Civil society and government

By battling for individual rights rather than collective self-rule, civil society is only perpetuating the strong state.


Pradeep Bhargava | February 17, 2010

A Janus-faced civil society in India has made important contributions to the state of governance and towards realisation of rights to its citizens. It has worked with people in addressing their concerns and at the same time advocated with the state attempting to reformulate the programme for radical democracy. In Roman mythology, Janus, the god of doorways, gates, and transitions, faces both forwards and backwards. Janus symbolises change and transitions: progression from the past to the future, of one condition to another, of one vision to another, and of one universe to another. He was representative of the middle ground between barbarity and civilisation, rural country and urban cities, and youth and adulthood.

Civil society, for example, interacting simultaneously with people and the state has been able to get the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in place. These are historical achievements in favour of the poor. In these attempts, however, it has failed to a very large extent to radicalise democracy. On the contrary, in its mission, this essay argues, it unintendedly established the hegemony of the state through law. Civil society are open spaces for debate relatively free from state control, but in its Janus-faced character, it wins in its mission (enactment of Acts) through debates free from state control but then surrenders. Civil society closes the doors upon itself surrendering to the Act it helped to formulate, and the state now defines boundaries of debate. Civil society loses its chance to radicalise democracy. It has this faith in the law of the land, laws that support and build a strong centralised state.

The Encarta dictionary describes the Janus-faced (two faced) as insincere or hypocritical. It is also described as “a double-dealing double agent”; “a double-faced infernal traitor and schemer”. This is not at all the case with civil society we shall pursue here. It is the mindsets of  change agents that their efforts strengthen the state but they actually fall short of radicalising democracy. This cannot and should not be taken for insincerity or hypocrisy. There are both advantages and limitations of a Janus-faced kind of working simultaneously with the people and the state.

At the time of independence, the Indian nation aspired also to develop like its  erstwhile masters. The thinkers and destiny makers wanted India to be modern like the developed and the rich world; and perceived of a strong state owning large basic industries. And for this they conceived individual rights as foremost, and to bring equality among people a policy of positive discrimination. And they conceived a centralised welfare state that would deliver services for the welfare of the individuals in the masses. This, they perhaps thought was the best alternative. And also they thought would be useful to bind a country as large and heterogeneous as India, which would then march with other rich and developed countries of the world. The erstwhile masters willed to modernise us which required a set of rules, laws and practices, and to carry forward the mission. We accepted their philosophy of modernisation, social classifications and regimentation to a great extent in the independent state.

What changed, and it did make a lot of difference, was that people elected their representatives, who would then enforce the above mentioned regimentation through the modern state. It took a queer logic of corruption that after 72 amendments in the constitution, the 73rd was to reform the service delivery mechanism of the welfare state and also to deepen regimentation through the panchayats, done with the rhetoric of decentralised governance and power to the people. The amendment recognised some collective rights, which the regimentation as has been proved in the last decade, would not allow to be implemented. The provisions remain the best examples of rhetoric — the rights of people over the forests.

In this democracy, civil society also emerged, sharing some aspirations of the people, modern in outlook, with concern for the poor, demanding change and aiming to find solutions within the spaces of the state. We shall see a couple of examples of their intervention in greater detail.

A simple demand for the worker in a relief work to be able to see what has been written against her name in the musteroll inspired a successful movement of civil society leading to the Right to Information Act. This was indeed a historic achievement. But this simple demand of the worker, if she makes one at all, has to be met through a regimented procedure and for whom moving through the regimentation entails high opportunity costs. Perhaps, it is the educated and enlightened modern class, which makes use of the Act more than the worker. With all the rhetoric of decentralised governance and power to the people, neither the Act nor the state could arrive at a simple mechanism to be transparent because that would break the myth of the strong state required to keep itself in place. Of course, the state would not like a simple mechanism, but civil society action in this case reformed the state by underlining the virtue of transparency. What could have been achieved by an administrative fiat and/or through an aware citizenry was transformed into an Act, first drafted none other than by the leaders of the movement itself. In this manner the movement subjected itself to the mentalities, rationalities and techniques of the state regimen within which the Act came to be drafted. Now that the Act is in place, the movement is struggling to get it implemented, subjecting the worker to further more regimen. And for the simple worker the Act is as much of a monster as the collector. Some day when she would be literate, aware citizen and organised, then probably she may get some respite through the Act. But it is very likely that at such a stage she may not need the Act in the first place.

