Evolution of civil society in India

As Kaviraj and Khilnani (2001) point out, the formation of civil society in India has not been the same as its counterpart in western Europe, where the modern state and civil society developed simultaneously over centuries and each became both stronger and more independent along the line. In much of the global south, on the other hand, the trajectory that civil society took was significantly different because of the colonial experience. The domination of economic life by the colonial state, the absence of an indigenous capitalistic class to challenge this, the co-operation of the landed and feudal class with the colonial power and the coexistence of traditional sources of authority with the legal writ of the colonial state, ensured that the state-civil society

Civil society in India 39 trajectory would differ significantly from that of Western counterparts. Of course, the specific dynamics of the state-civil society relationship differed from one national context to another, depending among other factors on the nature of the anti-colonial struggle.

India’s civic associational structure was put in place in rhe 1920s, in the midst of a transformational moment in the Indian freedom struggle, when a new form of politics emerged under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Varshney 2001). This had two anchoring points, namely political independence from the British and social transformation of India. The latter implied addressing India’s social evils such as abolition of untouchability, as well as the promotion of tribal welfare, women’s upliftment, labour welfare, self-reliance and so on. A plethora of organizations came into existence between 1920 and 1940, and the space they collectively created acquired a logic and life of their own and served to constrain the behaviour of politicians in the short to medium run (Varshney 2001, p. 363).

Though the foundation of an associational civic life was laid down under Gandhi, the focus on a strong centralized economy through five-year plans implied that in the initial years after independence, the spotlight was on state action. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s, following drought, war and a food crisis, that state policies were challenged by peasant and workers movements (Burglund 2009).

Drawing on Gandhian and in some cases revolutionary Marxist ideology, these protests and movements gained so much momentum that the Indira Gandhi-led government of the day felt sufficiently threatened to declare a state of emergency in June 1975, which continued until the elections of 1977. The Emergency is significant as a milestone in the trajectory of civil society in India. On one hand, it represents the first (and so far, only) complete break in the institutional democratic process with the suspension of political and civil rights. On the other, it acted as a spur that re-energized post-Emergency civil society with a new spate of activities, not only by the traditional social movements of workers, peasants and students, but also ‘new’ social movements that often took the form of rainbow coalitions cutting across caste and class fault lines and coalescing around issues like the environment and women’s rights (Burglund 2009, p. 23).

While the new social movements were also influenced by the ascending global movements on these same themes as Burglund (2009) points out, the Emergency played a critical role in catalysing it by changing the very lens through which the post-independence state was viewed. For the first time, the state was perceived as an oppressor that had taken away constitutionally sanctioned rights, and the fact that it could do so indicated that these rights could no longer be taken for granted. New groups would henceforth fight for their rights and challenge perceived injustices.

Along with the old and new social movements of civil society, a new narrative that contributed to the expansion of the NGO segment of civil society in India was that the state had failed to deliver on development goals despite having control of the commanding heights of the economy through a process of centralized planning. This dovetailed with the World Bank-led global narrative and the IMF’s neoliberal reforms, with their marked preference for working with NGOs. With state developmentalism being questioned both within and outside the country, the Indian state itself started to encourage NGOs to take responsibility for social development. With newfound access to funding from the World Bank, international aid organizations and also the Indian government, NGOs proliferated rapidly. By 2017, their number had reached three million (Kode and Jacob 2017).

In the following sections, we look at the specific components of contemporary Indian civil society.

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