Exploring Evolution Of Civil Society Space In Postcolonial India: Key Actors And Factors – Analysis


It is difficult to imagine a conceptual landscape in which civil society can be easily grasped or simplified. However, our inquiries begin by acknowledging the immense transformational capacity that exists in civil society as an ideal as well as a group of actors. Civil society (inclusive of every actor/player) is in a position to achieve the goal of effective assistance and impact potentially more people than any one government can hope to in their terms. The civil society space is transnational and can set up models for other civil society actors or even governments to follow.

Civil society organisations( CSOs) in India began with the advent of philanthropic activities by the elites, and economic elites, began to fund and give major capital for philanthropic reasons. This was the first phase of civil society in India, the period of Nehru(1947-64) followed by the Indira Gandhi years (1967-77) in which a mass-based civil society is said to have emerged. The third phase can broadly be characterised by the professionalisation of the NGO sector in India that is, followed by the more recent and not necessarily a phase perse until now but the space of rise in voluntary organisations without funding. There are two major actors which help us in sub-classifying the CSOs, the NGO sector dependent on funding and external funding of individuals and the non-paid voluntary sector. 

The first phase was characterised by private interests which is reflected a bit throughout every CSO even to this day as we see multi-billionaires owning ned-media houses and every social media website is under the control of two to three people. The first phase, we see the establishment of the IIMs and educational institutes funded by major CSOs like the Ford Foundation, India. This is followed by the development of the second phase under Indira Gandhi as this was the first time that the entire charisma of the INC being the reason why India was freed started to fade away and governmental excesses peaking at the emergency come into light. This caused the creation of multiple CSOs. The CSOs were mostly created for monitoring the government and for social causes like helping out the poor.

This phase also marked the rise of environmental concerns in the Indian CSO space most notably the ‘Chipkoo’ Movement in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand, 1973. The public interest litigation process starts around the same time too, which expands the scope of work and the potential resource requirement of CSOs in the country. This is where we see the NGO Sector becoming a professional segment of civil society which was usually characterised by the movement before the economic interests of individuals which was not the case anymore after this.

There are a great many actors in the civil society sector, many come up because of government excesses, whereas many come up because of the government lacking. The CSOs are an integral part of liberal democracy as it usually a very good counter to governments and help in calling for an open space in any country. CSOs also help individuals in a country become more educated and aware of their surroundings politically. It helps us become more responsible and question when required as it helps in great social mobilisation. Case in point the Arab Springs or even the Narmada ‘bachao Andolan’ which had happened more locally in India across states but again gained international attention.

There are also two sides of the CSO debate where the voluntary unpaid segment blames the NGO paid structure to be devoid of any moral ethics as they were dependent on their funders however this is a very elitist perspective too on many things despite the statements being true. They also blame the NGO sector for not being able to help or create any form of social mobilisation when required and have a very passive role in such movements. Having said this, the NGO sector activists have often retorted by pointing out that they can create and help in more effective outcomes because of their resources.  

The civil society sector in India currently is faced with the problems of the FCRA as the government is trying to shut down civil society organisations essentially by either blocking off their funding or making the process excessively difficult. FCRA may readily be violated by exaggerating expenses; nonetheless, it does not alleviate any of the problems it tries to address. The government is correct to raise alarm about organisations receiving foreign funding to encourage violence; nevertheless, in a global south nation, daily citizen concerns differ greatly from those in the global north.

One troubling aspect of the FCRA is its contempt for ordinary citizens or the Indian CSO community, as it perceives them to lack the basic mental faculty to be able to distinguish fact from folly. This is the result of a constant power struggle, in-between the state and CSOs. This is ironic as it is almost impossible in my view which is in accordance with Paul Hirst’s on the state-CSO relationship for civil society space to exist in India without the state creating the necessary conditions for the same. This, however, creates a parallel as the state facilitating this space essentially means that the state is committing political hara-kiri as it would imply that the state would be under fire more often and scrutinised much more. This scrutiny would not just come from the hands of a necessarily domestic organisation but even an international one, Greenpeace, India, or Amnesty International. This opens up the state to the possibility to face massive protests as was the case in the 2006 Dalit protests in Maharashtra.

Anuraj Singh has his formal training in Political Science and has a specialization in Foreign policy and economics. He has an interest in climate justice and the north-south divide


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