Nirbhaya in Bilkis Bano—civil society is demobilized. RSS ready to take up space


IIndian civil society has come a long way in the past decade. Go back to 2012 and think of how she bristled in anger and outrage after the Nirbhaya gang rape incident. Fast forward to 2022 and notice how he barely groaned after news broke that the Union Home Office had approved the premature release of the 11 convicts who had gang-raped Bilkis Bano in two weeks, reversing the decision of the CBI and a special tribunal. The contrast couldn’t be sharper.

The conclusion is inescapable. A civil society once seen as a bulwark of Indian democracy has slowly but surely demobilized. He is divided against himself.

This is yet another testimony to what I had described in a previous post as a political regime passed under the influence of a party of the movement. Such a party is dead against democratic renewal and will devote its significant organizational resources to stopping popular mobilizations. Considering that the best intellectuals of the Sangh Parivar never miss an opportunity to recall how the current government has embarked on a historic project of “decolonize” our minds, they certainly follow the chops. Divide and Conquer has been brought together. Demobilize and rule is the new mantra.

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Classification of civil society in India

In a writing published by the Journal of Democracy in 2007, political theorist Niraja Jayal proposed a four-pronged classification for thinking about civil society in India: civil society as civic associations (CS1), civil society as a counterweight to state (CS2), highly professionalized development NGOs (CS3) and uncivil society (CS4). The final category, Jayal observed, included organizations that openly held prejudice against certain social groups – she cites Sangh Parivar member organizations as examples – even though some of their goals may overlap with CS1 organizations.

Tellingly, Jayal argued that with the exception of CS2 organizations and a handful of CS1 organizations, most civil society organizations in India have an ambiguous and in some cases corrosive relationship with democracy. . Nevertheless, the essay ended with an optimistic view of the future.

It is tempting to revisit Jayal’s classification 15 years after writing his essay and ask where civil society in India stands today vis-à-vis democracy. This question is all the more relevant as the interim period saw the second coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in an even more popular avatar than in the 1990s and 2000s, which, in turn, meant that the sphere influence of what Jayal describes 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” organizations bristling with mainstream Hindu anger appears to be growing exponentially.

The relevant question, therefore, is whether the elements of Indian civil society – which have traditionally supported democracy – have kept pace with the growth of uncivil society.

Let’s start with the developments in the CS2 domain. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Modi 1.0 and 2.0 governments have been determined to delegitimize this sector. Whether it is the overzealous use of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to criminalize their activities or the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to challenge their nationalism or from the strategic deployment of the term “Urban Naxals” into everyday discourse, the ruling party ensured that CS2 organizations were too preoccupied with fundamental existential issues to be able to speak truth to power.

In fact, reversing Jayal’s classification, the government has tacitly encouraged its uncivil society allies to take over the space that CS2 organizations have been forced to vacate. Take, for example, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) General Secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale’s recent report statement saying that the current level of poverty in India is a “demon” that must be “killed”. Many liberal commentators have seen it as a tacit admission by establishing that its economically inspired, pro-big business pandemic stimulus policy needed a course correction. Few noticed that Hosabale made the statement as part of an event hosted by Swadeshi Jagran Manch to mark the first anniversary of the launch of his Swavalambi Bharat Abhijan, a program to promote more boost economy. , Not less. Fewer still noticed the BJP’s official response to Hosabale’s statement. While appearing to accept that Hosabale had “criticized” the government’s economic policy, BJP leader Karuna Gopal reminded his NDTV caller that it was no different than a company’s customer relationship management team giving “constructive feedback” to senior management.

With CS2 organizations on the defensive, if not completely marginalized, it is not surprising that CS1 organizations have more or less withdrawn from any form of protest politics. While this may be a strategic response by these organizations in a post-pandemic environment where non-state funding flows have dried up, it is also undeniable that the presence of a vibrant CS2 space is a crucial prerequisite for these organizations question the Power state.

A comparative look at other Asian democracies will reinforce this point. In Japan, for example, the post-1960s generation of civil society activists turned to a ‘proposal’ model of civil society activism in response to what they saw as the “frustratingly slow gains” made by an earlier generation of activists who had embraced a model of civil society activism. more confrontational style. In the process, as Simon Avenell has arguedJapanese civil society has become beholden to the interests of the country’s largest corporations, thus obstructing the very corporate reforms that were needed to revive the Japanese economy after the infamous “lost decade of growth”.

The distance that Indian civil society has traveled from Nirbhaya to Bilkis Bano can thus be captured by a simple aphorism “No CS2, no CS1”, and this 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 India’s civil society can point to farmers’ success protests or the Shaheen Bagh commotions. As remarkable as these movements were for the way protesters stood firmly on the side of democracy and legality despite enormous provocations, no serious analyst can ignore the circumscribed geographic and ethnic basis of both protests. An uncivil society cannot be fought by a narrowly defined civil society.

But what about mobilizations such as the protests against the Agnipath project or the process of recruiting railway workers? Do they not testify to the capacity of our civil society to federate constituencies across communities and geographical locations? On the contrary, these mobilizations testify more to the decreasing influence of the CS1 and CS2 organizations. Drawing on the conceptual vocabulary of comparative politics, they can be characterized as forms of anemic interest group activity. These can be useful in highlighting abuses of power – think of the frequent peasant uprisings in China – but they lack the power to force the state to correct course in a way that is richer and better organized by community interest groups.

Finally, isn’t it true that the Modi government supports “democracy from below” by promoting local elections in Kashmir? For those naysayers, suffice it to say that partyless local democracy has long been a favorite of authoritarian rulers in South Asia, from Ayub Khan in Pakistan, Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh to King Mahendra in Nepal. In fact, even China has village-level elections.

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

(Editing by Ratan Priya)


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