The role of civil society organisations

Updated on Sep 16, 2021 05:43 PM IST

The government must treat civil society as an ally; non-governmental organisations must be transparent

Poor students from pandemic-struck homes receiving free education and meals at an NGO in Navi Mumbai. Even as NGOs must be transparent and accountable, the State must see civil society as an ally and not as an adversary. (Representational image/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Poor students from pandemic-struck homes receiving free education and meals at an NGO in Navi Mumbai. Even as NGOs must be transparent and accountable, the State must see civil society as an ally and not as an adversary. (Representational image/HT PHOTO)
ByHT Editorial

The Indian State has historically been uncomfortable with independent civil society organisations, especially those which have received foreign support and may be engaged in research and activism that does not always align with the State’s agenda or worldview. This was true during the Cold War, when accusations were hurled at organisations for being fronts of western intelligence outfits. Under the United Progressive Alliance government, contradictory impulses were at play. On the one hand, the high-powered National Advisory Council institutionalised engagement between the ruling party and civil society; on the other, the government used the draconian sedition law against activists, tightened rules of foreign funding, and expanded the home ministry’s control. This Indian State was often democratic, but also illiberal at times.

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The State-civil society dynamic changed post-2014. The new political dispensation was deeply distrustful of civil society organisations, which had raised issues of human rights, environmental safeguards, development projects-induced displacement, and democratic freedoms. Such organisations, too, were deeply distrustful of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, and the line between active political work and civil society activism got blurred. The fact that there are indeed many non-government organisations (NGOs) which have engaged in corruption, and used funds for purposes other than what was the stated mandate added to the trust deficit. The government then deployed a range of measures -- surveillance on foreign-funded activist organisations, restrictive provisions which make international grants difficult to access even for research organisations, and, the rather-too-frequent use of investigative agencies to conduct raids -- against organisations and activists that it is suspicious about because of their political worldview.

The State must do all that is necessary to ensure that all organisations that operate in India abide by the law of the land. It is also within its rights to crack down on financial impropriety. But even as NGOs must be transparent and accountable, the State must see civil society as an ally and not as an adversary. Civil society outfits often produce outstanding research, work with marginalised communities, act as a feedback loop, deepen democracy, and can constructively collaborate with the State on international platforms. Engagement, while ensuring compliance with the law, would be a far better approach than actions which can be seen as driven by political considerations.

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