REVIEW: Civil Society and Democratization in India

Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests, by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, xvii + 199 pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978041565291

India is rightly celebrated for the depth and diversity of its civil society. While debate persists over the precise nature of civil society’s links to democratisation, few dispute that civil society in India, as elsewhere, exercises a useful, if imperfect, check on the abuse of state power. Sarbeswar Sahoo focuses not on civil society’s watchdog or policy-advocacy functions, but, instead, on the capacity of associational life to deepen democracy by creating avenues for meaningful participation and collective action by poor and marginalised people. This is an area of even greater controversy, with its own scholarly subgenre, to which Sahoo’s book makes an important contribution.


Sahoo’s underlying concern is whether, how, and under what conditions civil society can pursue a politically transformative agenda. Sahoo’s empirical material consists of organisational case studies of three ‘well-established NGOs’ from Rajasthan, all working in the state’s ‘tribal belt’. They are Seva Mandir, which focuses on implementing rural development projects and programmes; Astha Sanstha, ‘which represents a unique mix of Left and Gandhian ideology and is involved in a variety of indigenous people’s movement[s]’ (p. 10); and the Rajasthan Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (RVKP), which is affiliated with (and propagates the Hindu nationalist ideology of) the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, while engaging in direct service provision in adivasi communities.

These are well-chosen case studies, conforming as they do to three recognisable ‘types’ of civil society. There is a sense, however, that perhaps these categories were too firmly entrenched in the author’s mind before he began his field research, thus allowing a certain degree of ‘confirmation bias’ to creep into his analysis. This is evident in the support that Sahoo expresses for the two key elements of the Left critique of India’s ‘NGO sector’. First, he accepts with few qualms the widely held position that NGOs are ‘agents of the broader project of neoliberalism’ (p. 9). Evidence for this generalisation is sorely lacking. Certainly, NGOs perform some functions formerly monopolised by government, and thus contribute indirectly to a kind of shrinking of the state. But this is hardly an indication of neoliberal intent, let alone adherence to the market fundamentalism that afflicts some extreme neoliberals. Besides, there are plenty of NGOs working to build resistance to the adverse consequences of a less-regulated economy, including rapid environmental degradation. Indeed, a (leaked) 2014 report prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office by the Government of India’s (domestic) Intelligence Bureau identified many professionally managed NGOs – that is, not just ‘movement’ groups – as enemies of India’s development, because they dared protest against questionable industrial and infrastructure projects in many parts of the country.

Sahoo seems equally taken with the second part of the Left critique – that service-delivery NGOs pre-empt the radicalisation of subaltern groups. According to one of the sources Sahoo quotes, NGOs working in Rajasthan’s tribal areas had ‘pacified the fire with people and depoliticized development at the local level’ (p. 9). Such an accusation grants NGOs far too much credit for being able to accomplish something as complex as ‘depoliticising’ anything. The stereotype of the overly professionalised, out-of-touch NGO is badly out of date. These days, even staid project-implementing NGOs can end up doing genuinely political work. Mainstream NGOs, including Seva Mandir, that worked as implementing partners on the United Progressive Alliance’s flagship social protection initiative – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005 – were, whether they liked it or not, participating in something fairly revolutionary: assisting labourers to demand their wages, and encouraging villagers to demand answers from local officials about development expenditures. This did not require NGOs to pursue a radical agenda of their own devising; their course of action was spelled out in the procedural requirements found in NREGA. Some did this with more vigour than others. The effects were also highly variable. But apolitical the process was not.

By the same token, even excellent NGOs such as Astha, which sees itself at the movement end of the organisational continuum, are sometimes less radical than they might seem, which may well represent a pragmatic adjustment to prevailing political conditions. Astha too must produce reports for its funders and for government regulators; it too works with public-sector entities, and in any case benefits from the pool of experienced development professionals working in and around its home district of Udaipur, where over the past four decades, a cluster of small and large NGOs has grown up around Seva Mandir, one of the first organisations founded in the area.

