Contemporary Civil Society in India





Civil Society is one of the achievements of the modern world because it is here that individuals can realize the self in conditions of freedom. – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

‘We the people of India’ are the first words of the Constitution.

The concept of civil society is an interesting one. Always been a part of liberal democratic theories, they conceive civil society as an independent sphere but one protected by the state. Individuals with rights are free to pursue their private interests in free association with others. This definition tends towards a more free market economy within which civil society functions. Liberals like J.S.Mill and Alexis De Tocqueville conceived civil society as a domain of social associations to check excesses of the state. Concerned with the growing power of the state, they believed that without active social associations, even democracies could turn authoritarian. The Marxian view delimits the role of civil society, whereas Hegels concerns about civil society being immoral if left to fend for itself meant that civil society had to be institutionalized through the state. Upon exploring these theoretical views, in very simple terms, civil society “is a public space between the state, the market and citizens in which people can debate and take action”. It derives its power from the interplay of notions of citizenship and civil rights.

Contemporary civil society in India has its roots extending to the ancient and medieval history of India. It confirms that we had civil society beginning in the Vedic period. Vedic hymns have described democratic norms of society in the form of people’s assemblies like vidath, sabha and samiti. Till date, gram panchayats and chaupals influence village life. Not very long ago, the coming together of Indigo planters in Chamaparan to revolt against the indigo laws of the British was a historic moment for civil society. Lawyers and academicians across India, supported the indigo planters. Women in the anti-arrack movement in Tamil Nadu rose to their alcoholic-abusive husbands who consumed cheap alcohol produced by the state. In Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, people became environmentalists to protect the resources that had sustained their communities since time immemorial. Thus, people have been active in India in raising their voices, much before we even debated the concept of ‘civil society’, per se.

Some see civil society as one of three sectors (along with the state and market), separate from and independent of each other though sometimes overlapping in the middle. Others emphasize the ‘fuzzy’ borders and interrelationships that exist between these sectors… (Edwards, 2009)

Sometime civil society cannot always be seen as distinct from the state, so it is not necessary that social groups will always be opposed to the state. In many instances, they may support the state in bringing about social transformation and work amicably in various sectors of civil life. Civil society also does not require a certain regime type for it to thrive. It does not need only a liberal democracy to survive. The relationship between civil society and market too, in India has been a somewhat tumultuous one. Faced with several land acquisitions controversies, the need of the hour has been to include civil society in market-based land reforms.

Yet, it remains a distinct sphere – politically and economically influenced by the State and market. Thus, many a times, civil society is also referred by many as ‘political’ society.  The idea of civil society is used for political subversion, political reform as well as political transformation. Proponents of various ideological streams from conservatism to neo-liberalism and from liberal reformists to radical socialists have been using the idea and practice of civil society to legitimise their respective political projects and programmes.  (Samuel, 2009)

Civil society, like all concepts, is an evolutionary process. There are three preconditions for development of civil society. Firstly, there must be a certain conception of politics i.e. people must be able to agree on what they are arguing about and how the argument will proceed. Secondly, a particular type of person must be assumed as part of society – one who can choose, thinks, and can be persuaded. In other words, there should be interest politics, not identity politics and thirdly, there must be a state that is capable of dispersing social power to its citizens.  (Khilnani, 2001)

In the late 1960s, the decline of the Congress, the Emergency imposed by PM Indira Gandhi in1975, the oil crisis in 1979 and resultant global recession, all came together to produce a civil society against an unresponsive state where people had comparatively better knowledge of its civil liberties and political activism. As poverty, illiteracy and poor health situations prevailed, social struggles arose within the country. Social movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Anti-arrack movement in the South of India and the environmental movement of Chipko mobilized certain sections of society. They cannot be considered as independent of civil society for it is when members of society come together to unite for a certain cause, is when social movements are born. The nucleus of these movements remains the people armed with their civil rights.

For many years, our economy remained dependent on state-led growth and after a major fiscal crisis in 1991 Western capitalism was embraced. Two decades later, irrespective of the party holding power, capitalism became entrenched in public policy. The government has since then progressively downplayed social welfare and instead focused on promoting economic growth. This has only accelerated large-scale transfer of public lands and resources to private parties. Such policies have been justified because they are able supposed to attract greater investment and thereby increase economic efficiency. But in many cases, the policies are enacted without regard to the basic rights of a large number of people who were live on land that is auctioned off. And in many instances, the moves break the country’s own laws. The result has been the built-up of a dangerous nexus between politicians and industrialists and a large peasant group that feels neglected and cheated.

One can say that the rise of civil society is a result of violation democratic rights on the one hand, and on the other, a response to a state that is corrupt and fostering nepotism. Though not enforceable by law, but what the state endeavours to provide are the Directive Principles of State Policy – ‘The State shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment…’ (Bakshi, 2010)– It is the duty of the state to ensure through legislations that these principles are effectively enacted but means to achieve these have largely failed. In the initial years post-independence, there was high level of dependency of the people on the state for employment, livelihoods, hosuing, welfare activities, food security, permits and quotas for trade and agricultural developemtn etc. But this dependency was not a fulfilling activity for the people. Unemployment till date is very high, primary agriculture – the mainstay of the economy is given negligibe importance; many sections of society and states till date feel neglected from political discourse and developmental agendas like The North-East and states like J&K.

