You are on page 1of 15

Civil Society and the

Predicament of Multiple Publics

Vivek Bhandari

n a newspaper article published recently, Neera Chandhoke, someone who has written
extensively on the subject of civil society, lamented the emergence of “global civil society
organizations.”1 The organizations, she pointed out, first became dramatically visible at
the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when about fifteen hundred of them had assembled to collec-
tively chart out the world’s future on matters ranging from environmental reform to human
rights. By 1995, this sector of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy groups, and
social activists had reached enormous proportions, as thirty-five thousand of them descended
on the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In the article, Chandhoke argues that
far from signaling the advent of a new global civil society in which the organizations provide
an alternative to a nation-state-centric global order and the exploitative global economy, the
newly emerging consensus reflects a moral vision determined predominantly by powerful
nations in the West. Her doubts on the subject have as much to do with the neoliberal ideo-
logical consensus emerging at these meetings as with the growing valorization of particular
forms of civil society organizations at the expense of many others.
Given the validity of such concerns, especially as they pertain to the postcolonial world,
there is a pressing need to move the dialogue further. In the period following the collapse of
the Soviet Union, it is true that considerable efforts are being devoted to rejuvenating institu-
of
d ies tions of civil society. A concept that was largely moribund when models of state-led modern-
e St u ization dominated both Marxist and liberal conceptions of social change and development,
ra ti v d
pa an it has made a dramatic comeback and is slowly beginning to percolate into a number of disci-
ca
C om fri
,A plinary arenas. Ongoing discussions approach it from a range of vantage points, informed by
A si a
u th st shifting views on the nature of modernization, the growth of new social movements, and the
So Ea
le
M idd discourse of rights. In these debates, new formulations on the nature of statehood and citizen-
th e ship are necessitating a reevaluation of the meanings of civil society. With a backward glance
06 04
1, 20 -0 at this literature, this essay attempts to identify the parameters of civil society in countries that
o. 05
,N 20
26 1x- ss were once colonized by addressing a very specific question: In what ways has the emergence
l. 20 Pre
Vo 89 ty
10 r si
15 / i ve
of nation-statehood and modern notions of subjectivity shaped the relationship between civil
.1 2
i 10 e Un
do D uk society and public culture in postcolonial societies? By focusing on developments in India,
6 by
2 00 the essay argues that an understanding of the discursive fields and practices normatively
©
associated with civil society and the public sphere in Western liberal thought, while useful, is
inadequate for explaining various forms of participatory politics, and indeed the nature of
“political society” itself, in postcolonial contexts where the historical relationship between the

1. Neera Chandhoke, “Civil Society Hijacked,” Hindu, January 16,


36 2002.
state and society (a false duality in itself) has it, for Habermas, everyday interaction makes 37
been one of stark inequality. The essay argues life, but organized interaction makes history. 5
that the peculiar circumstances of colonial rule The emergence of new histories of the popu-
in India created a fractured, stratified public lar struggles of women, peasants, workers, and
culture in which a normative bourgeois public minorities—those not formally admitted to the
sphere coexists with multiple “subaltern coun- public sphere in much of nineteenth-century
terpublics.” Although colonial forms of knowl- Europe and America—suggests the historical
edge sought to discipline the sociocultural inadequacy of Habermas’s distinction. Indeed,

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


landscape in the Raj from the mid-nineteenth in his more recent positions, Habermas has all
century onward, the coexistence of multiple but dropped the radical distinction he drew
publics demonstrates that numerous constitu- earlier, 6 and, as Varshney points outs, if more
encies resisted, indeed subverted, such reorder- organized and institutional civic sites are not
ing. Over time, this has had a profound effect available generally or to some specific groups,
on the way people in India understand their street-corner activity can now be viewed as a
role as citizens and, in turn, their relationship serious civic form as well.7
with existing institutions of civil society. How do these formulations apply to India?
Christopher Pinney points out that the Haber-
Locating the “Public” masian conception of orthodox politics is prob-
In the voluminous scholarship on the subject, lematic and peculiarly unsatisfactory for the
the origins of civil society are generally attrib- study of public culture in the Indian subconti-
uted to G. W. F. Hegel’s nineteenth-century nent. The context for Habermas’s conceptual-
theoretical formulations. 2 More recently, the ization is the outcome of a particular European
revival of the study of civil society, it is often history in which a public sphere emerges to rou-
suggested, is the outcome of debates in Eastern tinize certain forms of communicative agency,
Europe and the English translation of Jürgen debate, and resolution. In Pinney’s concise
Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the synopsis, Habermas’s public sphere “blossoms
Public Sphere.3 Partly because of the prominence within a cognitivized chronotope (archetypi-
of Habermas’s formulations on the “public cally the coffee house where one could read and
sphere” and modern institutions in general, discuss The Tatler ) within which a certain model
the concept of civil society has been particularly of cerebral rationality is privileged. The cultural
important to political philosophers, who have agency that Habermas embodies in this form
been its primary explorers in recent times.4 In of politics is linguistically overdetermined and
his work on a theory of “communicative action,” is grounded in a notional dyadic interchange
Habermas makes a clear distinction between between two discoursing (and immobily seated)
the “lifeworld” and the “system”— a distinction men.”8 He goes on to point out that the theory
that indicates a radical rupture between the of political culture that emerges from such con-
significance of everyday interaction and inter- straints is “structured by two absences, which
actions made possible by institutions and orga- limit its powers of elucidation: the absence of
nizations. The latter, according to Habermas, any consideration of the bodies that produce
serve as the locus of the modern public sphere these elocutions and of the performative ele-
and, in turn, the associational life that ani- ment in these encounters” (19).
mates civil society. As Ashutosh Varshney puts Recent writings on the subject of public

