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Constructing A Liberal Civil Society

Ajay Gudavarthy

By Suryakant Waghmore
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 276, Rs. 750.00


This book once again foregrounds the on-going debate on how to approach and conceptualize civil society in India. Is civil society a ‘realm of freedom‘ or a realm of hegemony? Is it a ‘bourgeoise society‘ that introduces the processes of individuation and breakdown of community relations or enables in forging civic ethos and civic community as against traditional hierarchies? The variations in approaching the concept of civil society are doubly compounded when we begin to discuss it in the context of caste. Part of the problem really seems to be that while discourses and analyses, over the last few decades in India, have surged ahead exploring the various modes of democratization, including ideas of ‘secularization of caste‘ and ‘politicization of caste‘, these have remained as very selective instances in the life and dynamics of caste based exclusion in India, and they highlight very marginal and partial achievements by the anti-caste movements. Caste-based practices continue to be predominantly violent, invoking everyday forms of exclusion and humiliation. For Suryakant Waghmore this reality does not get represented in the debates on how to approach civil society. It is in this, he argues, that constitution of civility, and civil/civic spaces squarely belongs and is part of the emancipatory project of anti-caste movements. Anti-caste movements struggle routinely to construct these spaces and in the process are effectively attempting to construct and strengthen civil society in India. He says, ‘the moral impediment that liberals favour of deliberative procedures, politeness, rational communication and undoing of status privileges in the practice of civil society are not antithetical to the freedom of dalits. The liberal procedures and institutions of civil society are crucial to unsettle the traditional modes of civility that constructs dalits as lesser subjects‘ (p.202). Having said this, Waghmore does note the problem that the dalit movement itself deploys extra-institutional forms of mobilization, including use of violent modes, which ‘do not fit the liberal ethos‘. Though he does not further interrogate this problematique, as to what  the concrete effect of this denial is in the way dalit struggles are perceived, by those inhabiting and those aspiring to become new entrants of the civil society? Where is the faultline between the civil society as it exists and civil society as an aspirational ideal of those currently marginalized? How does the latter, in a substantive sense, differ from the former idea of civil society? How does it transform ...

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