Thursday, June 30, 2011

Civil society and its concerns

Civil society has been much in the news recently, thanks to the Lok Pal bill, Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and the rest. Members of the civil society have been, perhaps justifiably, taking pride in the fact that they have been successful in making their voices heard. Therefore, this seems to be a good point to discuss who actually constitutes civil society, and more importantly, who does it in effect, exclude, and how does the composition of civil society affect its concerns.

To argue this out, it is necessary to identify who is excluded from this collection. To take a few examples, the urban working class, the rural population, the middle and lower ends of the caste hierarchy, and for that matter, the political class, all clearly do not belong to the conglomerate defined above, and have an entirely different agenda. As a simple example of this, it is hard to imagine that the excluded collection would have the kind of interest in the joint entrance exam of the IIT-s that the included fraction does. After all, only about four lakh students take the entrance examination every year, out of our population of one billion plus (it's pointless even to discuss the statistical significance of the 16,000 who actually get in), however, discussions of the entrance exam, however well argued or otherwise, occupy an entirely disproportionate amount of newspaper space, as compared to the concerns of the dispossessed.

So what should civil society do? Maybe it could broaden its outlook. Its current agenda may be all right, but it is narrow, and might even turn out to be self-serving (any bets on which class of society the Lok Pal will come from, if ever we get one?). It is a pity that the agenda of the elite leaders of society is so limited. There was a time when this was not so, and the leaders of civil society looked outwards to the requirements and aspirations of the entire country, and not just to those of people like themselves. This time was before independence, when the elite spearheaded both social reforms, and political movements, and managed to carry the country with themselves. Is it a pipe dream to hope that such a time will come again?

Confession: This blog post was inspired by a recent article by P. Sainath in the Hindu. Do see the article. The Reds do occasionally get something right, especially on issues which are not of any interest to Beijing, and hence do not come with any predefined policy!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.


T C A said...

Thank you for this well argued comment about the limitations of the currently prevelent civil society discourse.
T C A Raghavan

Neelima said...

Thanks, Raghavan. It's also nice to know that you still follow As I Please.

Anil Nauriya said...

I find the statements made Anna Hazare and some of his supporters like
Kejriwal disturbing both in content and tone.
Although Hazare claims that his movement does not have a political
affiliation, it is evident from Hazare's silences and statements,
including particularly his statements on August 21, 2011, that there
is some co-ordination between him and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Hazare asserted that unless his version of the Lok Pal legislation is
accepted, the present Central Government must "go". The same day L K
Advani of the BJP demanded that the Prime Minister must resign. The
objective of the Hazare movement now seems not so much to have an
Ombudsman law as to bring the Government down.
Tellingly, Hazare and company have focused their ire on the Central
Government alone. If Hazare's intentions were as impartial as he
would like us to assume, he would have asked at least such of his
supporters as are from Gujarat, for example, to go back to that state
to agitate for the establishment of a Lok Ayukta there. It is
significant that such Members of Parliament as L K Advani, who is
elected from Gujarat, are in practice exempt from the dharnas being
organised by Hazare supporters.
Hazare is regularly and readily described in the media as a Gandhian;
yet it is on record that when Hazare was once asked about his support
for the death penalty, he had responded by indicating that his
ideological inspiration came from elsewhere and that he would like to
keep those sources of inspiration "at the forefront".
As for Kejriwal's speeches, the less said the better. But both Hazare
and Kejriwal need to be made to understand that if they insult
India's Parliament, they will deserve to lose whatever public support
the movement has received so far.
In any event, I do believe that public support to the Hazare movement
needs to be more qualified and more critical.

Anil Nauriya