2. For an intellectual history of the concept, see 4. See, e.g., Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Soci- 6. Jürgen Habermas, “Further Reflections on the
Adam Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton, ety and Political Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Public Sphere,” in Calhoun, Habermas and the Public
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). 1992); Charles Taylor, “Modes of Civil Society,” Public Sphere, 421–61.
Culture 3, no. 1 (1990); and Michael Walzer, “The Con-
3. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation 7. Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, 41.
cept of Civil Society,” in Towards a Global Civil Soci-
of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of
ety, ed. M. Walzer (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 8. Christopher Pinney, “Introduction: Public, Popular,
Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Fred-
1998), 41–68. and Other Cultures,” in Pleasure and the Nation: The
eric Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). For
History, Politics, and Consumption of Public Culture in
a rich collection of essays on Habermas’s formula- 5. Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life:
India, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (New
tion, see Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Hindus and Muslims in India (New Haven, CT: Yale
Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 18–19.
Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992). University Press, 2002), 45.
38 culture in India have tried to fill these absences. This use of the term public gains addi-
Most of them are inextricably linked to new tional support from revisionist historiography
media and varieties of print culture, within of the public sphere. Commenting on this schol-
larger discussions on the nature of national- arship, Nancy Fraser argues that scholars like
ism. This research finds that the circulation Joan Landes and Geoff Eley demonstrate the
of images and texts and the proliferation of degree to which Habermas’s account idealizes
cultural flows are of long standing in India (2) the liberal public sphere because he fails to
e and have facilitated a rich culture of opposition study “other, nonliberal, nonbourgeois, compet-
ra ti v
pa against dominant institutions. Stuart Hall has ing public spheres.”14 These scholars argue that,
m
Co in fact suggested that the only viable definition despite Habermas’s claims about the accessibil-
f
ie so
tu d
of popular culture positions it “in a continuing ity of the public domain, the “official” public
S
ia , tension (relationship, influence, antagonism) sphere rested on, indeed was importantly con-
As
u th to the dominant culture.”9 Such a position is stituted by, a number of significant exclusions.
So he
n dt
aa congruent with the model of “subalternity” that Fraser points out that for Landes, the key axis
ri c
Af st has emerged in the pioneering work of Ranajit of exclusion is gender; she argues that the ethos
Ea
le Guha. Within South Asianist historiography, of the new republican public sphere in France
M idd
the emergence of subaltern studies paralleled was constructed in deliberate opposition to
the recognition that there were fundamen- that of a more woman-friendly salon culture
tal problems with colonialist historiography. that the republicans stigmatized as “artificial,”
Guha’s pioneering formulation sought to rectify “effeminate,” and “aristocratic” (113–14). Con-
what he perceived as the historical discipline’s sequently, a new, austere style of public speech
blindness to mass politics by highlighting the and behavior was promoted, a style deemed
Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to “speak for the “rational,” “virtuous,” and “manly” (113). Tak-
nation.” 10 Subaltern culture works against ing Landes’s argument further, Eley demon-
dominant groups by using a plethora of eclectic strates the degree to which exclusionary opera-
signs and strategies of resistance in a search for tions were essential to maintaining the liberal
autonomy.11 In this context, Arjun Appadurai public sphere in countries like England, France,
and Carol Breckenridge’s claim that public cul- and Germany, where gender exclusions were
ture is an ally of subaltern studies, extending linked to other exclusions rooted in processes
that perspective to India considered as a “post- of class formation. In these situations, he claims
colony,” makes sense.12 Their model of public that “the soil that nourished the liberal public
culture defines it as a “zone of contestation.” In sphere was ‘civil society,’ the emerging new con-
their remarkably rich interpretation, the term geries of voluntary associations.”15 As Jacqueline
public is not a “neutral or arbitrary substitute for Urla puts it, mechanisms of exclusion applied
all these existing alternatives [popular, mass, most forcefully to those citizens who “did not or
folk, consumer, national, or middle class].” will not speak the language of civil society.”16
Instead, Appadurai and Breckenridge use the Clearly a number of the discussions hinge
term public culture to “escape these by now con- on the question of whether or not the groups
ventional hierarchies [like ‘high’ and ‘low’ cul- participating in public discourse are in fact act-
ture] to generate an approach which is open to ing autonomously. In his efforts to formulate
the cultural nuances of cosmopolitanism and of a more nuanced and textured view of “publics
the modern in India.”13 and counterpublics” in the wake of the insight-

9. Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popu- 12. Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge, “Why 16. Jacqueline Urla, “Outlaw Language: Creating
lar,’” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, Public Culture?” Public Culture 1 (1988): 4. Alternative Public Spheres in Basque Free Radio,” in
ed. John Storey (New York: Prentice Hall, 1997), 462 The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, ed.
13. Ibid., 6.
(emphasis added). Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (Durham, NC: Duke Uni-
14. See Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” versity Press, 1997), 280.
10. Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony:
in Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, 115.
History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1997), xii. 15. Ibid., 114. For Eley’s detailed discussion, see Geoff
Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing
11. Ibid.
Habermas in the Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun,
Habermas and the Public Sphere, 289–339.
ful revisionist public sphere literature, Michael subordinated social groups invent and circulate 39
Warner argues that the “existence of a public counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional
is contingent on its members’ activity, however interpretations of their identities, interests, and
notional or compromised, and not on its mem- needs.19 The point, which was made persua-
bers’ categorical classification, objectively deter- sively by Fraser and can be applied to colonial
mined position in social structure, or material and postcolonial societies, is that “subaltern
existence. In the self-understanding that makes counterpublics have a dual character. On the
them work, publics thus resemble the model of one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


voluntary association that is so important to civil and regroupment; on the other hand, they
society.”17 Warner goes on to point out, however, also function as bases and training grounds
that, unlike a voluntary association (and indeed for agitational activities directed toward wider
any civil society organization), a public is not publics. It is precisely in the dialectic between
necessarily tied to any institutional being and these two functions that their emancipatory
instead commences “with the moment of atten- potential resides. This dialectic enables subal-
tion” of its participants. Publics thus “continu- tern counterpublics to partially offset, although
ally predicate renewed attention, and cease to not wholly to eradicate, the unjust participatory
exist when attention is no longer predicated” privileges enjoyed by members of dominant
(61–62). In this sense, they are “virtual entities, social groups in stratified societies.”20 Argu-
not voluntary associations,” and become an ing against a singular, comprehensive public
integral part of political society because they sphere, Fraser opts for a more flexible theoriza-
act as organic points of convergence for social tion of the public that makes room for a plural-
constituencies. Warner’s formulation forces us ity of competing publics. This move away from a
to recognize that a public can be seen as an strong normative conception to a more histori-
expression of volition—of agency—on the part cally grounded one has the virtue of expanding
of its members, and this allows us to under- our view of available and politically relevant dis-
stand “publics as scenes of self-activity, of his- cursive spaces by including subaltern counter-
torical rather than timeless belonging,” as sites publics as crucial alternative forms of publicity
of “active participation rather than ascriptive that have an integral influence on the activities
belonging” (62–63). associated with civil society.
Virtually from the beginning, counter- Revisionist conceptualizations of the
publics contested the exclusionary norms of the public open up ways of decentering our under-
bourgeois public, elaborating alternative styles standing of the processes through which ideas
of political behavior and alternative norms of are produced and shared. Based on these writ-
public speech, a pattern as true of European ings, it would seem that the structural relation-
nations as of colonial settings. As Eley puts it, ship of public culture with civil society organi-
“The emergence of a bourgeois public was never zations is clearly far more complex than what is
defi ned solely by the struggle against absolut- described in Habermas’s early formulations on
ism and traditional authority, but . . . addressed the subject. For the purposes here, it is more
the problem of popular containment as well. useful to argue that the diversity of political
The public sphere was always constituted by practices and publics—many (though not all)
conflict.”18 According to this view, members of of which are constructed around collective, not
subordinated social groups repeatedly found individual, notions of subjectivity—requires us
it advantageous to constitute alternative pub- to recognize that civil society in postcolonial
lics. Fraser calls these social groups “subaltern societies should be understood as a fragmented
counterpublics” in order to signal that they are space, one that has a symbiotic relationship with
parallel discursive arenas where members of the multiple publics that inform it.

