The concept of civil society is normative, insofar as it specifies that associational life in a metaphorical space between the market based on profit, and the state that embodies power, is a distinct good. (Illustration: (R Sasikumar)
Leaders of the BJP claim that the Citizenship Amendment Act does not take away citizenship from any Indian, therefore, the protests across the country are ill-informed and misplaced. We cannot believe that consummate politicians are unable to grasp the demands of thousands of students and citizens who march and demonstrate against government policies. Their message, blazoned on posters, and articulated in innovative language, creative songs, art and graffiti is unequivocal: We the people of India, will not tolerate the fusion of religious identity and citizenship, will not sanction dilution of secularism and equality, will not accept irresponsible amendments to the Constitution, and will not endure vicious attempts to divide us.
Witness the political miracle. The terms of engagement between the government and the people have been transformed. In the past five and a half years, the BJP government has refused to tolerate criticism. Today our young people hammer home the fact that they will not tolerate any policy that violates the democratic and secular ethos of the nation. Students now instruct rulers — do not tamper with constitutional principles that were forged in the heat of the freedom struggle. This is our inheritance, and this is our culture.
The substantial movement in support of constitutional supremacy and morality trumps arguments put forth by BJP spokespersons; that the CAA, the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register are part of their manifesto. Manifestos do not override the Constitution. The message is unambiguous and clear. But, BJP leaders, intoxicated with the results of the May 2019 general election, simply do not register that a majority of the electorate did not vote for the NDA. Nor do they recognise the significance of the political moment. In mid-December, thousands of university students rose in protest. They seem to be unfamiliar with the recent history of mobilisation by civil society that has shaken power and dismantled states.
The concept of civil society is normative, insofar as it specifies that associational life in a metaphorical space between the market based on profit, and the state that embodies power, is a distinct good. Associational life neutralises the individualism, the atomism, and the anomie of modern life. Social associations enable the pursuit of multiple projects and engender solidarity. The projects can range from developing awareness about climate change, to discussing and dissecting popular culture, supporting needy children, organising neighbourhood activities, and safeguarding human rights. Above all, the concept recognises that even democratic states are imperfect. Democracy has to be realised through sustained engagement with the holders of power. Citizen activism, public vigilance, informed public opinion, a free media, and a multiplicity of social associations are indispensable for this task.
It is, however, the minimal avatar of civil society — that of mobilisation against authoritarian regimes — that has proved politically effective since the last decades of the 20th century. This concept has motivated thousands of people across the globe to stand up and speak back to a history, not of their making. In the first decade of the 21st century, from Nepal to Libya, huge crowds, driven by a distinctly anti-authoritarian mood, assembled and agitated in public spaces to demand an end to monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. The mobilisation of civil societies against undemocratic governments again, after 1989 and the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe, demonstrated the competence of the political public to command an activity called politics. Notably, the objective of civil society is not to takeover the state. That is left to political parties. Vibrant civil societies are born out of complete disenchantment with the party system. They are, and remain, the public conscience of society. Little wonder that powerful states have collapsed like the proverbial house of cards before street assemblies and demonstrations.
In 2006 in Nepal, a massive anti-monarchy movement developed into a pro-democracy movement and brought an end to rulers who had claimed the divine right to rule, motivating Maoists to lay aside their weapons and take part in elections to a constituent assembly — catapulting the transition of the Nepali people from subject to citizen. For two years, 2007 and 2008, a pro-democracy movement led by lawyers shook up Pakistan, then under military rule. The movement forced the military government under General Pervez Musharraf to its knees, and heralded, once again, the return of electoral democracy to the country.
The most spectacular assertions of civil society occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, and other countries in West Asia from December 2010 onwards. Protests that coalesced into the “Arab Spring” were sparked off when on December 17, 2010, a 26-year old vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire before a government building in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He committed self-immolation in protest against the public humiliation heaped on him by a police officer. The act sparked off major protests across the country, and resulted in demands that President Zina El Abidina resign. A month later the president fled the country.
Some countries that were rocked by protests were under military regimes, others under individual despots. The inhabitants of these societies had been denied basic civil liberties such as freedom of expression and right to association. Yet a defiant citizenry came together in public places to protest against the harm caused by the abuse of authority — from upping bus fares in Brazil, to the denial of rights in Egypt. Protesters identified perpetrators of injustice and insisted on retributive and remedial justice. What had been thought of as unthinkable and improbable had been translated into the probable and the achievable. A number of successful autocrats were forced to demit office — Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.
Since June 2019, Hong Kong has been rocked by a movement that has brought together huge numbers of people. The movement initially came together as a protest against the government proposal that suspected criminals would be extradited to mainland China. It has developed into a major pro-democracy movement inspired by deep-rooted antipathy against authoritarian rule. Protests continue to escalate in the island in the face of police brutality, repression and crackdowns.
We do not need to worry about who should lead civil society mobilisation in India. Nor should we worry about where it is heading. It is enough that citizens have gathered in public spaces to fight a government increasingly seen as authoritarian and divisive. Moreover, civil societies eschew organisation, leadership and goals. Organisation leads to bureaucratisation, leaders rapidly become tyrants, and no one agent is capable of defining what the goals of a complex society should be. The task of civil society is not to wage a revolutionary war. Its task is to awaken people to the fact that they have a right to hold governments responsible for acts of omission and commission. When it takes on authoritarian states, the strength of civil society is its spontaneity and collective mobilisation. Its weapon is the Constitution; its demand is respect for constitutional morality. Finally, civil society is not an institution; it is a space, the site for many projects that restore democracy. This is India’s civil society moment. It needs to be celebrated.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2020 under the title “India’s civil society moment”
The writer is a former professor of political science, Delhi University