Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Shrinking Civil Society Space in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic in Manipur

The much talked about civil society or civil society organisations, in short CSOs, are very popular in the context of Manipur. From layman to politician and from armed militants to the Indian military establishment, the term civil society or CSOs, is used in many contexts on a number of issues.
Civil Society or CSOs has become an indispensable part of the political culture in Manipur. However, the civil society, though much talked about, is rarely understood and frequently misused.
Nowadays, it is impossible to have a conversation on politics, economics, social and cultural issues, gender or public policy without someone mentioning the magic words “civil society” or CSOs. So one might think that people are clear and understand what they mean when they use this term and why it is so important.
In general, civil society means the part of our life that exists between the State on one hand and families on the other, that allows people to come together for a whole variety of public activities, and that is relatively independent of the State.
However, civil society is not non-political, but also a non-state collective space. In other words, civil society is now associated with everything good that the state is not. In its non-state functions, it can cover both political and social activities. Political parties have a double role in a multi-party democracy like India. Political party becomes an appendage of the State when civic action is missing and can be considered as a Political Society.
On the other hand political parties are part of the civil society along with other unions, organisations, students’ organisations, trade unions, business associations, lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists and other professionals’ unions or organisations. Essentially, civil society is an assemble of non-state organisations that encompass trade unions, students’ movements, ethnic or community organisations, community development organisations, women groups, the human rights groups, the press and other forms of organisations outside the state arena.
Groups of citizens organise themselves in order to articulate and promote the values and norms of society or sometimes to protest against societal norms which are regarded by many as discriminatory or harmful and to advance the common needs and interests of citizens with respect to matters of governance and public policy. In an ideal world, civil society should be concerned about the common interests of the whole society. The civil society has a responsibility to recognise and uphold the important values of society and, on the basis of these values, to set standards and norms for all sectors of society, including Government and Political Society.
Structural definitions of civil society are useful in emphasising the gaps and weaknesses of associational life that need to be fixed if they are to be effective vehicles for change. However, the differences and particularities of associational life generate competing views about the ends and means of the good society, anchored in religion, politics, ideology, race, gender and culture.
We need to strengthen the pre-conditions for a healthy civil society by attacking all forms of inequality and discrimination, giving people the means to be active citizens, reforming politics to encourage more participation, guaranteeing the independence of associations and the structures of public communication, and building a strong foundation for institutional partnerships, alliances and coalitions. Inequality is the poison of civil society because it endows citizens with different levels of resources and opportunities to participate.
We also need to support innovations in associational life that encourage citizen action to operate in service to the good society, rather than as a substitute for politics, market reform and the demands of democratic state building. For example, we need to build stronger links between policy groups, organising groups, service deliverers and the media; we need to link associations across different interests and agendas and get progressive organising out of its issues and identities; we need to encourage a more democratic relationship between grassroots constituencies and those in the non-profit sector who claim to speak on their behalf. We need to reduce the costs and risks of citizen participation, for example, making it easier to organize at the workplace, and we need to honour and connect different forms of participation so that service doesn’t become a substitute for political engagement.
In reality and practice, civil society is a controversial concept and not as idealistic as the above description would suggest. However, in conflict situations, civil society can be part of the problem of conflict generation or escalation as many of the groups that we might include in the set of civil society are concerned more with the interest of their own group and less with the common interests like in the context of Manipur.
Conflicting demands are made by these different civil society groups, and the conflicts between them are often glossed over in the interest of maintaining a seemingly harmonious image of civil society. For instance NSCN (IM)-crafted Naga Civil Societies like United Naga Council (UNC), All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur (ANSAM) and Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) demand integration of most of the hill areas of Manipur to form “Nagalim” or demand for an “Alternative Arrangement for the Nagas of Nagaland and Manipur” and campaign against the Meiteis while the non-ethnic and common civil societies stands for peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups and protection of unity and territorial integrity of Manipur. The Kuki armed groups who are under Suspension of Operations with the Government of India and Government of Manipur are demanding a Kukiland carved out of Manipur which the Kuki Inpi Manipur or other Kuki bodies support. Since civil societies are embedded in the social character of society they also reflect the social contradictions in society.
Different approaches to bringing about different changes like Social change, Political change and Economic change at different levels such as Personal, Institutional and Societal are undertaken by civil society to transform violent conflicts through active non-violence and advocacy. Changes happen at different levels and often at more than one level at the same time. Changes at one level may have an impact at other levels. In our desire to bring about change transforming conflict, we need to be aware of these different levels and where we aim to focus our energies to make a change to be sustainable in the longer term.
Civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means to achieve it, and a framework for engaging with each-other about ends and means. When these three approaches turn towards each other and integrate their different perspectives into a mutually-supportive framework, the idea of civil society can explain a great deal about the course of politics and social change, and serve as a practical framework for organising both resistance and alternative solutions to social, economic and political problems.
What we saw in the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown when the people could not find food – rice and vegetables, community groups from the hills spontaneously started to share the vegetables they can procure from the hills with the people in the valley areas without the initiative of the State and these can be considered civil society activities enjoying the civil society space. And the civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations whose headquarters are based in valley areas also raised funds and took donations and distributed foods needed by the people who live in the hill areas and interiors.
However, at a later stage these activities were banned by the Government which asked the community groups or individuals or CSOs who want to donate foods including vegetables, to deposit it at the offices of the Deputy Commissioners of the districts concerned on the pretext of maintaining social distancing during COVID-19 lockdown. This ultimately has limited the activities of the civil bodies and shrunk the civil society space.
Even when the different CSOs and community organisations from all parts of the state were on the committees formed by the State Government to fight the COVID-19, the independence of the Civil Society Organisations has been limited and the civil space has been shrunk.
And also due to the closure of educational institutions, the civil activities of the students and their civil space have been shrunk.
Even the dynamic, heroic and frontline workers of Manipur’s economy, the Keithel Nupis (market women) of Khwairamband Keithel could not carry out their civil and democratic activities while the lockdown was on and the Khwairamband Keithel remained shut for about 11 months during COVID-19 lockdown. This ultimately has shrunk their civil society space.
Precisely speaking, the much talked and frequently used Civil Society Space and CSOs in the lives of Manipur people have been shrunk in the time of COVID-19 in Manipur.

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