Archive for Economic Development

Book Review: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

A Timely Tryst with a Thorny Issue

By: Valson Thampu

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is a significant study of one of the most sensitive issues in the politics of religion in India. Barring the limitation that usually goes with ethnographic studies—the exclusive focus on a limited location in studying what is a pan-Indian issue—this book is a must read for those interested in knowing the truth about conversion and re-conversion in India.

The author is neither an apologist for Christianity nor a camp follower of Hindu nationalism. He is an objective academic and a thoroughbred researcher, who brings methodological soundness, knowledge of ground realities and intellectual objectivity to bear on his analyses and conclusions, which merit attention for those very reasons.

Sahoo sets out to study in the tribal belt of Rajasthan, in the wake of an earlier attempt to understand ‘the changing relationships between state and civil society’ since globalization and liberalization, ‘the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India’. The present study is richer from the author’s antecedent involvement in this region, which implies a prolonged exposure to the context and nuances of the issue addressed. The conclusions arrived at are significant for the reason that they do not stem either from Christian apologetics seeking to legitimize conversion and Hindu nationalist propaganda aimed at discrediting it. In the very nature of things, the voice of a third-party adjudicator in this deeply polarized and violently politicized discourse deserves to be welcomed.

Pentecostalism is viewed with suspicion even by mainstream churches—Catholics and Protestants. Reading Sahoo, I realize that this is at least in part due to ignorance! The gulf between perceptions and ground realities is a theme that comes to the surface every now and then in this study. The strength of Sahoo’s treatment stems from the case-studies and narratives he presents, as is seen most strikingly foregrounding the perspective and experience of tribal women vis-à-vis conversion.

Christianity is two millennia old in India; yet it is one of the least documented religions. I remember the former President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, telling me at the fag end of his term, that he used to look in vain for a ‘good enough history of Christianity in India’ to be presented to heads of states overseas whenever he was on state visits to Christian countries. The enormous contributions that this tiny (2.18% of the population as per the last census) and, for the most part, economically weak community has made to nation-building, far in excess of its material resources, remain unchronicled and unsung. Worse, orchestrated attempts have been under way, gathering momentum since the Niyogi Committee Report of 1956, to caricature Christian missionary work focused on Dalit and tribal people-groups as a conspiracy to ‘wipe out Hinduism from its land of birth’. According to the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report on the assassination of Graham Staines (1999) the main cause for the ire of Hindu nationalists against Christian missionaries outreaches to those excluded from the trajectory of our development since Independence.

This regrettable state of affairs prevails, with a semblance of legitimacy, for want of an objective perspective on the matter. Media sites of national debates and discourses have mushroomed. Extended and impassioned discourses are undertaken. But, at the end of it all, the people at large remain more confused or prejudiced. This points to the failure of the Indian intelligentsia, whose business it is to educate public opinion and serve as mediators of the truth. Sahoo’s work tries to fill the gap in respect of the widely misunderstood issue of Pentecostal conversions and their effects on the culture and well-being of tribals in Rajasthan.

Are tribals and Dalits converted through inducements? The author’s conclusion is: ‘All the interviewed women denied that they received any material incentives or allurements.’ He finds, ‘Conversion has brought life-transforming changes in the socio-economic conditions of tribal women and men. . . While the pre-conversion period was marked by extreme poverty and an unclean, unhygienic life, the post-conversion period witnessed improved socio-economic well-being.’ The signs of economic amelioration that come in the wake of conversion is due to the liberation of the people from wasteful practices like alcohol addiction, expensive and exploitative shamanic rituals in the wake of illnesses, improvements in health due to faith-healing bolstered by the hygienic and morally sound, emotionally stable life they are empowered to lead which, according to the author, is the hallmark of Pentecostal teaching. The strict, almost puritanical, enforcement of a moral code is the significant difference, says Sahoo, between Pentecostals and ‘nominal’ Christians. This is also the secret of its greater success in transforming and reforming tribal life.