17. See Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpub- 19. Fraser coined this phrase by combining two sity Press, 1989). See Fraser, “Rethinking the Public
lics,” Public Culture 14 (2002): 61. terms that other theorists have recently used. She Sphere,” 109–42.
has taken subaltern from Gayatri Spivak’s use of
18. Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures.” 20. Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 124.
the term and counterpublic from Rita Felski, Beyond
Cited in Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 116.
Feminist Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer-
40 The State and Civil Society cies, and other distinctly modern institutions.26
Most discussions of civil society derive suste- These structured effects of modern technolo-
nance from differing interpretations of state- gies of power tend to privilege static notions of
hood and citizenship, concepts that have long citizenship that are at odds with the historical
and distinguished lineages. Although there is movement of peoples and ideas.
not enough space to delve into these in detail, Such static notions of statehood—and the
the influence of Foucauldian insights on postco- ways in which they have become integral to ide-
e lonial literature, and how the latter has altered ologies of nationalism—have had a detrimental
ra ti v
m pa our use of these concepts, needs to be acknowl- effect on democratic practices in postcolonial
Co edged. Before moving on to the discussion of societies. One way of understanding this better
f
ie so
tu d
the relationship between civil society and pub- is by exploring the intrinsic relationship between
S
ia , lic culture, our understanding of these concepts civil society and citizenship in such societies, a
As
u th should be clarified. juxtaposition that also helps us to better com-
So he
n dt
aa In a seminal essay challenging Hegel’s prehend some of the ways in which moderniza-
ri c
Af st claim that “the state is not mere mechanical tion has gone wrong. The inherently patriarchal
Ea
le scaffolding” but a vital force for realizing the and authoritarian (rather than participatory)
M idd
ethics of freedom, 21 Timothy Mitchell argues form taken by modern institutions in such soci-
that “the edges of the state are uncertain; soci- eties has undermined modernity’s emancipatory
etal elements seem to penetrate it on all sides, potential, in large part because the state, as a
and the resulting boundary between state and structural effect, has failed to protect the rights
society is difficult to determine.”22 In this, he ensured by citizenship for large segments of the
is building on the work of Philip Abrams, for population. In India, for instance, the postcolo-
whom the state is not an institution, let alone nial government is structurally not too different
a thing, but an “ideological project,” so that from its colonial predecessor. The situation is
the key to the problem is to acknowledge the compounded by the fact that in this period, cap-
“cogency of the idea of the state as an ideologi- ital is monopolized by a dominant elite, one that
cal power and treat that as a compelling object spearheaded what Partha Chatterjee (following
of analysis.”23 For Mitchell, the state is impor- Antonio Gramsci) describes as a “passive revolu-
tant because “of its political strength as a mythic tion” against India’s erstwhile colonial rulers.27
or ideological construct.”24 As C. J. Fuller points This has created a situation in which the idea
out, Mitchell’s approach crucially depends on of democracy as it is used by dominant groups
the argument that although there is no clear serves as little more than an ideological foil for
boundary separating the state from society, an their self-preservation. According to Dipankar
apparent boundary between them is produced Gupta, “When democracy no longer encourages
by the modern nation-state, so that “the dis- the well-being of citizens along the lines of civil
tinction between state and society . . . [is] the society, it is largely because the ethics of free-
defining characteristic of the modern political dom are being subverted by technological ratio-
order.”25 For Mitchell, the state is to be analyzed nality, or by market principles, or by the majority
not as a structure but “as a structural effect,” principle, or the pure and dogmatic assertions
that is, as the effect of practices that make state of communal or group equality (as in caste-
structures appear to exist. Significant among based politics).”28 I would like to argue that the
these practices are Foucauldian disciplines help- solution to this problem is for disenfranchised
ing to produce the armies, schools, bureaucra- groups not to abandon the notion of citizenship

21. Cited from G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 23. Philip Abrams, “Some Notes on the Difficulty of 26. For Mitchell’s explanation of the phrase structural
cited in Dipankar Gupta, “Civil Society or the State: Studying the State,” Journal of Historical Sociology 1 effect, see Mitchell, “Limits of the State,” 94.
What Happened to Citizenship? ” in Institutions (1998): 79.
27. Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the
and Inequalities: Essays in Honour of Andre Beteille,
24. Mitchell, “Limits of the State,” 81. Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? 2nd ed. (Min-
ed. Ramachandra Guha and Jonathan P. Parry (New
neapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). See
Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 253. 25. C. J. Fuller and John Harriss, “For an Anthropology
chapters 1, 2, and 5 for a detailed discussion of this
of the Modern Indian State,” in The Everyday State
22. Timothy Mitchell, “The Limits of the State: subject.
and Society in India, ed. C. J. Fuller and Veronique
Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” Ameri-
Benei (New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2000), 3–4. 28. Gupta, “Civil Society or the State,” 253.
can Political Science Review, 85 (1991): 77–96.
altogether but to create viable spaces to engage This has not changed too much with India’s pas- 41
institutions that serve as the loci of power. This sage from colonial rule to postcolonial nation-
was a point that Pierre Bourdieu made while hood because, in the latter, the discourses and
warning new social movement activists that a practices of civil society still emanate from a
rewriting of meaning is an effete exercise in and small group of “citizens.” These groups were
of itself; it must be supplemented with a direct the nationalist elites in the era of colonial
engagement with the state.29 modernity and have remained dominant in
In India, definitions of modern statehood the postcolonial period. However, despite the

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


have historically been normalized to accommo- proliferation of NGOs, citizens’ groups, and so
date the imperatives of nation building. Partly as on in recent times, a large segment of Indian
an extension of this process, the concept of citi- society still remains outside the bounds of civil
zenship has been made more parochial, render- society but—and here is the catch—within the
ing it virtually incapable of accommodating the realm of “political society.” The emergent forms
cosmopolitan impulses of mobile communities. of this political realm are still unclear, but Chat-
Historically, social groups resisting the postcolo- terjee tackles the problem by designating this
nial state’s efforts at modernization have tended segment as the population, a descriptive and
to draw on a rich repertoire of resistance strat- empirical (not normative) characterization
egies developed over a prolonged engagement formulated to capture the “material of society”
with colonial rule, indeed many precolonial that is not rationally explicable. 32 Without say-
forms of disciplining. Although the constitu- ing so, he seems to imply that the realm of sub-
encies of these groups are usually local, their altern agency is to be found in sections of the
repertoire is enriched by extranational cultural population whose lives are governed by alterna-
images, narratives, and modes of representa- tive forms of knowledge and reason. Inhabiting
tion. Such communities view liberal notions of alternative modernities, these groups have an
citizenship through a lens conditioned by deep, uncomfortable relationship with the appara-
and in many cases well-founded, suspicion of tus and practices associated with the modern
governmental efforts at ordering. In the pre- nation-state.
colonial and colonial periods, migrant groups
and seasonal workers moved in large numbers Multiple Publics and Civil Society in India
into trade, warfare, manufacturing, building, I would like to take Chatterjee’s formulation fur-
and hauling, all perennial options. 30 These ther to argue that the relationship between civil
movements have continued in the postcolonial society and what Chatterjee somewhat vaguely
period, but they fi nd themselves frequently at describes as the population can be clarified by
odds with an increasingly archaic notion of lib- reassessing our understanding of public culture
eral citizenship. Building on his argument that in India. The process of state formation in post-
nationalism in colonial societies was “a deriva- colonial societies—shaped as it is by the violent
tive discourse” that normalized the hegemony interaction of colonial and precolonial forms of
of bourgeois groups, Chatterjee has recently knowledge—is intertwined with the existence
emphasized that in countries like India, civil of multiple publics and counterpublics, nor-
society—those institutions of modern associa- matively very different from the Habermasian
tional life that are based on equality, autonomy, public sphere. In this section, I examine three
freedom of entry and exit, and other such prin- small examples to illustrate the ways in which
ciples—is accessible only to a small section of publics, in starkly different historical contexts,
the population whose rights are protected by played a critical role in animating political cul-
the legal-bureaucratic apparatus of the state. 31 ture. The first example is from late-nineteenth-

29. Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Space and the Genesis of 30. David Ludden, An Agrarian History of South Asia tory and Possibilities, ed. Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil
Groups,” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 723–44; cited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 25, Khilnani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
in Gupta, “Civil Society or the State,” 253. 218–19. 2001), 165–78.

