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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 26.1 (2006) 36-50

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Civil Society and the Predicament of Multiple Publics

In 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 collectively 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 ideological 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 institutions of civil society. A concept that was largely moribund when models of state-led modernization dominated both Marxist and liberal conceptions of social change and development, it has made a dramatic comeback and is slowly beginning to percolate into a number of disciplinary arenas. Ongoing discussions approach it from a range of vantage points, informed by shifting views on the nature of modernization, the growth of new social movements, and the discourse of rights. In these debates, new formulations on the nature of statehood and citizenship are necessitating a reevaluation of the meanings of civil society. With a backward glance at this literature, this essay attempts to identify the parameters of civil society in countries that were once colonized by addressing a very specific question: In what ways has the emergence of nation-statehood and modern notions of subjectivity shaped the relationship between civil society and public culture in postcolonial societies? By focusing on developments in India, 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 [End Page 36] state and society (a false duality in itself) has been one of stark inequality. The essay argues that the peculiar circumstances of colonial rule in India created a fractured, stratified public culture in which a normative bourgeois public sphere coexists with multiple "subaltern counterpublics." Although colonial forms of knowledge sought to discipline the sociocultural landscape in the Raj from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the coexistence of multiple publics demonstrates that numerous constituencies resisted, indeed subverted, such reordering. Over time, this has had a profound effect on the way people in India understand their role as citizens and, in turn, their relationship with existing institutions of civil society.

Locating the "Public"

In the voluminous scholarship on the subject, the origins of civil society are generally attributed to G. W. F. Hegel's nineteenth-century theoretical formulations.2 More recently, the revival of the study of civil society, it is often suggested, is the outcome of debates in Eastern Europe and the English translation of Jürgen Habermas's The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.3 Partly because of the prominence of Habermas's formulations on the "public sphere" and modern institutions in general, the concept of civil society...


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