What is a Civil Society Organisation?


Dr. Rao VBJ Chelikani  

Human beings as they evolved into living in societies have acquired certain natural expectations and claims against each other, on reciprocal basis, such as, respect for life, family and property, civil liberties, fair play and justice, fraternity and solidarity. When we formed political states, we expected the state to convert those values into legal rights and duties and to reconcile them with authority in the interests of all. In our modern state, we have the constitution, which articulates the same as mandate to the people’s representatives. This articulation has been dealing mostly with political relations and thereupon giving the wrong impression that all other vital social, economic, and cultural relations are subordinated to the power of the state. In the very sophisticated societies in which we are living, the political states are not able to, totally, absorb all the normative functions of the society. It would be an affront to human dignity and genius to think that the right to define and control all human behaviour is surrendered, once for all, to the state and its representatives, who would know better. As a consequence, governance in the society in many other spheres has not been promoted in an equitable manner. Sometimes, some sections of the people get neglected and some other sections are victimized. So far, we do not have any paramount power or super- sovereign or suzerain authority to watch over the conduct of the peoples’ representatives.

Who can ensure that these things happen as they ought to? The society and the individuals in it, do, still, retain some residual powers or opportunities to generate new norms, values and practices, beyond the framework of the political state. The civil society we are talking about is, precisely, that soul and voice of the people to expresses its irreducible and residual human faculties. This conscience of the society expresses itself in multiple voices of groups and individuals. Right to question any group or organization is the inherent, in-alienable and un-surrendered right of any human being as its member. Inclination to be a part of such a voluntary association reflects the social consciousness of each individual.

The civil society is precisely, the soul and voice of the people to express its irreducible and residual human faculties. This conscience of the society expresses itself in multiple voices of groups and individuals.

In our modern democracies, such civil society organizations are emerging in order to ensure that firstly, the state agents function in conformity to their mandate and commitment, secondly, to stimulate better governance among the members of the society and thirdly, to ensure that there would be lasting efforts for peace and development.At the same time, in principle, no association has been conceived to be another or alternative power structure or an anti-state structure. The mission of a civil society is to inspire better governance values among the members in the society and to help them in transforming the existing formal and informal structures and systems towards higher standards. As the context demands and as its technical possibilities permit, an association is empowering itself so as to be able to intervene both in governmental and non-governmental domains.


i). No doubt, the civil society (cs) has, always, been in existence in the abstract form of public opinion, by the side of the regal ordinances or religious canons. In India, parallel to the king’s rule, the society’s normative values were articulated through the concept of Dharma, as the very heart and spirit of the society. While Dharma had been subjected to the elite interpretation, raw public opinion had, nevertheless, remained a force to reckon with, however cruel and unjust it could, sometimes, be, according to the earliest Indian epic, the Ramayana. Probably, the entire Upanishadic period might as well be considered as a period of philosophical enquiry and challenge to the contemporary Vedic establishment, along with the Parivrajaka tradition of several schools of thoughts and beliefs. The Buddhists and to a lesser extent, the Jains also played this role against the dominant establishment. Similarly, the shramanas, charvakas, nastikas, asuras, daityas, mayamohas had been cited as constant challengers to existing social values. Later, Buddhist logicians like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti had applied dialectical reasoning to challenge the existing social structures. Women like Andal, AkkaMahadevi and Mira championed many values that were contrary to the contemporary social practices under royal patronage. So were Dara Shukhov and Amir Khusrau during the Mughal period. All had been reformists in spirit and not necessarily aimed at challenging the political authority.

ii).The arrival of the British and our knowledge about their Occidental civilisation had stimulated new thinking in the Indian society. The Servants of India Society, which was started much before the independence had reflected the earliest concerns for social development. Though commonly, we can consider the Indian National Congress as the first national level civil society organisation in 1885, there were already in Bengal a few associations, such as the Indian Association, BrahmoSamaj, PrarthanaSamaj, Arya Samaj, Theosophical Society, which were working in order to create public opinion in favour of social reforms. So were the path-breaking social reformers in the early British period like Raja Rammohan Roy, Serfoji II, BalaGangadharaTilak, JyotibaPhule, Periyar, and Vivekananda swamy.