31. Partha Chatterjee, “On Civil and Political Societ- 32. Ibid., 173.
ies in Postcolonial Democracies,” in Civil Society: His-
42 century Punjab (in northern India); the second often foreign content.34 A key figure of this gen-
is from the 1940s, the “twilight” of British rule eration was Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who played
in India; and the third has strong resonance for a seminal role in trying to reconcile modern-
contemporary India. ist notions of science and rationality with tra-
ditional Islam. Although he is remembered for
Oratory, Publishing, and the “Indian Ecumene” his extensive writings and as the founder of
As one of the many colonial institutions that the Anglo-Muhammadan Oriental College in
became entrenched in nineteenth-century Pun- Aligarh in 1875, he was also one of the most
i ve
rat
m pa jab, the printing press became a major force of public figures of the nineteenth century, a per-
Co change in the region. A newly burgeoning print son who adjusted to the radical transforma-
f
ie so
tu d
culture, animated by the activities of prolific tions of this turbulent period by redefining the
S
ia , writers, influential thinkers, and activists, came nature of public speaking and oratory.
As
u th to be supplemented by precolonial and colonial By the time Punjab entered the 1860s,
So he
n dt
aa channels of oral and performative communi- new public settings and the emergence of town
ri c
Af st cation by the third quarter of the nineteenth halls, municipal committees, and other such
Ea
le century. As the ordering of colonial society institutions restructured the way in which audi-
M idd
under the Raj restructured social relations and ences received the spoken word. This, in turn
the cultural landscape of urban India, a new shaped the idiom of public debate. By the mid-
class of public intellectuals increasingly found dle of the nineteenth century, in addition to the
itself going back and forth between the realm of ulama and pandits, “lay” spokesmen increasingly
ideas and the sphere of practical political con- began to share ideas and articulate opinions.35
cerns, between the circle of high politics and In Punjab, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan was among
the messy realities of local politics, between the the earliest figures to play this role. The reason
promise of Western learning and the timeworn for his success lay as much in the provocative
conventions of what Chris Bayly has described nature of his reformist ideas as in the incisive
as the “Indian ecumene.” In Bayly’s definition, ways in which he adjusted his oratorical style
the Indian ecumene was “a form of cultural to suit the requirements of new public spaces.
and political debate which was typical of North His biographer, Hali, claims that Sir Sayyid was
India before the emergence of the newspaper the first person in British India to introduce
and public association, yet persisted in conjunc- public speaking in a language other than En-
tion with the press and new forms of publicity glish or Persian. Describing the oratorical style
into the age of nationalism.”33 Many of the per- of Sir Sayyid in a speech that he delivered in
sonalities who inhabited this world spoke from Ludhiana in 1884, David Lelyveld says that he
positions both within and outside the bound- “modulate[d] skillfully from a brief expression
aries of political rationality sanctioned by the of Persianized politeness formulas to bits of
institutional structures of colonial society and Arabic piety, finally to end in an intimate style
articulated their bold new demands for consti- in which he addresse[d] his audience in the
tutional reform with age-old cultural references familiar tum mode.”36 The intimacy, informal-
while investing familiar constructs with new, ity, and spontaneity of this style of public speak-

33. C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence was fundamentally cosmopolitan and shared by non- political system itself . . . becomes more and more
Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780– Muslims as well. When adabi norms were carried democratic.” Metcalf’s definition is in Moral Con-
1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), over into colonial settings, they were increasingly duct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian
chap. 5. adapted to new settings and forms of discourse. By Islam, ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf (Berkeley: University
the late nineteenth century, a number of publicists of California Press, 1984), 12–13. Gilmartin’s quota-
34. A good example of this is the democratization
recognized the need to adapt their modes of articula- tion is taken from the same book, 19.
of the concept of adab. Most of the urban publicists,
tion to new contexts, not by denying the relevance of
and various other public figures of late-nineteenth- 35. Barbara Daly Metcalf, “Polemical Debates in
adab norms, but by modifying them. Referring to the
century Punjab, were familiar with the normative Colonial India,” in Religious Controversy in British
relevance of adab in colonial society, David Gilmartin
directives laid down as adabiyat, defined by Barbara India, ed. K. Jones (Albany: State University of New
notes: “The reformers in the modern period . . . are
Daly Metcalf as “the proper discrimination of social York Press, 1992), 232.
less concerned with elites because it is not just the
order, behavior, and taste; it espouses breeding and
elites who provide the cultural basis for the political 36. David Lelyveld, “Fragments of a Public Sphere:
nurture; and it is sustained by deference towards
system; rather there are larger groups of people who Urdu Oratory and Printing in the Nineteenth Cen-
those who embody its norms.” Although originally
are now involved. This becomes particularly impor- tury” (paper presented at the Association of Asian
identified with an Islamic ideal, the content of adab
tant in the late nineteenth century . . . when the Studies meeting, Chicago, 17 April 1990).
ing marked a major break with the timeworn judged, and acted. The public speeches of men 43
conventions of the past. What is also apparent like Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Lala Lajpat Rai
from a number of Sir Sayyid’s speeches all over brought together the same social groups that
Punjab in 1884, 37 at sites ranging from railway attended the public spectacle of the shastrar-
platforms to town halls, is that his audience cut thas, where Christian missionaries, Muslim cler-
across class and religious lines. By attracting ics, and Hindu Brahmans debated the glories
the interest of such an audience he, in effect, of their religions. Punjabis who participated in
conceded the existence of a larger public as associational and civic life frequently engaged in

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


enfranchised in its own fate.38 Sir Sayyid’s activi- debates on issues of caste, religious, municipal,
ties also brought him into contact with several educational, and literary “reform.”40 The emer-
groups at “traditional” arenas such as mushai- gence of a public culture, in which disparate
ras, munazarah, and the recitation of dastans, 39 individuals speaking for specific social constitu-
which were historically limited to specific social encies sought to influence a large audience, was
constituencies such as the ashraf (notables or a key component of this process. Public artic-
nobility). Many of these settings became loci of ulations were diverse and often contentious,
political debate and surveillance that subjected generating emotional pronouncements and
both rulers and society to critique through counterassertions in the name of associations
meetings, performance, and poetry. “representing” a range of social constituencies.
Administrative infrastructure set up Although not necessarily subaltern in nature,
in the early decades of formal colonial rule the speeches of men like Sir Sayyid were efforts
created institutional spaces that altered the at appealing to new audiences by developing
parameters within which Punjabis expressed discursive strategies that relied on the creative
themselves. Together with the emergence of use of the new urban topography and the new
new economic opportunities, especially in com- public arenas it created. Many of the publics
merce, the urban centers of Punjab witnessed that converged around such spaces symbolized
a rapid increase in the number of libraries, the restlessness of a newly emerging class forma-
schools, bookstores, and publishing institu- tion and went on to shape the channels through
tions. In sum, all of these changes transformed which anticolonial sentiments were articulated
the expression and circulation of knowledge in over the course of the next century.
radical ways, and together with institutions of
modern education and the colonial adminis- Performing Politics, Staging Resistance
trative edifice, restructured the social habitus In 1942, a group of progressive writers who
of urban Punjab. Into this context emerged a recognized the potential of popular theater as
restless group that cut across kin ties, neighbor- an effective weapon in the fight against British
hood networks, and caste affiliations by publicly imperialism and fascism, and in the struggles of
debating issues of social morality and political peasants, workers, and other oppressed classes,
reform. This group represented itself not as a formed an informal organization called the
single collective united by ideology but through Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
individuals and organizations whose schemes According to the founders of the IPTA, the
of perception shaped the way they classified, goal of the organization, as articulated in the

