State in a Non-Political Space: The Society-State Interface

 Shuja Shakir

Association: Associate Professor, Political Science

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Modern state faces a prominent challenge from the society, which, stripped of its traditional avatar, has now become what is popularly known as civil society. Thanks to the globalization and spread of democratic values, Indian civil society has begun to contest the overreach of the state and the government. This paper examines the society-state interface amid the globalization and liberalization sweeping across the country. It also highlights how Indian civil society is different from its western counterpart therefore, how it would not make sense to implant western values on Indian psyche to address the indigenous socio-political problems.

Keywords: State, Society, Civil Society, Good Governance, Democracy

Full Paper

As a buffer between the might of the state and the right of the citizen, civil society has been reasserting itself all across the world. Sometime back, in an unexpected terrain of Middle East where authoritarian regimes have long held a sway, the march of civil society for individual liberties (also called as Arab Spring) has rattled the hoary potentates of the Sheikdoms across the entire region. Closer home, in 2011 huge number of candle-carrying protestors coming out to support of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade and demand Lokpal not only gave sleepless nights to the Congress-led UPA government, but also became an important reason for its downfall in 2014 parliamentary elections. In America, ‘Occupy Wall Street’, a leaderless movement launched by a cross-section of society in wake of recession to demand a better, greed-free society, gained momentum and caused the Obama government to sit up and think. Clearly, since 2011 there has been a rebirth of non-political actors’ revolution from Tel Aviv to Washington and from New Delhi to Tripoli. Dipankar Gupta says that year 2011 was unique in that it saw the death of fear of greater evil like communism, capitalism and Zionism; this also meant the end of ideology because ideologies breathe only in atmosphere of greater evil.[1]

With the issue of good governance occupying center-stage in political debates worldwide, the governments are finding themselves hard-pressed to justify their acts of omission and commission. And this is not restricted to a few dictatorial regimes as such. Even the democratically elected governments have received serious jolts for their perceived administrative insincerity and indolence. Longest surviving Communist Government in West Bengal had to pay a huge price for its flawed policies. What started off as a protest movement by artists, filmmakers, dramatists and actors against the Left government role in Nandigram, ultimately became an albatross around government’s neck and was an important factor in bringing about its fall from power.

For such obvious reasons, civil society remains most important link in the chain of good governance and an indispensable condition of a successful democracy. That said, it is necessary to extend beyond rhetoric the debate about civil society and its relation with the state and government. This is imperative in view of the fact that civil society as a category remains nebulous and elusive, and even where it has been concretized to denote a set of specific values; it is incapable of universal application due to stark divergence in the nature societies across the globe. In the west with stronger democratic tradition, civil society is largely understood as a means of rejuvenating public life, while in the East where rendezvous with democracy is still in flirtation stage, “it has come more narrowly to mean – beside political and civil liberties – simply private property rights and markets.”[2] Edwards finds it even a bigger puzzle of current socio-political discourse where understanding of the term civil society is informed by one’s preference, so much so that it has been ‘reduced to chicken soup of social science.’ Some understand it as means to expand free market and individual liberty, others see it as a challenge to authoritarian rule; some perceive it as a product of capitalism, others view it as a reaction against socialism. “Is civil society the preserve of groups predefined as democratic, modern, and ‘civil’, or is it home to all sorts of associations, including ‘uncivil’ society–like militant Islam and American militias-and traditional associations based on inherited characteristics like religion and ethnicity that are so common in Africa and Asia?”[3] That is a moot question. What are the values by which civil society is to be located? Are such values reconcilable to the structure of governance and finally to strengthening political system? For a Libyan, a means to restoring rights by the civil society might mean exterminating all living members Qaddafi family. A Taliban’s vision of good governance might be built around the idea of utter subjugation of women. And a riot victim in India might talk of communal peace as being the foremost virtue of political institutions.

Thus, no matter to what extent the civil society is understood to symbolize the collective will, its basic idea remains highly individualistic. As a symbol of collective will, it has proved to be often necessary good, securing rights for individuals and streamlining governance. However, as informed by individualistic orientation, it has also proved at times to be unnecessary evil, derailing governance and creating undesirable schisms in the society at large.

The present paper seeks to understand the complex nature of civil society as it obtains in India and delineate its relation with state and government in current socio-political context. It also tries to highlight how, Indian experience being different from Western one, it would be undesirable to implant the ideas of western culture on Indian psyche and expect the dramatic results.

Civil Society: The Western Idea

In the west, the advent of civil society may be traced back to the papal influence during 13th Century when the Church exercised near total hegemony even over secular affairs. As a reaction against the authority of Church, a loose concept of civil society developed, which stressed the separation of temporal from ecclesiastical as far laws of governance were concerned. This idea of civil society was closely related to that of secularism by which laws of state were meant to be separated from those of religion. It acquired a more definite shape in 17 century when the concept of political society that talked about individual’s rights in clear terms, became important. Writings of John Locke and Hegel constitute an important landmark in this context. Hegel maintained that a healthy civil society is a system of interdependence where “livelihood, happiness and legal status of one man is interwoven with livelihood, happiness and rights of all.”[4] Although Hegel understood the importance of producers, he was emphatic about the need of control by public authority so that there is a balance between the interests of producers and consumers. In this sense, Hegel held that civil society as a collective body cannot secure welfare for its members in the absence of public authority. Thus Hegel points to a symbiotic relationship between public authority, which is state and civil society, both being an integral part of each other. The state by regulating the affairs of civil society streamlines its welfare dimensions while civil society, in its turn, lends to state a distinct spirit of freedom.

