The Civil Society and the State

Civil Society is not a new idea – if we consider that voluntary actions and individual initiative are at heart of it – its presence in India is rather new. Fifty years ago, except for Marxist who drew inspiration of Gramsci rather than Lenin, we did not hear much talk about civil society. These days, civil society has taken the center-stage. People from a very ill defined category of public intellectuals are writing articles on it but it is not at all convincing that they are talking about the same thing. It is far from my intention to belittle the discussions on how effective a civil society can be towards making individual and collective life more fruitful, but when people do not have a clear idea of civil society and its composition, it will be a mistake to believe that one can reach very far in understanding their capabilities and their roles.

In earlier days, public intellectuals were fond of the state which they thought was undoubtedly a powerful and secular force in a largely undemocratic and backward society and if applied effectively and boldly, would change it. Today the state has lost its sheen. Part of reason to this disenchantment lay in the high expectation from the state and belief in its trans-formative powers. Its actual performance was indifferent, and Emergency and aftermath showed that it could be oppressive and ineffectual. The multiple scams of unimaginable magnitude has only strengthened these feelings. Among the youths, these feelings have taken rebellious colors. They seem to be much more interested in getting ‘things’ done even if it takes bypassing and weakening the democratic institutes. These indifferent attacks on the foundation of democracy are expected from a society which has been and still a largely hierarchical society.

The romance with civil society is not because of itself. It is an outcome of growing mistrust in political parties, the legislature, snail paced judiciaries and bureaucracy.

Individual initiatives and voluntary actions are vital for a democracy to grow. If by civil societies are able to provide platform to these activities then their importance can not be over emphasized. One can blame state for dampening the spirit of entrepreneurship and voluntary action in early decades of independence but it only reinforced and did not create these habits of mind already present in a caste- and kin-based hierarchical society.

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first political theorist who dwell on significance and importance of voluntary- action and associations for a democracy. Let me quote his often quoted words,

Whenever at the head of new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in United States you will be sure to find an association.

 He believed that Americans have the special knack for creating and sustaining association which French lacked, and that is one reason why democracy was more successful in America than in France. Can same be said about India?

In India, the proliferation of NGO’s gives an impression that we Indian also do have a knack for creating associations. But going by numbers only could be misleading such as we also have largest number of universities but that does not make us world leader in education. We should know little bit more about how they are started, operated, organized and supported. And most importantly, being an institute, we should also know by what means they seek to ensure their continuity.

What is interesting and puzzling about Indian NGO’s that they are mostly started by some government functionaries of the state. They are able to provide their NGO’s valuable financial contacts and legal and administrative expertise. There is no wonder that some NGO’s run with flexibility and efficiency one can not expect from from a Byzantine government bureaucracy.

Any NGO’s – a well run association – can not become an institute like civil society unless it ensures its longevity. The lifespan of an institute is expected to extend the life span of its members. Its too early to say how effectively these NGO’s will work in near future when the man who started them will be expired. It is usually the case in India that family and kin-ship become implicated in the functioning of an voluntary action. In an increasing number of cases, the wife, the son, the daughter-in-laws takes over the running of an NGO started by a man of vision and energy. Indian Administrative Services, despite of their all shortcomings, has at least managed to ensure recruitment, promotion and retirement without bringing family into pictures. The Congress party is one of the epitome of a political family business. What is worth asking is what model these NGO’s will follow? An NGO that becomes a family business can not contribute much to the building of a civil society. Although, they have been quite successful in many fronts where government has failed and deserve public support and sympathy.

[1] People who are interested in more on these kind of voluntary actions and associations can read works of Andre Beteille and Tocquivelle.


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