iii). After independence, a couple of associations were formed for the protection of the Anglo-Indian community in India. Later, it was the Bharat SevakSamaj founded by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sadaachaar Samiti founded by Gulzarilal Nanda that operated as full-fledged NGOs involved in national development. However, undoubtedly, Gandhi remains the father of the peoples’ movements in modern India. Even though, our independence movement has been, largely, in the form of a civil society activism, still, the founding-fathers of our Constitution could not envision the emergence of civil society, much less, bestow any restraining role for them in the Constitutional framework. This happened in spite of the fact that many eminent members of the Constituent Assembly had witnessed the vitality of the civil societies in European and North American countries.

iv).International Standing:

a). However, across the world, in our political history, the civil society voice has never been, officially, taken note of, by any state constitution. Bloody revolutions had to take place to explode the contained discontent in the society against the political state. Even the social democratic regimes that prevailed in the Nineteenth century Europe thought that the peoples ‘general will’ or a ‘synthesis’ of it, is adequately represented by those who are elected as representatives. Already, towards the end of the 20th century, one has clearly seen the limits of the nationalist state to represent the whole of the society. Among the developing countries, the sovereign political state was particularly jealous of its absolute hegemony over its citizens, even though its bad governance was patent and some states were declared as ‘failed’ states. The Welfare state has not been able to fulfil its promises regarding socio-economic development. Many political leaders in Asia, Africa and in Latin America, ignoring the phenomenon of civil society voice in their countries, equated all criticism as political opposition or foreign collusion.

b). Since the Sixties: There has been a long tradition of the international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), fighting by the side of a plethora of newly emerging national associations working for local socio-economic development with foreign funds. In addition, there had been an emergence of national associations, often, espousing leftist and rightist ideologies, which are suppressed under dictatorships in different continents. That was also the epoch during which a great number of inter-governmental organisations were set up in New York, Paris, Geneva, Rome and London. Many INGOs, such as, the Red Cross, the Service Civil International, Amnesty International, League of Human Rights, International Commission of Jurists, Green Peace and others came up with an international agenda in terms of some universal values.

Worldwide protest movements have been witnessed in the case of American intervention in Vietnam and in favour of Helsinki Accords against the Cold war in the Seventies. There were attempts to initiate a new world order by setting up a New International Economic Order (NIEO), a New Information & Communication Order (NICO) and many international development-aid agencies. Among the UN bodies, UNESCO has been the pioneer in understanding the role the civil societies in a country’s educational, cultural and scientific development. Later, UNICEF, UNDP and even the World Bank have been insisting on the involvement of community-based and other non-governmental civil cooperation for any national project that they financially supported. It is through the civil society organizations that the individual has been increasingly allowed to intervene or even to complain against the states, be it his own state.

For the past fifty years, the INGOs have been a force to reckon in all inter-governmental conferences on finance, money, trade, labour, environment, education, science, socio-economic development, habitat, etc., where they never failed to castigate the negligence and mismanagement by the state actors. On many occasions, the NGOs are invited to sit by the side of the state-representatives. But, mostly, during such conferences, NGOs have been holding parallel or alternative conferences and interacting with the main conference participants. North American and West European NGOs are able to mobilise enough resources, expertise, statistics and militants for each occasion and stir the conscience of the world. Indian intellectuals and Indian NGOs have been closely associated with such international events. This is a considerable achievement in view of the fact that most of the personnel of the UN system is composed of the national bureaucrats who operate as super-bureaucrats. This has been possible because of the presence of West European or American humanists and neo-liberal thinkers like Franklin (and Eleanor) Roosevelt, Rene Cassin, Julian Huxley, etc. who have left an indelible mark on these institutions.

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