Though the Right to Information act (RTI), Right to Education (RTE) and other movements to counter these dependency trends have mobilized society, civil society, on its part also has shown its shades of grey – its role in inciting communal riots in Godhra (Gujarat, 2002) and in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh, 1992) can be seen as incidents where the ‘civilized’ civil society has been ‘uncivil’. A strong civil society is no guarantee a society will be strong and civil. He believes collective action to attain the (much utopian) goal of an ideal society is an essential part of human experience but it has rarely led to a better world.  (Edwards, 2009)

Civil society has many functions. It can design strategies for alternative ways to an all-encompassing development, serve as a service provider through community organizations and national NGOs, and play the role of a watchdog to ensure fulfilment of governmental commitments. But in India, like in most developing countries these roles are taking being enacted gradually, as governments continue to dominate decision-making processes. An active civil society ensures accountability of the State in different spheres. The RTI is a good example, where it replaced the Official Secrets Act.  With the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS’s) struggle for Right to Information, it has been proved that the cries for reform in the system from even the most disadvantaged people in society, can lead to a powerful change. Now, with access to information, civil society has been, to large extent, able to monitor the functioning of the law and order machinery. Also, as opposed to the power of the state, civil society has given voice to the marginalized and voiceless communities so they may represent their interests in a ‘space’.

Yet, civil society is a term that has been very subjective in terms of definition. India, questions like ‘who’ constitutes civil society have been brought up time and again, especially in the backdrop of the recent India against Corruption Movement (IAC).  (Pokharel, 2011) Many question the legitimacy of Anna Hazare leadership being a part of civil society. Arvind Kejriwal, an activist supporting the IAC said ‘Civil society means this country’s 1.2 billion people’. In the same article, Shanti Bhushan stresses on the fact that all the changes that the Americans have witnessed, have come gradually with the help of civil society movements. He seems to have an important point there. The rights for Afro-Americans to vote in America came through a sustained struggle by civil society led by Martin Luther King. Clearly, influential leaders have played a vital role in civil movements. Social activists like Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar and Arvind Kejriwal have acted as catalysts for social change. But the disunity is clearly visible, within these activists. Aruna Roy does not subscribe to Anna Hazare’s thought process and in fact has given her version of the Lokpal to the Centre. It is a clear indication of how difficult it is to maintain unity amongst civil society. As a result, the Anna Hazare-led movement is being deemed as ‘less civil’. Many viewed fasting by Anna Hazare as a means to blackmail the government into adopting his version of the Lokpal Bill. They see such an act as an erosion of democratic values. Many among India’s powerful view the protest with deep seated scepticism as his primary supporters are the urban and the middle class. According to P. Sainath, there is nothing wrong in having advisory groups. But there is a problem when groups not constituted legally cross the line of demands, advice and rights-based, democratic agitation. (Sainath, 2011)

This civil society has its roots in the debate as to ‘what’ constitutes civil society. This identification has particularly remained problematic. The concept of civil society pinpoints and values associational life – interest groups, professional and other associations, voluntary agencies, grassroots organizations, social movements and all other social orders- because it brings people together in networks and shared concerns. It can take the form of a movement that supports environmental, political and economic causes; and according to Tocqueville it can be in the form of unions such as trade unions, railway unions; parties, churches, public opinion, literary and scientific societies and professional or recreational groups (Chandhoke, 2003)and it can even simply exist as neighbourhood Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs). It is precisely because civil society is so diffused, it is difficult to define it in a very one-size-fit-all description.

A Google search on ‘civil society’ shows the definition and legitimacy provided by the World Bank, which uses the term CSO as almost synonymous with NGO (non-governmental organisation). Various terms have been attached to civil associations – from Voluntary Organizations (VOs) to Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and now, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs),  (Kishwar, 2011) .While the role of CSOs cannot be negated, it must be strictly differentiated from the term ‘civil society’.

But the rise of civil society is not lone-standing. Civil society has partnered with voluntary and non-governmental organizations to bring about social and political change. The Indian government in fact, recognized the contributions of voluntary organizations in the Seventh Five Year-Plans (FYP) as promoting development. It increased their capacity for funding various initiatives. Often, the NGOs and governments have cooperated. Many NGOs are involved in conducting social audits in areas where government has implemented its poverty alleviation programs. They help in raising awareness amongst people, enlightening them about their basic rights and duties. Robert Putnam famously talks about social capital. He believes, ‘For a variety of reasons life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate co-ordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved.  (Putnam, 1997)

There seems to a rediscovery of civil society today. The Anna-led anti-corruption movement has brought to the forefront some interesting points on civil society in India. Firstly, there is a presence of strong agenda that now dominates mainstream political discourse. The public sector is riddled with red-tapism, bribery, misuse of public money for private good and lack of accountability of the government. The recent decision of the courts  (Balwa, 2011) to deny bail to eight of the accused in the 2G spectrum scam case in India highlights the fact that the general atmosphere is one of fighting corruption and weeding it out from its roots. Many scams involving billions have been unearthed in the last two years. Among them are the Adarsh Housing scam, the 2G Spectrum scam and the Commonwealth Games scandal. In all these, misappropriation of public funds has caught the eye of many who now demand an overhaul in the system. Secondly, democracy and civic participation has seen an interesting role play in the IAC movement. People from all walks of life – students, professionals, academicians, elderly, retired armed forces personnel poured out at Jantar Mantar and India Gate in the days surrounding Anna’s fasting.

