The recent remark made by Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren about the civil society organisations in Manipur has drawn the attention of the writer to revisit about the civil society and civil society organisations one more.
Media coverage and follow-up discussion in media have it that Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren attending the 12th Mera Meepham (Annual Convention on Umang Lai Haraoba) organised by Umanglai Kanba Apunba Lup (UKAL) at City Convention Centre, Palace Compound in Imphal East on October 23, said that several civil society organisations and students bodies with different interests are mushrooming within the Meitei community when other communities have one or two organisations only. Chief Minister Biren also asked what has been the civil society organisations doing for Manipur in the last 30 years, reports said.
Civil society or civil society organisations, in short CSOs is much talked about and are very popular in the context of Manipur. From layman to politician; from insurgent groups or armed militants to the Indian military establishment; and from public commentators or opinion makers to academics; the term civil society or CSOs is, at many times loosely, 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 or CSOs, though much talked about, is hardly ever understood but frequently misused.
In present day Manipur, it seems not possible 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.
In general, civil society is part of our life and the space 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 or apolitical but 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 when they are in the government. Even when the party is in the government sometimes can act in the civil society space. 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, academics 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. Though all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are part of the civil society organisations, NGOs which are receiving funds from donors or taking up projects under government schemes are not considered as CSOs in the context of Manipur. The people of Manipur have a common notion that civil society organisations should not receive any fund from funding agencies or government projects. The non-governmental organisations of which the members are voluntary and monitorily depend on public donations for its activities are considered as genuine CSOs and have more credibility.
Moreover, in conflict situations like in the context of Manipur, 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 organisations are concerned more with the interest of their own group and less with the common interests 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 many Naga bodies of Manipur who believe in the ideology of the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland – NSCN (IM) have been demanding for Naga integration and autonomy; 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 militant groups who are under Suspension of Operations with the Government of India and Government of Manipur are demanding a Kukiland to be 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 and political 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.
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 started losing the basic character of civil society’s independence of the state and the civil space has been shrunk.
Even the dynamic, heroic, proactive and frontline workers of Manipur’s economy, the Keithel Nupis (market women) of Khwairamband Keithel have become more friendly and co-operative with the present dispensation. A new set of leaders seem come up among the women vendors and they somehow maintain good relations with the present dispensation as they remain silent in the new development of the three Nupi Keithels Khwairamband Keithel recently.
Moreover, a number of renowned civil society organisations of Manipur are reported in media that they distribute chemical fertilisers, cash crop seeds and seedlings to the farmers as if an agency of the agriculture department or horticulture department of Manipur Government instead of urging the government to deliver the same to the beneficiaries.
Not only the civil society space has been shrunk but also a new orientation of the civi society organisations is emerging during the present dispensation.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics