- GS 2: Governance – Civil Society
Context: The state of democracy in a country is not measured by the self-congratulatory statements of power holders, but by the role civil society plays in protecting and defending democracy. All societies are politically organized into the state, but not all states possess civil societies. Civil societies flourish in nations that cherish constitutional democracy.
- Civil society makes India pluralistic, providing for alternatives beyond the ritualistic game of electoralism.
- It provides a compost heap of ideas that makes democracy a continuous drama of experiments.
The challenges that the civil society organizations (CSO) in India face are new and enduring, ranging from the new Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) induced shrinking of resources to lack of clear governance structure, techno-managerial dominance over volunteerism, to misconceptions about non-profits and many more.
The situation has led to confusion, conflict and dilemma at multiple levels within and outside civil society. Civil society seems to be living with the ambiguity of unknown scope and urgency, wherein all the stakeholders suspect one another and gradually become displaced, misaligned, or scattered.
- Most governments no longer listen to civil society organizations (CSO) or movements, in the pre-legislative stage or in the redress of lacunae in the implementation of government schemes.
- Given that advocacy is effectively dead, the ability of civil society to shape policy and public discourse has shrunk drastically.
- Because civil society is seen to be the new frontier for war and foreign interference, there has been a systematic clampdown on CSOs lobbying for greater constitutional and civic freedoms.
- Therefore, activists, journalists, academics and students have been targeted by a plethora of the state’s governing instruments and non-state actors (who have resorted to violence and abuse, online and offline).
- This has been further exacerbated by restricting the access of CSOs to resources (including cancelling Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act clearances, revoking 12A/80-G licenses, imposing retrospective taxes, and pressuring private companies and philanthropists to redirect funding).
- Some are of the opinion that civil society is being vilified as disruptive to India’s development trajectory — and therefore anti-national. This is a grave threat to the system’s integrity because civil society is an indispensable safety valve for tensions in a polity.
- Protests, articles/papers, speeches at think tanks/conferences/symposiums, and petitions/open letters are unable to not shame governments into any substantive course correction. Even lobbying legislators to raise issues is ineffective — the Union government either does not let Parliament function or ignores uncomfortable issues.
- Additionally, progressive CSOs fail to blend socio-cultural values with welfare/constructive work or calls to protect constitutional values.
- Consequently, they are unable to reshape hearts and minds, and thereby guide mass consciousness.
- Given that vast sections of society have been radicalized (highlighted in a 2017 study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung), this is a major shortcoming of progressive civil society.
- There is psychological fatigue among key activists, who naturally question the foundational rationale of their work.
There is a need for a major realignment
- Firstly, because of the financial and structural constraints imposed on them, CSOs/movements need some financial sustenance.
- Secondly, without sustained support, CSOs cannot positively mould public discourse or make a tangible impact on the nation at large.
- Thirdly, with governments consciously avoiding CSOs/movements, their ability to shape policy is diminished (which adversely affects organizational morale).
The Way Forward – For Progressive Civil Society in India:
The net result is that civil society will be unable to speak truth to power, amplify the voices of the most vulnerable, enrich policies/legislation through constructive feedback, or further the collective good. This is obviously not in the people or the national interest.
- By becoming a part of the system: Young activists could be inducted into political parties that could create an institutionalised moral force within the parties. Will help balance electoral compulsions with ethical/human rights considerations, leading the parties to afford a layered systemic approach to thorny issues.
- Currently, many parties consciously avoid direct exposure to difficult issues that could adversely affect them electorally.
- This includes communal disturbances, atrocities against Dalits and women, championing the rights of activists fighting for Adivasi rights or civic and political freedoms.
- However, if an aligned civil society organisation took up such issues (both within and outside the party organisations), it would ensure that a party remains connected to genuine community problems, while allowing for a permeable wall of separation.
- There is a precedent to this, when the Congress Movement (the Gandhian constructive movement) complemented the Congress system (which has always been an electoral and governance machine).
- CSOs will need to urgently collaborate with other progressive stakeholders and silently devise new methods of collaboration: There is a need to address the systemic corrosion that the sector faces today. We need to find structural solutions to structural problems.
- Private philanthropies and companies need to realise that they are the only lifeline for progressive CSOs today.
- Only through such a principled coalition can we first safeguard, and eventually further, the constitutional idea of India.
- Inaction today will directly contribute to the extinction of civil society, arguably the fifth pillar of Indian democracy.
- By using religion and reworking spirituality, civil society can create new institutions as footprints for itself.
- Civil society has to create a new sense of the commons, rework the rights of nature and create a new mode of constitutional thinking that can challenge things that are not right.
- The emphasis should now be on diversity, and civil society needs to think more internationally to function more creatively in local terms.
- Civil society has to provide a pedagogy, re-teaching the state the language of pluralism.
- One brilliant example of this is the late Ela Bhatt’s work on the grahani of peace. She showed that housewives should not be restricted by current definitions of home or patriarchy. The housewife becomes the new inventor of peace, rethinking war beyond security and sustainability. She has to create a new sense of care built around an understanding of the way women suffer during war and violence. The housewife uses the imagination of the household to think pluralistically.
- Most of all, civil society should offer new possibilities of childhood which go beyond the industrialised and clericalised tutorial college model touted daily in our newspapers. We have to remember that children are dreamers who are playful, imaginative and quirky—precisely the characteristics civil society needs today.
For the government, a self-regulatory mechanism that defines a healthy relationship between civil society and the government and lays down clearly stated dos and don’ts, thereby setting high standards of democratic functioning and accountability, could certainly be a way to go.
A strong civil society will not easily allow democratic institutions to be captured by the state or political parties. The price of freedom is constant vigil by a robust civil society. This is still weak in India, and it is this that needs to develop, along with social and land reform, sustained economic growth and improved state capacity, to win the war against tyranny going forward.