While the line separating mainstream and movement-oriented civil society formations may be more blurred than Sahoo is willing to concede, he is justified in drawing a sharp distinction between the patently communal RVKP and the other two associations. This is true with respect to all three analytical categories Sahoo invokes in the book’s subtitle: institutions, interests, and ideologies. Through its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RVKP is institutionally different from the resolutely non-partisan Astha and Seva Mandir. It also represents, and is controlled by, a very different set of interests, including those for whom social change is something to be resisted rather than fostered. Even if one were to grant that the RVKP shares a culture of managerial competence with Seva Mandir, and a strong sense of mission with the activist-inclined Astha, these parallels are dwarfed by the stark gap in terms of political ideas that separates ideological chasm separating this Hindu chauvinist organisation from the other two groups.

Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s sensitive interpretation of the case material, even if some of the book’s conceptual and theoretical foundations receive more reverence than perhaps they deserve. Sahoo’s book will be a stimulating read for anyone attempting to understand the political significance of civil society groups, in India and beyond.


Rob Jenkins

Hunter College & The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

# 2015, Rob Jenkins


Rob Jenkins (2015) “Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 53:2, 226-228

Confronting Secularism in Europe and India

Brian Black, Gavin Hyman and Graham M. Smith (eds) (2014) Confronting Secularism in Europe and India: Legitimacy and Disenchantment in Contemporary Times. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 208pp.


Confronting Secularism in Europe and India emerged out of two international conferences held in 2011 by the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster. The central questions in this book are: How is secularism understood in Europe and India and what is its relationship with religion, state, democracy and violence? How has secularism managed religious and cultural diversity and what challenges have it faced? Can secularism continue to provide a foundation for political legitimacy or is there something beyond secularism? Addressing these questions, the editors have structured the book in relation to four sets of issues: (1) political secularism, (2) secularism and religion, (3) secularism, religion and violence, and (4) beyond secularism. A comprehensive introduction by Brian Black sets the tone of the book and critically outlines the debate.


The issue of political secularism is addressed by Bajpai and Bhargava. Bajpai argues that in contrast to Europe Indian secularism is not hostile to religion; it recognises the rights of groups as an extension of ‘values of liberal citizenship’ (p.26). Bhargava similarly argues that Europe has a lot to learn from Indian secularism and the way it has managed religious diversity. He advocates for ‘contextual secularism’ that emphasizes ‘multi-value doctrine’ (p.56). In second section, discussing the relationship between secularism and religion Hyman argues that Anglo American secularism did not emerge out of an opposition to religion as it has been perceived. For him, ‘modern secularism had a closer relationship with early modern states, which had an established religion’ (p.7). Similarly Chatterjee argues that Indian secularism was infused with religious values.

In the third section, Wenman criticizes liberal secularism and discusses the way in which violence, particularly terrorism, is associated with religion. Sutton similarly criticises the secular Indian state of not being neutral or protective of minority groups and being responsible for many religious riots in India. Given this crisis of secularism and in finding ways to deal with religious diversity, the last two chapters by van der Zweede and Pecora try to go beyond secularism to look for answers in Habermas’s ‘post-secular society’ and in Nandy’s ‘critical traditionalism’. In order to over this crisis, the authors broadly agree that secularism must reinvent itself to deal with differences, reengage religious politics and appreciate the deep pluralities of social and cultural life.

The essays in this book provide innovative theoretical and comparative insights on the relationship between secularism, religion, democracy and violence in Europe and India. Taken together they make an invaluable contribution to literature and must be recommended to students of politics, religious studies and sociology.


Sarbeswar Sahoo

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India


@ Political Studies Review, Feb 2016, 14: 1, p. 94

The State of India’s Elementary and Higher Education

This paper seeks to examine the state of India’s education system and the various problems it is facing in the present context. The paper is divided into two parts. In part one, the paper examines the state of elementary education and argues that while the government has played a major role and taken several steps to universalize elementary education, such as expanding the school system, building new class rooms, hiring more teachers and providing incentives like free text books, uniforms and mid-day meals, it has not been successful in addressing the low quality of learning in our schools. In the second part, the paper discusses the various problems that our higher education system suffers from. It argues that except a few institutions like the IITs and IIMs, the quality of education in our public and private institutions is very poor. The funding constraint and the inability of the state on the one hand and the policies of neo-liberalism on the other have led to the mushrooming of private self-financing higher educational institutions who consider education as a saleable commodity rather than a social good. The requisite to generate revenue has forced these self-financing institutions to offer programmes in areas that have higher demand. As a consequence, only certain subjects like engineering, medicine and commerce have flourished whereas humanities, social sciences and the basic sciences have suffered; ultimately, as Tilak has pointed out, this has produced “a distorted, unbalanced and unsustainable higher education system”. Not just commercialization and commodification, the higher education has also been affected by declining autonomy and academic freedom. Given these trends, the challenge before us today is how to meet the increasing demands for education, ensure its quality, restrict profit-making in education and restore the autonomy and integrity of our education system.

