Civil Society And Democracy

Mukti Rijal


The term civil society (Nagarik Samaj) has been used in Nepal especially to denote non-governmental organisations as they are interchangeable to each other. Non-governmental organisations are also called civil society organisations in the contemporary sense of term. Not only the civil society organisations but the private and business organisation and corporate bodies often tend to claim themselves as being the part of civil society.
In fact, the term civil society is very nebulous and fluid. It includes the entire range of non-state groups and civic institutions both formal and informal. But these institutions should be independent of the political society (state) and economic society (market). So the business organisations representing the interests of market cannot be said to be part of the civil society though their interests may be compatible to that of the civil society when they have to fight against the tyranny and authoritarian tendencies of the state .The civil society organisations are generally expected to be voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. But this is not always true especially in the case of Nepal.

In a democracy civil society organisations are very important and their role is considered to be vital. In fact, the word civil denotes tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity. The important prerequisite for the civil society groups is that they must keep and preserve their autonomy and independence and seek to stay outside the sphere of the state and private sector. The civil society groups must retain their civility and should not seek political power and patronage to serve their interests .Often in heavily politicised social environment like ours, militant and radical groups may be promoted and allowed come into existence as frontal wings of the political parties like Youth Communist Leagues (YCL), Youth Force, Tarun Dal and so on. These groups often times do not tolerate the right to dissent, and fail to respect other groups that disagree with them. These groups are merely the frontal wings of the political parties that are deployed to seek to win control of the power. Such organisations and groups can never be the part of the civil society organisation.
The robust and democratic civil society organisations are vital in strengthening democratic system and culture in the country. The basic role of civil society is to keep vigil over the use of the state power, civil society actors should watch on how state officials use their power and authority. They should raise public concerns if there occurs abuse of power. They should have access to state information and engage with legal institutions that are established to control corruption and abuse of authority. Moreover, civil society should expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for governance reforms. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society organisations. Moreover, civil society should help to promote political participation of citizens.
Civil society organisations can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens. They can also help develop civic skills to work with one another to solve collective civic issues and problems, to debate public issues, and express their views. Moreover, civil society organisations can help to develop the values of democratic life. The values of democratic life are tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot thrive and be stable. These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice.
Civil society also can help to develop programs for democratic civic education as well. They can in fact present their views to parliament and local governments by contacting individual members and testifying before parliamentary committees. They can also establish dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for civic interests and concerns.
Because civil society is independent of the state does not mean that it must always criticise and oppose the state. In fact, by making the state at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective and hence more legitimate vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the state. A democratic state cannot be strong unless it is effective and legitimate commanding respect and support of its citizens. Civil society organisations are a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens.
The resourceful and well organised civil society organisations can have their voices heard by the state. Over time, groups that have historically been oppressed and confined to the margins of society can organise to assert their rights and defend their interests as well. The civil society organisations can strengthen democracy by providing solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious, and other identity ties. Democracy cannot prosper if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity.

Narrow interests
When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, environmentalists, and so on, civic life becomes richer, more complex, and more tolerant. However, in Nepal the real danger lies in the fact that the political parties have captured civic space and used it to promote their narrower interests and identities.
Moreover, the Nepalese laws that have been enacted during these days including the Local Governance Act 2017 have failed to accord due space to civil society organisations. Due recognition has not been accorded to tap them as partner for strengthening local democracy and enhancing civic engagement for local development which is very vital for democratisation of state and society.

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