The Pentecostal model of development, going by Sahoo’s findings, holds two significant insights. First, it is based on a genuine ‘transformation’ of the people, and is not driven by the number-crunching of wealth generation. Second, it results in the liberation of the people from their subjugation to exploitative and oppressive forces. The etymological meaning of ‘development’ is to ‘set free’. ‘In my interviews’, Sahoo states, ‘tribal women repeatedly testified that their lives in the post-conversion period have been marked by good health, peace and happiness…’ ‘Such life-transforming spiritual and material changes do not’, he adds, ‘just defy the “materialist incentive hypothesis” of conversion; they also stand as testimonies and credible explanations of why tribal women take a deliberate decision, in spite of knowing the adverse consequences to become believers of Pentecostalism and “make a break” with the traditional belief system they followed for generations.’ Sahoo’s inference from all of this, as stated in the concluding chapter is, ‘For them (the tribals), while the pre-conversion stage represents slavery and lack of freedom, the post-conversion stage is marked by freedom and progress; conversion has made them free of bondage, ignorance and discrimination.’

The author erects the superstructure of this argument on four pillars. He begins by tracing the growth of Pentecostalism from its early days in the US at the turn of the last century, and goes on to examine the narratives on religious conversion. He then provides account of the pre-and-post-conversion experiences of tribal women and ends up with a comparatively perfunctory examination of the Hindutva animus against conversion, following up with a summation of his findings in the concluding chapter. The merit of the author, as Professor Hans Joas points out in his foreword, is that ‘the intellectual background of its author is not in the sociology of religion but in political sociology.’ He has no axe to grind, no case to plead, in respect of religion.

I recommend this book to judges at all levels as they are in the unenviable position of having to pronounce the ‘last word’ on complex and contradictory issues like conversion without the sort of on-the-ground knowledge with which the author treats the subject; to the media fraternity, politicians and law makers.

The Christian community, unlike the Muslims, are apolitical in most parts of India, and they are, by tradition and theology, pacifist. They have no history of heroism or of confrontation. The only stick with which they can be beaten is allegation of proselytization, which they are presumably mandated to, which happens to be not the case. There is no biblical mandate to convert. Conversion, the unfortunate name given to what was envisaged as ‘transformation’, is alluring in its scope for Hindutva misrepresentation and Christian misuse. All the same, I’d recommend this book to the RSS as much as I would to Christians as well as people of religious sensitivities in all faiths who may wish to know the truth.

Valson Thampu is former Principal, St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.


Source:; accessed 16th January 2019


Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India (Cambridge University Press)

Sahoo, Sarbeswar (2018) “Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India,” New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

This book studies the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India. It asks: why has India been experiencing increasing incidents of anti-Christian violence since the 1990s? Why are the Bhil Adivasis increasingly converting to Pentecostalism? And, what are the implications of conversion for religion within indigenous communities on the one hand and broader issues of secularism, religious freedom and democratic rights on the other? Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork amongst the Bhils of Northern India since 2006, this book asserts that ideological incompatibility and antagonism between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists provide only a partial explanation for anti-Christian violence in India. It unravels the complex interactions between different actors/ agents in the production of anti-Christian violence and provides detailed ethnographic narratives on Pentecostal conversion, Hindu nationalist politics and anti-Christian violence in the largest state of India that has hitherto been dominated by upper caste Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology.


“The modern state struggles with social diversity, especially religious diversity. The problem is exacerbated by a religious majority that seeks to define citizenship in exclusively majoritarian terms. India is no exception and we are all too familiar with Hindu and Muslim conflict. Less familiar perhaps is the growth of Pentecostalism in India which is often violently rejected by Hindu nationalists, but also criticized by mainstream Christianity. This book is a remarkable study of the spread of Pentecostalism mainly among the poor among the Bhil tribes of Rajastan. This fascinating account of the complexity of conversion experiences shows how religious conversion leads to both hope and social mobility. A major contribution to both the study of modern India and to the sociology of religion” – Bryan S. Turner, Australian Catholic University.

“Few topics are as highly charged today in India as is Christian conversion. Few, at the same time, raise more complex ethical and policy questions. In this vividly written and analytically sophisticated work, Sarbeswar Sahoo provides us with a ethnographically rich account of the politics and experience of Christian conversion in contemporary northern India. The result is not only one of the finest accounts currently available on Christian conversion in India, but a major contribution to the comparative study of Christianity and conversion in our contemporary world” –  Robert W. Hefner, Boston University.