37. Sayyid Iqbal Ali, Sayyid Ahmad Khan ka Safar- 40. In a fascinating discussion on the impact of The boundaries governing agendas for reform were
Namah-i-Panjab (The Travels of Sayyid Ahmad Khan “colonial liberalism” in India, David Scott argues that determined by the class configurations of colonial
in Punjab) (Aligarh: Aligarh Institute Press, 1884). the discourse on reform in colonial society has to be society. As shall be seen, the specificity of the reform-
understood as central to modern power, to “mod- ist space was (and continues to be) constantly chal-
38. Ibid.
ern forms of political rationality.” In this sense, Scott lenged by subaltern counterpublics that resisted the
39. Mushairas are poetry readings, normally con- argues, reform is “connected to the construction of political rationality embodied in reformist agendas.
ducted in closed settings. Munazarah, according to a specific kind of knowledge (a rationalist, universal- For a detailed discussion of these themes, see David
Bayly (Empire and Information, 190), refers to forms ist knowledge), a certain kind of division of social- Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postco-
of critical debate on religious subjects. On dastans, institutional space (the secular/religious, state/civil loniality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
see Frances W. Pritchett, The Romance Tradition in society division), a certain kind of historical under- 1999), 84–90.
Urdu: Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamzah standing (a teleological and progressivist history),
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). and a certain kind of subject (a self-improving one).”
44 “All Indian People’s Theatre Conference Draft of Bengal, tamasha of Maharashtra, and bur-
Resolution,” was to mobilize “a people’s theatre rakatha of Andhra Pradesh (433). Given the lin-
movement throughout the whole of India as the guistic, cultural, and geographical diversity of
means of revitalizing the stage and the tradi- the Indian subcontinent, the IPTA was forced
tional arts and making them at once the expres- to make tough decisions regarding language,
sion and organizer of our people’s struggle for theatrical space, stylistic devices, viewership,
freedom, cultural progress and economic jus- and audience in order to address the specific
e tice.” 41 As Nandi Bhatia describes it, founders of constituencies it sought to politicize and ener-
ra ti v
m pa the IPTA described the organization as neither gize. To some degree, it succeeded in its aims
Co “a movement which has been imposed from because of its ability to look beyond the assump-
f
ie so
tu d
above but one which has its roots deep down in tions of Western revolutionary theory and thus
S
ia , the cultural awakening of the masses of India, inaugurated a theater of collective resistance
As
u th nor . . . a movement which discards our rich and liberation, yet was heterogeneous in its
So he
n dt
aa cultural heritage, but one which seeks to revive constitution and varied depending on the geo-
ri c
Af st the lost in that heritage by interpreting, adopt- graphical, linguistic, and cultural differences of
Ea
le ing and integrating it with the most significant a diverse populace.
M idd
facts of the people’s lives and aspirations in the Although the plays performed by the
people’s epoch” (432). IPTA frequently drew on themes from around
The IPTA’s activities, which creatively the world (as in the play Roar China), perhaps
blended ideas drawn partly from Western and its most successful play was Bijon Bhattacharya’s
Chinese practices, as well as forms of traditional Nabanna, about the Bengal famine of 1943.
drama performed at the local level in numerous Under Shombhu Mitra’s direction, the Bengal
parts of the Indian subcontinent, were clearly IPTA squad performed the play in many parts
inspired by a Marxist utopian vision. In this of the country as part of a festival called the
sense, the IPTA sought to challenge existing Voice of Bengal. Bhatia says that the purpose
hegemonic structures, both colonial and those of the festival was to collect money for the relief
intrinsic to Indian society. Bhatia points out that of famine victims in rural Bengal. Nabanna pre-
for many of the founders of the IPTA, the Little sents the intensity of the famine through the
Theatre Groups in England, the 1930s Works starving family of a Bengali peasant, Pradhan
Progress Administration (WPA) theater project Samaddar. As the play progresses, it goes on to
in the United States, the Soviet theaters, and the critique the inherently exploitative nature of
strolling players in China who staged antifascist colonial rule by demonstrating that the fam-
plays to protest Japanese exploitation exerted ine was not a natural disaster but a man-made
immense influence. Inspired by these groups calamity. Nabannna’s challenge to imperialism,
abroad, IPTA members turned to theater as a according to Bhatia, also occurs in “the play’s
political weapon amid the political turmoil at violation of the conventions of ‘high realism’
home, created by the war in Europe, increasing presented in the ‘well-made’ plays that domi-
repression from British imperialism, and deep- nated metropolitan theater in India in the early
ening nationalist sentiments manifested in the decades of the twentieth century” (439). This
Quit India movement of 1942. “disruption occurs through the episodic struc-
What makes the IPTA interesting for this ture of the play, which prevents the action from
discussion was that right from its origin, it was being resolved at the end, frustrating an inter-
forced to adapt to a diverse range of public pretive closure. In so doing, Nabanna purports
spaces that, its founders soon realized, were to evoke ‘recognition’ from the audience as the
critical for animating political discourse. To operative and critical political response” (439).
seek the “widest possible mass basis for its activi- The possibility of popular accessibility to
ties,” the IPTA turned to indigenous popular the IPTA productions was facilitated, in part, by
traditions of different regions such as the jatra the IPTA’s ability to move from place to place
41. Nandi Bhatia, “Staging Resistance: The Indian
Peoples’ Theater Association,” in Lowe and Lloyd,
Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, 432.
quite easily. Bhatia describes how its provincial and temples to recruit members and to build 45
squads emerged out of the closed halls of city enduring relationships with specific communi-
theaters to stage plays five or six times a day ties. Although the RSS has its own unique his-
under open skies, in public parks, on street cor- torical trajectory, the organization’s strategy of
ners, or in village and city courtyards. By travel- mobilization is similar to that of the Shiv Sena
ing to remote areas, villages, and working-class in Bombay, which draws on the discourse of
settlements, the directors, producers, and play- Muslim demonization, Hindu militancy, politi-
wrights came into direct contact with their audi- cal nationalism, and the restitution or specific

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


ences. Citing James Clifford, Bhatia argues that religious rituals relying on the public enactment
ethnographic stories “simultaneously describe of religious spectacles such as the Ganapati fes-
real cultural events and make additional . . . tival.43 The RSS’s ideological position is based
ideological statements” (440). Dramatizing the on a dismissal of Nehruvian socialism and the
stories of “the people” in their settings provided “pseudo-secular” pretensions of the postcolo-
patterns or associations that pointed to coher- nial state in India. Since the 1930s, Pune (in
ent meanings. Thus, the “meanings would be western India) has been an important center
provided in two ways: by virtue of the spectators’ of RSS activities and has served as a point of
familiarity with a story, so that they could recog- convergence for numerous other Hindu nation-
nize and understand the processes that caused alist organizations. The driving force behind
oppression, and through identification with the this cluster of organizations—also called the
popular traditions of specific regions. While Sangha Parivar—is the dense network of RSS
the familiarity of a story had the ability to elicit shakhas spread out across most parts of the city.
audience participation in the political process, Over the past eighty years or so, the network
the knowledge of the intimate cultural details of RSS supporters has grown in size, embracing
was useful for directors to engage in address- a range of institutional spaces such as schools,
ing the problems of a particular region.” 42 What colleges, banking institutions, and merchant
IPTA directors learned during their travels was guilds (some of which are caste based) and a
that the stories of imperialism and exploitation number of associations for youth, students,
made maximum sense when these were per- women, children, and social service organiza-
formed in settings that were closest to home tions (working in slums). These are supple-
for the viewers. Decisions regarding the “cor- mented by the RSS’s propaganda tools such as
rect” public space were of critical importance newspapers and magazines. This “alternative
in determining the success of a performance— civil society”—as Thomas Blom Hansen calls
and Bhatia’s research corroborates this. it 44 —plays an important role in the daily life
of the RSS. However, the backbone of its orga-
Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags, and nizational structure is a labyrinthine system of
Cultural Chauvinism informal networks encompassing RSS-affiliated
In postcolonial India, the RSS (Rashtriya Sway- families who exert a high degree of surveillance
amsewak Sangh), an organization banned after over their own constituencies.
its culpability in the assassination of Mohan- Although the upper echelons of the RSS
das Gandhi was established, has maintained a have close ties with institutions of organized
strong foothold in communities scattered across politics like political parties, the RSS’s bloated
parts of the country. This is because its shakhas self-perception as the repository of high moral
(literally branches or training meetings) use and cultural values finds its most insidious man-
seemingly apolitical spaces such as public parks ifestation in the activities of the shakhas whose

