In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civil Society in South Asia

  • Introduction
  • 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

Political Science Civil Society in South Asia
Sarbeswar Sahoo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0212


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

Conceptions of civil society vary widely. While classical theorists defined civil society as an antithesis to the dangerous state of nature and conflated civil society with the state (see Kumar 1993, Chandhoke 1995), modern theorists, especially Hegel, developed the notion of civil society as a domain parallel to but separate from the state. Stillman 1980 argues that for Hegel, civil society is a domain of particularity between the patriarchal family and the universal state. Taking Hegel’s ideas as a starting point, Cohen and Arato 1995 examines how civil society has become a contested terrain in the West and how it could contribute to the expansion of democracy and rights. Specifically, Kumar 1993 argues that “the terms civil society, its attractive combination of democratic pluralism with a continuing role for state regulation and guidance, make it appear hopeful to societies seeking to recover from the excess of state socialism; at the same time it seems to offer help in the refashioning of radical politics in those societies where socialism has lost whatever appeal it once possessed” (p. 375). Drawing on examples in South Asia, Chandhoke 1995 argues that civil society is more than a “residual” category; in fact, for the author, civil society acquires relevance only in relation to the state. Another influential book, Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001 brings together essays that examine the theoretical meanings of civil society in different historical contexts outside the West, particularly in South Asia. Similarly, Mahajan 1999 examines the state-civil society relationship in modern Western and Indian political discourse. Taking a liberal view, Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001 and Mahajan 1999 argue that civil society refers to only those “intermediary institutions” that are open and secular and that promote the idea of citizenship. However, Edwards 2005 looks at civil society as a multilayered concept. For the author, civil society can be defined as associational life, as good society, and as public sphere. Alexander 1997 also sees civil society as sphere of solidarity; the author affirms the need to differentiate civil society not only from markets and states, but also from noncivil spheres such as religion and family. In contrast, Chandhoke 2003 argues that civil society may not necessarily always promote freedom and democratic rights as it includes conflicts and uncivil forces within its domain. Given the diversity of meanings and existence of incivilities within civil society, Kopecky and Mudde 2003 calls for rethinking civil society.

  • Alexander, Jeffrey C. “The Paradoxes of Civil Society.” International Sociology 12.2 (June 1997): 115–133.

    DOI: 10.1177/026858097012002001

    This article goes beyond the Marxist and liberal equation of civil society and conceptualizes it as a realm of solidarity. It argues that the solidary sphere, in principle and in practice, can be differentiated not only from markets and states, but also from such other noncivil spheres as religion, family, and science.

  • Chandhoke, Neera. State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory. New Delhi: SAGE, 1995.

    Most works see civil society as a residual category composed of everything that is not the state. Chandhoke argues that this position is flawed and proposes that the state can be understood only by referring to the politics of civil society and vice versa.

  • Chandhoke, Neera. The Conceits of Civil Society. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This book problematizes the idea and practices of civil society and stresses the need to bring the state back into the civil society discourse. It also calls for recognizing the conflicts within civil society and the incivilities within that society.

  • Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995.

    A key text that looks at the concept of civil society as a contested terrain in the West, which could become the primary locus for the expansion of democracy and rights. It takes Hegel’s ideas as the starting point and analyzes 20th-century theoretical critiques by scholars such as Arendt, Schmitt, Habermas, Foucault, and Luhmann.

  • Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005.

    Going beyond the simplified and reductionist equation of civil society as the totality of associational life, Edwards deconstructs and disaggregates the concept by identifying three different theoretical perspectives (as associational life, as good society, and as public sphere), which constitute the centerpiece of the book.

  • Kaviraj, Sudipta, and Sunil Khilnani, eds. Civil Society: History and Possibilities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    A masterful collection of essays that clarify the theoretical meanings of civil society as well as consider the different historical contexts in which it has been used outside the West. The book is divided into two parts: the first analyzes the meaning of civil society in different theoretical traditions of Western philosophy, and the second examines the theoretical and practical contexts in which this idea has been invoked in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

  • Kopecky, Petr, and Cas Mudde. “Rethinking Civil Society.” Democratization 10.3 (2003): 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510340312331293907

    This article argues that instead of defining civil society only in normative terms, we should (1) see civil society as a heuristic device, (2) draw a distinction between “civil” and “uncivil,” (3) study the nature of the relationship between civil society organizations and democracy/democratization, and (4) include “uncivil” movements and contentious politics in the study of civil society.

  • Kumar, Krishan. “Civil Society: An Inquiry into the Usefulness of an Historical Term.” British Journal of Sociology 44.3 (September 1993): 375–395.

    DOI: 10.2307/591808

    A useful and comprehensive theoretical overview of the concept of civil society since the 18th century. It also examines the fruitfulness of the concept in the current conditions of western European and eastern European society.

  • Mahajan, Gurpreet. “Civil Society and Its Avatars: What Happened to Freedom and Democracy?” Economic and Political Weekly 34.20 (May 1999): 1188–1196.

    Analyzing the debate centered on state-civil society relationship in modern Western and Indian political discourse, Mahajan points out the hiatus between political thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries and later political thought in the 20th century.

  • Stillman, Peter G. “Hegel’s Civil Society: A Locus of Freedom.” Polity 12.4 (Summer 1980): 622–646.

    DOI: 10.2307/3234303

    Stillman discusses how recent writings have glossed over the role civil society plays in Hegel’s political philosophy. Specifically, he shows how Hegel distinguished civil society both from the family and from the state and imagined it as a set of rational institutions producing freedom.

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