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Is Civil Society In India Urban-Centric?

The use of phrase ‘civil society’ became quite popular during Anna Hazare led movement against corruption. Until then this phrase was non existent in public discourse.

Mainstream media then started assessing the nature of civil society institutions that were involved in this popular agitation. Many branded this movement as middle-class phenomena; urban centric; driven by internet and educated urban youth.

The whole movement led by Anna Hazare was branded as civil society movement. As agitations were limited to urban centres, the perception about civil societies was that of urban-centric and middle-class phenomena.

This perception created by mainstream media is a best example how public opinion can be moulded by TV debates.

Civil society is a group of people who organize themselves to protect common interests and demand certain rights from state whenever necessary. They are basically distinct from the state which wields power and controls almost every sphere of life of a common man.

These civil society groups can be any organization that is managed by common citizens and not funded by the state.

In India, at present civil society reminds us of either Anna Hazare and his erstwhile group, or NGOs headed by Aruna Roy or Medha Patkar. It is because they are frequently visible in the mainstream media.

But there are civil society groups in almost every village in India. If one visits rural area, they can see certain ‘sangh’ (organization) – for example, Ambedkar Youth organization (mostly of Dalits), certain caste affiliated groups, youth sports organizations, or cine/political fan associations. Their sphere of influence is limited to their villages or surrounding villages.

Apart from these regular groups, there are many NGOs working in tribal, backward, desert areas.

There is another argument – that civil society groups should be apolitical. Though most of the times, aim of these civil society groups is to achieve goals that fulfill needs of their own groups, the means adopted to achieve such goals vary. In villages members of above mentioned groups contest local elections and enter local bodies.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan fielded its candidates in local elections held in Rajasthan. This organization is led by Aruna Roy.

Now, we witnessed how Arvind Kejriwal metamorphosed into a politician from an ardent civil society activist. His contention is that state is very powerful and one needs to enter it to make difference in the society by cleaning politics which controls whole state machinery.

Urban regions in India have innumerable civil society groups. They are vocal because they are informed, educated and aware about state’s activities and machinations.

In India, state is all too powerful for any civil society group to stand against it and force it to do something against its wishes. State can use its institutions to intimidate, spy, control, suppress and demoralize civil society groups that go against its wishes.

Here state can be a democratic or an autocratic regime. This happens more in autocratic states where power is concentrated in few people and who are intolerant of any form of dissent. Democracies also try to control civil society groups when there exists no accountability and is too corrupt.

Urban civil society groups know the means to fight such interventions whereas those located in villages hardly have such means.