State of civil society

Civil society" has dominated popular discussion for the last few months. It may be hard to recall how rare the use of the term was only some years back. In 2002, when I published a book analysing the role of civil society in preventing, dampening or inciting communal riots, I was asked in a television interview whether I was overstating the power of civil society vis--vis the state. And in an interview with a Hindi journalist emerged the inimitably phrased query, "Yeh civil society kya cheez hai?"

From the cloistered walls of academia, the term has now fully penetrated our everyday discourse, thanks to Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. Those working at the local level, sensitive to movement politics, or familiar with the history of Gandhian modes of political conduct, had always known the potency of civil society organisations. But, arguably, at no time in India's post-1947 history has the storm caused by civil society been so evidently noticeable. JP's movement was undoubtedly more powerful, but no one used the term "civil society" at that time.

When a term acquires popular currency and power, we need to be more careful about what it stands for and how we should formulate our responses to the actual phenomenon it represents. Terminological precision is routinely craved in universities. The case for such precision is perhaps greater when the stakes are so high in the "real world".

So what is civil society? Is the distinction between civil society and political society, so often drawn, sustainable?

Hazare and Ramdev both claim to be non-political. In some intellectual circles, too, it is customary to draw the distinction between civil and political society. But this distinction is deeply implausible. It is premised upon equating politics with elections. It also implies, or openly suggests, that civil society, a middle-class phenomenon, is governed by laws; and political society, driven by elections and mass politics, is deeply compromised in patron-client deals and riddled with corruption. Civil society is virtuous; political society lacks morality.

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