What is civil society?
Why is it a source of debate and its significance?
What are New Social Movements?
What are their specific features with examples?
How do they cater to the cause of radical democracy?
What are the issues with NSMs?
Civil Society has been variously looked as a preserver of rights and liberty against an infringing State or a line of defense in curbing revolutionary sentiment from taking root among the people. There is much debate about the domain of civil society and the role that it plays in political democracy. Often, it is looked as a domain for the educated, middle class excluding the subaltern.
Civil Society further becomes a bone of contention in the Third World given its western roots. Many point to the limitation of the State that remains ‘soft’ in the developing world. But it is precisely because of its elusiveness and intractability the idea of civil society in the third world forces us to think about the social terrain behind explicit political institutions and try to explicate what happens in that essential but relatively dark analytical space.
The earliest of social movements in India could be traced to the Gandhian efforts of Sarvodaya. Gandhi recognised the need for social change. But he believed that the change has to come from the bottom to top if it has to be non-violent, successful and permanent. Since 1970s a number of social movements emphasising on a range of basic issues have come to animate the sphere of civil society. They are ‘new’ in contrast to the old trade union and working class movements, which were political in the sense of having an alternate political vision of the state itself with revolutionary ideals. Some of the important features of NSM are:
1. The distinguishing feature of these movements is that they are not homogeneous and differ in their origins. They include but also move beyond the category of class. The movements witness participation from various segments eg the Anti-Corruption movement in India with started with Anna Hazare in a small town took the national capital by storm, patidar and dalit movements in Gujarat etc.
2. A lot of these demands were a result of disillusionment with the State’s ability (especially in the Third World) to deliver on its promises and meet people’s demands. In case of India the same was witnessed in 1970’s India with huge working class movements such as the railway strike. Furthermore, they also raised voice against large corporations, huge developmental projects and large funding agencies such as the World Bank.
3. Unlike traditional social movements the new social movements are highly participative and have strong programme of actions. These movements center around specific issues and have a decided line of action such as the Chipko movement, Appiko movement, movements against WEF, Occupy Wall Street movement, anti-gun movements, etc.
4. New social movements are distinctive in so far as they work outside the traditional party system. Much of their membership and force is the reflection of people’s disappointment and frustration with and their search for alternatives to the political process, political parties and the state. The JP movement against autocratic state in the 1970’s can be seen from this lens. The Arab Spring can also be seen as an example of the same.
5. The movements are often led by middle class or members of intelligentsia such as activists, professors, priests etc that derive their bas out the deprived masses. Moreover, NSMs witness more interconnectedness across countries given the power of social and electronic media, with international social movements on issues becoming norm of the day e.g. the recent #metoo movement becoming a world wide phenomena in talking about women’s issues and exploitation.
6. The new movements have evolved an effective methodology of working with the disadvantaged sections of society which in turn has helped them to grow as an alternative agency of social change. This is a methodology of critical intervention, creative action and participatory mobilization. Another aspect of the methodology of these action groups is the measure of openness, innovative spirit and experimental strategies. The door to door campaigns of AAP, the farmers’ rally walking from Nashik to Mumbai, etc. may be seen as examples.
7. New social movements emerge around new scopes and range of politics. The environment, the rights, and role of women, health, food and nutrition, education, shelter and housing, the dispensation of justice, communications and the dissemination of information, culture and lifestyle, the achievement of peace and disarmament none of which were considered to be subject matter for politics in which ordinary people were involved, are major concerns for the new movements.
The new social movements (NSMs) are largely ‘grassroots’ and apolitical movements whose main objective is social transformation rather than state power. This is a process of depoliticization of the social realm which arose in response to urbanization, industrialization, mass education, rise of ICT etc. The new movements have to be seen as part of the democratic struggle at various levels. They are to be seen as attempts to open alternative political spaces outside the usual arenas of party and government. These movements cater the cause of radical democracy by bringing them together to counter the dominance of State. The new social movements are indicators of the pulse of the people that they are no longer ready to accept the developmental paradigms that keep them out and preclude their participation. However, unlike the Marxist revolutionary movements, these present countervailing power to state power thereby bringing together the otherwise divided humans on one platform around a single issue, mobilises them to struggle for one cause the defence of all living beings born and unborn.
While these movements have added to the cause of democracy, there are certain problems with them-
1. These movements are often hijacked by intellectual leaders depriving the affected masses a genuine voice e.g. the Naramada Bachao Andolan witnessed a rift between its activist leaders and the tribals involved.
2. These movements are also criticized for being centered around middle-class issues and excluding those on the margins. For example, during the Nirbhaya movement the issue of urban areas being centres of attention was raised.
3. These movements while seeking alternate to state power often end up loosing steam and support, over time becoming members of the same party system e.g.-Janta Party or the recent AAP.
These movements aid in participatory nature of democracy and provide a vent to people’s disappointment and frustrations. They seek to consolidate various sections of the population allowing greater interaction between the State, government and citizens along with a more people oriented policy making and analysis.