“Adopting a multifaceted approach to a complex issue, Sahoo deploys ethnographic, historical and sociological material to advance a nuanced analysis of the competing conversion projects of Hindutva activists and Christian missionaries in Rajasthan, both of whom seek to win the loyalty of economically and socially marginalised Bhil tribals through humanitarian service projects. A path-breaking contribution to the study of Indian Pentecostalism, religious conversion, and inter-religious violence, Sahoo’s even handed and deeply documented research deserves careful reading” – Eliza F. Kent, Skidmore College, New York.

“A valuable new entrant in the field of the anthropology of conversion and Christianity in India, Sarbeswar Sahoo’s study of the spread of Pentecostalism among the tribes of Rajasthan moves away from a tired material incentive approach to a multilayered exploration of the many motives and meanings of conversion among Bhils men and women. His analysis of the increasing violence converts face is finely traced through the complex relationships interlinking them with each other and their pastors, with Hindu tribals, mainstream churches, the state, and Hindu nationalist organisations engaged in their own project of Hinduization and tribal conversion” – Rowena Robinson, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.


Amazon Link:

Evangelising the Nation

John Thomas. 2016. Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity. New Delhi: Routledge. xvii + 223 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. `895 (hardback).


Evangelising the Nation is an attempt to understand the role of the colonial/postcolonial state and the evangelical church in shaping the Naga nationalist political movement in northeast India. Thomas asks: How has the Naga nation come to be defined? What role has religion played in shaping the Naga nationalist imagination and political identity? And, how has the (colonial/postcolonial) state dealt/engaged with the Naga nationalist political movement? Thomas uses archival data and historical narratives to address these questions. His central argument is that the idea of the ‘Naga nation’—which began by the coming together of disparate Naga tribes to challenge increasing Christian missionary intervention—has, in fact, been hijacked by the missionaries. With support from the colonial and postcolonial state, the local church and the evangelical bodies have sidelined the indigenous Naga leaders and come to play a dominant role in defining nationhood and political identity for the Nagas.

Thomas begins the book by discussing the relationship between the Nagas and the colonial state. Like many other tribal groups in India, the Nagas also tried to stay away from valleys to evade the power of the state—in the form of taxes, kings, war and hierarchy. In the hills they were self-sufficient and politically autonomous. However, with the arrival of the colonial state, they lost their land and forests as well as their political freedom. The presence of the colonial state increasingly threatened the indigenous Naga culture and identity and as a response, they resisted British rule in the hills. It is in this context, argues Thomas, that two contradictory movements emerged—one by the British to pacify Naga resistance and incorporate them into the colonial state apparatus, and another by the Nagas to drive away the colonial authorities and reconstitute their indigenous cultural and political identity.

Though the colonial state initially undertook ‘military pacification campaigns’ (p. 19) to bring the Nagas under its direct control, it later followed the ‘civilizing mission’ project. Despite the existing official policy of ‘non-interference’ and ‘strict neutrality’ in matters of religion, at a more practical level, the colonial state supported the missionary project in the Naga hills (p. 21). With this support, the missionaries intervened in the mundane and everyday life of the local people and gradually altered their religious and cultural self by converting them to Christianity. The question is: What were the implications of conversion for the indigenous belief system? Thomas argues that the missionaries and the colonial state ridiculed the traditional cultural practices and ceremonies of the Nagas, and termed them irrational. Conversion to Christianity was carried out actively and the missionaries created a ‘city set on the hill’ (p. 4)—an exclusive spatial zone—that kept the (civilised) converts physically and socially separated from the (heathen) natives.