42. Ibid. For an updated and more detailed assess- 43. The four “pillars” of the Shiv Sena’s ideology 44. Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democ-
ment of the relationship between nationalism, colo- are described in detail by Mary F. Katzenstein, Uday racy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (New
nialism, and the politics of theater in colonial and Mehta, and Usha Thakkar in “The Rebirth of Shiv Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 117.
postcolonial India, see Bhatia’s Acts of Authority/ Sena in Maharashtra: The Symbiosis of Discursive
Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and and Institutional Power,” in Community Conflicts
Postcolonial India (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan and the State in India, ed. Amrita Basu and Atul Kohli
Press, 2004). (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 215–38.
46 leaders are recruited locally. The RSS shakhas to be understood as a function of its success in
generally rope in young boys from the age of penetrating and controlling those public spaces
six onward and congregate in playgrounds and that are frequently considered outside the realm
open public spaces to conduct their activities. of “organized” political society.47
These include games, religious rituals, physi- The RSS’s proselytizing mission has had
cal training, and, in some cases, the singing of remarkable success through the strategic use
patriotic songs. The boys are expected to wear of public spaces to enhance its political goals.
e khaki shorts and conduct their activities under The approach has allowed it to preserve a core
ra ti v
m pa a saffron f lag, which has come to symbolize group of followers whose commitment to its ide-
Co Hindu nationalism. Following the initiation of ology has transformed the character of whole
f
ie so
tu d
the boys into the organization, a sense of cor- neighborhoods and castes.48 An excellent exam-
S
ia , porate belonging is inculcated through peer ple of this kind of success is to be found among
As
u th mentoring in the shakha, in which the group the Chitpavan Brahmans of Maharashtra. For
So he
n dt
aa leader consciously makes an effort to establish such groups, the other is always the Muslim
ri c
Af st a relationship with a member’s family, so that community, which is thoroughly demonized,
Ea
le over time the distinction between the individ- and the Anglicized establishment, from which
M idd
ual member’s political mission and personal these groups have been excluded. In this sense,
life is blurred.45 This not only makes it difficult the RSS’s alternative civil society draws suste-
for a swayamsewak (individual member) to leave nance from its “besieged” mentality and is pit-
the organization but also encourages a lifelong ted against the postcolonial state. Indeed, every
attachment of the family to the organization. act of criticism and ridicule of the RSS by the
In addition to the indoctrination that lies government has been used by the organiza-
at the heart of shakha activity, the RSS’s reper- tion to strengthen its core constituency and the
toire also includes the use of public spectacle as commitment of its members. In this sense, the
a means toward greater social integration and seemingly apolitical activity of the shakha, which
visibility. Six specific festivals punctuate the thrives on its use of precisely those local spaces
annual calendar and play a pivotal role in pub- that lie outside the bounds of mainstream civil
licizing the different strands of RSS ideology. society, continues unabated in its efforts of
The articulation of a hypermasculine patriotism Hindu fascist indoctrination.
through the elevation of Shivaji—a Maratha
ruler who challenged Mogul authority—to
the status of a demigod serves to “nationalize”
The above examples, all of which are rooted in
this medieval figure. This is done through the
completely different historical contexts, reveal
public enactment of his ideas in plays. The RSS
the complexity and texture of political culture
also promotes the use of Sanskrit verses in all
in modern India. The diversity of political prac-
of its public rituals (marching, exercising, etc.)
tices, discursive strategies, and the multiplicity
in order to project the idea of Hindu cultural
of locations where these take shape demon-
purity around the idea of “dharma” and the
strates that our understanding of civil society
timeless quality of Hindu civilizational identity.46
in postcolonial settings needs to be broadened.
For the purposes here, the point worth making
In a recent essay, Arjun Appadurai argues that,
is that the durability of the RSS’s network needs

45. The strategies used by the RSS shakhas have been Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags (New Delhi: Orient came into direct conflict with the RSS’s much more
captured by Lalit Vachani in two documentary films, Longman, 1993). chauvinistic agenda. Shikshantar’s own approach is
which describe the subtle ways in which shakha based on a sensitive appreciation of the interplay
47. Members of Shikshantar (also called the Peo-
leaders are able to initiate and sustain contact with between multiple publics, culture, and politics, and
ple’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Devel-
young boys and indoctrinate them with ideologies of over the past few years it has found itself in situa-
opment) based in Udaipur (in Rajasthan) told me in
Hindu nationalism. See The Boy in the Branch (New tions of conflict with the RSS.
April 2002 that in their efforts to energize local play-
Delhi: Wide Eye Films, 1993) and The Men in the Tree
grounds and public spaces as places for dialogue and 48. For an in-depth discussion of the creative use
(New Delhi: Wide Eye Films, 2002).
play, they were confronted with members of the RSS of public spaces by the RSS, see Hansen, The Saffron
46. For a discussion of the RSS’s history and its strat- who “claimed” these territories. Shikshantar’s goals, Wave, chap. 3.
egies of mobilization, see Tapan Basu, Pradit Datta, which are geared toward creating “open spaces” for
Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, and Sambuddha Sen, dialogue among local communities, families, etc.,
semantically, “deep democracy” (as he describes in Punjab, whose urban spaces were animated 47
the form taken by political practices in contem- by multiple “agonistic” publics that had begun
porary India) suggests “roots, anchors, intimacy, to acquire an associational quality by the end
proximity, and locality.” 49 These terms also help of the nineteenth century. Similar patterns are
us to better grasp the morphology of the publics discernible in different parts of colonial India,
that animate political culture. Multiple publics although Bengal was the region that took the
thrive on intimacy and are remarkably mobile lead. The emergence of regional identities in
and capable of cutting across social boundaries, different parts of India, voiced in religious,

