State and civil society

CIVIL SOCIETY AND DEMOCRACY — A Reader: Carolyn M. Elliott — Editor; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 695.

THIS IS a compilation of 18 essays on the theme of civil society and democracy with an excellent overview by the editor. The selection includes papers presented at a conference on Voluntary Action and Civil Society convened by the Indo-American Centre for International Studies in Hyderabad.

The conference posed two questions: Firstly, whether a concept first articulated in the Western tradition of political philosophy had relevance to India? Secondly, what is the relationship between civil society and state in India?

Though the concept of civil society got popular attention only in the context of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1970s, it goes back as far as John Locke and Montesquieu, both of whom were looking for ways to combat absolutism in their respective countries.

Alexis de Tocqueville drew attention to the role of "intermediary associations" in curbing state power. Hegel who practically worshipped the state had a notion of civil society as egoist, selfish and fragmented. Marx and Gramsci reversed Hegel's celebration of the state.

Currently, civil society denotes the space between the family and the state where people associate themselves across ties of kinship, aside from the market, and independent of the state.

Thus, the FICCI is not part of civil society, but the Deccan Educational Society is. But, the definition given above is not that trouble-free. What about a mafia organisation? It does cut across ties of kinship, and it is independent of the state. How about the RSS? It claims to be a cultural organisation, but everybody knows that its interests and intentions go much beyond culture.

Such questions have been discussed with sensitivity, though at times the scholar refrains from giving a definitive answer. The implication is that it is necessary to inject a certain ethical element into the definition of civil society associations.

In a brief review, it is not possible to do full justice to the richness of the volume and to refer to all the contributors. In the essay "The Coffee House and the Ashram", Susanne Hoeber Rundolph and Lloyd I. Rundolph remind us that 24 hours before he was assassinated Gandhiji had proposed to the Indian National Congress that it disband itself and form a social service organisation, Lok Sevak Sangh.

He was a talented and tireless creator of civil society. He spawned activist networks all his life, wherever he went. "His ashrams were the organising centres of social movements, sending out hundreds of volunteers who in turn generated micro-associations dedicated to social and economic reform at the village level."

State power, he believed, is fragile as it depends essentially on the cooperation of the people. The Rudolphs point out that Hannah Arendt who approached the same question from a non-Gandhian angle also comes to the same conclusion. "When we say of somebody that he is `in power', we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with (potestas in populo, without a people or group there is no power) disappears, `his power' also vanishes."

The essay "Social capital, Civil society, and Degree of Democracy in India", by Hans Blomkvist, from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, tells us of the Agora Project, begun in 1995, as a collaboration between his university and three others, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesberg, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Utkal University, Bhubaneshwar.

Under the project, they studied the five Indian States, Kerala, Gujarat, West Bengal, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh, with a combined population of 390 million. The study concludes that Kerala and Gujarat are high in social capital whereas West Bengal, Orissa, and Utter Pradesh are low. In terms of government responsiveness, Kerala comes on top with a score 52 followed by Gujarat and West Bengal at 47, Orissa (28) and Uttar Pradesh (23).

Ashutosh Varshney, Professor, University of Michigan in his contribution "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society" poses important questions: Does civic engagement between different ethnic communities also serve to contain ethnic conflict? Does intra-ethnic engagement differ from inter-ethnic engagement from the perspective of ethnic conflict?

He argues that there is an integral link between the structure of civil life in a multi-ethnic society, on the one hand, and the presence and absence of ethnic violence, on the other. He selects three ethnic-violence-prone cities and contrasts them with three other cities, less prone to such violence: Aligarh-Calicut, Hyderabad-Lucknow, and Ahmedabad-Surat. Each of the paired cities has a roughly similar ethnic demographic structure.

The question is: How to explain the fact that there have been more instances of violence in one city as compared to the other in the pair? His conclusion is that the greater civil society involvement across the ethnic divide in one set of cities provides the explanation.

This reviewer recommends this book to all those who are interested in knowing more about the role of civil society and its interface with democracy. As far as India is considered, the publication is timely.


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