ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Whatever Has Happened to Civil Society?

Compared to the grand revolutionary imaginaries of an earlier era, the demands of civil society campaigns in India today are practically tame, limited as they are by the boundaries of what is politically permissible and feasible. They do not demand ruptures in the system, all that they urge is that social issues be regarded as of some import and something be done about them. Perhaps campaigns for the effi cient delivery of social goods belong to a post-ideological era: an era where the State is no longer seen as the object of political contestation, but as a provider of social goods. And the citizen is seen as the consumer of agendas formed elsewhere, not as the maker of his or her own history.

The quite unwarranted furore in Parliament over a rather delightful cartoon in a school textbook sketches in fine detail the angst and the paranoia of our “august” representatives in Parliament. For more than a year now, these representatives have been at the receiving end of some choice invectives hurled by members of the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev groups, both of whom belong to what sections of the media call “the civil society”. The demands and the language in which these were uttered set off a number of alarm bells. Were these epithets not highly subversive of the dignity of our lawmakers, who are after all the embodiment of our popular sovereignty? What could these allegations amount to except high treason, if not something more?

The ever voluble Laloo Prasad Yadav cautioned that any design to target the Constitution and Parliament should be decisively thwarted. A move is on to destroy the country and parliament in the name of Lokpal, he said. They are calling us thieves and dacoits, he exclaimed unbelievingly and wrathfully. He may well have been speaking of the Maoists who want to overthrow the State, rather than of what at best can be called a civil society event. Disbelief further mounted in parliamentary circles as Ramdev, otherwise in the business of saving people’s souls, unleashed a volley of abuse on parliamentarians. What is this civil society, the said parliamentarians began to wonder. “We are all civil society”, complained Pranab Kumar Mukherjee plaintively, “no one is uncivil” (Biswas 2011).

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