Following such exclusionary practices and humiliation experienced in their everyday lives, the ‘natives’ felt the need to reconstitute their cultural and political identity, which eventually took the form of a nationalist political movement to establish ‘Naga Raj’ (p. 68). However, in the postcolonial period, this movement was hijacked by the ‘Naga Club’ (p. 74)—an organisation of mission school-educated men who took a leading role in articulating the socio-political grievances of the native people. Following the prominence of the Naga Club, conversion to Christianity increased. In 1941, the percentage of Christians was 17.9 per cent; by 1961, it had increased to 51.9 per cent (p. 117). The question one may ask is: Why did the natives feel the need to convert to Christianity? According to Thomas, conversion began to be perceived as an opportunity to escape humiliation and access modernity. The local evangelists and church leaders played a major role in this effort. By the 1970s, members of the Naga Club and the local church and evangelical bodies had sidelined the indigenous Naga nationalist political movement and assumed the leadership of protecting and promoting Naga interests. In fact, the indigenous leaders were portrayed as insurgent communists with links to China, which rendered them as enemies of the state. As a consequence, the indigenous Naga movement became isolated and the local evangelists emerged to define the Naga nation and political identity. This shows how Christianity, ‘armed with universal truth claims, assumptions and agendas, invaded the existing religious and cultural landscape’ (p. 205) of the Nagas and successfully imposed on them a new notion of nationhood and identity.

Broadly, Evangelising the Nation is an excellent account of the dynamism and contradictions associated with the encounter between the indigenous Naga nationalist movement, and the colonial/postcolonial state and Christian missionaries. The book provides a revealing narrative of the politics of (Christian) conversion and its implications for the native religion and culture. The major strength of the book lies in its longue durée approach to understand church–state relations as well as the role of religion in articulating collective political identity. However, there are a few shortcomings. First, though the central argument of the book is related to religion, ethnicity, nation and nationalism, there is no theoretical section that explains how these concepts are defined and how they are situated in relation to the broader literature. Second, the book is missing a methodology section, which could have explained how the data sources were classified and used. This is particularly relevant in the context of the bibliography where similar kinds of published materials are put under both primary and secondary sources. Finally, the lack of sub-themes makes it difficult for the reader to imagine the structure of the chapters.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the book provides a comprehensive historical account of the relationship between indigenous Naga nationalism on the one hand, and the colonial/postcolonial state and evangelical Christianity on the other. Filled with historical narratives, the book is a fine piece of historical scholarship and contributes immensely to our understanding of the history of Christianity in northeast India. The book will be useful to scholars of history, anthropology and the sociology of religion.


Indian Institute of Technology Delhi


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo (2017) Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol.51, No.2, pp.262-264


Wanted Groom: ‘Parents of Nambiar family hailing from Kannur and well settled in Mumbai is looking for a suitable alliance for their daughter, aged 28 years, star Chatayam (Sudhajatakam) MBA, working for an MNC from well settled Nambiar/Nair boys. Interested may contact on…(mobile no…and email…)’.

Thus goes a typical matrimonial advertisement in the print media. The term ‘matrimonial’, which is defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as ‘relating to marriage or married people’ and has its origin in ‘Late Middle English: via Old French from Latin matrimonium, based on mater, matr-“mother”’, is commonly used in contemporary India to refer to processes of matchmaking, specifically through print and online media advertisements, marriage bureaus and television matrimony. When a boy or a girl of marriageable age finds it difficult to get a ‘suitable match’, the obvious questions that people ask are: ‘Have you tried with the matrimonials (used often in the plural)?’; or ‘You should open a profile in one of the matrimonial sites’. This is primarily because ‘matrimonials’ provide wide-ranging options for people to find suitable partners for marriage. In fact, matrimonial classifieds and websites are becoming increasingly popular in the contexts of declining traditional social networks and the increasing mobility of people. The Internet and Mobile Association of India noted that profile uploads on matrimonial sites had increased to 1.96 million in January 2014 as compared to 0.85 million in January 2013—a year over year growth of 130 percent.11. See M. Muzaffar, ‘Closed Circuit Coupling’, India Today (9 July 2015) [, accessed 30 Aug. 2015].View all notesThe influx of matrimonial advertisements in print and online media indicates not only changing social structures and identities, but also changing concepts of marriage, love and gender roles in contemporary India. Recently, the Indian newspaper, Mid Day, published the country’s first-ever gay matrimonial ad for gay rights activist Harish Iyer. Harish’s mother, Padma Iyer, posted a matrimonial ad for her son seeking a homosexual alliance, which drew both criticism and praise.22. H. Iyer, ‘I’m Gay, My Ma Placed an Ad Looking for Groom for Me’, (20 May 2015) [, accessed 12 July 2016].View all notes Traditionally, the matrimonial needs of individuals were fulfilled by marriage negotiators/brokers and intermediaries. In Hindi-speaking areas, they are referred to as bichaulia; in Bengali, they are called ghatak/ghataki; and in Odisha and many parts of North India, they are referred to as madhyasthi. In her Marriage and Modernity, Rochona Majumdar argues that the ghataks played a significant role in arranging suitable matches for candidates in nineteenth-century Bengal.33. Rochona Majumdar, Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal (Durham, NC/London: Duke University Press, 2009).View all notes However, the relentlessly mercenary instincts of the ghataks and their false claims produced a ‘matrimonial trap’. The widespread mistrust of ghataks on the one hand, and the growth of the metropolitan middle class and its romantic conception of marriage on the other, led to the decline of ghataks and gave rise to matrimonial advertisements in caste journals and print media. Majumdar notes that the first matrimonial advertisement she came across was in 1875, and that by the 1920s, matrimonial advertisements and marriage bureaus had become widespread and constituted a regular feature of newspapers.

