Thursday, 20 October 2011

Does civil society automatically represent the will of the people?

by Aimee Caulfield
Civil society is a political domain in which intermediary institutions help to voice the concerns of society as well as to enrich public participation in democracies. Yet it often falls short of its promise. This essay will look at civil society in particular reference to India to decide whether or not it represents the will of the people. It will evaluate what civil society should be with what is actually happening in reality. 

Civil society can briefly be defined as the “third sector” separate from business and government. These can be NGOs such as religious groups, unions, or various citizen advocacy organisations which help to voice the concerns of the people (Civil Society International, 2011). Civil society is supposed to comprise all of society whereby everyone has equal rights and therefore needs to be regarded as a member. Following this, the state should then interact with members of civil society in their individual capacities or as members of associations (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). 

Many citizens however, are left out of civil society as they have very few rights. Partha Chatterjee (2004) in Politics of the Governed explains that civil society in India as an ideal looks good in theory yet it is rarely ever adequately practiced. Chatterjee (2004: 37) offers another term for civil society; ‘political society’. This is because not all people fit into civil society as they have limited or no political agency, thus it is more of a political domain than a civil one. Rather Chatterjee (2004: 38) sees civil society as concerning the bourgeois alongside an arena of institutions and practices inhabited by a small group of people. In offering this new term, Chatterjee (2004: 36) relies on the Foucauldian tradition of governmentality to highlight the gap between “the lofty political imaginary of popular sovereignty and the mundane administrative reality of governmentality” (Chatterjee, 2004: 36). Governmentality shows “how the modern sovereign state and the modern autonomous individual co-determine each other’s emergence” (Lemke, 2000: 3). This regime secures legitimacy through claiming to provide for the well-being of the population (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Equal citizenship means a homogenous construct of the nation yet governmentality requires extensive classifications of the population as the main targets of multiple policies thus producing a “heterogeneous construct of the social” (Chatterjee, 2004: 36). 

India is the world’s largest democracy (Beyond Books, 2011), as the people are all entitled to vote. Yet the people are not treated as equals. Many Indian inhabitants are only “tenuously and even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). In lament terms, this means that many inhabitants of India are not proper members of civil society and hence disregarded by state institutions. In this way civil society serves to marginalise the politics of the poor, a contradiction of what it initially promised. 

These inhabitants are not treated as individual citizen but rather as populations where their interests and needs are generalised, this idea is central to Chatterjee’s argument. Populations need to be looked after and controlled by various governmental agencies and this in turn creates political relationships with the state (Chatterjee: 2004: 38). This has since been normalised in modern day. However, this relationship does not adhere to the constitution in terms of what the relationship between the state and the members of civil society should be. The Indian government then justifies their corrupt tendencies on the basis that the people voted them in. Thus they use this skewed democracy as a way of attaining popular sovereignty. 

Arundhati Roy in her essay Walking with the Comrades (2010) discusses how in India the people are seen as the enemy (2010: 159). Due to heavy industrialisation, people are forcibly removed out of the forest, land that was originally declared common land. The government has signed hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding (MuOs) with major mining companies for the wealth of minerals in the forest. To attain wealth, it is believed that the indigenous people must be moved out (Roy, 2010: 2). 

Salwa Judum, a ground-clearing operation was put into effect to move people out of the forests and into roadside camps where they could be controlled and policed (Roy, 2010: 164). Thus the rural citizens of India lose their right to the city due to neo-liberal capitalist tendencies which replace economic rural development. Salwa Judum have managed to displace 60 000 people into these camps (Roy, 2010: 164). The Right to the City is taken away from its inhabitants due to a number of factors namely restriction to land and services, insecure residences, evictions based on privatization, exploitation and trafficking of workers, abusive power, deregulation of common space and urban planning all done for the interest of a few elites. It has come about due to the capitalist world that strives solely on making profits, despite what detriment it may cause to the working class. It is based on nihilism which is “the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit” (Berger, 2005: 2). This is further emphasized with the rapid growth of industrialisation through steel plants, power plants, mines and dams in India (Roy, 2010: 158). The citizenship of these inhabitants is thus taken away as they are kicked off their land and have very few rights to contravene the rule of the elites.  

Forest officials would furthermore, prevent citizens from plucking leaves, collecting firewood, ploughing their fields, grazing their cattle and from generally living. Elephants were brought in to destroy the fields and the seedlings. People would be physically assaulted and beaten. Yet the Forest Department saw this behaviour as justified because these people were “illegal people engaged in unconstitutional activity” thus they were simply trying to uphold the law (Roy, 2010: 163). The People’s War Group (PWG) was an army organised to deal with this type of behaviour from the state. After the Forest Department had attacked the people and their land, the party decided to confront the Forest Department. The party encouraged people to stand their ground and cultivate the forest land. However the Forest Department retaliated by burning down new villages that showed up in the forest. Eventually this all led to the PWG seeking revenge for years of exploitation (Roy, 2010: 163). The Maoists, a resistance movement, are a group of people on the ground who are fighting for their lives (Roy, 2010: 5). 

