Civil society in the Third World
The applicability of the concept “civil society” in a third world context has been heavily criticized as arguments against the universal applicability of a concept developed within western political philosophy have been raised. Is not the very idea of a civil society, and also its proposed role in the development and consolidation of democracy, confined to a unique Western European (and possibly North American) experience?
In order to answer this question we need to understand the respective developments of the state in both the west and in the third world. The modern state was in the west paradoxically developed simultaneous with a civil society, a process covering centuries, which included a gradual shift towards a more powerful and efficient state, but also towards a stronger and more independent civil society. In the third world the power of the pre-colonial state was in most cases not absolute in the same sense as in the west, with influential religious and traditional power structures often outside the immediate reach of state power.
Every third world society and every democracy has its own special construction of state – civil society relations, and almost all states have had a colonial history that influenced these relations. While differing from country to country the colonial period meant a serious break with traditional political organisation, and although such breaks are not necessarily negative for the development of democracy the close relation between the economic sphere and the state proved fatal for the development of both political democracy and civil society. Olle Törnquist has described how a symbiotic relation between politics and economy developed, where the state dominated the economic sphere and where economic success came through political power rather than skilful use of labour and capital.
The domination of the colonial powers stopped the growth of a domestic capital owning middle class necessary to challenge both the state and the feudal order, and capitalism was instead introduced by external forces and controlled by an alliance between the colonial state and the ruling feudal classes. The middle classes outside the domination of the feudal system were very weak, as was the basis for a strong civil society. Although capitalism expanded in some areas the expected process of social and political modernization failed to show, largely because of the strong connection between the political and the economic sphere, and the feudal system was instead of being replaced, incorporated in the colonial capitalism. The symbiotic relation between politics and economy continued also in the post-colonial period. State-led modernisation plans became the order of the day, with a major role for the state within the economy and with continuously weak domestic capitalists. Also in this new setting the road to economic power ran through the political elite and through the state. The symbiosis of the political and economic spheres is one example of how state – civil society relations developed differently in the third World which has consequences on how the civil society theory can be applied. The relatively slow and - at least partly – peaceful growth of civil society and the development of civil and political rights in Western Europe have little or no correspondence in post-colonial states.
Civil society in India
Though roots of an Indian autonomous civil society found in the ancient and medieval history of the country like Cast “panchayats”, village “panchayats”, or traders guilds all illustrates forms of local institutions that had long been untouched by the vicissitudes of the political spheres and remained autonomous from state control, Popular mobilisation within the Indian civil society was evident only in the colonial period but the formation of both state and civil society in India were different from that of Western Europe. Indian society had been characterised in pre-colonial times by a form of “insularity” that thus ensured a certain independence from state power but also resulted in stagnation and an impossible unity of the population.
While the modern state in the west developed simultaneous with civil society, a process covering centuries and included a gradual shift towards a more powerful and efficient state, but also towards a stronger and more independent civil society, the development of civil society in the rest of the world has not followed the same pattern. The powers of both the pre-colonial and the colonial state were not absolute: the state co-existed with influential religious and traditional power structures outside its immediate reach and the effects of these alternative power structures were evident also in the formation of the civil society. One example is the tendency of the British colonial state to respect religious differences and to divide the population according to faith. In the Indian case, this practice led to a strong position of the native religious elites, and the strengthening of religious identity in both the private sphere and in civil society.
Numerous religious reform movements were formed throughout the 19th century, some of them with social and political issues on their agendas. While some were influenced by Christianity, others saw the spread of foreign religions as an affront to Hindu culture. The Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1843, worked for the reform of Hindu traditions and practices, as did the Ramakrishna Mission under Swami Vivekananda, and the Theosophical Society in Madras, led by Annie Besant. The Arya Samaj, formed later in the 19th century, had similar features as the other reform movements, e.g. the renunciation of idolatry and polytheism, as well as urging for a unification of all Hindus, but it differed through its aggressive nationalism. All these organizations emphasized Hindu unity, played an important role in the freedom movement, and strengthened Indian civil society.
