ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Can Civil Society Reorder Priorities in India?

The Indian state has responded to demands made by civil society campaigns that are sometimes supported and sometimes initiated by the Supreme Court. But we are definitely not in the midst of a social revolution. This, in large measure, is due to the nature of civil society interventions.

Actually existing democracies are imperfectly just, and institutionalised democracies inevitably fall well short of the idea of the concept. If this is the first lesson that we have learnt from history, the second is that the idea of democracy can be realised to an extent in and through political practices, more specifically through collective action initiated by trade unions, front organisations of political parties, social associations, professional groups, non-governmental organisations, and citizen activism in general. Think of women’s struggles in England in the early 20th century to expand the scope of a franchise labelled “keep out, men only”; or of workers’ struggles to emancipate the right to vote from property qualifications in most parts of Europe; or of Afro-American struggles to achieve racial parity in the United States; or of trade union struggles to make the workplace a more humane one across the world.

In India, where trade unions yoked to political parties and representing a very small percentage of the workforce have shown little interest in the welfare of non-members, and where political parties tend to think of social rights more as an electoral/populist ploy and less as a task that government has to shoulder with some seriousness, civil society activism has sharply foregrounded the responsibility of the state to its citizens. In a society where huge numbers of people are wracked by poverty, diminished by malnutrition, ill-health, illiteracy, and ill-being, and condemned to live their lives much below the level of what is considered human, civil society campaigns for the delivery of social goods have tried to bridge the sizeable lag between institutionalised political equality and social and economic inequality.

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