The Maoists and the state are old rivals as the state believes the Maoists are violent and barbaric whereas the Maoists are simply grasping at whatever comes their way to better the situation of the people (Roy, 2010: 5). The forest has brought on its own internal war, one between the parliamentary force who have the money to cover up their tracks and the ordinary people who arm themselves with traditional weapons but have the backing of the Maoist guerrilla fighting force (Roy, 2010: 157). Yet the Maoists are used as scapegoats to justify the violence. This brings in Rene Girard’s (2003) theory on violence in which he explains that the community chooses a victim or a group to carry the burden of society. In doing this “the victims of unjust violence or discrimination are called scapegoats, especially when they are blamed or punished not merely for the ‘sins’ of others... but for the tensions, conflicts, and difficulties of all kinds” (Girard, 2003: 74). The only way to cleanse the community of this crisis and thus bring about peace is through the art of scapegoating whereby an individual or group is arbitrarily chosen to carry the burden of society (Girard, 1987: 74). By blaming the Maoists for the loss of civilian lives and the general forest violence, the state is able to shift the blame. With its huge resources and ties with the media who have no “basic respect for facts” (Roy, 2010: 3), the Indian state is able to conceal the original violence and make it seem like they are in fact protecting the state. Many media houses are protected by the Hindu Right and the intelligence agencies thus concealing the truth and demolishing any little hope of freedom of the press (Roy, 2010: 3) 

An example of scapegoating the Maoists was evident on 17 July 2006 when the Salwa Judum camp at Erabor was attacked, 150 people were injured and 20 were found dead. The press then ran the story as “Maoists attacked the relief camp set up by the state government to provide shelter to the villagers who had fled from their villages because of terror unleashed by the Naxalites” (Roy, 2010: 165). The word Naxalites originates from the Naxalbari village were tribal people were uprising. Their uprising could be described as Maoist. Since then the terms Naxalite and Maoist have been used interchangeably (Roy, 2010: 157). Thus the media portrayed the Maoists as intentionally and maliciously harming the villagers, when in essence the Maoists were fighting on behalf of the people. Yet human rights organisations condemned the Maoists for their violence (Roy, 2010: 165). The state and people of influence such as Inspector-general of Bastar, T.J Longkumer said that the Maoists “only believe in violence and bloodshed” (Roy, 2010: 169). An inspector would be deemed a reliable source thus by saying such assumptions he is only propagating the scapegoat theory even more. The Maoists are demonised to be effectively used as scapegoats. Areas are deemed “Maoist-infested”, infested being the distinguishing word. It implies some sort of pest that needs to be eradicated (Roy, 2010: 158). This is further reiterated throughout the media with headlines such as “Khadedo, Maaro, Samarpan Karao (Eliminate, kill, make them surrender)” (Roy, 2010: 172). 

Civil society promises equality amongst its people yet there is a huge disparity among gender. This is not just to blame on the state but on society as a whole. Men and women are not treated equally and this has accounted for the women of KAMS, a party dedicated to fighting for women’s rights. Women are forced into arranged marriages, banished to live outside of the village whilst menstruating, and they are not allowed to sow seeds (Roy, 2010: 168), thus they are deemed submissive to men and by not being able to work and make money, it is extremely hard for women to empower themselves. The inequalities go on. They are not allowed to eat eggs, the men get the best meat, they are not allowed to climb trees and if a man hits a woman it is acceptable, but if a woman hits a man she has to pay the village a goat. Yet by the women of KAMS standing up and fighting against this unequal treatment, they are subject to violence such as rape and sexual mutilation. Furthermore a bob-cut also indicates that a woman is a Maoist, and this simple hairstyle is enough to warrant arrest (Roy, 2010: 168).

People forming part of this “civil” society organise themselves into associations and violate the law to make a life for themselves. There are a number of ways of doing this namely through squatting, illegally using water and electricity and illegally using public transport. Once again highlighting how these people’s rights to the city have been denied. The people are aware that their activities are illegal, yet they have to do this to make a “claim to a habitations and a livelihood as a matter of right” (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). Civil society is the place where people learn to be citizens, yet if inhabitants are not part of the society, they cannot subscribe to the citizenry and hence have to live outside the law. The Maoists are a prime example of how inhabitants have to live outside the law in order to survive. The marginalised community cannot establish their rights as for example how can the state improve the sewage system when the community has not been paying taxes? 