The information technology revolution in India radically transformed the matrimonial market. India’s inclusion in the global market economy and a boom in the general media landscape in the 1990s led to a proliferation of online matrimonial sites which are different from online/Internet dating sites such as OkCupid, Tinder and Truly Madly. While, via online dating sites, one finds a date, ‘usually with the objective of developing a personal, romantic, or sexual relationship’, on matrimonial sites individuals sign up primarily to find marriage partners. Some of the major online matrimonial portals are, and Certain of these portals have customised their services to cater to the different linguistic and ethnic communities across India and abroad. For example, Bharatmatrimony has developed over 325 community-exclusive matrimony sites like Bengalimatrimony, Oriyamatrimony, Assamesematrimony, Tamilmatrimony, Gujaratimatrimony, etc. According to a recent New York Times report, there are more than 1,500 matrimonial websites operating in India today.44. G. Harris, ‘Websites in India Put a Bit of Choice into Arranged Marriages’, The New York Times (24 April 2015) [, accessed 12 July 2016].View all notes These commercial portals are very popular amongst the urban educated middle class who consider ‘love’ important for marriage. Such portals also appeal greatly to the Indian diaspora, as marriages through these sites combine the Indian ‘tradition’ of arranged marriage and the ‘modern’ Western notion of love and romance. Furthermore, because of being outside India, the diaspora has lost access to traditional matchmaking services in its country of origin, and in such situations, the online matrimonial sites provide excellent opportunities to ‘arrange love’ or find a ‘suitable match’. Kaur and Dhanda note that ‘matrimonial websites represent a globalising face of marriage’ and these websites allow diaspora and Non-Resident Indians ‘to practise “nation” with the homeland no longer being a distant memory, but to be actively engaged with’.55. Ravinder Kaur and Priti Dhanda, ‘Surfing for Spouses: Marriage Websites and the “New” Indian Marriage?’ in R. Kaur and R. Palriwala (eds.), Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2014), pp. 272–275.View all notes As well, several popular books have come out recently describing the importance of romance in matrimonial matches—Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes (2004), Parul Mittal’s Arranged Love (2012), Hetal Adesara’s Matrimonial Mocktales (2014) and Ira Trivedi’s India in Love (2014) are some examples.

It is not just books that have become popular—wedding and matrimonial programmes have become so popular on Indian television that Shagun TV has launched a 24-hour matrimonial television station which telecasts round-the-clock wedding entertainment programmes to India and the diaspora. The contents of the programmes are both non-fictional and fictional. On one of the non-fiction shows, ‘Toh Baat Pakki’ ‘So It’s Final’), couples are invited to discuss the matchmaking process and the initial events leading to their engagement. Similarly, based on the matchmaking process, Sony Entertainment has launched a matrimony-based reality show, ‘Kahin Na Kahin Koi Hai’ (‘Somewhere There Is Someone’). Some channels have also organised shows based on a swayamwar (historically, a ceremony at which the bride makes her choice from among several suitors) in which Bollywood celebrities spend weeks judging participants and then choosing one to be their spouse, as, for example, ‘Rakhi Ka Swayamwar’ with starlet Rakhi Sawant; ‘Bachelorette India: Mere Khayalon Ki Mallika’ with actress Mallika Sherawat; ‘Veena Ka Vivaah’ with Pakistani actress Veena Malik; and ‘Ratan Ka Rishta’ with TV actress Ratan Rajput. These matrimonial shows have not only become popular and so ensured high ratings for the channels (even though, often, the celebrity backs out of formalising the marriage), they have also inspired middle-class youth to find their loves and soulmates.