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


rather like those constituted by the speeches of linguistic, or cultural terms and shaped by
Sayyid Ahmad Khan and by the plays of the the institutions of colonial administration and
IPTA. Research from other parts of India cor- Western learning as well as the diverse forms of
roborates these patterns. associational civic activity, was inextricably tied
Veena Naregal’s recent study of colonial to the entrenchment of a distinct urban culture
western India shows how, over the past century characterized by these multiple publics.
and a half, new patterns of social stratification An important aspect of these publics that
have been shaped as much by the imperatives mark the political landscape of India is the
of colonial rule as by the active participation performative element. In a remarkable set of
of the “native” intelligentsia, which was able studies over the past decade, Sandria Freitag’s
to achieve a position of ideological influence work draws one toward what Pinney describes
because of its ability to negotiate the arenas of as “the centrally important corporal dimension
educational policy, the press, reform organiza- of performance, the performative space of the
tions, and voluntary associations to advance its procession, and the strangely neglected role of
interests. 50 It shows how the English-educated visuality, as constituents of the nexus of what in
urban elite were completely dependent on other contexts became the public sphere.”51 In a
ground-level activists who used subaltern pub- similar spirit, Ravi Vasudevan draws one’s atten-
lic spaces to mobilize support. Such mobiliza- tion to the virtual inseparability of reception
tions played a critical role in shaping the dis- and production in such situations. His research
course on issues of reform, politics, and religion shows how Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s production
as it was transformed by the interplay between of a space for politicized Ganesh processions in
competing nationalisms in the early part of 1890s Bombay mobilized Hindu participants in
the twentieth century. Naregal’s fi ndings and ways where it would be impossible to “separate
my research are consistent on the position that ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ on opposite sides
at no stage was colonial hegemony total. Even of a semiotic exchange.” 52
though Indians were subject to the mechanisms The role played by social movements in
that preserve colonial states, the diverse forms animating these publics cannot be emphasized
of associational activity that emerged in the enough. India’s long history of organizational
late nineteenth century reveal that subaltern activism has ensured that in the postcolonial
groups exercised their own agency in carving period, NGOs, community groups, and social
out autonomous spaces. Urban groups, faced movements have played a critical role in shap-
with the dilemma of reconciling British ideas ing political society and in directing (in some
of justice, religious reform, economic change, cases, resisting) the efforts of the government
and social identity with their own views that to normalize its hegemony. Of course, many
frequently drew on precolonial forms of knowl- NGOs and citizens’ groups are incorporated
edge, formed associations and reform groups. into the official discourse of development ema-
Social groups frequently challenged each other nating from a state increasingly committed to

49. Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy: Urban Gov- 51. Pinney, “Introduction,” 19. For some of Sandria ism in North India (Berkeley: University of California
ernmentality and the Horizon of Politics,” Public Cul- Freitag’s writings on the subject of performative Press, 1989).
ture 14 (2002): 45. publics in India, see her Culture and Power in Banaras
52. Pinney, “Introduction,” 24. See Ravi S. Vasudevan,
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) and
50. See Veena Naregal, Language Politics, Elites, and “Bombay and Its Public,” in Dwyer and Pinney, Plea-
her edited collection Collective Action and Commu-
the Public Sphere: Western India under Colonialism sure and the Nation, 19.
nity: Public Arenas and the Emergence of Communal-
(New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).
48 neoliberal economic reform. Sangeeta Kamat poster exhibitions play a significant role in ani-
has recently demonstrated that they coexist with mating a discursive civic space in contemporary
numerous grassroots organizations that are part India. A significant part of this movement activ-
of a vibrant democratic tradition.53 In the same ism walks, as Kothari has argued, “on two legs”
vein, Mary Katzenstein, Smitu Kothari, and (267). He points out that many of these move-
Uday Mehta argue that, although identity and ments use their energies not just to influence
interest movements play a direct role in shaping government policy and exercise critical surveil-
e the political culture and civil society of India by lance over the state but also to organize pro-
ra ti v
m pa engaging the state in its electoral, judicial, and grams and to develop strategies that are aimed
Co bureaucratic domains, these movements coexist at transforming attitudes and practices through
f
ie so
tu d
with a vibrant “civic discursive space.”54 This pat- society at large. He points to examples from the
S
ia , tern is clearly not exclusive to India. Judith Adler anti-arrack mobilization of the late 1980s and
As
u th Hellman underscores the value of such a space early 1990s in Andhra Pradesh (267).
So he
n dt
aa in her work on Mexico, and Sonia Alvarez points In postcolonial settings, multiple publics—
ri c
Af st out the importance of movements operating in agonistic and associational—are not spaces in
Ea
le a “third” civil society. 55 Regardless of political any topographical or institutional sense. Since
M idd
ideology, it seems that movements around the the nineteenth century, they have appeared
world operate in ways that are frequently disen- where social groups gather to create, share, or
gaged from the state but are remarkably public debate various forms of knowledge. Porous and
and political in nature. dynamic, these publics help in the creation of
Activities outside of “modern” civil soci- newer forms of civil society that have the poten-
ety can have the effect of laying the foundation tial to exercise critical surveillance over the
for the kind of organized politics that one wit- state as well their own social constituencies. In
nesses at the electoral level, or through advo- this sense it might make sense to speak of not
cacy and citizens’ groups. Katzenstein, Kothari, a singular normative civil society but “multiple
and Mehta point out, for instance, that the RSS civil societies,” which exert considerable influ-
helped to nurture a Hindu identity in sections ence on political life at many levels without
of the Indian population that has now become being tied down to the normative practices of
a secure foundation on which the Bharatiya modern liberal democracy. This flexibility has
Janata Party (BJP) has been able to build elec- allowed subaltern groups to subvert those forces
toral power.56 Television, print, processions, and of the liberal/capitalist order that sanction the
other creative uses of public spaces continue to “colonization” of civil society as bourgeois inter-
play a critical role in preserving this social base ests gain control of mass media and commodify
for the BJP. Katzenstein, Kothari, and Mehta also public culture on their own terms. In this con-
provide examples of a vibrant civic discursive text, an appreciation of the role of subaltern
space within the women’s movements in India. counterpublics has the potential to redraw the
In addition to engaging the state and pressur- conceptual geographies that are used to com-
ing for legal and institutional change, women’s prehend modernist forms of disciplining.
organizations mobilize in order to challenge
patriarchal beliefs and practices through inno- Conclusion
vative strategies in public domains. Marches In a remarkable study of the rise of Hindu
and demonstrations, street theater, plays, jour- nationalism in India, Thomas Blom Hansen
nal stories and personal accounts, songs, and attributes the “saffron wave” of the past fi fteen

53. Sangeeta Kamat, Development Hegemony: NGOs 55. Judith Adler Hellman, “Mexican Popular Move- Revolution: Cultural Politics and Social Protest, ed.
and the State in India (New Delhi: Oxford University ments, Clientelism, and the Process of Democratiza- Richard Fox and Orin Sarn (New Brunswick, NJ: Rut-
Press, 2002). tion,” Latin American Perspectives 21 (1994): 124–42, gers University Press, 1997).
cited in Katzenstein, Kothari, and Mehta, “Social
54. Mary Katzenstein, Smitu Kothari, and Uday 56. Katzenstein, Kothari, and Mehta, “Social Move-
Movement Politics in India,” 266; Sonia E. Alvarez,
Mehta, “Social Movement Politics in India: Insti- ment Politics in India,” 266.
“Reweaving the Fabric of Collective Action: Social
tutions, Interests, and Identities,” in The Success of
Movements and Challenges to ‘Actually Existing
India’s Democracy, ed. Atul Kohli (Cambridge: Cam-
Democracy’ in Brazil,” in Between Resistance and
bridge University Press, 2001), 242–69.
years not just to “imaginative political strategies” a population and the quality of its civic life. 49
or “reserves of religious nationalism” among Explaining further, he uses the terms civil society
proponents of this ideology, but to the growth and civic life to mean that part of life that “exists
of new public spaces in which Indian individu- between the state on one hand and families on
als and communities imagine, represent, and the other, that allows people to come together
recognize themselves through political dis- for a whole variety of public activities, and that
course, commercial and cultural expressions, is relatively independent of the state. Civil soci-
and the representational strategies of state and ety is not a non-political but a non-state space