Patronage as Politics in South Asia

Patronage as Politics in South Asia by Anastasia Piliavsky (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 469pp., £75.00 (h/b), ISBN 9781107056084

Anastasia Piliavsky’s Patronage as Politics in South Asia, which grew out of a colloquium held in 2011 at Kings College, Cambridge, investigates the nature and importance of patronage in the socio-historical context of South Asia. Piliavsky asks: is patronage necessarily a bad thing? What are the ways in which patronage is understood and exercised in South Asia? Most importantly, what is the relationship between patronage and democracy? Does patronage undermine or complement the functioning of democratic political order? Drawing on theoretical literature from political science and anthropology and extensive ethnographic fieldwork in South Asia, the essays in this volume argue that patronage is not necessarily always a bad thing as it is often characterised in the Western political imagination; in the South Asian context, it is an inherently plural concept, which has a contingent relationship with democracy.


Piliavsky’s comprehensive introduction provides an extensive review of the literature on patronage politics around the world and sets the tone for the book. The sixteen essays by eminent scholars are organised under three sections: the idea of patronage, democracy as patronage, and prospects and perils of patronage. The first section looks at the nature of the patron-client relationship in South Asia. The essays in this section demonstrate how wealthy patrons use their wealth to establish religious and educational institutions to influence the lives of their clients and structure their sense of history and belonging. In the second section, the authors examine how patronage influences electoral decisions and vote bank politics. They show that patronage is not merely an instrument of exchange; it is rather a system of relationship in which patrons are expected to show their munificence through gifts, feasts, developmental provisions and bureaucratic help, and the clients reciprocate with their loyalty.

The final section discusses the perils of patronage and shows how clients (i.e. voters, migrants and subaltern masses) are trapped in a cycle of chronic bondage due to criminalised political ecologies and ineffective legislation. The essays conclude that in South Asia „“patronage” does not apply to a narrowly defined set of political relations; it encompasses the fundamental principle of social life far beyond the political‟ (p.29). „Political patronage is an expression of the broad moral sense that shapes the ways in which people relate across social levels and contexts. The essence of this moral formulation is the idea that in South Asia differences of rank do not prevent relations, but promote intimacy between parties in distinct and complementary roles‟ (pp.29-30).

Broadly, the book provides an excellent comparative ethnographic account of patronage politics in South Asia. The essays are empirically sound and theoretically sophisticated; they are also written in a lucid and coherent manner. Taken together, the essays will be immensely useful to students and scholars of anthropology, political science and South Asian Studies.



Indian Institute of Technology Delhi


© Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Vol.14, No.3, August 2016.

Religion and Society in India

The Centre for the Study of Social Systems at JNU (New Delhi) organized a panel on “Religion and Society in India” on November 3, 2015. The panellists included Prof. T.N. Madan, Prof. T.K. Oommen, and Prof. Shail Mayaram.

Prof. Madan began his talk by discussing the idea of Kantian “Enlightenment” and argued that the idea of an “individual” is a Christian idea. According to him, there is a tension between ideology and practice, and religion and politics in India today. Prof. Madan discussed how this tension is explained in the works of classical sociologists such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim.


For Marx, religion is the ideological superstructure. As you change the material foundations of society, the nature of superstructure will change. While Weber spoke about the dis-enchantment of the world, Durkheim saw religion as moral foundation of society. Despite this, Marx, Weber and Durkheim subscribed to the inevitable decline of religion in society.

Prof. Madan also argued that secularization is internal to all religions of the world. There is tolerance and compassion in all of them. Citing His Holiness Dalai Lama, Prof. Madan noted, “If Buddha were born in today’s context, he would not teach Buddhism, he would teach secularism”.

In his talk, Prof. Oommen asked, what is the real issue that confronts us in India today? According to him, the real issue is the mismatch between the “Hindu Society” and the “Secular State”. Prof. Oommen argued that while the Indian Constitution mentioned the term “secular” only once, Ambedkar argued that terms like “secular” and “socialism” are very value-loaded. It was only in 1976 during the 42nd Amendment that Indira Gandhi introduced the term “secular” into Indian Constitution.


