Towards a New Civil Society

One must give credit where credit is due and examine the movement of ‘civil society’ that gave the phrase its current infamy before one gets into its inescapable quagmire.

The Cambridge dictionary defines the term ‘alt-right’ as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.” 

Indians, however, will be able to identify ‘alt-right.’ This variety of right-wing populism isn’t particularly new to India – a country that has had the misfortune of dealing with both extremes of the ideological spectrum.  

This tug-of-war has continued through elections and on college campuses. It has played out with equal, if not greater, vigour in the sphere of language and semantics.

Since the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, language turned into a battleground between the ideological right and its opposition. This opposition was defined by the rightest as “left-liberals.”

The construction itself was rather juicy: uppity, English speaking, Khan Market-going, Marxist, educated Indians, who hijacked institutions and didn’t care for the ‘real’ India, its customs, or its people. It was so juicy in fact, that individuals who fell into any of these categories, turned around and started spinning satire about a socio-economic class from which they themselves weren’t too different.

By constructing the image of an opponent that was so ripe for tearing down, the right went beyond the traditional attacks on the NGO walas and the jhola-chaaps and turned the battle into one against this imagined monolithic opposition.  

Also read The ‘Glorious’ History of Hindutva and its Hypocrisies

Newspapers and TV channels gobbled it up and were filled with repeated coverage peddling derivatives.

The ‘Lutyens elite’ and the ‘Khan Market Gang’ became interchangeable for the ‘Urban Naxal’ and the ‘liberal peaceniks.’ A unified class of opposition was constructed, that didn’t really exist in the first place. Anyone who has ever associated with any sort of civil society platform realises the range of actors that coalesce around these movements.

Dogmatic Marxists hate the dogmatic Ambedkarites.

The Ambedkarites hate the savarna secular humanists.

All of them combined hate the liberals, and the liberals hate themselves.

All the rabid disagreement aside, you’ll find at least one person from each of these hues, at a protest about lynching, Kashmir, unemployment, or civil liberties. It’s likely that they all represent a mixed hue, emerging from the variegated streaks of a colourful ideological stream. 

What is worrying, however, is not the language itself. After all, Indians have had to go through much worse for much less over the years. What is worrying is our own tendency to buy this cheap perfidy and let it cripple all the measures to build solidarity in a manner that only the most pernicious of poisons could.

A constant barrage of right-wing propaganda tearing through the airwaves has normalised a language that allies use to turn on each other.

While the threat of majoritarian authoritarianism looms large, Marxists refuses to hold hands with ‘Khan Market liberals.’ Ambedkarites refuses to hold hands with ‘JNU(eu) dhari jhola chaaps.’ Each time the possibility of a strategic alliance, if not a political one, is broached, someone’s identity plays spoilsport.

The leftist is an upper caste and the Ambedkarite doesn’t buy feminism. Liberal is probably both rich and upper caste and the feminist is tired of all the men running the movements.

The only thing that unites each of these ideological categories is that they are all ridiculously headstrong and losers.

The liberals lose because they’ve rarely succeeded politically anyway. The left loses as they stick to their dogmatic philosophy. Ambedkarites loose as the Sangh consumes their movement along with their cadres. Secular humanists and feminists lose because each of these losses has seen a significantly worse alternative take its place. 

Also read In Defence of the Language of Political Correctness

Faced with constant loss and an inept political opposition, the responsibility has once again fallen to an aging civil society plagued by infighting, to hold steady the guardrails of democracy lest it falls into the illiberal abyss that we all dread. With the spate of Bills passed in the last session of the assembly, the threat has moved significantly from institutions of governance and higher education to the constitution itself.

Fundamental protections from the state are being trampled on in spirit, if not in letter.

The opposition, to say the least, is virtually non-existent.

In the US, the youth of the opposition cast aside temporary differences to come together under one banner of the anti-fascist movement. It is a movement of anarchists, feminists, communists, progressives and minorities of colour, religion, gender and sexual orientation. 

Together they demand action on climate justice, socio-economic inequality, and immigration. It is these individuals who physically resist white nationalist rallies and force ideological reform within the American opposition.

Indian civil society must stop buying the divisive agenda peddled by right-wing propaganda outlets and own the labels thrown at them. If civil opposition in India is being cast as a monolith, then the jhola chaap might as well stand with the Khan Market liberal and the Khan Market liberal might share a drink with the Ambedkarite.

As cliché as it sounds, civil society in India must reimagine itself for an increasingly polarised 21st Century, and it must do so by first overcoming divisions within itself.

At a time when democratic institutions are besieged and the press is stifled, a failure to rebuild and reimagine a united civil society would be to condemn the Indian experiment to the vagaries of majoritarian fundamentalism. 

Those in power always feed on the defensiveness within civil society, which only serves the purpose of marginalising it further.

Vineet John Samuel is a public policy researcher with work experience in Myanmar and India, who writes primarily on topics of foreign policy, sustainability and development in Asian Newspapers and online news portals.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty