Civil society in India: What is it and where is it going?

Sumona DasGupta

Enthusiastically eulogized by some and cynically demonized by others, the term civil society has been used in such varied contexts and in so many different ways, particularly since the 1980s, that it seems to have lost both its theoretical traction as well as its efficacy as a blueprint for democratic action. On one hand, it has been hailed as an emancipatory space where civil liberties crushed by totalitarian states and military dictatorships could be resurrected. On the other, it is critiqued as a handmaiden of a state that coerced it to drop its critical agenda and co-opted it to deliver services formerly provided or promised by the government. From being acknowledged as a third sector that creates space for citizen engagements that deepen democracy, to being dismissed as an advertising agent for a private sector that selectively funds foundations based on its perceived interests of the day, there exists a maze of confusion around this term. Consequently, we are left asking what then is this civil society, what is its complex relationship with the state and the market, and what is its role in a post-colonial state like India?

We argue that civil society is not a monolith and, while segments remain committed to the goal of social transformation, other segments have either succumbed to the lure of easy funding by diluting their goals, or simply tweaked their mission to the extent necessary to survive in the changing circumstances. We also submit that while there is merit in the designation of civil society as a ‘third sector’ separate from the state (represented by the current government in power) and the market, it is not independent of them; much of the confusion regarding the components and role of civil society emanates from failing to grasp the complex relationship between civil society, state and market at any given conjuncture.

This chapter will begin by examining some definitions and understandings of civil society that resonate in a post-colonial country like India, and how the organizational components of civil society have evolved and reinvented themselves. Given the extensive literature on Indian civil society, this chapter will focus on the period from 2010 to 2017, which witnessed a complete turnaround in terms of its role in India. It will analyse how and why a decade that started with an expansive role for civil society (2001-2009) petered out from 2010 onwards into a much more constricted space,

Civil society in India 37 where stare control and surveillance as well as actions by vigilante non-state groups began to raise concerns about threats to democracy itself.

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