Practice Question – Discuss the changing interface between state and civil society in post-independent India. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2017) 

Approach Introduction, Briefly explain the relation between state and civil society, Apply it to the Indian context, examine how their relationship has changed in the post-independent era, Conclusion. 



The term ‘civil society’ can be traced back to the works of classical Greek and Roman philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero. As a matter of fact, Aristotle is credited with the very first usage of the term. The term, which at that period of time was taken, as synonymous to political institution, has developed a completely opposite meaning in today’s discourse and is referred to, as an autonomous body, distinct from the state. The modern idea of civil society saw its genesis in the Scottish and Continental enlightenment era of the late eighteenth century. An idea of civil society being parallel but distinct from the state was developed by the political theorists’ right from Thomas Paine to George Hegel . According to them, civil society was a domain, where association of citizens takes place in accordance with their interests, desires, and wishes. Reflections of this changed school of thought could be seen in the changed economic realities like rise of bourgeois, private properties, and market competition.



Civil society is generally defined, as the space, which is outside the realm of family, market, and state. There is no single definition of civil society. It means differently to different authors.

According to Jeffery Alexander  “civil society is an inclusive, umbrella-like concept referring to plethora of institutes outside the state.” Niraja Gopal Jayal envisions civil society to cover “all forms of voluntary associations and social interactions not controlled by the state.” As per Sussane Hober Rudolph “civil society… includes the idea of a non-state
autonomous sphere; empowerment of citizens; trust building associational life; interaction with, rather than subordination to the State”. 

The concept of civil society is associated with the Western intellectual tradition. With the epochal changes in the West, the idea of civil society has grown progressively. Many factors have gone into developing the concept of the state as it has come to stay with us. These factors, to mention a few, include the emergence of secular authority, the development of the institution of property, the decline of the absolutist state, the growth of urban culture, the rise of nationalist and democratic movements, until the end of the nineteenth century and the rule of law. As the capitalist economy with its democratising features has developed, so has the concept of civil society.



1) It consists of non-state institutions.
2) It consists of a plethora of organizations and institutions outside family, state, and market.
3) It is an organized society.
4) It is voluntary.
5) It is autonomous body.
6) It is a nonprofit entity.
7) It enables citizen’s interaction with the state, thus, facilitating citizen participation in the governance process.



  • Service provider (for example, running primary schools and providing basic community health care services)
  • Advocate/campaigner (for example, lobbying governments or business on issues including indigenous rights or the environment)
  • Watchdog (for example, monitoring government compliance with human rights treaties)
  • Building active citizenship (for example, motivating civic engagement at the local level and engagement with local, regional and national governance)
  • Participating in global governance processes (for example, civil society organisations serve on the advisory board of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds).



1) Civil society organizations lack adequate financial resources – Most of the CSOs don’t have adequate funds to carry out their work, as the people they serve lack the capacity to pay. Hence, they depend on receiving funds from the government/non-government bodies/international institutions. Now, with a simultaneous cut in the international funding, the problem of financial inadequacy of CSO’s is only increasing.
2) Inadequate professional and trained staff – There exists a huge shortage of professional and trained personnel in the voluntary sector. Most of the personnel are unqualified and unskilled. Inadequate salaries do act, as a deterrent in appointing of a skilled work force. Also, professionally qualified and trained individuals have a preference and inclination to work in high profile cities and offices than a backward and underdeveloped region.
3) Accountability Issues – One of the issues plaguing CSOs is the accountability issue in their own operation and working. Accountability and transparency, especially, in
financial matters are found lacking. There have been increasing incidences of misuse of funds by these organizations. In January 2017, the Hon. Supreme Court of India called for an audit of nearly 30 lakh NGOs. This move was taken in the background of the NGOs failing to give an account of expenditure made out of the money they had received.



In the 19th century, the popular mobilization vis-à-vis CSOs took place, which saw the emergence of various social groups like ‘Brahmo Samaj,’ ‘Arya Samaj,’ ‘Theosophical Society,’ ‘Ramakrishna Mission,’ which were behind different reform movements in India. Active participation of various NGOs and voluntary organizations was witnessed during India’s struggle for freedom. Voluntary sector gained momentum under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. He mobilized masses and created a space for civil society, which successfully carried out the movements like Satyagraha (truth and non-violence), non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. His school of thought continued to inspire people even after independence,
reminiscences that can be seen in movements like Chipko movements led by Sunder Lal Bahuguna or more recently anti-corruption protests by Anna Hazare, social audit movement by the rural workers and such others.

After independence, the union government set up Central Social Welfare Board, and began the Community Development Programme, and National Extension Service. These efforts were basically to involve and increase people participation in the social welfare developmental programmes. After establishment of Panchayati Raj Institutions in India in 1958, various farmers and their co-operative societies came up in good numbers and gave fillip to networking in the civil society organizations. The incidences of droughts, famines, and engagement in
wars in the sixties gave further boost to voluntary action in the country. In 1970’s and 1980’s, the number of CSOs, especially, NGO’s grew in the areas of poverty alleviation, development and growth, access to education, empowerment of poor, protection of civil liberties etc. and were recognized, as crucial partners in development of the state.
With LPG in the nineties, the role of the NGOs increased. As international organizations like World Bank and IMF giving aids to developing nations showed their inclination to work with non-state actors, the number and significance of NGOs increased. The dawn of 21st century saw civil society in India undertaking a major initiative to the enactment of Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005.



State exists within the society. This makes the state and society analytically distinct. The two are not the same. Society is a web of social relationships and as such, includes the totality of
social practices, which are essentially plural, but at the same time, are relational. The hierarchically organised and maintained social practices of a given community establish, in their turn, all kinds of power equations and relations among its members. The state comes in to give these power relations a fixity, and thereby to society its stability. The state gives legitimacy to social relationships as expressed in social practices because it recognises them and codifies them through legal acts. It is in this sense that the state can be described as the codified power of the social formation of a given time.
The state, so considered, is itself a distinct and discrete organisation of power in so far as it possesses the capacity to select, categorise, crystallise and arrange power in formal codes and
institutions. And this capacity gives to the state its status – power, power to take decisions, power to enforce decisions, and also power to coerce those who defy them. But the state so
considered derives its power from society. It is, in this sense, a codified power, but within the framework of the society in which it operates.

The relationship between state and civil society is important in so far as it suggests the comparative position of each in relation to the other. In some analyses, this relationship is depicted as a zero sum game: the stronger the state, the weaker the civil society; the weaker the state, the stronger the civil society. Obviously, the expansion of the area of state activity would help minimise the role of civil society; the expansion of the area of civil society would help, on the other hand, minimise the role of the state. In modern liberal societies of our time, the civil society ‘sphere’ is larger than that of the state, while in dictatorial regimes of any sort, the state’s ‘sphere’ is larger than that of civil society.



Academics, researchers and practitioners are concerned about “closing space” around civil society. Closing space refers to governments enacting regulatory, legislative or practical restrictions on civil society, including foreign funding for CSOs and limits on the rights of freedom of association, assembly and expression. Constraints on civil society began following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, with a second wave of restrictions following the Arab Spring . Both developing and developed countries are enacting restrictions. Practitioners and researchers are actively seeking ways to enhance civil society’s resilience and sustainability (see, for example, the US Center for Strategic and International  Studies, who have launched a global consortium to identify specific remedies). Other important trends in civil society include the changing funding climate, the role of technology and the role of faith groups.

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