Why the elite see NGOs as a threat

With both Parliament and civil society losing their centrality, power elite see NGOs as a threat

Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashis Nandy

The idea of civil society was explicit in the works of Adam Smith and Thomas Paine in the Eighteenth century. But it was also implicit in the concept of lokadharma (as against rajadharma) and in medieval Sufism. It reappeared in public discourse as a corrective to the over-concern with the nation-state in the post-World War II politics. With the experience of Nazi Germany still vivid in public imagination, particularly the memory of the Nazis coming to power through elections, the fear of a misguided majority became a crucial strand in the culture of democracy.

The civil society is a plural and diverse entity, but the idea of civil society is not. There probably are more than half a million NGOs in India today. Many will be surprised to hear that a large majority of them are supported and indirectly controlled by the national or state governments. Others survive on foundation support, transient grants from well-meaning donors and on contracts. All of them may not be serious, but some are. That minority takes the risky and increasingly dangerous decision to engage with local populations and their problems. They are the ones who define what we now call civil society. It is a thin crust of society that represents nobody. Except perhaps those with whom they work. The trust they inspire is more a comment on the distrust of the politicians, bureaucrats and the law-and-order machinery of the state.

The new salience of civil society came due to some obvious changes. First, with the declining health of industrial capitalism, the bargaining power of trade unions began to diminish drastically and as the idea of a welfare state began to lose its shine, many forms of care-taking functions and the protection of the rights of workers began to look secondary in the new environment. The civil society did not have to concoct new causes for which to fight; the causes were waiting to be taken up by anyone with an open mind.

Second, in many Southern democracies, with the emergence of populist demagogues who could expertly use media-intensive campaigns to win elections, Parliaments too began to lose their centrality in politics. Crucial policy decisions began to be taken outside Parliament and many domains that were part of democratic politics were handed over to high-powered experts and technocrats who could now bypass normal politics, seen as a hindrance to efficient governance.

Third, as politics became less participatory, paradoxically it became more election-centred and mainly a vehicle of social mobility. Indeed, winning elections, preparing for elections and campaigning became the primary occupation of politicians. Indeed, it is doubtful if countries like India can be called democracies any more. They have become psephocracies. In the process, the citizens have been reduced to being passive spectators of politics. All that they can do is to vote periodically, see politics on the TV regularly, and write angry letters to the editor in newspapers or inane, abusive blogs to be heard or noticed.

Finally, in Afro-Asian societies, the three changes have coincided with the largescale demise of communities. Older citizens, brought up on a steady diet of statist ideologies, will not consider this a loss. But the result is: the citizens now directly face the state as individuals with no intervening structures like communities, neighbourhoods, clans, sects and castes (which have all become in their new, politicised versions mainly means of bargaining and wheeling dealing organised interests).

The growth and proliferation of the NGOs have taken place in this specific context. They are now doing in their own scattered, disorganised but determined manner what the trade unions, official human rights agencies, women’s wings of political parties, conventional science movements, government environmental agencies, formal educational and research institutes, and state-sponsored peace movements will not or cannot do.

Naturally, the established power centres and the state-sponsored institutional structure have no reason to like the NGOs. In an already unpredictable, election-based, media-driven polity, they make politics even more unpredictable. Its critics also see the civil society as threatening to take over the functions that optimistic revolutionaries expected retooled, post-revolutionary states to perform in the nineteenth century. The NGOs rush in where ponderous state machinery and international bodies dare to go. Being locally rooted and small-scale, they can be irresponsible but daring. Sometimes with good results, sometimes not.

This fear of NGOs too is not new and mainly an European legacy. The very presence of a strong contingent of civil society groups has sharpened the cleavage between democracy and freedom left to us by Nineteenth-century Western political thought. The French revolution had left behind a widespread fear of the mob and what the psychology of the mob might do to the institutions of a republic. Many began to prioritise the value of freedom, as defined by the Enlightenment, over those of participatory democracy. Democracy was good, but majoritarian politics had its dangers, their argument went. Democracy, therefore, had to be sometimes protected from itself.

In India, however, this clash between democracy and freedom has come in a different guise. At least three generations of Indian leaders were witnesses to a whole series of despotic regimes in the Southern world, speaking incessantly of the beauties of having an intermediate, preparatory stage for polities reportedly moving towards full-blown democracy. President Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines once buttonholed an Indian economist to tell how he, Marcos, had to, like a strict school teacher, guide the immature, unruly Filipinos towards democracy, for which they were not yet fit. And Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew has advanced the same thesis with much fanfare in recent years. The two had excellent company in a colourful gallery of other worthies from East and West Asia, Africa and South America—from Syngman Rhee in South Korea to the Shah of Iran, from Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic to Generals Augusto Pinochet and Ayub Khan.

Later, the hostility to the NGOs was to also come from a new commitment to the nation-state. The more the insecure, ill-governed, oppressive Southern states tried to run their authoritarian rule, the more they talked about the secret charms of the nation-state and about the threats to state sovereignty that the irresponsible NGOs posed. For these new statists, the idea of the nation-state now allowed a fuller play to ethnic and religious nationalism, xenophobia, developmental authoritarianism and militarism.

The idea of disciplining the civil society is now becoming the passion of a new generation of ambitious politicians who have run out of ideas. Talk of peace junkies, environment faddists and human rights addicts is now common not only in the high streets but also in the back alleys of power. This has serious implications for the quality of democracy in the entire region. For instance, I suspect that there also is growing public indifference towards the fate of the civil society at a moment when the state sector has been subtly trying to control and monitor a sizeable section of South Asia’s ‘under-disciplined’ civil society, particularly sections dissenting from or even acting as a check on the state.

This is dangerous. The Indian state is no longer a fragile infant that requires nurture and protection. Nor is it anymore a fully grown but sleepy giant unsure of itself. The days of the soft Indian state that Gunnar Myrdal talked about is history now. The Indian state is now capable of taking on not only its external enemies but also its own people and the Indic civilisation itself. And it is trying to do so inspired by ideologies that have little touch with the spirit of the civilization or any of the religious traditions that have thrived in this subcontinent.

It is time to shed the ambivalence towards the civil society, however uncivil or thinly representative the civil society might look at any moment. The largest player in India’s freedom movement also began as a small NGO packed with persons wearing three-piece suits and ties. If I might end with a cliché, democracy and freedom can co-survive only when freedom is not defined as the right to agree with or obey the majority. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, we are told, was deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s belief that a person more right than his neighbours was in a majority of one.

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Published: 14 Jul 2017, 12:43 PM