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

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Solidarity beyond Patronage

Civility in Crisis: Democracy, Equality and the Majoritarian Challenge in India edited by Suryakant Waghmore and Hugo Gorringe, New Delhi: Routledge, 2021; pp 190, $48.95.

The book under review is an important contribution to the ongoing debate on the place of fraternity and solidarity in the course of achieving collective equality and individual liberty. Is there a case for cross-caste and cross-class dialogue and “emotional identification” in the course of challenging these very structures? Civility in Crisis: Demo­cracy, Equality and the Majoritarian Challenge in India foregro­unds the category of civility that can be variedly defined as an ensemble of trust, dignity, mutuality, politeness, tolerance, sympathy, dialogue, and public spirit. Establishing and working through these variables as normative ideals and lived practices, they are expected to undermine hierarchies, exclusions, and exploitation.

The introduction by the editors of the book, Suryakant Waghmore and Hugo Gorringe, hits the right note in making a case for the category of civility as distinct from both its colonial/orientalist and postcolonial framing. While the former equates civility to a civilising mission, the latter equates it with hegemonic discourses and instead prefers to privilege “para-legal” and what came to be recognised as “uncivil” practices of the “governed.” Civility, instead, is relocated in a non-western and communitarian context where it is imagined that

civility … is not a state … to be achieved but a dynamic political process, involving change in the social, political and moral behavior of both the dominant and marginal groups. (p 3)

It is essentially about the social content and quality of democratic institutions and the concrete process of the nature of everyday interactions between social collectives. It is about mapping democracy in its operative workings rather than institutional mechanisms, procedures, laws, and policy outcomes. It alerts us to the possibility of democracies being “externally” functional but “internally” exclusionary and majoritarian. The category of civility helps us wade beyond the smokescreen of electoral dynamics as a marker of democracy and wedges open institutionalised, routinised and normalised incivilities. In essence, it is a way of framing the interface between entrenched social power and the promise of political democracy. It is in the everyday interactions, and not just episodic events, that the workings of social power need to be mapped.


The book is a collection of eight chapters and an afterword that attempts to analyse the varied sites and methodologies to foreground the complexities involved in the workings of civility as an ideal and a means to achieve solidarity and fraternity. The chapter by Sharika Thiranagama explores how in Kerala “public culture” and “inclusive public institutions” coexist with “caste sentiments and practices.” She argues that formal associational public is simultaneously constituted by “private-publics” of gendered- and caste-based experiences that are overlooked in postcolonial literature that emphasises the fault lines between the “spiritual interior” as against the material exterior. The “official public” in Kerala is marked by anti-casteism but not dense inter-caste relations.

Rowena Robinson’s chapter focuses on the experiences of Dalit Christians

to show that the discrimination and exclusion that they face within the church and the larger community particularly in areas of social interaction and connubiality cannot be countered either by insistence merely on equality in a legal and constitutional sense or by recourse to a Christian understanding of brotherhood and fraternity. (p 41)

Christian fraternity is distinct from Ambedkar’s attempt to highlight the need for social equality and therefore trace “minorities within minorities,” where a numerically small but socially powerful minority discriminates and excludes the cultural practices of the majority.

Indrajit Roy also takes up the cudgels against both the postcolonial and the liberal framing of civility. He argues that neither the liberal approach nor the postcolonialist perspective helps us appreciate the generative role of conflict in the pursuit of democratic claims in contemporary Bihar (p 65). He argues that the vocabularies of dignity coexist with those of conflict and consent with contest making a case for the agonistic imagination as proposed by the political theorist Chantal Mouffe. Here, civility as dignity allows for conflict without violence and mobility that is dialogic in nature. The following chapter by Praskanva Sinharay analyses the politics of Dalit migrants in West Bengal. It highlights the precarious position of the Dalits who possibly have “been the worst victims of the partition.” However, in contemporary com­munal discourse a new binary demarcating the refugee from the infiltrator has emerged that disallows a possible unity between the Dalits and the Muslims. What this effectively did is to create a “faith-based citizenship” without necessarily including the Namasudra migrants and extending trust and civility to other such groups.

The chapter by Suryakant Waghmore unpacks what he refers to as “Hindu Cosmopolitanism.” Cosmopolitanism and urban life were seen as “an ideal space for practicing the ethics of alterity based on the centrality of free-flowing dialogue …” (p 95). However “Hindu cosmopolitanism” values

a degree of caste closure as an ideal ethic for urban cosmopolitanism and is partially based on the remnants of the ideology of caste hierarchy. (p 98)

Civility as cosmopolitanism in this case becomes a template to justify caste as community and discrimination as culture. The following chapter by Meena Gopal takes a close look at the interface between public mora­lity and transversal queer/feminist politics. Here, she makes the case for civility as based on dialogue and deliberative democracy. Feminist/queer politics attempt empathetic

coalitional politics with a com­mon vision of social transformation that can advance the politics of specific marginal groups. (p 123)

Here, dialogue and internal questioning become the emblem of collective agency.

