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Eliminating the middle man: the Indian government’s contempt for civil society

In India, the concept of civil society is only a nascent one, but the authorities already view it with suspicion. Behind the 'biggest democracy in the world' façade, the lives of activists, journalists and academics who dare to challenge official policies are made increasingly difficult. The future of India's emerging civil society is uncertain.

Ram Mashru
6 September 2012

Anti-corruption activists light candles during a peaceful protest in Dimapur, India. Demotix/Caisii Mao. All rights reserved.

In 2002, Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney was discussing his book about civil society on a Indian television program. 'What is this thing you’re talking about?' was one of the first questions he was asked. With the resurgent anti-corruption movement, talk of the influence of civil society in the nation’s politics and social affairs has re-entered the mainstream, and all too predictably officialdom have begun their crackdown.

Many definitions of civil society have been put forward, but those resembling Varshney’s are particularly profitable: civil society activists are 'those that occupy the organisational space between the family and the state'. Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, similarly suggests that civil society comprises the 'intermediate associations of society', academic, cultural, religious or charitable 'separate from the family, the state and the market'.

According to Madhu Kishwar, a scholar of developing societies, civil society activity has played an indirect role in India’s legislative and policy decision-making processes for the last thirty years. Ostensibly non-political, CSOs (civil society organisations, distinct from NGOs) had long carried out vital regional and communal functions: lobbying state governments, championing local causes and mediating local conflicts. But the renaissance of an anti-graft movement led by Anna Hazare and Ramdev Bapu, the yoga guru, has transformed the nature of civil society activism. The anti-corruption movement is unorganised, popular, demotic and stridently political (campaigning for its version of a Lokpal bill); by seeking to end official corruption the movement sets out to challenge a truly national malaise. The success with which the anti-corruption movement has galvanised Indians has inspired many hyperbolic claims, but one that is undoubtedly true is that civil society activity has now reached its highest point since Indian gained independence in 1947.

A monk shows his support for Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. Demotix/Rajesh Tandon. All rights reserved.

The government’s reaction to the anti-corruption movement had thus far been ambivalent. Initially interested in dialogue and negotiation, as activists have scaled-up their demands politicians have grown increasingly intolerant. Last year Delhi officials forcibly ended a hunger strike by Ramdev Bapu, whilst the mainstream political parties all made great efforts to publicly endorse Anna Hazare after the elderly activist declared his intention to establish a political organisation. Conflict between non-state actors and the government is inevitable and India is particularly, perhaps even uniquely, predisposed towards such tension. 

The more India’s politicians are exposed as venal and incompetent the more their influence recedes, and as this democratic deficit increases the more 'non-state space' civil society activity must occupy to compensate. The anti-graft movement is a good example: it has mobilized citizens across gender, religious, class and caste lines and wields unprecedented political clout. But the intractable paradox, as Varshney explains, is that this shift quickly becomes undemocratic. As Neera Chandoke, a political scientist at the University of Dehli, warns: 'we should be careful in whose hands civil society ends up…[of] exchanging tyrannies'. Threatened by popular challenges to government authority, many politicians have now taken up Chandoke’s charge.

The Haraze-led anti-corruption movement is now being dismissed as a 'menace', accused of imposing its will on constitutional and legislative processes, and the increasingly 'political hue”' of the anti-corruption movement is being used to justify curbs on civil society activity across the board. More than a dozen freedom of information activists are reported to have been killed since 2009 and the backlash has been similarly deadly in other cases.

recent Human Rights Watch report documents the deliberate targeting of activists whose work relates to the Naxal Maoist insurgency. In three states, police and security forces are said to have been blackmailing activists, forcing them to inform on Naxalites, only for them to be accused of being government informers by the insurgents and summarily executed. Those who do not succumb to official pressure – many of whom are involved in highlighting abuses carried out by the state or administering aid – are arrested on trumped-up charges and interrogated, detained and even tortured. According to the report, activists are imprisoned under sedition charges, and released only after authorities are unable to substantiate their allegations in court. In this way aid workers, human rights activists, negotiators and health professionals are denied the opportunity to ameliorate the conflict.

The Human Rights Watch report sheds some light on the broader scorn for civil society activists in India. Freedom House, an international organisation committed to monitoring freedom and democracy, on their profile of India, report that the country enjoys 'robust' academic freedom and yet despite this, 'intimidation of professors and institutions over political and religious issues sometimes occurs'. Activists 'accused of sympathizing with Maoist insurgents' face 'increased pressure from authorities' and human rights organisations face 'threats, legal harassment, excessive police force and occasionally lethal violence'. A reported incident is one in which a human rights lawyer was assaulted by police en-route to filing an official complaint regarding illegal property demolitions in Delhi. And Freedom House reports that violence against journalists by both 'state and non-state actors' remains a 'continuing problem'.

Naxalite insurgents in the Dantewada district. Demotix/JasonM. All rights reserved.

Naxalite insurgents in the Dantewada district. Demotix/JasonM. All rights reserved.

This victimisation of civil society activists rests on a framework of draconian laws that impinge upon basic civil liberties. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code empowers authorities to restrict free assembly and impose curfews whenever 'immediate prevention or speedy remedy' is deemed necessary. And repressive federal laws work alongside an “an array of state laws”. India also boasts a shameful record on censorship and freedom of expression. The failure to safeguard Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year provoked international condemnation, and more recent moves to ban Twitter for its failure to moderate insulting comments evidence the increasingly disdainful treatment of the collective in India.

Absent in the definitions of civil society outlined above is explicit acknowledgment that the primary function of civil society is to hold authority to account. Even though India enjoys a vibrant and vocal academic community, news media and third-sector organisations, the capacity for external voices to criticise and challenge the government is being slowly and irreparably limited. The ultimate cost of this contempt for civil society is the perpetuation of poor policy-making, a failure in governance and the entrenchment of already deep-rooted social problems.

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