Prof. Oommen argued that secularism in India may to refer to: (1) equal respect for all religions; and (2) the state keeps equal distance from all religions. Equal distance from all religions refers to separation between religion and state (non-intervention) or equal intervention in all religions. However, instead of accepting all religions as equals or “religious pluralism”, we started appeasing all religions.

According to Prof. Oommen, “unity in diversity” is the Indian collective conscience. The term was coined by British historian Vincent Smith in the 1920s and Nehru adopted it. However, in practice, it has been not unity in diversity but the dominance of majoritarianism. Finally, Prof. Oommen spoke about the notion of “composite culture” – the centrality of which is mutual respect, not one culture dissolving into another.

The last speaker of the Panel, Prof. Mayaram, began her talk with a discussion of the binaries such as religious and secular, sacred and profane, transcendent and immanent, and ratio (reason) and religio. She also talked how the beginning of the Axial age occurred with the Abrahamic religions.


Prof. Mayaram then spoke about some theses on religion and society: (1) the idea of Axiality does not apply to the Hindu-Buddhist religions; (2) India as we know should be understood as inter-connected network of diverse communities; (3) before the coming of modernity, we had multiple ways of belonging; (4) modernity is thought as an assemblage of capitalism and industrialism – however, we must think of multiple modernities and multiple temporalities; (5) two genealogies of nationalism in India – inclusive nationalism of Gandhi and Ambedkar and exclusive nationalism of Savarkar; (6) from inter-connected “religious pluralism” we have moved to “bounded nationalism” in India; and (7) we must revisit dis-enchantment and distinguish between religion as sect/belief and religion as ideology.


All three pictures were taken from google images.

Multiple Publics: Sites, Boundaries and Contestations in India


The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi organized a two day workshop on Multiple Publics: Sites, Boundaries and Contestations in India during 9-10 October 2010. The workshop was coordinated by Dr. Sarbeswar Sahoo and Dr. Naveen K. Thayyil. The financial support for the workshop was provided by QIP/CEP (IIT Delhi) and ICSSR (Northern Regional Centre).


In this two day workshop, the participants discussed the multiple ways of thinking about the public. Th presenters, the discussants and the participants emphasized that we need to go beyond the Habermasian idea of public sphere to locate and theorise the public and there could multiple publics as opposed the single, homogeneous and universal public that Habermas had imagined.


The workshop began with an introductory remark by Prof. Ravinder Kaur, the Head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences where she emphasised the “ethnographic vantage points” in understanding the multiple and plural publics. She urged to think about publics in the context of politics and warned us on “dangerous publics”.


Following the introductory remarks, the workshop organizers, Dr. Sarbeswar Sahoo and Dr. Naveen K. Thayyil, introduced the workshop theme to the participants. According to them, the objective of the workshop is to examine two interrelated aspects of the formations of multiple publics in contemporary India. First, we would like to examine the emergences and multiplicities of competing and contradictory publics and their role in democratic transformation of Indian society and polity. Second, in what ways do multiple discourses and strands interact with each other within specific issue-based publics? While the former provides a meta-narrative on the diversity and heterogeneous nature of public spheres in India (albeit, not as one universal sphere as Habermas imagined it to be), the latter seeks to delve into the micro-politics and complex processes of interaction, negotiation and contestation in the formation of issue-based publics in India.


This was followed by an opening keynote address by Prof. Aditya Nigam who started the discussion by making a distinction between crowd and public. For him, the crowd is a monolithic assembly and the public is an open entity that respects differences of opinion. He then went onto discuss the idea of political society as imagined by Partha Chatterjee and asked what it means to be political. Finally, he discussed the idea of “ephemeral publics” in the context of the movement on India against corruption.


Following the keynote address, Panel I dealt with “Boundaries and Green Publics”. Dr. Naveen Thayyil discussed the role of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the judicial process and in the formation of public sphere. The paper by Dr. Swargajyoti Gohain discussed the formation of a transnational public sphere in the context of anti-dam movements in West Arunachal Pradesh. She pointed out the global/local interaction and the transnational connections made possible through the new media and personal communication.


