Remember the 2015 floods in Chennai? And how groups of citizen volunteers set up info banks, organised food packets, rescued stranded people and so on? Ordinarily too, citizen groups ensure waste segregation in households, organise beach clean-ups, or beautify pavements. Perhaps you give toys to an NGO that works with orphans. Or you know someone who teaches the Constitution in local schools.
Such volunteers and social groups are not exactly dangerous or deranged people out to wreck society, but I would forgive you if you thought so. After all, Ajit Doval, the country’s National Security Advisor, made an extraordinary statement recently claiming that civil society is “the new frontier of war”. According to Doval, civil society is being subverted to destabilise the country.
But ‘civil society’ is not a creature with horns. It is simply concerned citizens getting together to create or demand change — they could be community self-help groups or NGOs, labour unions or charities, temple, wakf or church organisations, a bunch of CAs or teachers. When nurses go on strike to demand fair wages, it’s as much ‘civil society’ in action as farmers protesting or citizens demanding that CAA be withdrawn.
Popularised in the 80s, the term basically refers to citizens who are outside the government, non-state players, those who don’t have formal administrative power but wield the most important power in a democracy — people power. If a democracy is by, of and for the people, it’s civil society that gives a face and voice to that amorphous entity called “the people”.
This voice can influence elected governments to enact good laws or change bad ones. Take Section 377, a colonial era law that classified gay sex as an “unnatural offence”. The government didn’t magically sit up one morning and decide to remove the outdated law. It took decades of concerted action by civil society groups to force the government to decriminalise gay sex. As it did for the RTI Act or the Vishakha Guidelines to be passed.
To pretend that civil society has suddenly become a fifth column out to destabilise the nation takes quite a leap of imagination. But Doval took that leap, stretching sinew and credulity. As did Chetan Bhagat in a column he wrote after the farm laws were repealed. Showing the consistency of a chameleon, Bhagat first claimed that those who opposed the laws “never applied logic”, went on to classify them as “left-wing, elite-woke-whatever”, and ended by conceding that “as far as protests are concerned, perhaps most of them were genuine as well”.
Meaning what exactly? The protests are genuine, but the protestors are “elite-woke-whatever”? I wonder how Chetan & Co would describe the massive anti-corruption protests of 2011 that ultimately brought down the Congress-led government. That too, incidentally, was led by the same ‘civil society’ that’s causing Doval such alarm today. Human rights activists, lawyers, students, NGOs, the intelligentsia — they all participated. It even led to the emergence of the Aam Admi Party which went on to later win elections. Nobody was termed ‘anti-national’ or ‘seditious’ for demanding the government’s ouster then.
Urban Naxals, anti-nationals, Khalistanis, tool-kit conspirators, jihadists — an amusing lexicon has emerged in recent years to describe civil society members, with trolls and TV channels amplifying the slurs. What’s less amusing is that such words essentially delegitimise vast swathes of citizens and criminalise voices critical of the ruling regime.
It’s a piquant situation. On the one hand, mobs that carry out the most ‘uncivil’ actions like disrupting prayers, forcibly shutting down meat shops, or engineering riots, get away scot-free. But let people assemble and stage a peaceful protest, and everything in the rulebook, from traffic laws to accusations of child neglect, is thrown at them. Gandhi said non-violent protest can be “mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man”. It’s a deep fear of this that makes governments so inimical to the idea of civil society.
There’s much the NSA could have told the graduating police officers — such as upholding the Constitution or steering clear of communalism and casteism. Instead, he warned them against the dangers of fellow citizens. Real criminals are so terribly passé these days.
Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.