Vivek Bhandari

Civil Society and Multiple “Publics”


civic organizations. 57 The discourses, expres- of collective life.” 60 Varshney goes on to qualify
sions, and organizations that Hansen describes this definition in another crucial respect: “If it
as constitutive of public space have strong moor- is crucial to civil society that families and indi-
ings in India’s long history of civic life. Countless viduals connect with others beyond their homes
samajs (societies or associations), sabhas (congre- and talk about matters of public relevance with-
gations), and anjumans (gatherings)—among out the interference or sponsorship of the state,
many other forms of civic life—have been an then it seems far too rigid to insist that this takes
integral part of public culture in India. 58 The place only in ‘modern’ associations. . . . Cities
existence of these multiple publics and civic tend to have formal associations, but villages
institutions makes it futile to talk of civil society make do with informal sites and meetings.” 61
in narrow terms, as the other of the state, or in a Varshney’s timely book succeeds in large
more facile sense, as inherently intertwined with part because of his use of a broadened defini-
the neoliberal reform process that was initiated tion of civil society and because he appreciates
in India over a decade ago. It makes far greater the interplay between organized and informal
sense to move beyond the narrow definition of forms of civil life. The latter, as we have seen,
civil society that Neera Chandhoke criticized in play a critical part in the political life of post-
her essay, especially as the movement of peoples colonial societies where the emergence of the
and ideas forces us to reevaluate our notions of nation-state—and together with it, modern
citizenship and subjectivity. notions of subjectivity—has had a profound
The growth of ethnic violence in different influence on political practices and attitudes.
parts of the world lends urgency to these issues. Commentators, who have lauded the “success of
In a detailed assessment of the cities in Gujarat, India’s democracy” in the face of difficult odds
which in early 2002 witnessed a pogrom against like ethnic diversity and poverty, have looked
Muslims by militant Hindu nationalist organiza- favorably at the “democratic-federal-secular”
tions, Ashutosh Varshney argues that the reason quality of India’s political institutions. 62 The
for Gujarat’s history of communal violence was fact remains, however, that the meanings of
that its cities had suffered a steady and progres- these ideas have changed considerably over the
sive decline in civic life. 59 Varshney fi nds that past century, and the institutions of postcolo-
there is an inverse relationship between the nial governance in India, despite their avowed
amount of sectarian violence experienced by claim to serve the interests of all Indians, are

57. Hansen, The Saffron Wave. For an in-depth study Puzzle of Hindu Nationalism,” in Making India Hindu: Human Rights Commission and the judiciary. As she
of how xenophobic elements of Bombay’s culture Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in puts it, “The greatest conundrum of all might well be
have been shaped by a long history of regional his- India, ed. David Ludden (New Delhi: Oxford Univer- the role that religious organizations play in sparking
tory and contested identities to produce unprece- sity Press, 1996), 55–80. or dampening Hindu-Muslim tension.” See Kumar’s
dented levels of urban violence in the past decade, review essay, “India’s House Divided: Understand-
59. Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life.
see Hansen’s Urban Violence in India: Identity Poli- ing Communal Violence,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 4
tics, “Mumbai,” and the Postcolonial City (New Delhi: 60. Ibid., 4 (italics mine). (2002): 177. Hansen’s study of the “saffron wave” in
Oxford University Press, 2001). His study of Hindu the 1990s in India might help to fill the gaps here. See
61. Ibid., 44–45. Varshney’s findings have important
nationalist groups’ use of public culture is particularly Hansen, The Saffron Wave. Also, in the aftermath of
ramifications for our understanding of ethnic vio-
useful for this discussion; see chap. 1, esp. 53–56. the violence in Gujarat in 2002, it is apparent that the
lence. One wonders, however, whether he puts too
dynamics of civic life in India have a fairly direct rela-
58. Amrita Basu argues persuasively that the success much faith in top-down initiatives. Although his defi-
tionship with these governmental institutions, the
of Hindu nationalism lies in the fact that it shares the nition of civic life accommodates a wide range of ini-
mainstream media, and the multiple public spaces
attributes of both a social movement and a political tiatives, Radha Kumar points out that he stays away
that are all a part of political culture.
party. For a detailed discussion of this argument, see from the role played by religious organizations, or
her essay “Mass Movement or Elite Conspiracy? The the role played by governmental institutions like the 62. Kohli, The Success of India’s Democracy.
50 monopolized by a social elite. 63 This has obvi- There is a certain irrepressible quality to politi-
cal life in India, to the incessant transgression of
ously not dampened the richness of political life
in India, as the parallel coexistence of diverse established languages of contention in the polit-
ical field, the incessant recoding, sliding, and
civic spaces demonstrates.
reevaluation of virtually every identity and polit-
It is important to clarify that the purpose
ical position. Indian society . . . is possibly one
of this discussion is not to valorize the ubiq- of the most politicized societies in the world, . . .
uity of politics but to illustrate that the politi- not because its leaders wanted it to be so, but
e cal impulses of social groups draw on a much because the democratic order that they fought
ra ti v
m pa wider repertoire of practices than has hitherto for and ultimately established released new,
Co been recognized. As seen in the case of the assertive, and uncontrollable social identities
f
ie so that produced a form of modernity—pluralist,
tu d
movements promoting Hindu majoritarian
S
ia , nationalism, some public spaces are used for creative, chaotic, and brutal at the same time.66
As
u th the promotion of religious extremism and cul-
So he Research on India’s public culture demonstrates
n dt
aa tural chauvinism. The key is to recognize that that spaces for political articulation in India
ri c
Af st political practices (tolerant or not) are rooted in
Ea flourish in all sorts of nooks and crannies. The
le official as well as hidden cultures that serve as
M idd real challenge, of course, is to identify these
sites of contestation and/or consensus around spaces.
questions of cultural politics. Although multiple
publics are frequently subaltern in nature, often
targeting the hegemony of dominant forms of
knowledge, they can also serve as the breeding
ground for intolerance and cultural chauvin-
ism, as the example of the RSS demonstrates.
It is fair to say that the pervasiveness of pub-
lics signals the coexistence of diverse political
viewpoints, some 0f which are chauvinistic and
extremist in nature.
Chatterjee’s claim that postcolonial civil
society, defined in narrow, modernist terms, is
fundamentally exclusivist and elitist should not
be read as a romantic appeal for the resurrec-
tion of communitarian (dare I say, traditional?)
forms of organization. It should, instead, force
us to “take up the more difficult task of think-
ing fundamentally against the normalization or
the epistemological and institutional forms of
our political modernity,” such as it is in the pres-
ent. 64 There is a pressing need to explore the
forms that political society has taken in India in
the postcolonial period, in order to appreciate
the diversity of social and political activities that
animate the subcontinent.65 Hansen describes
this political complexity quite evocatively:

63. Sumit Sarkar, “Indian Democracy: The Historical the arrival of economic liberalization in India is, in a balization is producing new geographies of govern-
Inheritance,” in Kohli, The Success of India’s Democ- somewhat facile way, being mistaken for an era of mentality that, in turn, are behind the efforts of new
racy, 46. political liberalism. The situation, given India’s colo- social movements to reconstitute citizenship. See
nial legacy, is far more complicated. Appadurai, “Deep Democracy,” 21–47.
64. Scott, Refashioning Futures, 20. Scott’s passion-
ate plea to force the development of critical frame- 65. As I pointed out earlier in this essay, Arjun Appa- 66. Hansen, The Saffron Wave, 58–59.
works that address the “demands of the political durai has taken an important step in this direction
present” is particularly timely at a juncture when by drawing our attention to the ways in which glo-