Panel II discussed the theme of Religious Sphere and Publics-making. Dr. Shireen Mirza, drawing on Shia Muslim processions in the old city Hyderabad, discussed the formation of a “performative publics”. She demonstrated how the processions, symbols and landmarks have been central to the creation of community identity in Hyderabad old city. She also questioned the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular or the ethnic and the civic and argued that such distinctions get blurred in religious processions that are inherently attached to place-making. The paper by Dr. Khalid Wasim discussed how the public sphere in Kashmir has been shrinking over the last few decades and constraining the democratic political project. According to him, when the public and the political sphere get shrunk, ordinary people find alternative spaces for discussion and form public opinion. It is in this context, the sacred places such as the Mosques have emerged to provide alternative spaces for public and political discussion in Kashmir.


Panel III revolved around the theme of Media, Mediation and Democracy in India. Dr. Taberez A. Neyazi discussed the role of media in the vernacularisation of the public sphere. He argued for a “mediated public sphere” and pointed out that media has helped mediate the diversity of voices in the vernacular arena. Given this, he advocated for a shift from representative democracy to participatory democracy to mediated democracy.


The paper by Sindhu Manjesh discussed citizen journalism and the networked information economy in India. She also discussed the limits of the Habermasian theory in explaining the cyber-sphere and the blogosphere. In addition, she also discussed issues related to access, control, agency and representation in the media sphere in contemporary India.


Panel IV was based on Sites of Subalternity and Science. The Paper by Dr. Sarbeswar Sahoo drew a conceptual correlation between civil society and public sphere and argued for “representational publics”. According to him, the NGOs and other civil society actors can be categorised as “representational publics” as they have come to represent the interests and rights of the marginalized groups and tried to improve their socio-economic conditions by negotiating their problems with the institutions of the state. The paper by Dr. Shiju Sam Varughese discussed the relationship between science, state and democracy through the case of Endosulfan survivors. He distinguished between elite publics, quasi publics and non-publics while discussing the techno-scientific complex in India. The last paper in this panel was by Dr. Subhasis Sahoo who discussed the popularization of science and the formation of a “scientific public sphere” in India. He also discussed the relationship between science and society and the medialization of science in Indian context.


The closing keynote address was delivered by Prof. Sitharamam Kakarala who asked why democracy is central to public sphere. According to him, public spheres are necessary for both Habermas and Rawls who have argued for a rational-critical-discourse. Both Rawls and Habermas also discuss about the “overlapping consensus” which is the outcome of rational critical deliberative action. Prof. Kakarala also emphasized the notion of multiple publics and subaltern counter-publics and argued how Chatterjee’s idea of political society is very important to understand the processes of negotiation that occurs between the subaltern population and the institutions of state. It is in this context he introduced the concept of “mediated populism” that political society has advocated. The question is whether mediated populism is good or bad for democracy. Prof. Kakarala concludes that “populism is simultaneously capable of being extremely democratic; it also has the potential/capacity of leading to authoritarianism. Unless we take on this animal called populism, we will not be able to deal with democracy in post-colonial societies like India”.


The workshop ended with a vote of thanks by the organizers.

Call for Papers: Modalities of Conversion in India


Peter Berger (University of Groningen)
Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi): <>

Short Abstract:

This panel seeks to examine the modalities and processes of religious conversion in India with regard to three interconnected levels: the subjective experience of the actors involved, the (inter)group dynamics and the larger political and societal contexts.

Long Abstract:

This panel seeks to examine modalities of religious conversion in India. Conversion has often been analyzed as a radical and sudden change. While this may be the case this change does not need to be abrupt but can also be gradual. Moreover, conversion does not need to be total, that means involving at the same time and to the same extend belief, practice, life-style and social relationships. It may affect only one or more of these dimensions and to a different degree at different moments in the process of conversion. The panel is not about any particular religion. Rather, the focus is on the processes of changing religious affiliations with regard to three interconnected levels: a) the subjective experience of the actors involved, b) the (inter)group dynamics and, c) the larger political and societal contexts. Pertinent questions thus are: How do these micro, meso and macro levels interact in the processes of conversion? Can we identify different aspects as being crucial in the initial phase of conversion in contrast to the period after conversion? In which way are the general political and societal contexts relevant in this regard? Does, for example, the pressure from the state to become part of the “mainstream” push communities towards changing their religious affiliation? And, do people convert because they feel inferior vis-à-vis a dominant culture or religion? Is it more a conversion toward a new religion, or rather away from an old identity? We invite proposals that explore some of these or related questions in the Indian context.