Making of a new civil society
-CELAYNE HEATON SHRESTHA
A debate rages today around the meaning andthe role of civil society. This debate is takingplace in newspapers and within the space ofcivil society itself. New groups labellingthemselves as 'civil society' are being set up with thesingle ostensible purpose of countering the approachand orientation of existing ones. The debate wasreignited, of late, with former Prime Minister PushpaKamal Dahal's removal of the Chief of Army Staffs(CoAS) Rookmangud Katawal.
Should civil society have voiced an opinion whenthe prime minister sacked Katawal? Should they havecondemned the prime minister's and the president'smoves equally? How should civil society positionitself in relation to political parties and formal politics?Some intellectuals have dismissed one suchgroup, Citizen Movement for Peace and Democracy(CMDP) or Nagarik Andolan, as a 'wing' of UCPN(Maoist). If similarity in terms of their agendasmakes CMDP a Maoist wing, then dœs this meanthat, when Dahal argued in a recent people's assemblyin Khula Manch that political parties should go forconsensus - echoing the words proffered by the likesof Krishna Pahadi a week earlier - is he therebybecoming a member of CMDP? That CMDP was a'Maoist wing' was further argued on the grounds thatthey were selective in terms of the issues they raised.
But is it realistic to expect that busy professionals (asmany CMDP members, indeed, are) raise every singleissue? Would this simply not compound the sense ofinsecurity felt by ordinary people?Such arguments simply donot hold water; striking as theproduct of over-interpretationand political wishful thinking - orscaremongering.
The ongoing debate about therole of civil society is political, nottheoretical. This is clear to anyonefamiliar with the concept ofcivil society. Indeed, the concepthas, through time and space,acquired such a wealth of meaningthat it is possible to draw onany strand to support one's argumentsin favour or against the'civil society'.A concept developed in 18th century Europe, itfell into disuse until the 1980s when democraticmovements in Eastern Europe and Latin America sawfit to revive the notion. At first it used to refer to akind of society: a civilised society, characterised bythe rule of law. It stood in contrast to the arbitraryrule, uncertainty and warring characteristic of absolutistmonarchies. In this vision, 'civil society' includedthe state - a civilised state fit for a civil polity. Civilsociety then came to mean a part of society ratherthan a type of society, namely the realm of collectiveaction beyond the household. The normative oppositionof civil society to the state was to emerge onlywhen civil society came to be conceived in this way,although even then, not consistently. In some laterversions, civil society is constituted by the state and isthe place where the state enforces its power throughan array of cultural, educational and religious practices.
Other points of contention included the relationof civil society to the market: for some, it included themarket and economic relations, while for others itwas restricted to action of non-economic nature. As ittravelled outside its original context, the conceptacquired further meanings, for example coming torefer to civil as opposed to military rule in LatinAmerica.
In terms of practice, too, 'civil society' dœs notcorrespond neatly to any kind of activity or associationalform. Further, it has come to be used by groupsacross the world to refer to quite different kinds ofsocio-political projects. For example, in LatinAmerica, civil society is used to refer to labour movementsin opposition to middle class forms of associationsuch as NGOs; in other parts, as in Nepal, thelabel 'civil society' has long meant mostly middleclassmovements and organisations. Even then, wecan see different models of civil society today inNepal. First, there is an 'NGO model' (very much inkeeping with liberal tradition in civil society thinkingpromoted by donors since the late 90s) populated by'impartial organisations'. Secondly, there comes a'citizens' model' of civil society, made up of individualswith clear albeit different political views and agendas.
We are nearing something of a consensus in thedefinition of civil society today: minimally, civil societyis understood to refer to associative action undertakenvoluntarily, that is neither part of the state norundertaken for economic reasons. Still, the complexityoutlined above highlights the futility of referringto theory and practice elsewhere to argue for oragainst the appropriateness of CMDP actions in thewake of CoAS Katawal's sacking. Any argument infavour or against CMDP might be elaborated, as suitsone's politics. Rather than dissecting the actions ofCMDP, we should perhaps be holding a different typeof debate altogether, namely: what kind of civil societyis appropriate for Nepal at this juncture? Can'politicisation' be strength rather than a weakness?One contentious point in Nepal is the desirability(or otherwise) of an apolitical civil society, whethercivil society groups should act 'just as mediators' orcan be more active in politics. Notably, CMDP wasaccused of acting like a political party when they tookto the streets and conducted a sit-in programme infront of the president's office. There is, of course, aprecedent for such actions. What's more, it is widelyacknowledged today that had CMDP been apoliticalin the spring and summer of 2005 and not acted likea political party - we would not be where we aretoday, enjoying political and other basic freedoms inthe first republic of Nepal. The argumentput forward by CMDP detractorsis that there no longer is, as in2005, a political vacuum; civil societytherefore, is no longer required toplay that role and should 'revert tobeing a mediator' and a 'think tank'.This is problematic on three counts.
Firstly, comes the issue of liberty,freedom of opinion and speech: surelyarguments against CMDP constitutean attempt to censor one group'sviews and its expression? And is thisnot hinting at an enduring autocratichabitus among the general population- in spite of the dismantling of the formaltrappings of autocracy -- that weshould be trying to transcend as we embark on makinga New Nepal?Secondly, is the issue of possibility: is it possible,at this point in time, to be neutral? It seems there isno longer any 'in between' space, for to be 'inbetween' is also to be located in the political spectrum- as 'status-quoist'.Thirdly, is apoliticality desirable, anyway? Evenassuming that CMDP or other civil society groups forthat matter, are a 'wing' of some political party -should we not be drawing on that as a strength?Could they not use their close relation with politicalparties to improve overall party political culture? Isthere not an urgent need for this and is this not apoint of common accord for all groups claiming thelabel civil society today? Rather than mud-slinging,we need to spend our precious time in rethinkingseriously what civil society can be in Nepal today. Asignificant process of rethinking and expanding thepossibilities for civil society action was initiated backin 2005 through the actions of CMDP - why limit ourselvesand argue that civil society should revert topre-2005 roles? The events of the past two years haveopened up possibilities for a profound transformationof state-society relationships; it is my hope thatcivil society groups will make the most of thismomentous and opportune time to create a new kindof civil society fit for a New Nepal.
(Celayne Heaton Shrestha is a visiting researchfellow at the University of Sussex. She is workingon a research project exploring Nepal's civil societyduring the years of the conflict. This project is partof a research programme directed from the LondonSchool of Economics, UK and is supported by theUK's Economic and Social Research Council.)