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

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An Anthology on Civil Society without Perspective

Re-Interrogating Civil Society in South Asia: Critical Perspectives from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh edited by Peter B Andersen, Rubya Mehdi and Amit Prakash, London: Routledge, 2021; pp 313 + xiii, $160.

The anthology under review is about the so-called “civil society,” including social movements in three South Asian states having a common heritage till the end of the colonial rule in 1947. Of the 15 chapters, Chapter 1 is a general introductory one on the objectives of the volume. It gives a brief historical narrative of the concept and its “new threads in the role” of the politics in South Asia (p 7). Chapter 2 narrates the policy of the East India Company in creating a civil society in the subcontinent in the 19th century. Of the remaining chapters, the geographical coverage is uneven: seven papers are on Pakistan, six on India and only one on Bangladesh. These articles cover the time period from the colonial 19th century to COVID-19 of the present time.

Civil Society

For any meaningful empirical study, one expects some operational working definition of civil society. For the editors of the volume, “civil society” includes formal and informal, funded and non-funded, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They wish to inquire about their nature and the “impact of civil society” (p 1), presumably on society and polity. These organisations vary from kin groups, ne­i­g­h­bourhood associations, hobby clubs, street corner gossip groups, caste and religious organisations, business guilds, charity service organisations, human rights organisations, and so on. Of these numerous NGOs we are not told which kind of organisations the editors wish to focus on and why.

Another objective of the enterprise is to inquire into the “impact” of these groups. However, it is not specified about what kind of impact the editors wish to examine and why. We are told that these organisations pursue all kinds of things. Some are “concerned with deeper social transformation and mobilization and advocacy for fundamental structural changes” (p 5). Some are service providers either on behalf of the state or donors.

The introductory chapter does not explain the relationship between human rights and religion-based and/or secular charity organisations. Are they complementary to each other? If so, in what ways do they complement each other? These questions are neither addressed in Chapter 1 nor in the subsequent empirical studies. At the same time, the editors do note, and rightly so, that all these NGOs (presumably the internationally or religious elite-funded service/charity organisations) play a “significant political role” (p 6) notwithstanding their claim of being apolitical. It is rightly asserted that

the self-professed apolitical role that some adopt in the guise of being service delivery organisations is itself political, in the sense that these organisations uphold the broad status quo, save the sliver services they seek to provide to a select portion of their target population. (p 6)

One would have expected the subsequent empirical studies to probe into this question. Unfortunately, it is not done.

Multifaceted Civil Society

The chapters are divided into three parts. Part one is titled “multifaceted and local civil societies.” It has four chapters. The first is based on archival documents focusing on the colonial state and its attempts in the building of civil society in the 19th-century colonial India. Some of the early officers, according to the authors, were influenced by the Scottish Orientalist perspective on ancient republican India. During that “golden” period, the officers assumed—and it seems the author concurs—that there existed all components of civil society, including rule of law, principles of justice, flourishing arts and sciences, etc. It was “a free commercial society” (p 1). On this premise, some of the colonial officers attempted to revive village panchayats but these experiments “eventually failed and were abandoned” (p 25). Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the author, James Jaffe notes, “neither British nor Indian witnesses expressed any support for village democracy” (p 28). Despite the differences of opinion, the author finds that there was a striking consensus that the panchayats were perceived as performing the “most important function” as a school for civil society (p 29). One can raise several questions about this uncritical and romantic Orientalist narrative of ancient India, conceiving of village panchayats as synonymous with civil society and its relevance to the contemporary period. Such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present review. The chapter, though interesting, hangs separately from the subsequent chapters of the volume.

The other three chapters of this section present a largely contemporary scenario about the nature of civil society in different South Asian countries, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The chapter on India begins with the 1920s mentioning about Gandhian organisati­ons. The author, Sumona Dasgupta, then makes a sweeping statement about peasant and workers movements, presumably in West Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, she moves to the 1980s with the World Bank-supported NGOs. At the same time, the author talks about old and new social movements. She refrains from analysing them as “outside the scope of the chapter” (p 42). Then she moves to the post-1990s period with people’s movement with a brief account based on media and secondary sources on the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and anti-corruption movement of 2011–12 led by Anna Hazare. The author moves to “recent trends” (p 47) in the NGO sector. At the end, she concludes that there was an “uneasy relationship between civil society, market, and the state” (p 51). This uneasy relationship is not elaborated and documented, perhaps because of the constraints of space.

The next chapter is on civil society in Pakistan beginning from 1947 to the present day. The author gives a brief account of women’s rights organisations, laws related to registration of the NGOs and its constraints. The author advocates a need for a dialogue between NGOs/INGOs (international NGOs) and the government. The next chapter, “Civil society, human rights and political antagonism in Bangladesh,” mostly focuses on the dev­elopment of NGOs in general and different political regimes since 1972. This chapter, unlike the previous ones, is analytical and empirically well-grounded. While doing so, the author, Shafqat Munir Ahmad, draws our attention to the areas of tension between the NGOs and the state. The author concludes that “the position of critical NGOs and activists in politics appears unlikely to improve in years to come as dissent and voice are neglected while political space is decreasing and civil society effectively silenced” (p 91). This is true and applies to all the three states in the present time, though in a different degree.

Case Studies of Civil Society

The second part of the volume presents seven case studies on civil society highlighting their “multiple hues and roles.” Of the seven, six studies are on Pakistan and one is on India. None is about Bangladesh. Most of the case studies are on women’s empowerment. The personal narrative of women activist Fauzia Rafique on “Women Front Pakistan” during 1974–76 is fascinating, providing a much-needed political insight into the period. Rafique provides a relevant account not only about her struggle as an activist but also about various activities of the Women Front Pakistan, its relationship with diff­erent organisations, ideology, and tactics to enlarge its scope. The second article on the women’s action forum is equally analytical and well-documented, focusing on Muslim feminist ideology. However, I wonder how the first chapter of this section, on “thieves and khojis,” though providing a rich ethnographic account of the traditional system of cattle thieves, fits with the other chapters of anthology and the subject matter of the volume on civil society. Of the other two chapters, one is on madrasas and the second is on civil society during COVID-19.

The case study on India is about an NGO that aims at empowering women in metropolises. It is an interesting case in which Anna Romanowicz herself worked in the organisation as a researcher and employee. She provides a detailed account of the top-down elaborate bureaucratic structure designed by the donors. The modus operandi of the structure was accompanied by the meticulous manual having “measurable” indicators of empowerment progress. In practice, however, the author observes that such a bureaucratic model was “far from participatory” (p 153). Such a structure serves the interests of the donors wedded to economic liberalisation and legitimises “the middle-class status of its employees by creating and reinforcing the distinction that reproduces cultural capital” (p 159).

The last part of the volume is on “civil mobilisation among ethnic and linguistic minorities” with three chapters. All are on Santhal Adivasis of India. They are about Santhal writers, the Santhali script, their rationality for empowerment, etc, to sustain their unique characteristics. They make for an interesting reading but their relevance to the theme of the volume is debatable.

The volume is a mixed bag in which most of the chapters hang separately without any common thread except from the focus on NGOs. The editors of this volume do not provide an overview of the situation of civil society in present South Asia. Though the editors have claimed that, and as the title of the book suggests, the volume lacks perspective, far from a “critical” one, on civil society.




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Updated On : 18th Jul, 2022
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