Civil society, non-state actors and the State

BJP’s rule is supported by its non-state supporters. What gets compromised in this process is the State and the institutions it created to ensure delivery of the Constitutional promises

Civil society, non-state actors and the State
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GN Devy

During the years immediately following India’s Independence, across India, in villages, towns and cities, there were individuals dedicated to constructive social work. They had set up schools for village children, public libraries, ‘mahila mandals’ or small cooperatives for milk production and farm produce, or credit societies, or rural newspapers, or workers unions.

During the last phase of the freedom struggle, such persons were normally described as ‘karyakartas’. Though the term translates into English as ‘activist’, it cannot fully describe the essence of who they were and what they did.

An activist, as we understand the term today is a person committed to her or his view on an issue and constantly trying to draw society’s attention to that view. The ‘karyakartas’ who brought India into the light of independence were not, in that sense, promoting their views. On the other hand, the term ‘freedom fighters’ used for them, though effective as a group adjective, has the risk of over-simplifying the phenomenal contribution they made to society.

That contribution was laying the foundation for a class of citizens who can mediate between the State and citizens, a class necessary in any new-born democracy. The term used for this medial class is ‘civil society’, for which an approximate translation would be ‘samajik karyakarta’. The concept is old. Aristotle had used the term ‘koinonia politike’ for such a class. It is political; however, its aspirations are not oriented towards getting into power but keeping the political authority connected with the aspirations of people.

Thus, civil society is a bridge between the state and the people, though constituted differently than people’s representatives. While the term ‘civil society’ is in use all over the world, the character of this class of citizens and expectations from it vary from country to country in accordance with the specific history of the making of this class.

In our case, the Indian civil society has come up as a product of the Freedom Movement and is, therefore, impacted by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, socialism and the spirit of the Constitution.

All major movements in post-independence India clearly carry the birth-marks of India’s civil society. The visual forms, the songs used, the style of slogans, body-movements, forms of mobilisation and the horizon of outcomes imagined by various movements—all speak loud enough of a clear relation with India’s ‘civil society’ of the 1940s-50s.

Were all freedom fighters entirely ‘civil society’ in character? The answer is in the negative. There was another sociological type too. This can be described as the ‘non-state-actors’. This phrase is used in English for a range of elements including the anti-state violent groups to non-government organisations and even the large and influential corporate. One could probably think of the British East India Company as a non-state-actor which controlled most parts of South Asia from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the armed resistance of 1857.

This is not to deny that the East India Company was recognised by the British government, but it had no accountability to the people it ruled. After the rule of the British Sovereign was imposed on British India, the states and the princes who ruled them previously lost their primacy as ‘state’ and between 1857 to 1947, they got reduced to the status of ‘non-state-actors’. Some of them supported the cause of freedom, some just remained mute spectators, a few of them detested the freedom struggle and even provided background support to the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi.

During the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, the Indian civil society had positioned itself on the forefront of the freedom struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi brought them together during the 1920s by injecting a new method and lifting up the ethical and spiritual horizons of civil society groups that had sprung up across India.

During the same decade, the RSS was founded and it consciously chose to stay away from the freedom struggle. During those three decades the RSS remained a non-state actor of one variety. After Independence, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951) was established and later the BJP (1980) was established as the party of the RSS.


A post-Independence variety of non-state actors is exemplified by violent secessionist groups and movements through the 1970s and 1980s. Another variety can be seen in the emergence of the ‘free market’ and very large corporates with enormous power to evade regulations and the control of the State. The RSS-supported BJP has an inherent affection for corporates because it does not mind reducing the State in favour of the non-state actors.

In fact, its relaxed attitude towards mob-actions—lynching, hating, trolling, moral policing, ‘violent-reactions-to-violent-actions’ – is consistent with its dependence on ‘non-state actors’ such as the RSS and the corporates. So is its attitude to those who challenge the Constitution and sing praises of the Manusmriti, those who violate established scientific disciplines and promote ideas that science does not accept.

During the early colonial times, a nonstate-actor regime was legitimised by the British State. At present, the BJP party rule is supported by its non-state supporters. However, what gets compromised in this process is the State and the institutions it created to meet people’s aspirations and guarantee delivery of the Constitutional promises. It is for the same reason that the current regime displays a scornful attitude to the civil society. The stringent restrictions on the funding of civil society organisations, laws not conducive to freedom of minority institutions, detention of rights activists under UAPA and evading answering to questions that are raised on behalf of people, all of these methods employed by the regime have dented the kind of democracy that the Constitution had conceptualised. Much arising out of that conceptualisation stands subverted or perverted today.

However, the most affected by the indirect control of the State by non-state-actors are the people of India. It is but natural that if even the media feels constrained in expressing itself with freedom, the ordinary citizen should experience the same fear even more. It is, therefore, necessary for the civil society to play its historic role with a greater focus, unity and determination and should find ways of engaging with the State more imaginatively.

New visual character, new turn of expression, new methods of conversation between people and those elements of the State that still care for the Constitution will be called for to meet the challenge. Yet, howsoever difficult the challenge, the civil society has to meet it without forgetting the history of its making.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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