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Perceiving Civil Society: A Multipolar Conundrum

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The term “civil society” enjoys a considerable degree of celebrated acceptance in popular discourse today. Usually seen as representative of the citizenry’s aspirations and agencies, as the autonomous non-state and non-market part of the society, it is widely understood as a liberatory phenomenon against establishments. Yet, civil society, in all its capaciousness, encompasses entities on all sides of the political spectrum, ranging from grassroots movements to right wing populist groups. Instead of being a conduit for all-inclusive social welfare, civil society can take a vast range of forms, representing varied interests.


Marxist and feminist critics have long pointed out the problems with a liberal envisioning of civil society. The arguments against civil society are the arguments against the public sphere itself. It has been remarked that the former cannot be seen as separated from the rest of the society, and the unequal power relations which structure other spheres, including the family and the economy are replicated in it. The distributive inequalities of class, race and gender, for instance, are very much present even across the most apparently progressive of civil society mobilizations.


Furthermore, the applicability of a Western concept of civil society in post-colonies has also been critiqued, since the development of civil and political rights in Western Europe have no correspondence in postcolonial states. Pre-colonially, several traditional structures, sometimes deriving from religion, were already free from state power to considerable degrees. As Amir Ali notes, the powers of both the pre-colonial and the colonial state were not absolute as the state co-existed with influential religious and traditional power structures outside its immediate reach and the effects of these alternative power structures were evident also in the formation of the civil society. In India, the tendency of the British colonial state to respect religious differences and to divide the population according to faith led to a strong positioning of the native religious elites, and the strengthening of religious identity in both the private sphere and in civil society. Consequently, from the Brahmo Samaj to the Indian National Congress, civil society activity in British India saw strong representation from elites.


Today, as noted scholar Carlo Rozza writes, in the current political culture, torn between a populist and an anti-populist bloc, it is necessary to clarify the contribution of civil society to a “good society” and to document the strategies, discourses, and actions that help or hinder this goal. He also points towards at least a partial colonization of civil society by the values of right-wing populism. Recent examples from India illustrate the same as numerous campaigns have ossified and visiblised a conservative civil society.


A 2019 Mint article quotes a BJP IT cell member from Karnataka who organized “a 16 kms human chain built entirely by IT people", as remarking, “Never before had we seen IT people coming out in the open and expressing their interest in political affairs". In the same vein, he was quoted as saying that handing out “special provisions to Dalits and weaker sections" is no good as his vision is to go “beyond religion and caste" because “the IT community has no caste and religion". The conundrum here is not hard to discern— a community of IT professionals, otherwise usually sundered from political mobilization, come together to agitate against the establishment, under a conservative umbrella. Such civil society initiatives are not committed to fostering social trust and undoing inequality, differing vastly from a liberal formulation of the same.


A relatively progressive movement such as the struggle for marriage equality has generated critiques of its own. In the hearing on 25th October in the Delhi High Court, petitioners for same-sex marriages through counsel Raghav Awasthi, argued that the Hindu Marriage Act does not distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual marriages if the wording had to be considered since the act states that marriage can be solemnised between “any two Hindus,” the petition claimed. The usage of a Hindu identity to claim access to same-sex marriage animates a very vivid contradiction between purusing specific interests and dealing with larger intersectional complexities. Civil society, thus, at once, can be progressivist and reactionary.


Shattering a celebratory stance towards civil society is a bid to understand the uncivil potential of mobilization and association. While there are initiatives which can arguably energise democracies and keep establishments accountable, civil society endeavours can also be undemocratic and exclusionist. Shedding the essentializing, emancipatory rhetoric around them is thus arguably essential for generating discourses attuned to the political complexities that blanket us.

By Abhinav Bharadwaj (Columnist)

Abhinav is a postgraduate student of English literature at University of Delhi. A published poet and an independent researcher, he has been a longlist awardee of the Wingword Poetry Prize and his works have been published by journals such as English Studies in Latin America, Contemporary Literary Review India and media portals like Feminism in India. His areas of interest include world literatures, gender and sexuality studies, modernisms and media and culture studies.

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