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We the activist people

A set of essays examines the rise of activism in India outside the framework of the political party system

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay 

Several people of our generation became part of civil society as 20-nothings in the early 1980s when they stepped out from campuses to join marches championing various causes. There were issues galore. In the major cities, angry protests poured out against obnoxious comments from the Bombay High Court on the Mathura rape case. The emerging debate resulted in the redrawing of custodial norms for women.

The emergence of a nascent women's movement evolved from the human rights movement, galvanised once Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency. After her return, the People's Union for Civil Rights and People's Union for Democratic Rights emerged as conscience keepers of a nation where the state and the Opposition were not doing justice to the aspirations of the people.

Along with women's wings of various political parties, independent women's organisations and academic institutions emerged and focused on gender studies. The nascent environmental movement also began with the agitation against the Silent Valley project and undoubtedly took a different dimension after the State of India's Environment report and the Bhopal gas disaster.

The human rights movement also picked up the "Dalit cause", raised and spread by a media that found a voice after the gag orders of Emergency days. Along with other sectors, the media also opened up: new news magazines became the norm and the country came to terms with a new form of reporting - investigative journalism. Reports on incidents such as the Bhagalpur blindings and the Kamala case pricked the conscience of people, and a huge section of radical Indians began believing that most practitioners of the party system were people's enemies.

In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination, citizens' groups emerged in melting pots of various "concerned" people. Those were exciting times and gave rise to the hope that the system could still be rescued from those working towards maintaining the status quo. In those early days of political activism outside the framework of the party system, organisations and individuals associated with the movements were viewed with suspicion. The NGOs were accused of taking money from foreign donors to destabilise India. Indira Gandhi attributed every disturbance in India to a "foreign hand".

The Left also had a problem with this group. It presupposed that human rights groups were not part of it for two reasons: refusal to adhere to party discipline and more than a sneaking admiration for the ultra-Left. The anti-Congress and non-Communist political parties - which at that time, ironically, consisted of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - looked at this "third sector" as natural allies, and these groups also expected support from these leaders.

Throughout the 1980s, leaders of these groups stewarded the ethnic sartorial revival, carried Tilonia bags and went on a long furlough from their vocations to spend time among people in an attempt to get a better grasp of Indian reality. At that time, one never heard of the label "civil society", a term that has gained currency in popular parlance in the recent years, especially in the context of the movement against corruption.

In between have been the long years when the behemoth of liberalisation and the emergence of the BJP as one of the principal political parties of governance somewhat derailed the civil society movement. There are no answers, but middle class-led activism outside the political system has undergone a tremendous change, and the nature of this transformation and its causes need to be examined.

There is also a wider question: within the Indian framework, to what extent has the expansion of the Indian middle class facilitated democratisation and participation in the political system? Has the burgeoning middle class, which has prospered in a consumption-driven society, undermined the sensitivity of Indians?

Titled after a "contested" term, one had expected the book under review to provide a bird's-eye view of this "third sector". However, the author, a conscientious political commentator on several contemporary issues, provides a close worm's eye-view of various components of civil society-led movements at the micro level. The book provides graphic accounts of events and debates involving the Dalit, anti-pollution, Naxalite, human rights and women's movements in the context of Andhra Pradesh, thereby laying the outline of a holistic expansion of the title under review.

Be it the Naxalite issue or corruption, both have assumed alarming proportions - the former for the rulers who term Naxalism India's principal enemy and the latter for people who view corruption as the biggest reason basic amnesties are denied to them.

The emergence of the new politically articulate Dalit consciousness that is analysed in the book has been followed by the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party as one of the parties of governance. Where does one place the BSP in the wider context of Dalit aspirations? With developments like the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, a composite probe of civil society is needed.

Most of the chapters have been presented at various conferences and workshops over the past few years, but not in the backdrop of slightly more contemporary concerns. Which is why this is a book that calls for a Part II soon.

Contemporary History of Political Movements in India
Ajay Gudavarthy
Sage Publications; 280 pages; Rs 695

First Published: Sun, April 21 2013. 21:52 IST