Although Hegel was never a liberal in traditional sense of the term, his idea of civil society, minus the overbearing role of state, was compatible with liberal system to some extent. It was precisely for this reason that it did not appeal to Marx who thought that civil society represented the economic interests of bourgeoisie and “lacked ability to express universal interests common to society as a whole.”[5]

Post-Modernist and Post-Marxist Revival of Civil Society

Postmodernism as a trend “characterized by the collapse of the great ‘summarizing discourse’ and rise of local narratives”[6] revived the idea of civil society in a novel perspective. In talking about civil society both postmodernists as well as post-Marxists employ an identical parlance. The Frankfurt School theorists associated with postmodernism stress that in the contemporary world the working class is no longer a force of revolution in the capitalist society. The capitalist society is becoming increasingly complex and democracy is becoming increasingly plural. Consequently, the working class is being replaced by diverse social movements both in the developed and the developing countries. “Social conflict is no longer concentrated in privileged agents of social change”[7] but extends far beyond into the realm of common people where they take part in the decision-making outside the formal world of electoral politics. Neo-critical exposition of Habermas follows a similar line that in the modern world class conflict is replaced by broader social movements like human rights, ecology, gender equality, and so on, and these new actors transcending the class boundaries are located very much within the civil society.[8] The writings of postmodernists, post-Marxists and neo-critical theorists were evidently derisive of state and government. It was however left to Foucault and Derida to bring about a fuller deconstruction of the very idea of state. Foucault talked of micro-politics, of the societies where the power is not necessarily localized in the behemoth of sovereignty. In reality, “power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. Not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power.”[9]

Civil Society: Indian Experience

Influence of postmodernism turned out to be widespread in the echelons of Indian social science research with some even arguing that other than postmodern no approach in social science can situate the Indian socio-political realities in current times.[10] Talking of multiple traditions and cultural factors in India, Rajni Kothari feels that here local solutions are very conditions of human survival. Because of its increasing inclination towards market efficiency and profitability, Indian state is becoming elitist, undemocratic and anti-people. In this context, civil society as a collective voice of people is necessary as a take-off point for humane governance.[11] Despite the fact that Kothari’s argument sounds appealing it very difficult to apply it in the Indian context. Kothari is theorizing about the existence of an orderly homogenous civil society that certainly exists in west, but not in India where the task of ensuring inter-group and intra-group equality still remains unfulfilled. As opposed to the Indian society where social and religious institutions hinder the realization of democratic equality, the western civil society is founded on displacement of traditional identity-based institutions with those that operated on principles of social non-discrimination.[12] In India, collective identities prevail over individual rights. “Our Constitution assigns pre-eminence to the individual as a citizen, but our politicians, legislators and even judges seek to advance the claims of castes and communities in the name of social justice.”[13]

In the beginning of this paper, it was mentioned that the civil society is informed by strongly individualistic orientation. In India, such orientation has more of political than civil contours. Given the circumstances prevailing in the wake of independence, people came to expect that it was only the state that can guarantee health, education, employment, cleaner environment, create inter-group equalities and establish religious harmony. This has been confirmed by a survey conducted in 2007 which found ninety percent respondents holding government responsible for providing basic education and healthcare.[14]

All this makes Indian civil society markedly different from its western counterpart, though by no means any less important. Despite its heterogeneous nature, Indian civil society is coming of age. As the spirit of democracy gradually permeates the vast expanse of Indian hinterland, it is likely to revitalize the welfare proclivities of the civil society even as it redefines the political ambitions of the state in such a manner as to create a harmonious interface between the two for the ultimate benefit of common masses.


[1] Sunday Times, January 1, 2012

[2] Sunil Khilnani, “Civil Society, History and Possibilities,” Sudipta Kaviraj & Sunil Khilnani (ed.),

Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp.12

[3] Michael Edwards, (2005), “Civil Society”, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education,

[4] Hegel, “Philosophy of Right”, Clarendon, Oxford, 1953, pp.123

[5] Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp.81

[6] Ananta K. Giri, “Global Transformations: Postmodernity and Beyond”, Jaipur, 1998, pp. 392

[7] Laclau and Mouffe, “Post-Marxism without Apologies,” New Left Review, No. 166, 1987, p.106

[8] Jurgen Habermas, “The Theory of Communicative Action,” Vol. II, The Critique of Functionalist Reason,

London, 1989, p.82

[9] Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-

1977”, Colin Gordon (ed.), New York, Pantheon, 1980, pp. 98

[10] Arun Kumar Sharma says that modern India makes any other Sociology than Postmodern a liability.

See his “Power, Resistance and Change in India at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century: The Post-

Sociological View,” Gandhi Marg, Vol. XXIII, no. I, 2001, p.52

[11] Rajni Kothari, “State against Democracy-In Search of Humane Governance”, Ajanta Publications, 1988,

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[12] Gurpreet Mahajan, “Civil Society and Its Avatars–What Happened to Freedom and Democracy?”,

Economic & Political Weekly, May 15, 1999

[13] Andre Beteille, “Citizenship, State and Civil Society”, Economic & Political Weekly, Sept 4, 1999

[14] Globalization and the State in India, an Indicus Survey under the Ford Foundation-funded project, 2007

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