Friday, 31 May, 2024

Tasks Before South Asian Civil Society

Tasks Before South Asian Civil Society

Dev Raj Dahal   

The process of globalisation is flouting the frontiers of disciplinary knowledge such as economics, political science, sociology, culture, literature, etc. and the makeup of society based on ecological, social, economic and gender division of labour. It is compelling human beings to think in inter-subjective terms. The modern crisis in the world is the reflection of the profound difficulty in conceptualising the context, application and management of knowledge to diverse ways of life and driving the society in a rational direction. The question of modern rationality cannot be resolved by measures of the past theories and ideologies on which the institutional mechanism of state-centric governance is based. It is essential to know the scientific trends and normative values in order to ease human beings to face the future with greater confidence.

The post-cold war order has made governance polycentric where neither order, security, development and peace are the sole privilege of the state nor  are problems  solely confined to the inter- and intra-state domain -- geopolitics, pandemic and climate change. Now power of the state is shared by disparate groups of citizens organised into a variety of institutions, such as the state, the market, a myriad of voluntary associations, networks and movements that constitute the civil society and international regimes. As a result, governance has become a process of coordination, communication and distribution of power and responsibilities among them. This has increased the tasks of civil societies in policy making, advocacy, mediation of power and moderation of distributional conflicts.

Widening concept of security
The state no longer monopolises the security function. It has to share its tasks with the public, private and voluntary civic associations, even for its own self-defence. This requires the civil societies to act responsibly with full accountability. This actor transformation has also led to the renovation of institutional roles. New issues such as ecology, gender justice, human security, controlling pandemic, terrorism and social vices and promoting peace have widened the concept of security. The domain of politics has also marked a shift from high politics -- war, security, diplomacy, power, influence and foreign policy to low politics that deals with the conditions of daily life -- such as basic needs, identity, social movements, democracy, human rights, good governance, cultural interactions, etc.

Participation rules have also marked a shift from a top-down to a bottom-up process. The linkages of civil societies across national borders have grown exponentially along with the post-national constellation of the state institutions and market forces. The growing shift in basic conditions, actors, rules, issues and processes have rendered the logic of collective action varied. Still, foreign, defence and monetary policies are the prerogative of the national state and it will continue to retain considerable authority and legitimacy over them. Civil society organisations, on the other hand, will have to know this legitimacy even while assuming the duty that is their due. This is an area that needs insight and wisdom to gear up.

In this shifting pattern, how is it possible to settle the social interest of civil society with the national interest of the state? Should civil societies take national interest as the collective expression of the democratic process or just remain rights-oriented and self-justifying bodies weakening state’s authority and legitimacy to act? How can the sectoral social action of the civil society contribute to the larger strategic public action of the state for the promotion of collective goods? How do both derive their legitimacy and become responsible to local, national, regional and global interests? More relevantly, do civil societies have the political will to build a coalition and effect a coordinated response for problems resolution and social transformation?

South Asia presents an example of complex, multi-polar and hierarchical conflicts. These conflicts always crop up along five critical patterns —interstate geopolitical conflicts, ideological conflicts, democratic shortfalls causing governance ineffectiveness, distributional struggle, and authority and legitimacy conflicts, identity conflicts stemming from positional differences of actors and sub-national conflicts  lacking the concept of national self-determination. These conflicts are affecting the intra-state, inter-state and intra-societal relations. In all the South Asian states, democracy has come to mean majority rule at the cost of a popular sovereignty. Democratic deficits arising from procedural and substantive outcomes have stirred up popular revulsion among minorities and weaker sections of the society.

A basic disjunction exists between human nature, the state system based on a legitimate monopoly of power and political aspirations of citizens to share this power to address the growing sense of fear, poverty, inequality, injustice, discrimination and conflicts. Regional civil societies have been demanding a strategic shift from the subordination and conformity of diverse citizens to the state’s sovereignty to a negotiated social contract so that the states reflect the collective will of all citizens. The formation of collective will is an elan vital to nurture citizens’ identification with the state, perception of belonging, opportunities for common projects and a shared future. The weakness of the Westphalian state to cope with post-Westphalian interconnected challenges caused by the pluralisation, regionalisation and globalisation of the political economy cuts off citizens from nationality.

As a result of disharmony between the nationalised state and denationalised society and economy, human rights struggle of citizens for liberation, entitlements and social opportunities lingers. The politics of civil society in the region, thus, involves the contestation of subjugation of citizens, creation of a rational ordering of the monopoly of power over society, socialising the citizens towards democratic principles, means and solidarity for a peaceful transformation of the public space. Regional civil societies are also trying to reshape the growing shift in the medium of power, from the social and political to the ecological, economic and technological and pressing for a common political space for the essential politicisation of collective decision-making.

