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Increasing frequency and intensity of protests reflect a deeper crisis in Indian democracy: the failure of civil society

In the last five years, citizens have poured out in large numbers at Jantar Mantar and India Gate (and in many other parts of the country) to ask the state to hear their demands. In 2006, marches and sit-ins forced the state to re-examine the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases. In 2007, the OBC reservation bill in higher education became the rallying point for students to protest on the streets. Anna Hazare's hunger strikes demanding a Lokpal bill and massive public support for his protest in 2011 seemed like India's "Arab Spring" moment. The jal satyagraha by villagers in Harda district of Madhya Pradesh to lower the height of the Omkareshwar dam, and the demonstrations against the nuclear power plant in Koodankulam in 2012, suggested both the possibility of a vibrant alternative politics outside the theatre of electoral politics and the hope that such activities would deepen the roots of democratic politics in India.

The brutal assault on a 23-year-old student last month outraged the nation and led to massive demonstrations in Delhi asking for immediate action. The dominant commentary surrounding these demonstrations is that the case demonstrates the failure of our political class and its reluctance to mend its ways. There is no doubt that poor political judgements made by the establishment worsened the crisis. In our opinion, the increasing frequency and intensity of such protests in the past few years (often on similar issues) reflect a far deeper crisis in Indian democracy the failure of civil society.

Civil society in other parts of the world seeks to make political authority more accountable, especially if the state is overextended and ineffectual. In many democracies, citizens are linked to their elected representatives not only through political parties, but also by various other institutions of civil society like NGOs, interest groups, media organisations, etc. A vibrant civil society is seen as the keeper of the democratic conscience.

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