The chapter by James Manor, based on an extensive ethnographic study, unpacks what goes on in the emergent inter-caste accommodations. It maps the adjustments made by both the dominant and marginal communities in order to gain “minimal civility” and avoid violence and a direct challenge by the youth to the leadership of caste associations.

Examples include arrangements for village festivals, the provision of services by various groups and distribution of benefits from government programmes. Higher castes and Dalits also interact in local panchayat politics. (p 132)

The last chapter by Amita Baviskar is a personal account of living in Delhi. It maps how construction, commerce, and trade have taken over every inch of space leading to a sense of suffocation and monotony. She observes “that new meanings can be found for older places is both a source of despair and hope” (p 155). The most interesting idea of the book is to conclude with a brief afterword by Ramesh Bairy. As a constructive interlocutor, he points to a few conceptual glitches the book does dwell into. For instance, he points to a significant issue that I wish to elaborate as my concluding critical remarks: “whether civility is a necessary characteristic of all mobilizations from the margins and by the disprivileged” (p 170).

Civility and Solidarity

The book under review is pitched as a correction against analysing the political without opening up what constitutes the social. But in the process, it seems to be limited by an analysis of the social without a reference to the political. While much of the analysis in the book is in-depth and sharp, it nevertheless fails to raise the question of the larger social, political, and historical context in which we need to frame the question of civility and fraternity today. The social is today characterised by post-patron–client relations and an aspirational political subjectivity that potentially equates demands for solidarity with an old kind of patronage system.

The conceptual question at the heart of the debate on civility is to imagine forms of solidarity beyond patronage. Debates on constitutional morality and modes of mobility had the background condition of a humongous gap in social power bet­ween a tiny elite and swathes of disempowered margins. Today, even as absolute inequalities are growing, equality is imagined as relative mobility and not in explicit terms of justice. Further, even as the clamour for equality on all counts is growing, there is a certain pragmatism that is reconciled to the permanence of power relations. There is a visible change to the calculus of pragmatics in different shades of mobilisation. All of this and many other factors that want of space disallows me from elaborating, have changed political subjectivities on the margins.

The book disappoints in not staring into the more troubling aspects of political dynamics that constrain social collectives in various ways. If civility is not the mainstay of all mobilisation on the margins and instead, it is incivility that seems to resonate with political mobilisation, then we ought to point to more difficult and awkward questions that the received categories of social sciences some­times fail to conceptualise. Just like the institutional niceties do not capture the everyday workings of social power, sanitised categories too might fail us from negotiating this labyrinth. The analysis of civility would remain incomplete without mapping its obverse phenomenon of sectarianism. As many chapters in the book note, the existence of segmented communities and public does not necessarily signify thick inter-caste and inter-religious interactions. What this does when combined with an aspirational momentum could be an aspect we witnessed with a section of Dalits and tribals being mobilised during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. It could possibility also get reflected in the spurt in intra-subaltern conflicts between the Other Backward Classes and Dalits, and more recently within various segments of the tribals in Telangana. Further, growing fragmentation of social collectives seems to be squarely linked to the rise of what the book’s title refers to as the “majoritarian challenge.”

The separation of the social from the political is foundational to the nation state and was a mode of actualising Gandhian ethics of “change without conflict.” The heft of social power of the minority was juxtaposed against the numerical majority of margins in order to gain political power. Representation was a key strategy to equalise the social gap. What we seem to have landed up with is demands for representation without a social agenda and the incivility of social power as a generic condition of politics. The micro-foundations of institutionalised incivilities are what have allowed a certain convergence between the “majoritarian challenge” and the anti-elitist rhetoric in local cultural idiom. It has made way for extra-institutional mobilisation of the disprivileged where routinised violence gets reflected in organised episodic events.

The question of civility, solidarity and fraternity constitute the essence of democracy. The book alerts us to an important dimension in the current majoritarian impasse but in framing the question in more conventional tropes it does not tell us where one ought to look if the margins do not articulate their politics within the confines of civility.

Civil rights theorist K Balagopal, in his reflections on human rights, had argued for a distinction between those mobilisations that are constructed around specific interests—caste, gender, and a distinct plain of values. Mobilisations for interests could produce new values and practices—like civility—as an offshoot. But does that belie the need to mobilise more explicitly around values? Since civility is pitched as moral behaviour, we need further analysis from such a vantage point of the margins, without presuming it is a necessary choice or condition of subalternity. How could one possibly pursue it without moralising political choices and social processes remains a complex question to tackle in future studies on civility and solidarity.




Updated On : 11th Jul, 2022
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