South Asian civil societies lack a robust regional consciousness and collective identity due to the domination of power elites who believe in exclusive national assertiveness, not collective self-reliance. The identity of the South Asian public is budding. Many of them engaged in human rights, environment, trade unions, women and peace activism mirror the perception and adoption of state-centric policies. Economic societies of the region are better organised and have evolved a cooperative strategy of long-term rationality. But, their roles across the region are glued by pre-state economic needs for capital, labour, infrastructure development, transport, communication and connectivity imperatives than post-state democratic needs — such as civilisation, human security, environment preservation, social justice, regional cooperation and peaceful resolution of problems.

Consequently, obligations, interaction and information sharing among them across national precincts remain pre-conceptualised. The soft-state nature of South Asia renders its ties with the society very weak as the states depend on the fragile consent of citizens living in various layers of human development. The regional states consider civil societies geopolitically driven by soft power and economic support of extra-regional great powers and, therefore, remain fragmented, sectoral, egoistical and competing with each other for donors' favour. The challenge for South Asian leaders is to remove this disjuncture between the states’ need for security and stability and civil societies’ demand for greater democratisation to minimise the private ambition of leaders to stick to power life-long and orient them to the public purpose of politics.

The propensity of the states, the markets and civil societies to construct often dissimilar, interest-bound knowledge, goals and means have yet to be synthesised to set the links between ideas and policy outcomes. These actors should be properly coordinated so that they can work together for the common good of citizens. Coexistence and collective action have to be stabilised by means of pursuing commonly acceptable democratic and development policies for regional governance.

Common fear of insecurity and common problems faced by South Asian citizens demand a collective rationality of public good that binds the civil society by shared values and multi-scale regional cooperation. Democratic peace requires equality and, therefore, adjudication of problems should be based on the merits of the case rather than the strength and collective bargaining position of powerful actors. Because of their non-hierarchical networks of organisations and communication, civil society can play a special role in seeking a lasting solution of conflict by means of integrating the interests of diverse stakeholders and creating a legitimate space which underpins social transformation. In modern times, the roles of the civil society lie in communication, education, mediation and coordination of demands, payoffs and actions of conflicting parties so they can stand above primordial interests and nurture the notion of active citizenship.

Only collective rationality can achieve durable peace. Conflict resolution in the divided societies of the region requires a rational perspective on the part of each group so that each includes the perspective of others to reach an understanding, consensus and social contract and learns to think as a member of the nation state and cosmopolitan nature of the South Asian community. The remarkable proliferation of civil societies and social movements in South Asia emerged in response to the national and global social crises. They are pressurizing the regional leaders towards the conceptualisation of the new security perception, the human security that can transcend the traditional security dichotomy — between regime and nation and achieve a synergy of reciprocity.

Contrary to the political realist’s overriding concern to replace the ‘state of nature’ by the reasons of the state, civil societies tend to project societal interests into political power aiming to achieve human needs and freedoms. Negotiating a new social contract requires a new genuinely democratic thinking beyond colonial, muscular and hegemonic outlook. It should be equally counter-hegemonic, especially with regard to the neo-liberal global order. Peace movements of civil societies in South Asia have a manifest desire to end insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in the region. Adherents to these movements have been mobilising public opinion and opposition political parties, religious societies and school children and volunteers mustering popular support among the victims of conflicts to turn the region into a peaceful community.

Coordinated response
Inter-societal, inter-state and inter-people cooperation facilitated by regional civil societies has generated hopes for the institutionalisation of democratic peace. Integrated and coordinated studies and response of civil societies to the conflicting parties have amply confirmed the costs of conflict and the benefits of peace. It is, however, important to synthesise the various types of disciplinary knowledge and perception produced by the states, the markets and civil societies and prepare a common ground for addressing the complexity of problems. The sphere of civil societies is located in the opinion forming and early warning and response system. In this sphere, community life, experiences, grievances and needs are articulated and conflicts are mediated and resolved through communication and negotiation.

South Asian civil societies have been instrumental in protecting openness for social groups, associations and networks for competing needs, aspirations, opinions and representation of the diversity of voices. And, basic constitutional guarantees of a public sphere also provided the space for the deradicalisation of rights and transformation of people into public. The lines of convergence between societal self-organisation and the organisation of state power are, however, still significant enough to enable the political leaders to convince the society of its aims and create harmony between themselves for a peaceful South Asian public order

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)