UCSB South/Southeast Workshop

Question 2: What is the impact of Social Change on Civil Society Organizations?

Philip Oldenburg

The change in political climate in the major countries of South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – is obviously full of variations.


Sri Lanka has just ended a civil war that had brought severe restrictions on civil liberties and, in its earlier phases, significant insecurity, yet preserving a certain modicum of democratic activity. The war’s end has not loosened the hold of its ruling Rajapakse family, nor have there been significant moves to resolve the issue of the place of the Tamils in an overarching Sinhala-Buddhist state.


Nepal’s efforts to write a Constitution seemed doomed, and the UN is [about to ] withdraw its participation, most importantly as the guarantors of the dis-armed/disengaged and deeply oppositional forces of the Maoist “Peoples Liberation Army” and the regular Nepal Army. Politics is essentially in a state of suspended animation, with major constitutional issues unsettled, which is, to be sure, an improvement over the insurrection and repression of the years before the cease-fire and constitutional agreement, and the elections that have brought the Maoists to the center of day-to-day government – and infructuous political maneuvering -- in Kathmandu.


Bangladesh has moved from a confrontational politics centered on its two leaders (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and parties (BNP & Awami League), via an interregnum during which the BNP attempted to skew the electoral process but then, with a behind-the-scenes controlling army, a Caretaker Government was able to hold a free and fair election (December 2008). Its decisively elected Awami League government is, without much effective opposition, returning to the principles of the constitution enacted at independence, with an emphasis on secularism, and going after the religious party (the Jamaat-i-Islami) that was a partner to the Pakistan government in the genocide and civil war of 1971.


Pakistan’s military remains the pivotal player in its politics, despite the election of a popular government in February 2008, since the alliance of convenience of the two major parties has largely dissolved, and the promise of civil society initiatives led by the lawyers and the judiciary has soured. Islamic movements, some of them violent “jihadi” fighters, remain significant in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have followers – and stage violent attacks – elsewhere in the country.


With continuing high-level economic growth, India’s politics has perhaps marginally shifted towards a developmental focus, exemplified in the recent (November) election in Bihar, in which the BJP did very well as the coalition partner of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, but had to suppress to the point of near-invisibility its Hindu nationalist agenda. Naxalite insurrectionary activity and recurrent corruption scandals are not undermining a democracy that slowly strengthens by surviving.


Is there a common thread in these changing politics relevant to our question? Perhaps it is that while democracy in all continues to exist despite significant authoritarian elements (strongest in Pakistan, weakest in India, with Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh in the middle), in no country are civil society organizations powerful enough to have a major impact on policy. Yet “secular” NGOs are influential in India, where they lead the transformation of grass-roots governance that focuses on the use of the Right to Information Act and social audits, and in Bangladesh, where the giant micro-lending based NGOs have moved into other grass-roots economic/development activities. NGOs are more politically-oriented in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and they have important international connections. The Pakistani lawyers – organized in bar associations – have lost their common goal, once the judges dismissed by General Musharraf were reinstated and have proceeded to stake out an unprecedented degree of autonomy within the Pakistan state. There was some civil society organization participation in flood relief in 2010 (in which the army did the most).


Religious freedom and faith-based civil society organizations


Religious freedom exists in all the countries of South Asia, and public and private worship of all communities (with the exception of Ahmadiyya in Pakistan) takes place regularly, often in temples, churches, mosques, and shrines. There are laws against conversion (enforced only against those, most often Christians, who are a minority), and significant religious persecution in Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya and Christians and religious violence aimed at Muslims and Christians in India (and similar, though less important, actions in the other three countries). The situation has not changed under newly more democratic regimes. Although there is a constant stream of incidents involving religion, given the massive populations, these hardly have any direct impact, though their symbolic importance cannot be minimized.


Pakistan: Although faith-based (and in this case, militantly Islamic) organizations had been highly visible in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake relief, it turns out their efforts on the ground were insignificant, compared to those of the government, aided by foreign relief. During the 2010 flood relief activities, they were not even particularly visible. Non-violent faith-based organizations have probably been crowded out by their “jihadi” cousins.


India: Hindu nationalist sentiment has continued to wane as a political force, and the government has arrested some Hindu terrorists responsible for a series of bomb-blasts, but sporadic actions against Muslims and other minorities continue, making it difficult for faith-based organizations in a largely secular civil society landscape.


Sri Lanka: although there is an explicitly “Buddhist” political party – not very important, recently – the conflict of the past decades has not been marked by religious divisions as much as it could have been. Even then, faith-based organizations have not been very noticeable after war’s end.


Bangladesh: the pressures on the Jamaat-i-Islami may well have made it difficult for non-political Islamic groups. Although Hindus are a substantial minority, there has not been increased activity by Hindu groups since the new government has come to power.


Nepal: although Nepal under the monarchy was officially a “Hindu” state, faith-based organizations were not prominent then, nor have they emerged now.