The ‘arranged marriage’ system, which was grounded in caste endogamy and patriarchal gender hierarchy, is undergoing a transformation. ‘Love marriages’ are increasingly preferred by the young because they are based on mutual love and romance and because they facilitate compatibility between partners. However, the continued strong hold of caste and community in Indian social life often makes it difficult for people to fall in love and marry. For instance the Khap panchayats in North India, which support honour killings, proscribe love and inter-caste marriages.

The online matrimonial technologies transgress geographical boundaries and provide more autonomy to candidates in ‘arranging’ their own marriages. Specifically, ‘saying yes’ reflects how the young have exercised ‘agency’ and independence in selecting partners. The new technologies and online matchmaking processes defy the fixed categorisations of love and arranged marriage and have given rise to what Madhu Kishwar has called the ‘self-arranged’ marriage,66. Madhu Kishwar, ‘Love and Marriage’, in Manushi, no. 80 (1994), pp. 11–9. View all notes which combines the best of both worlds. Though caste and religion still play important roles, secular indices like education, work profile, financial status and outlook have emerged as the main criteria for mate selection in self-arranged marriages.

Unlike the marriage advertisements in the print media, online matrimonial profiles provide much more detailed information about a candidate’s age, caste, religion, education, career, family background, complexion, lifestyle, attributes, expectations, and so on, aimed at helping clients select the most suitable and compatible partner. Contacting prospective brides or grooms and expressing affinity become much quicker and easier in the online space; access to mobile phone numbers, emails and online chatrooms provide opportunities to get to know and understand one another better and to fall in love, often resulting in marriage. As Vineet and Suwarna’s testimonial from August 2015 reveals:

A chance meeting, Destiny, Fate, Luck etc. call it whatever you think but we think our coming together was set up long long ago. We were members on for some time & did meet some compatible alliances but they were just not to be our life partners. We met each other when we were on the verge of losing hope of finding a Soul mate. Skeptically we started talking first & don’t know when we just fell in love with each other. The personal information & pictures on helped to build an image about each other which has broadened over the time & Yes we are settling down as Husband & Wife. Thanks for being the bridge to join us together.77. ‘Vineet & Suwarna’, ‘Shaadi Pride’ (2 Aug. 2015) [, accessed 30 Aug. 2015].View all notes

The success stories posted on similar websites highlight the attainment of the ideals of romantic love in (arranged) marriages. The business of matchmaking, performed in open-market matrimonial negotiations, has not just helped brides and grooms find their ‘perfect match’, ‘soulmate’, ‘right person’, ‘life partner’, ‘true happiness’, and so on, they have also helped strengthen the ‘community’ through what Dumont called ‘endo-recruiting’.88. Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Chicago, IL/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).View all notes The modernity of matrimonials has reinvented the traditional marriage system, combined the best of both love and arranged marriage, and provided ‘individual’ as well as ‘social’ compatibility to candidates and their families.

AcknowledgmentsI would like to thank Assa Doron, Craig Jeffrey and Meera Ashar for giving me the opportunity to contribute this piece. I would also like to thank Naveen Thayyil, Swargajyoti Gohain and the anonymous reviewers for their very valuable comments and suggestions, which helped improve the structure and coherence of the paper.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


Sahoo, S. (2017) “Matrimonial,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol.40, Issue.2, pp.354-357.

