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A historical anomaly explains the Indian State resisting civil society. Sheo Narayan Singh writes.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2011 23:56 IST
Sheo Narayan Singh
Sheo Narayan Singh
Hindustan Times

The term 'civil society' is being freely used these days in connection with the 'lokpal' discourse. We need to go back to the term as used by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who first used it in his seminal work Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci's 'civil society' comprises all 'private' organisations, which are distinct from processes of production and from public apparati of the State. Juxtaposing that in the context of contemporary India, civil society can be construed as a group of the 'dominant classes' of society. In case of advanced capitalist societies where civil society is highly developed, it works as a powerful system of "fortresses and earthworks" standing behind the State. In developing societies, where civil society is a fraction of an entire society, the State seeks its protective armour directly from the masses. We are witnessing this scenario in India today, where civil society is agitating against the State, and the State is expressing its legitimacy from "the masses" directly.

Historically, the 'State' was formed long after socio-economic and consequent cultural transformations took place in European societies. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and accelerated by the French Revolution of 1789, Europe's medieval feudal social structure was broken down completely by new industrial and urbanising economies. The result was the fundamental structural transformation of these societies. Feudal society gave way to class-divided society, with leadership in the hands of the upper-classes.

However, it took 200 years for the modern Nation-State to come into its own by end-19th century. The State, the market and the media developed as a super-structure, being drawn basically from modern civil society with the State becoming its overseer. Karl Marx aptly described the State as the 'executive committee' of the bourgeoisie.

Examined in this historical background of State-civil society relations, we find that the situation in India is the opposite. Colonisation handicapped our social transformation in the modern era. Our medieval feudal social structure could not undergo a fundamental structural transformation as the colonial State was simply interested in extracting and exploiting our material wealth. The colonial State was a superimposition on the indigenous feudal social structure. In other words, the Indian State did not emerge out of Indian civil society.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, our political leadership fighting the freedom struggle against the British empire emerged directly from the support of the masses. We hardly had any civil society during this period. After Independence, the Nation-State took charge of developing the impoverished Indian society. Sociologist Hamza Alwi has aptly described the State-society relations at this juncture as "overdeveloped State and underdeveloped society".

The 'underdeveloped' society needed the patronage of the State at the time of independence for its development. The State, thus, invested in infrastructure, industrialisation, urbanisation, poverty eradication, health, education, and culture, thereby developing society. Sixty years of economic transformation later, we have an emerging civil society -- a society of the dominant classes. Which is where the crux of the problem played out between the State and civil society over the lokpal discourse lies. The State is emphasising its popular mandate from the masses derived from being elected in a participative and representative Parliamentary democracy. Civil society, on its part, is positioning itself as a vehicle of public opinion against corruption.

In my view, civil society organisations need to expand their reach by engaging with the masses to be the true bearer of public opinion vis-à-vis a popular mandate. Once privileged civil society organisations come forward and set examples, the intellectual and moral leadership - currently resisting them and so loyal to the State -- will come automatically to them. And then the State will listen and change, as it always should.

Sheo Narayan Singh is the Commissioner of Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax, New Delhi.The views expressed by the author are personal.

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