The Congress party has suddenly discovered a new threat in "Civil Society" — not just to its own existence but, by hyperbolic extension typical of the party from the days of "Indira is India" mindset— to the Indian democracy and stability of the Indian state. Therefore it is busy marshalling all its resources to draw a Lakshman Rekha which defines "thus far and no further" limits for "Civil Society Organizations". For this it has succeeded in mobilizing an influential section of intellectuals by using the specious plea that "sinister" forces such as the BJP/RSS are behind the anti corruption movement, thus justifying high handed, authoritarian methods to crush the anti corruption movement. (For a critique of this smokescreen used by the Congress see Divide And Rule )
One such valiant attempt to come to the rescue of the Congress party by showing Civil Society its limits and place was made by Ashutosh Varshney (The Indian Express, June 13). Varshney begins by saying:
"The classic definition of Civil Society is that it is the organizational space between the family on the one hand and the state on the other. In this space can exist social organizations such as Lions and Rotary Clubs, festival organizations, soccer and cricket leagues, Yoga ashrams and bird watching societies - some of which can also be used politically. But trade unions and social movements, too, are part of Civil Society, and they are, more often than not, explicitly political."
In Varshney's view:
"Civil Society can agitate for a particular kind of law, and obstruct or promote its implementation, but Civil Society does not make laws. In a parliamentary democracy, the power to legislate and make laws belongs to the elected executive and legislature."
But Varshney forgets that from the time of Rajiv Gandhi, Congress governments have allowed representatives of NGOs aka CSOs more power and clout than any other coalition or political party-led government. There is not a single legislation involving women's rights, environment, forest rights, workers in the unorganised sector, Right to Education Act and welfare schemes for the poor that has not emanated from NGOs, many of whom also call themselves "new social movements". The NGOs are also the driving force in slowing down the agenda of liberalisation because most of them are part of global networks floated by western donor agencies that project India's opening to the global economy and economic reforms as quintessentially pro- rich and anti-poor. (For my critique of the anti globalisation brigade see my book Deepening Democracy: Challenges of Globalization and Governance, Oxford University Press)
History of CSOs
The term "Civil Society" has a longer history but the nomenclature "Civil Society Organisation" (CSO) is of recent vintage. For example, a Google search for a definition of the term "Civil Society", would take you to the definition and legitimacy provided by the World Bank which uses the term CSO as almost synonymous with the term NGO (Non Governmental Organisation). Though the term NGO was coined by the United Nations in 1945 to refer to bodies that are not under the direct control of the government or any political party, in India and other third world countries, the term came into popular currency in the 1970s with a larger influx of western donor agencies as well as various arms of the UN offering funds to organisations and individuals willing to adopt their "development" agenda.
Earlier the very same organizations were known as Voluntary Organizations or VOs which worked to implement the "development" agenda of donor agencies for the supposedly "under developed" third world countries. This agenda was primarily meant to depoliticise poverty by attributing it to backwardness of the people concerned who needed the help and guidance of the "developed" and intellectually "advanced" West to overcome their poverty and backwardness. This was "civilising mission" in a new garb of a neutral sounding term. The "development" agenda tried to create a deliberate amnesia about the role of Western colonialism in wrecking the economies of societies they politically subjugated for draining wealth through brutal exploitation. It was plain loot, extortion, robbery and blood-sucking that transformed educationally and culturally far advanced and prosperous societies, like India, into places of poverty and illiteracy.
The VOs were renamed NGOs at the behest of donor agencies because they could not possibly justify giving large salaries to those who claimed to do "voluntary" work in the "development sector" because the latter term has the connotation of work done as an unpaid service for society. However, in the last decade, VOs turned NGOs adopted yet another identity at the behest of their funders. This time, it was the World Bank, that took the lead in giving them their new name and claim -- Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). This way the funders could claim that those they support actually represent society at large.