Civil Society in South Asia

With the “third-wave” of global democratization, many communist and authoritarian regimes were forced by civil society groups to make the transition to democratic forms of governance. Following this, civil society institutions came to be considered not only as indispensable instruments for the survival and sustenance of democracy, but also as the “hitherto missing key” to be acquired by developing countries in order to attain a Western form of political development. Aid agencies and governments of the industrialized West promoted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations as the “magic bullet” that could positively address the various problems of the developing world. This view of civil society as a democratic force was further strengthened by the publication of Making Democracy Work (Putnam, et al. 1992, cited under Social Capital in South Asia). The authors argue that norms of reciprocity and the interrelated networks of trust, cooperation, and civic engagement or, in other words, the robustness of associational life (popularly referred to as social capital) influence the performance of development and democracy. Added to this, two other factors—the centralizing tendencies of the state and the failure of the state to fulfill the basic necessities of people—intensified civil society activism in South Asia. Civil society emerged as a powerful third sector outside the formal sphere of politics (state) and economy (market) and played an active role in promoting development and democracy. According to some estimates, India today has more than 2.5 million NGOs and is considered the unofficial “NGO capital of the world.” Given such dominance of NGOs, some scholars have argued that civil society in South Asia has been “NGOized”; while other scholars have argued that the NGOs have acted as agents of neoliberalism and have depoliticized the development discourse in South Asia. This is visible clearly in cases of microcredit and self-help groups. While such groups justify their activities through the language of empowerment, some scholars have shown that they use various manipulative strategies to recover loan installments from women. Several case studies also show the dark side of social capital and defy the arguments put forward by Putnam and his colleagues. In South Asia, it must be stressed that civil society is inherently pluralistic in nature; it includes both civil and uncivil elements within its domain, which may contribute either positively or negatively toward economic development, democracy, and political change.


Civil Society History, Theory, and Conceptualization

Civil Society Activism and Political Change

NGOs, Civil Society, and Development

Critique of the NGO Discourse

Marxist/Neo-Marxist Discourse

Civil Society and the Public Sphere

Social Capital in South Asia

Dark Side of Social Capital and Civil Society

Civil Society and Political Society

Gender and Civil Society

Civil Society and Development Aid

Microcredit and Self-Help Groups

Faith-Based Civil Society

Neoliberal Civil Society


Sarbeswar Sahoo (2017) “Civil Society in South Asia,” Oxford Bibliographies Online, April 27;

NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society

NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society by Thomas Davies. London: C. Hurst, 2014. 268pp., £20.00, ISBN 978 1 8490 4310 6.


Beginning in the late 1970s, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have helped to create what has been described as an ‘associational revolution’. They have played a significant role within civil society, facilitating not just the transition of many communist and authoritarian regimes to democracy, but also the process of participatory development and good governance. Most of the literature on NGOs has documented their role since the 1970s in particular, but very little has been written on the history of the NGO sector itself. Thomas Davies’ work in this context becomes an important contribution for it takes a longue durée approach and provides a history of the NGO sector over the past two-and-a-half centuries.


The central question that drives Davies is how to construct a new history of the transnational civil society that has come to play a dominant role in international politics and development in the last few decades. Davies’ argument is that the history of the transnational civil society is not limited to the last two or three decades, but ‘[has] a far longer history than traditionally assumed’ (p. 1). By combining both quantitative and qualitative methods, and by following a comprehensive historical analysis, Davies looks at the evolution of transnational civil society beyond the Euro-American narratives and constructs a more heterogeneous and pluralistic history by giving greater consideration to the ‘Eastern’ origins.

The book has three major chapters, describing the three major waves of transnational civil society. Davies begins by introducing transnational civil society as the ‘non-governmental non-profit collective action that transcends national boundaries but which does not necessarily have a global reach’ (p. 2). In this sense, the ‘institutions of transnational civil society are numerous, and include advocacy networks and social movements as well as more formally organized INGOs’ (p. 2). Following this introduction, the first chapter discusses the various factors that made the development of transnational civil society possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and explains how ‘the development of transnational civil society occurred in parallel with the development of the nation-state’ (p. 16). Chapter 2 looks at ‘the most neglected periods of the history of transnational civil society’ – that between the two world wars – and discusses the emergence of new INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) in fields such as business, humanitarianism, health and education (p. 16). The final chapter examines the contradictory role of the Cold War in splitting, as well as integrating, transnational civil society.

