At many crucial and traumatic junctures of history, a very disturbing question always have thrown itself up and not very often was a satisfactory answer found to it. What is this entity called “civil society” on whose judgment many who claim to believe in democracy and democratic norms far too often rally behind, proclaiming they thus have the mandate to do what they do even if what they do is coercive in nature? Is it just a matter of popular will or must there be some qualification to this popular will? In situations of conflict this thought actually can get terrifying. Just suppose the majority voice begins to demand blood or else silently approves bloodletting and victimisation of other sections of the people, would that voice still be called the voice of the civil society. In many of the atrocities committed through history in every part of the world, the disturbing question has often been not just about where have the “civil society” disappeared during those cataclysmic events but of whether the so called “civil society” then was at all a “civil society”. The moot point is, must not the notion of civil society be predicated by certain conditions? If yes, what must these conditions be? This cloud over the concept of “civil society” became pronounced say in the case of Gujarat where chief minister Narendra Modi, the man demonised and reviled by liberals everywhere in India and elsewhere for supposedly masterminding the 2002 massacre of Muslims was returned back to power with a thumping majority by his electorate. Similar mandates was also given earlier to radical parties in Serbia which were acknowledged as responsible for working up ethnic hatred during the country’s orgy of ethnic cleansing wars. Could the public which did this be equated to “civil society”? Could the people of Germany which by their silence tacitly egged on the Holocaust be called “civil society”? Could the Americans of the 19th Century which similarly endorsed the systematic genocide of Native Americans be called “civil society”?
These are indeed disturbing questions, but nonetheless it is an interrogation which conscientious citizens anywhere in the world must subject themselves to periodically in the assessment of their planned interventions in social issues? Manipur needs to do this too and earnestly. In the most immediate issue of conflict of interests on the SADAR hills district creation, this question must be asked by all concerned? What exactly must be the nature of the consensus that must be arrived at which would settle the issue conclusively? Surely it cannot be about different “civil society” bodies, demarcated clearly on ethnic lines, standing on different sides of the conflict line and pushing their interests claiming only their respective views have the mandate of the people. The question would virtually be the same on practically every other issue in the state over which self-proclaimed “civil society” bodies take it upon themselves to champion. In the literal sense, what everybody end up witnessing are not “civil societies” but “hysterical societies” spitting polemics laced liberally with fire and brimstone at each other.
We would contest that a real “civil society” would emerge only when those championing social movements are capable of making disinterested judgments on issues, informed by sound scientific logic and above all empathetic humanitarianism considerations before throwing their weights behind whatever the cause deemed as just. Women “civil society” for instance must be able to stand up for women cause regardless of which community they belong to. Likewise, human rights organisation must champion human rights and not human rights of particular communities only. The nomenclature “civil society” implies that the particular society must be civil first and foremost. True, “civil societies” are the vital buffers in the negotiation of interests when the individual is pitted against the might of the State. By this virtue “civil society” is an organic and natural outgrowth of any democratic polity. Only in authoritarian regimes where the emergence of civil society is suppressed would people know how awesome and indeed impossible it is to face the might of the State. Imagine how protesting against such acts as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, would be if there had been no civil society buffer between the State and the individual and that the individual is left to fight the battle alone. This must be the helplessness of people in many of India’s neighbours. Imagine the dread of rubbing the State the wrong way individuals in a country like Myanmar must be living with. At least we are spared of this, but there is much more to be done yet. The most important of these is to first and foremost civilize our largely compulsively hysterical “civil societies” so that they rise above sectarian interests and cease to be extensions of ethnic wars and antagonisms.