The usage of this term is as inappropriate as the term "voluntary worker" for a person who draws a handsome salary. Barring a handful, most CSOs have no roots whatsoever in this society. They could not survive a month without handsome grants from western donor agencies. To be a genuine civil society organization, you need to be able to draw financial sustenance from the social groups you claim to represent. You also need to get their endorsement for the stand you take on issues affecting those groups. But the self proclaimed CSOs owe no such accountability to any social group in India. They get grants from western donor agencies largely because they tune in to the social, cultural, economic and political agendas currently adopted by the agencies. The clout of CSOs comes from the relative clout of the donor agency that supports them. These funding agencies lobby actively for their recipients to get international awards and ensure that they are included in policy making bodies of their respective countries and play an active role in framing legislation. Renana Jhabwala of SEWA once explained the dynamics of it all saying,
"Once a donor agency gives you a grant it becomes their business to promote your work as a success story. They make sure you get high visibility and entry into decision making processes."
In the last two decades, the NGOs alias CSOs supported by influential donor agencies have become an integral part of policy making consultations and law making in India.
Most of the non-government members of the all powerful National Advisory Council (NAC) have been members of influential NGOs/CSOs. Their legitimacy comes primarily from the fact that they were handpicked by Sonia Gandhi as her personal advisors. When questioned about the legitimacy of NAC, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari is on record saying:
"NAC members are constructive but Anna Hazare's team is the destructive face of CSOs."
The most influential among NGO leaders have also headed commissions set up by the government. For example, a Commission for Women Workers in the Unorganized Sector set up by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 was headed by Ela Bhatt of SEWA. In the same year, Bunker Roy of Tilonia, was made a member of the Planning Commission. Currently, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is headed by Shantha Sinha, the founder of MV Foundation, a NGO supported by leading international donor agencies. The campaign for Women's Reservation Bill has been run mainly by NGOs with deep pockets due to huge grants they receive. The powerful Ganga River Basin Authority headed by the Prime Minister has a handsome representation of CSOs. Centre for Science and Environment, one of the best endowed NGOs has been represented on every committee for drafting environment related laws. The Right to Information Act was also drafted by NGOs. The RTI movement got the high profile it did because well endowed NGOs mobilized support for it, including advocacy through the media.
All our family laws of the last two and a half decades have been amended or crafted at the behest of foreign funded NGOs -- be it the absurd anti-dowry law, the laws against Indecent Representation of Women in the Media or the anti-sati legislation. They are the only ones who have the funds to organize "consultations" in different cities, organize networks, hire PR agencies for outreach through the media, and run national and international advocacy campaigns.
Take the example of Domestic Violence Act of 2005 vintage. UNIFEM and other western foundations provided crores of rupees to the Lawyers Collective for drafting this law and running an advocacy campaign for its enactment. The ostensible mandate of such grants is that the organisation concerned justifies its claim as a CSO by actually evolving mechanisms for widespread consultations with diverse social groups. But in this case, as in all such instances, handpicked journalists, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians and likeminded NGO activists are invited for a series of meetings in different cities. Lawyers Collective assumed that NGO activists do not merely represent their own subjective views but represent all of India's people and therefore there is no need to consult and get feedback from any other social group or indigenous organisations such as caste, jati, biradari associations, village panchayats, or residents associations in urban areas. In any case, the organisers had already made up their mind that the draft they had prepared was the best possible legislation on the subject, even though a lot of its provisions are blindly copied from domestic violence laws of western countries without taking into account the specificities of the Indian family situation or its law enforcement machinery. Representatives of the Lawyers Collective and other likeminded NGOs were also included in the committee set up by the Law Ministry for giving final shape to the law. It was passed in Parliament without any serious debate simply because international agencies with political clout and deep pockets along with influential NGOs backed the law.
Since the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005, Lawyers Collective has been provided additional funds to ensure that police and IAS officers, judges and media persons are brought in to attend high powered workshops and training courses where the same NGO lectures to "sensitise" the judiciary, the police, media and bureaucracy for implementation of this and other laws enacted through their influence. Never mind that lakhs of affected families are at war with some of the provisions of domestic violence laws and the ham-handed manner of their implementation. The ideological hegemony exercised by the lobbies propagating such legislation is so entrenched that any one pointing to its flaws is dismissed as being anti-women. (For a detailed critique of DV Act and other feminist legislation see my book of essays, Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws published by SAGE, 2008).