The book thus makes a significant contribution to the literature by providing a uniquely comprehensive history of transnational civil society. Its coherent structure and style make it a pleasure to read, and it must be recommended to students of sociology and political science.

Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi)


@ Political Studies Review, Vol.13, No.4, November, p.595

International Aid, Civil Society and Politics of Development

Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013; How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy: The Future of Development Aid by Derek Fee. London: Zed Books, 2012.


Debates on international development aid are not new; some have supported aid, some have opposed it. In his bestselling 2005 book, The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs urged rich nations to increase foreign aid to poor countries not just to end their ‘poverty trap’, but also to kick-start development. In contrast, William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo have strongly argued against aid and noted that it does more bad than good – ‘it prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies’ (Quoted in A. Banerjee and E. Duflo, Poor Economics, Public Affairs, 2011, pp. 3–4). The question here, however, is not about whether we should have aid or not; it is rather about what kind of aid we should have, how we should implement it and how aid can be made more effective in achieving its objectives. In Development Aid Confronts Politics, Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont heavily criticise the governance-oriented, technocratic and depoliticised approach to aid practised to date and insist instead on bringing politics to the centre of aid distribution and management.


Exploring the history of politics in development aid, Carothers and de Gramont note that although aid was intimately related to Cold War politics, aid agencies in the formative years shied away from adopting explicitly political goals for they believed that socio-economic assistance would create domestic conditions conducive for political development and the spread of democracy. It was, however, observed that economic development, instead of bringing democratisation, ‘heightened political conflict, violence, and repression’, leading to authoritarianism (p. 29). The aid community did not have much choice: ‘[D]evelopmentalists on the ground stayed clear of “playing politics” in order to gain credibility with host governments and aid receiving societies’ (p. 50). Such apolitical and technocratic approaches to developmental planning, which often resulted in over-centralised power structures, were heavily criticised. As a result, aid organisations began to rethink their beliefs about the role of politics in the development process. Carothers and de Gramont seem happy that, today, most of the aid organisations have adopted and are actively pursuing political goals either directly with governments or indirectly with political parties and civil society organisations. Emphasising the indispensability of politics in understanding and crafting social change, the authors conclude that ‘aid programs should grow out of the local context and focus on feasible rather than best-practice solutions, that technical assistance should feed into indigenous processes of change, that projects should think about their place within the broader political systems, and that aid providers must focus closely on understanding how political and institutional change occurs’ (pp. 192–3).


Although Derek Fee would agree with Carothers and de Gramont on how to make aid more effective, in How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy he asks a different question: ‘why development aid is alive and kicking despite calls from both Africa (the continent demanding the highest level of aid) and donor country leaders to bring the business to a logical conclusion’ (p. xi). He further asks ‘why an activity that was supposed to be time-bound has expanded way beyond its initial remit’ (p. xi). Integrating academic knowledge and a practitioner’s experience, Fee addresses these questions quite innovatively. He argues that it is not just aid dependency that has had many negative effects, but that the aid business itself is now in crisis and cannot continue indefinitely. It is thus necessary for both donors and recipients to rethink the development aid model and devise clear exit strategies. Fee suggests several initiatives (e.g. domestic resource mobilisation, trade liberalisation, regional integration, microfinance, remittances and non-governmental organisations, and philanthropic institutions), which he believes could act as policy options for replacing development aid and making countries sustainable. He concludes that although an aid exit strategy is important, it ‘should not punish people’ who have suffered poverty and deprivation. It ‘must be applied with compassion or it will be ineffective. It must [also] be time-bound but the time given to each country should be related to their base line of aid dependency’ (p. 232).

While Carothers and de Gramont have successfully brought politics to the heart of the aid business, Fee has convincingly argued for a time-bound and compassionate aid exit strategy. Both books are filled with rich historical analysis and empirical examples and the authors exhibit immense awareness of and sensitivity to the political context. Though some may criticise these books for lacking theoretical rigour, they nonetheless represent excellent contributions to understanding the modern aid industry and the way it has evolved over time. Both books are lucidly written and well-argued and should be recommended not just to students of sociology and international relations, but also to aid practitioners, civil society activists and public policy officials.


@ Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol.12, No.3, Sept., 2014, pp.418-419.