Tuesday, March 21, 2023
HomeOpinionNirbhaya to Bilkis Bano—civil society stands demobilised. RSS ready to take space

Nirbhaya to Bilkis Bano—civil society stands demobilised. RSS ready to take space

The Indian civil society remains too pre-occupied with basic existential issues, proving their nationalism, to be able to speak truth to power.

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Indian civil society has traversed a long distance over the last decade. Rewind to 2012 and think of how it bristled with anger and indignation after the Nirbhaya gangrape incident. Fast forward to 2022 and notice how it barely evinced a whimper after the news broke that the Union Home Ministry had approved  the premature release of the 11 convicts who had gangraped Bilkis Bano within two weeks, overruling the CBI and a special court. The contrast could not be sharper.

The conclusion is inescapable. A civil society that was once considered a bulwark of Indian democracy has been slowly, but surely, demobilised. It stands divided against itself.

This is yet another telltale of what I had described in an earlier article as a polity that has come under the sway of a movement party. Such a party is dead against democratic renewal and will devote its substantial organisational resources to arrest popular mobilisations. Considering that top Sangh Parivar intellectuals never miss an opportunity to remind us how the current government has embarked on a historical project to “decolonise” our minds, they are certainly walking the talk. Divide-and-rule has been binned. Demobilise-and-rule is the new mantra.

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Civil society classification in India

In an essay published by the Journal of Democracy in 2007,  political theorist Niraja Jayal suggested a four-fold classification for thinking about civil society in India: civil society as civic associations (CS1), civil society as a counter-weight to the state (CS2), highly professionalised development NGOs (CS3), and uncivil society (CS4). The last category, Jayal observed, included organisations that openly harboured prejudice towards certain social groups—she uses member organisations of the Sangh Parivar as examples—even though some of their objectives could overlap with CS1 organisations.

Tellingly, Jayal argued that barring CS2 organisations and a handful of CS1 organisations, most civil society organisations in India had an ambiguous, and in some cases, corrosive relationship with democracy. Nevertheless, the essay concluded with an optimistic outlook on the future.

It is tempting to revisit Jayal’s classification 15 years after she wrote her essay and ask where civil society in India stands today vis-à-vis democracy. This question is particularly pertinent since the interim period has seen the second coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in an even more popular avatar than in the 1990s and the 2000s, which, in turn, has meant that the sphere of influence of what Jayal described as “uncivil society” has increased dramatically. Shri Ram Sena, Gau Raksha Dal, Samadhan Sena, Gau Raksha Vahini, Hindu Rashtra Dal—the list of “social service” organisations bristling with self-righteous Hindu majoritarian anger seems to be growing exponentially.

The pertinent question, therefore, is whether the elements of Indian civil society—that have been traditionally supportive of democracy—have stayed in step with the growth of uncivil society.

Let us start with developments in the CS2 sphere. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Modi 1.0 and 2.0 governments have been single-minded in their determination to delegitimise this sector. Whether it be the overzealous use of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to criminalise their activities or the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to question their nationalism or the strategic deployment of the term “Urban Naxals” in everyday discourse, the ruling party has ensured that CS2 organisations are too pre-occupied with basic existential issues to be able to speak truth to power.

In fact, turning Jayal’s classification on its head, the government has tacitly encouraged its allies in uncivil society to appropriate the space that CS2 organisations have been forced to vacate. Consider, for example, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale’s recent statement saying that the current poverty level in India is a “demon” that needs to be “slayed.” Many in the liberal commentariat saw this as a tacit admission by the establishment that its hands-off pro-big business nudge economics-inspired pandemic recovery policy needed course correction. Few noticed that Hosabale had made the statement in the context of an event hosted by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch to mark the first anniversary of the launch of its Swavalambi Bharat Abhijan, a program to promote more nudge economics, not less. Fewer still noticed the BJP’s official response to Hosabale’s statement. While seeming to accept that Hosabale had “criticised” the government’s economic policy, the BJP leader, Karuna Gopal, reminded her NDTV interlocutor that this was no different from the customer relations management team of a company giving “constructive feedback” to the top management.

With CS2 organisations on the defensive, if not marginalised altogether, it is not surprising that CS1 organisations have more or less retreated from any form of contentious politics. While this may be a strategic response from these organisations in a post-pandemic environment where non-state funding streams have dried up, it is also undeniable that the presence of a vibrant CS2 space is a crucial pre-condition for these organisations to question state power.

A comparative glance at other Asian democracies will serve to reinforce this point. In Japan, for example, the post-1960s generation of civil society activists gravitated towards a “proposal style” model of civil society activism in response to what they saw as the “frustratingly slow gains” made by an earlier generation of activists who adopted a more confrontational style. In the process, as Simon Avenell has argued, Japanese civil society became beholden to the interests of the country’s top corporations, thereby getting in the way of the very corporate reforms that were needed to kickstart the Japanese economy after the infamous “lost decade of growth.”

The distance traversed by Indian civil society from Nirbhaya to Bilkis Bano can thus be captured by a simple aphorism “No CS2, no CS1,” and it perhaps explains why the current government has been so relentless in its attacks on CS2.

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Narrowly defined civil society

Optimists about Indian civil society may point to the successful farmers’ protests or the Shaheen Bagh agitations. As remarkable as these movements have been for the manner in which the protesters stood firmly on the side of democracy and legality despite tremendous provocations, no serious analyst can ignore the circumscribed geographic and ethnic basis of the two protests. An uncivil society cannot be countered by a narrowly defined civil society.

But, what about mobilisations such as the protests against the Agnipath scheme or the railway recruitment process? Don’t they testify to the capacity of our civil society to unite constituencies across communities and geographical locations? To the contrary, these mobilisations further attest to the diminishing influence of CS1 and CS2 organisations. Drawing on the conceptual vocabulary of comparative politics, they can be characterised as forms of anemic interest group activity. These may be useful for highlighting abuses of power—think of frequent peasant upheavals in China—but they do not have the staying power to force the state to course correct in a way more deeply resourced and organised associational interest groups can.

Finally, is it not the case that the Modi government is supporting “democracy from below” by promoting local body elections in Kashmir? For these naysayers, it will suffice to say that party-less local democracy has long been a favourite of authoritarian leaders in South Asia, from Ayub Khan in Pakistan, Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh to King Mahendra in Nepal. As a matter of fact, even China has village-level elections.

Subhasish Ray is Professor & Associate Dean (Research), Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University. He tweets @subhasish_ray75. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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