As an ideal, civil society continues to “energize an interventionist political project, but as an actual form it is demographically limited” (Chatterjee, 2004: 39). It is demographically limited as the untouchables; the people who are allowed to vote yet have no rights and no voice, do not share in the prosperity of democratic governance in that their concerns are not deemed valuable. Civil society instead highlights the split between the organized elite domain and the unorganised subaltern domain (Chatterjee, 2004: 39). In India the peasants have come together to defy the state and their lack of rights by resisting forced removal and resorting to violence as a means of getting their concerns heard. Their collective actions are in this way political, only it is a different kind of political to the state’s political (Chatterjee, 2004: 39). This can be likened to Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack-dwellers movement (Abahlali, 2011). They choose not to vote as the government thus far has not provided for their needs. This collective action of declining to vote is political too in that the poor people are taking a stand against the government as they are not satisfied with the current housing situation in South Africa. Similarly the Indian people have also taken matters into their own hands, yet the elites of India believe that politics has been taken over by criminals and mobs (Chatterjee, 2004: 47). Meanwhile they are simply subaltern subjects trying to become national citizens (Chatterjee, 2004: 51). The dominance of governmental performance emphasizes protection of populations and welfare. This has aided mutual recognition between population groups and state agencies in that government is in fact obliged to give benefits to people, even those who are not part of civil society or the body of true citizens. If the state is unable to carry through with these benefits, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) step in (Chatterjee, 2004: 48). Critics such as Arundhati Roy (2010: 4) however believe that NGOs can be likened to the missionaries during the colonial period, with the state being the colonisers. She believes that the worse the situation, the more NGOs appear and subsequently do very little to change the situation. 

India is democratic in the sense that the people have a right to vote and thus can determine who leads them. However critics have questioned democratic civil society as Chatterjee (2004) has highlighted that marginalised population groups have struggled to make their claims for governmental care as many of their interests and demands are ignored. India is a prime example of the link between civilisation and the pursuit of progress (Roy: 2010: 2). This is the underside of modernity in that India is seen to be a democratic country that is progressing every day. The world is “gooey-eyed about India’s economic miracle” even though every day hundreds of bodies are taken out of the forest (Roy, 2010: 3), thus the people are dying for this modernity. There are extremely poor primitive societies living right next door to expanding modern ones (Roy, 2010: 5). In the pursuit of progress countries will “visit genocide either on its own people or on another people whose country must be plundered for resources to feed the Progress Industry” (Roy, 2010: 2). In India this has not taken the form of genocide, rather it has taken the form of ecocide, a process where landscapes are devastated and the populations that live there either starve or turn on each other in a bid to survive. The population lives on half a dollar a day and suicide is a common occurrence for debt-ridden farmers. Thus India is colonizing and destroying itself. Imperialism still exists only this time it “wears a different ball gown” (Roy, 2010: 3). 

Civil society in India includes a small percentage of elites who blatantly disregard the needs of the people. They deny their right to the forest and its resources. Many human rights such as freedom of speech, equality amongst genders and the right to housing and education have all been conveniently overlooked. Democracy itself as the “fair and equal treatment of everyone” (Oxford, 2005: 389) has been disregarded. The Maoists may be extreme but it is an option, one in which people may attempt to fight for their rights. As Arundhati Roy (2010: 8) puts the solution simply: “every people, every society, needs a culture of resistance, a culture of being difficult and disobedient, that is the only way they will ever be able to stand up to the inevitable abuse of power by whoever runs the state apparatus, the capitalists, the communists, the socialists, the Gandhians, whoever”.
Works Cited

Abahlali baseMjondolo., 2011, Welcome to the Abahlali baseMjondolo Website,

Berger, John., 2005, That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls: 1 – 6.
Beyond Books., 2011, 3p India: The World’s Largest Democracy

Chatterjee, Partha., 2004, Populations and Political Society, Permanent Black, India: New Delhi.

Civil Society International., 2011, What is Civil Society?,

Girard, Rene, 2003, The Girard Reader. A Crossword Herder Book. The Crossword Publishing Company, New York. 
Lemke, Thomas., 2000, Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique, Rethinking Marxism Conference, University of Amherst.
Oxford, Advanced Learners Dictionary., 2005, International Student’s Edition. Oxford University Press. 
Roy, Arundhati., 2010, Interview with Arundhati Roy: “NGOs are contemporary Trojan Horses” (Kaya Genc), Turkey: Mesele

Roy, Arundhati., 2010, Walking with the Comrades, Outlook India.