American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote perfectly sums up the power of ‘civil society’. When common people come together – even in the smallest of ways – to fight against injustice, discrimination, corruption, or apathy in public life, it is civil society in action. Civil society is the voluntary collectivisation of concerned citizens who are driven by the idea best expressed by Mahatma Gandhi as “be the change you want to see in this world”.
If the two major locations of citizen’s participation in a democracy are the State and the market, civil society is often regarded as the third, which in principle works independently to speak out against arbitrary State actions and the inherent inequalities of the market.
So what constitutes civil society? Individual citizens of course, but usually when they get organised into citizens’ groups, non-governmental organisations, charitable institutions, youth groups, neighbourhood committees, support groups, or any other form of non-partisan and voluntary collective – popularly referred to as civil society organisations (CSOs). CSOs work on a variety on issues from communal harmony to environmental protection – through processes of raising awareness, campaigning with governmental authorities, organizing public hearings or just meeting to share concerns and ideas.
The idea behind a CSO is to initiate a forum where people with shared problems can collectively deliberate on what can be done to solve them. Civil society serves as a forum for concerned citizens to pro-actively work towards making their country, city or locality better than what it is. There are no qualifications for being part of civil society groups, and any citizen with the will and commitment to become a change-agent can join civil society groups voluntarily. The constituency of civil society groups is ordinary people; though they are not generally adversaries of the State or the market, they are often the strongest critics of the same. Being a part of civil society forums is now an extension of the role of democratic citizenship, beyond only voting in elections.
But is civil society a new phenomenon? Can we call the freedom movement in India a civil society movement?The box-office success of Rang De Basanti helps us mull over these questions better. The film, in many ways, attempted to draw parallels between how today’s youth in India need to fight corruption just the way our freedom fighters fought the colonisers. The candlelight vigil at India Gate in the film became an iconic scene of citizens’ solidarity that was later seen in real life during the memorial marches for Jessica Lal (the model who was shot by the son of a powerful politician) in Delhi and Rizwanur Rehman (who allegedly committed suicide after being hounded by his influential and well-connected in-laws who disapproved of his marriage to their daughter) in Kolkata, demanding that their powerful assailants be brought to justice. Such a show of mass public solidarity did force the authorities to respond. It also shook them out of their stupor and showed that the public is sometimes interested in more than its own self-interest.
But it is the 1989 Amitabh Bachchan starrer Main Azaad Hoon (I am free, a remake of Meet John Doe) that exemplifies the power and potential of civil society collectivisation. It explains that civil society believes in the rule of law, and the fearless exercise of the freedom of speech and expression to speak out against injustice. Our freedom struggle can be called a civil society movement to the extent that it used largely peaceful means to resist the British. Gandhi’s satyagraha – non-violent resistance - is often used by organised civil society groups to make a point and attain their objective.
Though civil society can flourish anywhere theoretically, the fact is that it is an urban and mostly middle/upper class phenomenon. By its very nature civil society requires some amount of empowerment and education to take on the power elites and figures in authority. The poor and marginalised often lack this capability. Thus, civil society organisations usually are comprised of the educated, urban middle-class and tend to take up the concerns only of their own section of society. Those who poured out onto the streets of Delhi to demand the conviction of Jessica Lal’s murderer did not think of doing the same for the thousands of debt-riddden farmers who were committing suicide in India’s villages. The kind of solidarity that people in Mumbai showed after the November 26, 2008 attack by terrorists was not shown in support of the victims of the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal, Orissa. Otherwise apathetic college students came out onto the streets to condemn the attack on women at a Mangalore pub, but they would have never thought of doing that for Thangjam Manorama who was arbitrarily ‘disappeared’, raped and killed by the armed forces in Manipur in July 2004.
Supporting one cause and not another does not in any way diminish the importance of the initiative, but it is reflective of the selective nature of civil society’s concerns. They do, however, have their rural counterparts. Referred to as Community Based Organisations (CBOs), they play an extremely important role at the grass-roots in ensuring that the poor and marginalised get their entitlements, are aware of their rights, and get their due. Many struggles against injustice and corrupt officials are supported and led by CBOs. The emphasis on CSOs/ CBOs comes from the understanding that they are located where it matters the most. Their understanding of the cultural specificities of a community and its economic and political needs can be met best through a process where the civil society is a participant, beneficiary and stakeholder.
This process is reflected in the work of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers that started in 1972 in Ahmedabad. It is an example of the social movements that helped the marginalised raise their voices and filled the void created by an increasingly inadequate State. SEWA helped organise poor women to achieve employment and thus self-sufficiency and independence.
Similarly, the Right to Information Act which was passed by the government in 2005 is an outcome of sustained campaigning by CSO/CBO groups. The Right to Information movement in India began in Rajasthan by a group called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (formed in 1990) which started questioning the corruption in government policies on minimum wage, public distribution of food grains etc, and demanded that the public must have full and transparent access to government records to ascertain where all the wage money and food grains are going. Groups mobilising to save the environment, wildlife, and the lives of local people from the depredations of industrial and business interests are other examples of civil society in action.
Organising for citizens’ action, either by joining an already existing civil society group voluntarily, or by forming one’s own and believing that change can begin with you and is your responsibility as a citizen in a democratic country are the ingredients of a vibrant civil society. As the wise say: “Any good thing I can do, let me do it now”. That’s the spirit of civil society. And if this spirit is shared by even a small group of people, we would have made both Margaret Mead and Mahatma Gandhi proud.