The national resistance movement, spearheaded by the Indian National Congress (INC), became the main source of civil society activity in early 20th century British India. When the INC developed into a mass movement large segments of the population were for the first time drawn into political and social activism, and while the struggle was basically anti colonial, the movement held within itself many forms of activities which would continue as independent sections of civil society, one case in point being the women’s movement. Partly outside of the INC also other forms of social movements gained in strength during the first half of the 20th century. The first labour disputes had occurred much earlier, in the mid-19th century, and although the formation of national trade unions came later, the increasing awareness of the Indian workers contributed to the development of a sphere outside of the immediate influence of both the state and the capital owners. The All Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in 1920 and contributed importantly to the formation of a rudimentary civil society during the late colonial period. Various peasant uprisings, such as the Moplah revolt in 1921, occurred frequently and increasingly so after the First World War.
Both these rebellions and the struggle of the INC can be seen as a reaction against the colonial state and to the symbiotic relationship between the economic and the political spheres. Through taxation and trade legislation the British colonial state suffocated most possibilities for real development of the domestic economy and the strong relations between the repressive state and the economic sphere had consequences both for the anti-colonial struggle and for the development of post-independent India. While a national bourgeoisie developed and contributed to the freedom struggle, the political activists of the middle class were often tied to the state in their capacities as i.e. lawyers and teachers, and the indigenous capitalist class remained weak.
Despite the dismantling of the colonial state, the pattern of a state dominated economy remained also after independence. For decades various forms of central planning was promoted, which did not focus on civil society, but rather on state action. After the successful anti-colonial struggle it took some time before civil society was restructured and able to adapt to the new regime. The demands on the state were of course different than from the colonial period, but both workers and peasants soon took up their struggles. In the 1960s, as India was hit by drought, subsequent wars, and a related food crisis, both urban and rural groups started to protest. While the protests addressed material needs they soon became attached to several larger ideological movements, both Gandhian and revolutionary Marxist, which challenged the Indira Gandhi-led government. The threat became so potent that Prime Minister Gandhi in June 1975 declared the country to be in a state of emergency, which remained until the elections in 1977. While the Emergency meant a breach with the Indian democratic practice, and a severe curtailment of civil and political rights, it also had a vitalizing effect on civil society which after 1977 witnessed an increase of activities within traditional social movements such as peasants, workers and students, but also amongst the so called “new social movements”, including environmental groups and women’s organisations.
Mobilising new political identities, these groups challenged the state on local, regional and national level, as these NGOs were often based in strong grass root networks. While the emphasis on environmentalism and gender issues was a global phenomenon of this period the experiences from the Emergency also contributed. First, the oppression of the state provoked social and political forces to organize against the oppression; secondly, the image of a democratic and progressive state was seriously dented. As a consequence, new groups understood the necessity to actively claim their rights and to fight against perceived injustices. State developmentalism as a project was questioned, and from the 1980s and onward also the Indian state itself have encouraged NGOs to take more responsibility for social development. The numbers of NGOs in India are growing all the time, but one estimate puts the figure to over 30.000.
A general international trend towards more of individual and private initiatives and less of government planning is of course also behind this expansion. The neo-liberal reforms of the IMF and the World Bank which have had such drastic global consequences in the Third World have affected also India where the partial withdrawal of the state has resulted in a more active civil society. Due to their preference to work with NGOs, the presence of international aid organizations have contributed further to this development.
It is apparent that the partial failure of the state to address social and economic needs has had effects on the levels of development, but also on the quality and character of civil society. In some sense this failure has spurred groups and individuals to engage in civil society, but the inability to provide basic education and other forms of social services has seriously hampered the development of civil society, with low levels of literacy being a case in point. As a consequence the Indian state, and various aid agencies, has utilized the competence and infrastructure of civil society in order to encourage social development. NGOs such as women’s organizations have been incorporated in the governmental development plans. This of course compromises the independence of these NGOs and strictly speaking they do not qualify as NGOs or after accepting governmental support. But this form of cooptation, as well as the general trend of state withdrawal, also has important consequences for future plans of social development. While the state is increasingly seen as inefficient and corrupt, the NGOs are defined as committed and accountable. Leaving the negative description of the state aside, the positive image of civil society rests more on an ideological and theoretical definition rather than an accurate appraisal of civil society in India today.
