The slow but steady erosion of India’s civil society

Image from Flickr by Abhisek Sarda. CC BY 2.0.

Image from Flickr by Abhisek Sarda. CC BY 2.0.

Despite the rich, vibrant, and ideologically diverse strands of India's political landscape and civil society groups, there is a worrisome trend of the Indian state suppressing dissenting voices, especially civil society groups, with minimal resistance.

Civil society in India: Then and now

Indian political theorist and former Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi Neera Chandhoke offers a compelling historical analysis of Indian civil society, revealing a rich tapestry woven with threads of resistance and pluralism. Emerging in opposition to colonialism and the restrictive state ideologies of its time, civil society in India has always been a dynamic constellation of diverse groups and ideologies.

From the 19th century onwards, social and religious reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj played a crucial role in shaping societal norms. The early 20th century saw the rise of Gandhian organizations like the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1932, dedicated to eradicating untouchability. This cause was central to Mahatma Gandhi's life's work, and it included desegregating public spaces like wells, schools, and temples, ensuring equal access for all.

Industrialization fostered the growth of self-help organizations around trade unions in cities like Bombay (currently Mumbai) and Ahmedabad, while anti-caste movements like the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu challenged India's rigid social hierarchy and pushed for a more equitable society.

Other civil society groups included associations like the Bombay Presidency Association that petitioned the colonial government to increase access to education and employment opportunities for the middle class, affiliated groups for women and youth established by The Indian National Congress during the independence era, and social and cultural organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that emerged with a distinct aim: establishing a Hindu nation. The presence of the RSS and other Hindu nationalist groups, in particular, showcases the diverse ideological spectrum that exists within Indian civil society.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) march in Bhopal.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) march in Bhopal. Image via Wikipedia by Suyash Dwivedi. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Today, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — a Hindu nationalist government — at the helm, the relationship between civil society and the state is undergoing a concerning transformation. While groups associated with the BJP, like the RSS, have become more prominent, space for those opposed to the BJP’s ideology appears to be shrinking.

This raises critical questions about the future of pluralism and dissent within Indian civil society.

The onslaught against the dissenting civil society

Back in September 2022, India's Income Tax (IT) Department conducted “surveys” at multiple locations, including Oxfam India, the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), and the Centre for Policy Research. Amnesty International's South Asia Regional Director, Yamini Mishra, alleged that the government's financial and investigative agencies were being weaponized to harass, intimidate, silence, and criminalize independent critical voices in the country, aiming to instil fear among these organizations’ staff and funders to impose a chilling effect and silence civil society at large.

Legal Rights Protection Forum posted on X (Twitter):

Two years later, on March 29, officials of the crime investigating agency Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the residence of former bureaucrat Harsh Mander and the office of a think tank, the Centre for Equity Studies (CES) in New Delhi, linked to him. The raids alleged financial irregularities under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) — allegations that the organization refuted. Notably, Mander has been a fierce critic of the Modi government's Hindu nationalist agenda since the BJP-ledgovernment came to power in 2014.

A few days before the raids at CES, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a law enforcement agency responsible for fighting economic crimes, arrested opposition politician Hemant Soren hours after he resigned as the chief minister of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. His jailing was met with severe backlash. Opposition leaders criticized the selective deployment of the ED, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the IT Department, alleging that these purportedly impartial government agencies were being weaponized to “destroy democracy,” weaken federalism, and jail the opposition. It is important to note that the same ED official who supervised Soren's arrest also supervised the recent arrest of Arvind Kejriwal, another member of the opposition and current Chief Minister of Delhi. Kejriwal’s arrest makes him the first sitting chief minister to be arrested.

Delhi-based filmmaker and journalist Alishan Jafri posted on X (Twitter):

A long arc of repression

The Indian state's tendency to clamp down on opposing voices, particularly civil society groups, is nothing new nor unique to India.

On September 21, 2020, the Lok Sabha passed the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment (FCRA) Bill 2020, which redefined terms for how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can accept, transfer, and utilize foreign donations and contributions. It should be noted that FCRA originated as emergency-era legislation in 1976 to monitor foreign influence in India. The 1976 legislation was subsequently repealed in 2010 to create a more stringent law, which was amended once again in 2020 to further tighten the noose around civil society organizations. These amendments include provisions that prohibit transferring foreign funds between organizations, reduce the cap on FCRA funds for administrative purposes to 20 percent (down from 50 percent), and mandate all office bearers, directors, or key functionaries of NGOs furnish their Aadhaar (personal identification card) details, thereby increasing administrative hurdles.

International affairs scholar Suparna Chaudhry explains that over 130 countries worldwide have repressed NGOs in the last three decades, suggesting a broad perception of NGOs as a potential threat. While violent crackdowns are typically used for immediate domestic threats like protests, violence can backfire, increasing the state's criminal liability, reducing its legitimacy, and violating human rights treaties. Therefore, states are more likely to use administrative crackdowns to address long-term threats, such as NGOs influencing elections or challenging the state's economic interests.

In the Indian context, this explains the use of government agencies to clamp down on civil society groups and launch selective probes into opposition leaders. The same level of scrutiny is rarely applied by those in power to weed out corruption within their own ranks. These raids and investigations thus become tools for consolidating power under the guise of anti-corruption measures and curbing “foreign influence”.

2024: A decisive year

As India approaches the polls in 2024, civil society groups and NGOs will play an increasingly vital role in holding the ruling party accountable for its actions and decisions. They provide platforms for public discourse on ideologically diverse positions, facilitating constructive dialogue and debate.

According to a recent report by The Economist, since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi’s administration has systematically shut down or depleted thousands of charities, creating an environment of fear within the sector. The exact number of affected organizations is difficult to determine due to the various legal means used against them. However, the chilling effect is undeniable, as such cases rarely lead to convictions. By tying up limited resources and paralyzing operations, the legal process itself becomes a form of oppression.

Industry watchers, many of whom declined to be named in the Economist’s report, attribute these actions to the government’s Hindu-first ideology and its growing intolerance of opposing views. Non-Hindu faith-based NGOs, particularly those with Christian or Muslim affiliations, are among the primary targets. Additionally, groups perceived as ideological opponents, including political rivals, face similar scrutiny.

Yamini Aiyar, policy researcher and the president of the Think Tank Centre for Policy Research, penned a critical article on March 23, 2024, lamenting the damage to India's economy during Narendra Modi's reign. Development economist Justin Sandefur posted on X about her resignation a few days after:

India's poor ranking in the Electoral Democracy Index 2023, where it placed 108th below countries like Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico, Singapore, and Nigeria, underscores the urgency of the situation. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need for the courts to intervene and halt processes — like the arbitrary raids and arrests — that violate due process under the law and are blatantly unconstitutional. These actions pose a serious threat to India's democratic principles and institutions, jeopardizing the country's standing on the global stage.

Ironically, the same group that is under siege must coalesce together if it ever hopes to withstand the onslaught against it. Civil society leaders must recognize that an attack on one is an attack on all. There is a pressing need for a united counter-mobilization movement against the BJP to prevent the erosion of civil society. Otherwise, the sector may face further challenges if Modi retains power in 2024, a scenario that current polls suggest is extremely likely.

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