Such is the financial clout of western funded CSOs and their ability to keep one jet-setting globally that senior IAS officers are taking leave to work for them and many have set up their own NGOs as a post retirement career option.
Some of these NGOs, especially those that worked on the RTI legislation or those providing valuable health care, educational or other needed services for marginalised and neglected sections of society, have done outstanding work and deserve to be consulted and included in the policy making process. But many of the laws invoked by our NGOs, including pious sounding laws like the Right to Education Act, are extremely draconian and arbitrary. They are causing more harm than good.
But the backing they get from powerful western donor agencies, especially if they are linked to their respective governments, ensures that politicians and police do not dare attack them the way unprotected RTI and other activists have been attacked and some even murdered. For example, a senior IAS officer concerned at the repeated violent attacks on me and other Manushi workers by political mafias and police on account of our work for street vendors once advised me: "You should attach yourself with UNDP or some other influential donor agency. No politician, no police would dare touch you then because they are afraid of campaigns let loose against them by international networks of activists."
Why then this sudden fear of and discomfort with the "Civil Society" mobilisation by Anna Hazare and his team? The annoyance and fear this group evokes is not just because some of their prescriptions are impractical. If that were the criteria, many of the laws thus far enacted at the behest of NGO's would be in the waste paper basket. They have become an irritant not because they are less "civil" but because they have tapped a much larger constituency of citizens, including the influential and articulate middle and upper middle classes in India. Most NGOs can't mobilize more than a few hundred protesters. But with the joining in of Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the scale of participation in the anti-corruption movement had shot up phenomenally. For the first time, after the JP-led movement in the 1970s the Congress party is confronting a mobilised citizenry capable of influencing its electoral fortunes.
Unlike NGOs and CSO's who have focused mainly on the sectional concerns of marginalized sections of our society - tribals, marginal farmers, landless poor, SCs slum dwellers, street children etc, the anti-corruption movement has touched a very raw nerve cutting across gender caste, community, regional and religious divides. The rich and poor, corporate sector and road side vendor are all victims of corruption and are smarting under the routine humiliation they have to suffer at the hands of government officials and politicians. Government itself appears to have become a mafia operation and political parties have become like rival gangs headed by certain families who use parties as their personal inheritable fiefdoms. The widespread criminalization of governance has triggered off deep anxieties leading to a countrywide outburst in the form of anti corruption movement.
Today, neither the BJP with its internal disarray, nor any left party is in a position to offer solid opposition to the Congress led government because their track record is no better than that of the Congress. But the anti corruption movement is capable of inflicting a serious dent into the Congress party's vote share. That is why Congressmen are panicking.
The message is clear: NGOs/CSOs, who serve the Congress party's interest, either overtly or covertly, are "constructive" and therefore welcome. Those who don't are to be treated as predators and deserve a suitable drubbing. For this loyalty test the Congress Party has set simple criteria-assurance of obsessive, aggressive and incessant BJP and Modi bashing no matter what the occasion, no matter what the issue-because the Congress party knows it can ride back to power only if voters believe BJP is even worse than the Congress.
But Congresses bosses would do well to remember that in India very few parties "win" an election. They come to power because voters want to punish and keep some other party from retaining or coming to power. By taking recourse to patently undemocratic means such as the illegal arrest of Anna Hazare and his team members or the midnight commando operation against Baba Ramdev, Congress party is ruining whatever is left of its heavily damaged credibility and actually adding strength to the anti corruption movement by bringing in even those who had some reservations regarding the over arching legislation proposed by Team Anna. This is a live example of "Vinash kaale vipreet buddhi."
Madhu Purnima Kishwar is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi and founder-editor, Manushi. A short version of this article appeared in The Times of India, August 16, 2011