Due to the inherent social, religious, ethnic and economic cleavages of Indian society, the civil society is permeated by inequality and various forms of conflict, as noted in the current Indian debate. The expectations of efficiency, commitment and accountability of civil society should be seen in this light also, as various forms of inequality are likely to influence civil society. A more realistic view would be to define Indian civil society as a public arena in which various interests meet and compete, battling against the state, but also against other groups within civil society. This arena would be affected also by the power relations in society at large, reproducing various cleavages and inequalities.
Another side the prevailing Corruption and nepotism put into question the legitimacy of the state power and give a pejorative connotation to the word “politics”. Distribution of licenses, subsidies for the poor, control of the crime order are said to be “the plaything of state functionaries” that have lifetime security. The huge amount of discretionary fund received by the Members of Parliament and Members of Legislatives Assembly to implement economic development programs in their constituencies illustrates this generalisation of the corruption. The situation of political parties is also perverted by a form of selection of its members by the leaders that constitute an obstacle for the participations of the citizens to the political process. The electoral process itself is put into question by the irregularities of the polls but also by the biased aspect of local elections that are mostly determined by cast belongings and the money involved in the campaign. This centralized political system makes political process inaccessible to a large part of the population, and alienate the potential existence of a form of civil society.
What role can civil society play in this specific political framework?
Considering that situation of monopoly, Radesh Tandon considers the role of civil society as challenging the State in three different ways.
§ Faced to the centralised power of the State, civil society first has a role of enabling the hitherto voiceless and unorganised communities’ interests to be represented. In other term, the sphere of civil society has a goal of empowerment for local communities. In that specific function, civil society can be considered as a “space” that is free and accessible to everybody.
§ Civil society can also be considered as a “movement” that has to influence public negotiation on public issues like health, education or security. Contesting the frameworks of development programs, criticising the long-term effect of a large displacement of people are examples of this vision of civil society as a contestation movement.
§ Civil society finally has a role of “ensuring the accountability” of the State in different spheres. Ensuring the right to access to information is a first step into the State accountability, in a country where the Official Secret Act predominates. In a more general way, civil society has the monitoring function of holding “the law and order machinery accountable”. This function implies the control of political parties and electoral process, the control of local bodies etc.
In a context where political participation process is increasingly plebiscitary and illustrates the discredit of the political sphere, the purpose of civil society, conceived by Radesh Tandon, is to build the framework of a real form of governance, in which both State and citizens are accountable to each other.
This specific definition of civil society points out the problematic relationship between State and society in India. More than a mere intermediary between the individuals and the State, civil society appears as a form of protection, a guarantee of political participation, a “counter-weight” to the overall power of the State. Such a definition presents civil society mostly through its “palliative” function, faced to the dysfunctions of the State, and thus calls for a deep governance reform in India.
The Recent Trend:
India is a developing country with a strong presence of political parties; the people are less aware about their rights, and sadly a weak civil society has existed here since independence. In this context resumption of participation of civil society in the political process after more than six decades of independence through civil society movement initiated by Team Anna Hazare attract significance.
The Team Anna Hazare lead civil society movement was noteworthy in the sense that it aimed to discuss a political issue, which has a relevant social value, with apolitical methods. Earlier such civil society movements mainly focused on environmental or social issues with more or less success. Therefore Anna Hazare’s effort in the history of the civil society movement in post-independent India strikes a departure from the traditional path and moves into a new phase. His movement symbolises a landmark in the civil society history of this country as it attracted the people’s attention in a sufficient manner and ended with success.