Public Lecture on The Promises and the Limits of Civil Society

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2012-09-12 - 2012-09-12

Hotel del’ Annapurna, Durbar Marg

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Neera Chandhoke

“The Promises and the Limits of Civil Society”

3:00 pm • 12 September, 2012 (Wednesday) • Hotel del’ Annapurna, Durbar Marg

What I want to do in this presentation is to (a) chart out briefly the return of civil society to political debates in Eastern Europe, i.e., the velvet revolutions of 1989, (b) see how in the process, liberal notions of civil society came to dominate more critical Marxist theories of the sphere, (c) investigate why civil society became important for South Asian societies, (d) explore how and why the concept has been taken over or hijacked by policy makers and by global donors, (e) survey developments in civil society in the South in the recent past, most notably in the NGOisation of the space, and (f) work out the implications of these development for democracy.

The Argument

The one idea that lies at the heart of the civil society argument is that democratic states are imperfect. The project of democracy has to be realised through collective action which engages with the state, as well as society. Citizen activism, public vigilance, an informed public opinion, a free media, and associational life are necessary preconditions for this task. The space in which this activity and these engagements take place is civil society. The space of civil society provides room for a multiplicity of agents, professional associations, trade unions, chambers of commerce, film clubs, reading groups, citizen organisations, NGOs and social movements. Each of these organisations is a component of a plural, contentious, fractious and a messy, but an occasionally creative civil society.

But more importantly, civil society is a set of political values which upholds participation and accountability of the state. Whereas periodic elections are indispensable, they are not a sufficient condition for democracy. Between elections citizens have the right to intervene in the way an activity called politics is conducted through modes of direct action such as street corner meetings, demonstrations, strikes, representations and petitions. Citizens, to put the point across baldly, have the democratic right to intervene in issues crucial to public life and shape them, and they have the political competence to do so. To challenge this is to deny the basic right of citizens to participate in the making of a public and a political discourse that impacts them individually and collectively. Civil society is therefore a necessary precondition for democracy.

It is important to recognize that civil society does not admit of every form of politics; it is not a remnant of everything that does not fall within the provenance of the family, of the market, or of the state. It does not include armed struggles of the Maoists, and it does not include formations which seek to take over political power or the state.

However, a number of questions also need to asked of the civil society argument. One, do all organisations of civil society critique the state? Are all organisations democratic in terms of their constitution, decision making, perspectives, commitments, and the tasks they set for themselves? Or do some of them uphold the interests of the state and power equations in society? Two, in the aftermath of the success of democracy movements across the world in the 1980s under the banner of civil society, the concept was very quickly yoked to development agendas and appropriated by donor agencies. Resultantly, it has come to be identified almost exclusively with the third sector, the non-profit sector, the voluntary sector, or more popularly non-governmental organisations. Some NGOs have initiated innovative ways of resolving the problems of poor and impoverished people of the global south. But does the involvement of NGOS enhance the political competence of the constituency or diminish it? This is the core question.

Three, what are the limits of civil society interventions? Civil society agents cannot summon up resources that are required to emancipate citizens of the global south from poverty and deprivation. It is only the state that can do so through widening the tax net, and through monitoring the collection of revenues. Moreover, NGOs can hardly implement schemes of redistributive justice that involve transferring of resources from the better to the worse off sections of society. Above all, the non-governmental sector cannot establish and strengthen institutions that will implement policy. These tasks simply lie outside the pale of civil society activism. NGOs can lobby for and mobilise people for rights. But ultimately the realisation of these rights depends largely upon structures of governance and a responsive, accountable, and democratic state. Civil society is not a substitute for the state it is a companion concept of the democratic state.


Neera Chandhoke retired as professor of political science from Delhi University in August 2012, and is now an independent researcher and scholar. She was visiting Professor at the Centre for Ethics and Global Politics LUISS University, Rome, in 2011, and an International Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics and Political Science, in 2007. She was awarded the Shastri Indo-Canadian Fellow in 2009, Jawaharlal Nehru National Fellowship, 1997-1999, and was a Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House from 1989-1992.

Prof Chandhoke was awarded the National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award for Contributions to Political Science by the University Grants Commission in 2010, the Gaetano Mosca Chair by the University of Turin, Italy in 2010, and the Eminent Alumna Award, Lady Shriram College, University of Delhi, Delhi in 2008. She is on the editorial/advisory boards of international journals: Democratization, (University of Warwick), Journal of Development Studies (I.D.S Sussex), Contemporary Politics, (University of Hong Kong), International Encyclopaedia of Civil Society (New York, Springer), The Ethics Reference Project (On Line Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics), The European Journal of Development Research, (Journal of the European Association of Development Research).

Among her published works are Contested Secessions: Rights, Democracy, Self-Determination and Kashmir, New Delhi, Oxford University Press 2012, The Conceits of Civil Society, NewDelhi, Oxford University Press, in 2003, Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities, NewDelhi Oxford University Press in 1999, and State And Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory, New Delhi, Sage in 1995. She has edited and co-edited a number of books.

Currently, Prof Chandhoke is exploring the relationship between democracy and political violence in India. India has successfully institutionalised the main traditions of democracy: public debate, participation, representation, and accountability. Logically the institutionalisation of democracy should have pre-empted the eruption and consolidation of sustained political violence. Yet the country has been wracked by political violence for quite some time now. Apart from the violence of everyday life, the country confronts an armed, ideologically charged and highly organised movement-Maoism- which has declared war on the state. The four decade old movement is now active in about 125 districts spread over 12 states in the country. The region of mainly central India in which the Maoists operate, is appositely termed the ‘Red Corridor’. This anxiety ridden question admits of no certain answers. Even as we recognise that violence is profoundly dehumanizing and a moral bad, any evaluation of violence will have to take into account both the context and the objective of violence. And even if we conclude that violence is morally legitimate in certain cases, this particular form of doing politics might not be politically sustainable in a democratic context.

This is a public lecture and admission is free and open to all.
Seating is first-come-first-served.
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