The future of India’s civil society organisations

In the prevailing political climate, civil society organisations need to collaborate with other progressive stakeholders in order to move forward

Updated - April 19, 2023 11:19 am IST

Published - April 19, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘While most civil society actors are aware of the existential threat they face, they have not displayed nimbleness in reorienting their normative and operational methodologies’

‘While most civil society actors are aware of the existential threat they face, they have not displayed nimbleness in reorienting their normative and operational methodologies’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s systematic suffocation of civil society over the last nine years has ensured that most governments no longer listen to civil society organisations (CSO) or movements, either in the pre-legislative stage or in the redress of lacunae in the implementation of government schemes. Given that advocacy is effectively dead, the ability of civil society to shape policy and public discourse has shrunk drastically. Because civil society is seen to be the new frontier for war and foreign interference, there has been a systematic clampdown on CSOs lobbying for greater constitutional and civic freedoms. Therefore, activists, journalists, academics and students have been targeted by a plethora of the state’s governing instruments and non-state actors (who have resorted to violence and abuse, online and offline). This has been further exacerbated by restricting the access of CSOs to resources (including cancelling Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act clearances, revoking 12A/80-G licences, imposing retrospective taxes, and pressuring private companies and philanthropists to redirect funding).

Because the BJP government has re-conceptualised vikas (development) as the furtherance of large projects, rather than citizen’s well-being, civil society is being vilified as disruptive to India’s development trajectory — and therefore anti-national. This portends a grave threat to the system’s integrity because civil society is an indispensable safety valve for tensions in a polity.

A drastic structural adjustment

All this has been coupled with the BJP spearheading a structural adjustment of India’s civil society landscape. By positioning many institutions from the Sangh Parivar, the BJP is fostering a ‘New Civil Society for New India’. Apart from being the primary recipient of government patronage, the Sangh’s CSOs are also the principal beneficiary of Corporate Social Responsibility funds (whether this is as quid pro quo for clearances/licences/exemptions by BJP governments, or through blatant coercion is anybody’s guess). Moreover, these Sangh institutions have access to and influence over select departments in State governments (primarily education, culture, personnel as well as Dalit and Adivasi welfare). Apart from the profound programmatic implications this has (activities related to the welfare of women, Dalits, Adivasis, students, human rights and freedoms are increasingly shaped by the Sangh’s ideological imperatives), this has also altered the civil society landscape in India. All other CSOs/movements are slowly being circumscribed as a result of the financial and political clout the Sangh’s CSOs can muster. That this endeavour has not fully succeeded so far is testament to the legitimacy that India’s CSOs/movements still enjoy among Indians. However, while most civil society actors are aware of the existential threat they face, they have not displayed nimbleness in reorienting their normative and operational methodologies. They still cling to outdated tactics whose overall utility is fast diminishing. Sanctioned, and therefore sanitised, protests at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Townhall in Bengaluru or Azad Maidan in Mumbai are undoubtedly cathartic to the constituency that activists influence, and keep the flock together. But they do nothing to shape the thinking or action of BJP governments. Similarly, articles/papers, speeches at think tanks/conferences/symposiums, and petitions/open letters do not shame governments into any substantive course correction. Even lobbying legislators to raise issues is ineffective — the Union government either does not let Parliament function or ignores uncomfortable issues.

Additionally, progressive CSOs fail to blend socio-cultural values with welfare/constructive work or calls to protect constitutional values. Consequently, they are unable to reshape hearts and minds, and thereby guide mass consciousness. Given that vast sections of society have been radicalised (highlighted in a 2017 study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung), this is a major shortcoming of progressive civil society. Anecdotal evidence from various States suggests that local communities instrumentally secure benefits from progressive CSOs/movements, but ideologically align with the BJP. This dichotomy has resulted in psychological fatigue among key activists, who naturally question the foundational rationale of their work.

A realignment is needed

This situation is untenable for various reasons. First, because of the financial and structural constraints imposed on them, CSOs/movements are bleeding conscientious youngsters, who naturally need some financial sustenance. Second, without sustained support, CSOs cannot positively mould public discourse or make a tangible impact on the nation at large. And third, with governments consciously avoiding CSOs/movements, their ability to shape policy is diminished (which adversely impacts organisational morale). It seems unlikely that the BJP government would take any steps to redress these problems. So, what is the way forward for progressive civil society in India?

Faced with a drastically reduced spectrum of options, some progressives will migrate to safer avenues; others may limit the scope of their work, and still others may even re-align with the BJP. The net result is that civil society will be unable to speak truth to power, amplify the voices of the most vulnerable, enrich policies/legislation through constructive feedback, or further the collective good. This is obviously not in the peoples’ or the national interest. We need to collectively forge a plan of action for this sector’s future.

The one possibility that could emerge is that young activists could be inducted into political parties, either within the party organisation or in an aligned body. This could create an institutionalised moral force within the parties (which could balance electoral compulsions with ethical/human rights considerations). This would afford parties a layered systemic approach to thorny issues.

Currently, many parties consciously avoid direct exposure to difficult issues that could adversely impact them electorally (a real concern because of the ability of the powers that be to manufacture false narratives). This includes communal disturbances, atrocities against Dalits and women, championing the rights of activists fighting for Adivasi rights or civic and political freedoms. In stark contrast, if an aligned civil society organisation took up such issues (both within and outside the party organisations), it would ensure that a party remains connected to genuine community problems, while allowing for a permeable wall of separation. There is a precedent to this, when the Congress Movement (the Gandhian constructive movement) complemented the Congress system (which has always been an electoral and governance machine).

Given the prevailing political climate, CSOs will need to urgently collaborate with other progressive stakeholders (for which they will need to shed their studied aversion to each other and political parties). Some civil society stakeholders would argue against this, either because they can continue raising funds and attracting global attention when harassed. But those isolated examples do not address the systemic corrosion that the sector faces today. In fact, in the near future, the BJP could well resort to using the continued existence of these ‘celebrity’ activists as proof of their tolerance towards civil society in general. We need to find structural solutions to structural problems. This is our historic responsibility.

In that spirit, private philanthropies and companies need to realise that they are the only lifeline for progressive CSOs today. Yes, it is infinitely easier to support organisations that work on ‘soft’ issues that may not invite the wrath of the powers that be. It is even easier to look the other way. But inaction today will directly contribute to the extinction of civil society, arguably the fifth pillar of Indian democracy. Transcending instrumental exigencies, conscientious Indians must find the courage to work together and silently devise new methods of collaboration. Only through such a principled coalition can we first safeguard, and eventually further, the constitutional idea of India.

Pushparaj Deshpande is the Director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, a multi-party platform that furthers India’s constitutional promise. He is also the series editor of the ‘Rethinking India’ series

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