What is civil society?

Civil (adj.)
of, pertaining to, or consisting of citizens; of citizens in their ordinary capacity, or of the ordinary life and affairs of citizens, as distinguished from military and ecclesiastical life and affairs.

Society (n.)
the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.

In the modern world, the role of civil society is often talked about, debated, praised and derided. It is a term used often, but not always with any level of precision or clarity. Most people seem to know broadly what civil society is, yet few have seen it, and fewer can put in words what it actually means.

One way of thinking about civil society is as a number of individuals and groups with their own, varied agendas, often at odds with one another, trying to work towards their own individual aims. In that sense, the term “civil society” then applies to the population at large and therefore all 1.1 billion Indian citizens. Yet in its most common usage, it connotes focused interest groups. So what exactly is civil society?

Civil society—based on the Hegelian construct—is the intermediate phase between family and state. It represents ‘universal egoism’ according to which everyone is treated as the means to one’s own ends. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘universal altruism’ of the state. According to the Marxist construct, not far removed from Hegel’s views, civil society was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, representing the economic interests of capitalists. He believed that the role of civil society is such that it will push for an individual to pursue individual interests but back down when it came to community interests. At the other end of the spectrum, Adam Smith (much earlier) too spoke about civil society—but he believed that it was an exercise in private morality seeking public approval.

Given that none of the philosophers, regardless of the side of the economic and political divide they were on, had anything nice to say about civil society, it is quite interesting to see the space that it occupies in the modern state. It was a term that was in active use in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a part of academic discourse, and came into popular use after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was used to signify independent social, economic and legal institutions—outside the government that act as a check on a hyperactive state—be it authoritarian dictatorship or an over-governed democracy.

In India, the term usually refers to one of two things. First, to high-profile individuals who want to make a statement. For example, when people go on a peace march it is civil society that marches; when individuals go to Naxal areas, they represent civil society; when a group that believes in ‘cultural purity’ beats up girls going to pubs, it is also civil society. In each of these cases—whether one agrees with them or not—it would be more appropriate to call them citizens or interested parties, rather than civil society.

Second, civil society refers to non-governmental organisations or NGOs. India has a large number of NGOs. Around 3.3 million of them. That works out to one NGO for every 400 people. That is better than the ratio of doctors (about 1 for every 2000 people); teachers (1 per five hundred people); or the police (0.9 per 1000 people). Many of the NGOs perform stellar work in their area—but are they civil society? Not quite.

They are 3.3 million organisations—albeit non-governmental ones—with their own individual charters and their own agenda. Lumping an organisation that works to eradicate child labour in cities with another that works in the area of self-help groups in rural India as ‘civil society’ is about as useful as lumping a generator manufacturer and a software developer because they are both private enterprises. And when one labels organisations as “civil society” one makes a fundamental error: the purpose of an ‘organisation’ is to survive, which is different from the purpose of civil society, which is ‘societal good’.

This is not to take away from the work, the sheer will-power and the tireless energy of individuals and NGOs working towards bringing about societal change. But a civil society goes beyond that.

For me civil society is intertwined with civil rights. Civil society is a set of bodies that ensures that the promises made to the citizens of India in the article on fundamental rights in the Constitution are upheld—without any sort of religious, caste or ideological bias.

For example, the reason why the Union government is talking about reservations in the private sector is because there is no civil society organisation—like—to take individual companies to task for flouting the Constitution’s guarantee that there will be equality. The role of civil society is not just to lobby the government to bring in reservations. Rather, it involves taking up cudgels on behalf of those who have been discriminated and ensuring that civil rights are upheld and equal opportunity is actualised. Unfortunately, ‘civil society’ has taken the easy way out—bring in legislation, without allowing components of the system time to internalise that they have to be equal opportunity.

Photo: Austin Yoder

Another example, the reason why books are banned ‘because they hurt sentiments’ is because there is no organisation that will take protesting political parties to court for flouting the Constitution’s promise of liberty. The reason why the judicial option is often discarded is because it is presumed that it takes forever for justice to be delivered. But, an effective civil society would work with the system to put a cap on time taken for the judicial process.

Civil Society would also be a set of bodies that will act as per our social circumstances. Indian ‘civil society’—despite its protestations—borrows much of the ideas and ideologies from the West, and sometimes mistakes the wood for the trees. For instance, in a country with a well-established social security system, where the rights of the child are recognised and ill-treated children are taken into care, provided an education and trained in a skill, it makes sense to ban child labour. However, in a country like India—without putting in place those social security measures, to ban child labour—is to condemn the child to starvation. This is by no means an argument for child labour. Rather, that there is a need to put in place policies that will protect the child in the short- and medium runs before taking away its method of survival.

Take street children. If you ask why children are on the street, you will be told that it is the right of a woman to have a child. As a woman, I completely agree with that statement. However, is the right of the mother greater than the right of the child? You can have the child—but do you have the right to bring up the child on the streets—or should the child be taken into care? Is there a system in place to protect the child ? An effective civil society would ensure that the rights of the child were protected, and the woman would not be delivering children on the street. Civil society is not about fighting to keep people in poverty and squalor but about raising the bar in terms of life and living through constant action and advocacy.

The role of civil society is that of a watchdog on behalf of the people—on every aspect of organised control—be it the state, the judiciary, the police, oligopolies, monopolies and the media. It is about enabling citizen action through empowering literacy on various fronts—be it judicial literacy, environmental literacy, political literacy or media literacy.

It is about reducing the role of government to being a mere facilitator, a monitor, a mediator and, where necessary, a protector. However, civil society in India seems to be increasing the role of government and encouraging it to intervene ever more in our lives. The opposite of government is not the private sector, but the citizenry. Civil society is citizens taking back control from the state over most aspects of their everyday life, using the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution as a tent pole. Civil society in India, therefore, has a long way to go before this is achieved.