In a different context of environmentalism, civic participation has seen a rise in India. Communities are fighting for their resources and voicing their concerns and agitations, which is being pursued by the Indian media. Democracy is being sustained through the active involvement of citizens engaged in their communities and helping to determine their own future.

India, through such instances of civil activism, is also contributing its share to ‘Global civil society’. The Arab Spring in the Middle-East and Occupy-Wall-Street in the US,  the anti-corruption wave in India, protests in Kashmir over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), have one thing in common – people against unfair practices and systems. A ripple effect can be seen in many countries influenced by a new wave of activism. One of the main reasons for such an effect is the universalism of the challenges faced by people from the states and markets.  With the advent of the Internet technologies, digital mobilisation, social networking and relatively cheap air travel there is an enhanced interconnectedness between civil society campaigns and movements across the world. Campaigns against the WTO regime and for fair trade have demonstrated the power of citizens globally, beyond the state and market. Domestic civil activism is deciding international agendas at G20, World Trade Organization, UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, among others.

‘There is no civil society, there are only individual men and women’ – Margaret Thatcher

Civil society today is also plagued with challenges, but ones that can and must be overcome.

A hyper-active civil society: But an over-active civil society must also be resisted. While it is important to have a strong civil society, but a civil society that is becomes too strong actually tend to become a state-like entity. Democratic institutions and their functioning would be hampered and the supremacy of the parliament questioned – just like in the Anna-led corruption movement. As critics point out, any change must be brought from within the system. Hence, Anna should be on the panel and negotiate rather than merely ordering the state about what is to be done.

United we stand, divided we fall? – The problem of fragmentation: Though civil society claims that more issues unite them, than that dividing them, in reality civil society is hopelessly fragmented. There is little solidarity across boundaries. Those working at the grassroots level will not have any inkling as to what goes on in the corridors of powerful lobbies that might affect them. There is utter disconnection within the networks of CSOs and NGOs, for many of whom profit remains the primary motive. ). In our diverse society, caste and religious groups also remain divisive, enabling their political mobilization and use for unethical political agendas.The result is a civil society that is fragmented and amorphous, not united and thereby weak – without a single goal or aim.

But being skeptical does not help. In an age where many societies are struggling to sustain democracy, India is thriving on a robust democratic life. Civil society has proven itself to be diverse, responsive at the same time a force to understand and learn from when things go wrong in the ‘Third space’.


There is a vital need to look beyond the present and to critically think about the long-term sustainability of civil society. Civil society will always be threatened by certain forces. Its space will always be challenged. We need to ensure that we continue to develop and learn important lessons from the events that take place in the realm of society.

“Our times demand a new definition of leadership – global leadership. They demand a new constellation of international cooperation – governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good.” – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ,  (Speech at World Economic Forum, 29th January 2009)


Bakshi, P. M. (2010). In P. M. Bakshi, Constitution of India (10th ed., p. 88). Delhi, India: Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Balwa, S. (2011, November 3rd). Kanimozhi, 7 others denied bail in 2G case. Times of India . India.

Chandhoke, N. (2003). A Critique of the Notion of Civil Society as the ‘Third Sphere’ . In R. Tandon, & R. Mohanty, Does Civil Society Matter?: Governance in Contemporary India (p. 35). Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd.

Edwards, M. (2009). In M. Edwards, Civil Society (Second ed., p. 171). United Kingdom: Polity.

Edwards, M. (2009). Introduction – Whats the Big Idea? In Civil Society (Second ed., p. 4). United Kingdom: Polity.

Khilnani, S. (2001). The development of civil society. In S. Khilnani, S. Kaviraj, S. kaviraj, & S. Khilnani (Eds.), Civil Society: History and possibilities (p. 26). Cambridge University Press.

Kishwar, M. P. (2011, August 16th). Civil society’s challenge. The Times of India . India.

Pokharel, K. (2011, June 20th). Politics Journal: Who Makes Up India’s ‘Civil Society’? The Wall Street Journal: Digital Network . India.

Putnam, R. (1997). Democracy in America at Century’s End. In A. Hadenius (Ed.), Democracy’s Victory and Crisis (p. 31). United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Sainath, P. (2011, June 17th). The discreet charm of civil society. The Hindu: Opinion, column . India.

Samuel, J. (2009, November). How civil society has changed the world. Infochange agenda .

Speech at World Economic Forum. (29th January 2009). Davos, Switzerland.

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