In our governance methods it is not possible to be simple and straight, even at the local level, as it would break down the entire edifice which no one would risk. Is it possible for a worker to go and ask the block development officer or any such authority to demand work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme and get an immediate response to report to work 10 days later? Again this is a landmark Act in which work is perceived as a right and it is the duty of the state to provide the work demanded. But this is given as an individual right and not as a collective right to a group of people. In fact, the movement for NREGA never demanded collective right, such has been the power of the state, which makes its citizens think like the state itself. The Constitution provides for fundamentals rights for each citizen, and the state is committed to protect individual rights. Civil society adapts these as its own values, beliefs and attitudes. Such adaptation makes it subservient to the state. The distinctive feature of the NREGA is that work has to be provided on demand as matter of right, but when implementing, the governments have ensured that there be no mechanism to receive the application for work and so work would be provided as and when the government desires. The individual voices against this practice, if any, would be ignored and soon collective voices on this may be termed Naxal.

Many NGOs in the country work with what they call the rights-based approach. Again, this is a method of locating identity in the state regimen. This is a tacit approval of a relationship of the citizen and the state or even the ruled and the ruler. Civil society agitations have been for this or that right and less for self-rule of the people by the people. Whether it is the state or the NGO with whom people interact, the question asked is what will these agencies do for them. Agencies tell them to fight for their right. The movement for self-rule or direct participation in governance at the local level is largely not on the agenda of civil society.

And those who do ask spaces for local governance of their resources say those demanding self-rule as enshrined in the 73rd amendment, do not find favour with the state. It is in the nature of the state to not let loose its regimentation required for modernisation and development. The vast natural and mineral resources in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have to be used for nation building and for exports in a global economy. These cannot be subjected to tribal self-rule as enshrined in the constitution. While not violating the constitution, the state has to ensure development by usurping resources and maintain law and order, and if there is demand for self-rule that prevents use of the resources, the state for its survival has to exercise its power to prevent the same. Confrontation is certain as those demanding self-rule are not subjecting themselves to the mentalities, rationalities and techniques of the state. Those who do and walk a few miles with the state break out to come back again into the regimen with new demands which the state could meet within its regimented spaces. Those who refuse to surrender shall be battered and ripped off their citizenry for the state has to protect individual rights and for the cause of modernisation and free markets.

A section of the movement for right to food is pleading for the state to make a list of the poor based on given criteria. The state is expected to select and classify people as poor and non-poor. The state enjoys this for many reasons. It divides people, state authority is exercised and strengthened, people petition for getting included in the list. The task that ought to be left to people’s panchayat which could decide easily who goes hungry and who does not is, the movement for right to food feels, best left to the state. The state would go wrong and the movement gets an agenda to correct the wrong. The faith of civil society in people’s panchayats and collectives is albeit less because in people’s panchayat civil society agents hardly have a place, and if they do, it is in a very small region where they are active.

People get benefited by access to information and access to food and work, they at the same time subject themselves to the control of the state. Civil society helps in creating more knowledge for the state and suggests more sources of exercising power. These movements have helped in strengthening a centralised state. They address correct causes. The worker needs food, work and information. But this comes through a centralised state and is not sought to be done in multiple ways by multiple panchayats which would have diffused power.

The means are more important than the ends. The worker participating in the movements fully understood the end result — that she gets information and she gets work. She also understood that information empowers. But the historical RTI Act was incomprehensible for her. She used it as told to and also got some information, or rather some NGO did this on her behalf and that too with great effort. And the NGO/worker found that power to withhold information remained greater than power acquired by information. The processes are first to design a regimen and subsequently to struggle in the regime. Sadly, the struggle of the Janus-faced civil society is not for being in control of the regimen itself, or designing a regimen where the worker could be a part of it or be able to control it. n



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