is equally important to recognise that not all civil society actors have values conducive to democracy, sustainable development or even, coexistence without violence. The middle class, often seen as the heart of civil society, also has its vested interests which in India might be opposed to those who most need state and social assistance. Civil society does not exist or work in isolation; how to facilitate the most socially beneficial relationships between civil society organisations and other actors is a question that needs further exploration.  

This issue is only the point of departure to a broader and longer-term conversation about not just civil society but citizenship, democracy and the institutions and structures of convenience and control that we put together around us. Civil society, whatever it includes, is a handle to describe our various collective attempts to navigate this maze of choices that we have created.  

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a Chennai-based non-profit.) 

Infochange News & Features, November 2009