In reply to a question about his views of “western civilisation”, Gandhi is said to have remarked: “It is a good idea!” The resurgence of “civil society” in the past two decades has led to similar ironic comments: “Are the rest then uncivil?” and the like. But there is a serious question that needs articulation and addressal to make the current debate meaningful. Just what is civil society, and how does classifiying it help us deal with the contentious issues we face? For, membership in the club, obviously, is not based on good behaviour. As with all terms used to classify and label, the label itself needs to be unpacked.
At this point of high-profile “civil society activism”, its definition is muddled, and with good reason. If everything outside government is civil society, then it includes the RSS and the CPI (Maoist), the Lions, Rotarians, caste-based associations, including khap panchayats, human rights organisations, campaign and academic groups, corporate social responsibility organisations, private public partnerships (PPPS) and even individual crusaders like Irom Sharmila. The list could go on. While it is true that this categorisation probably excludes state actors, it is not clear whether it includes everyone else. There is, in fact, a history to this over-generalisation.