back to issue

REVIVING DEMOCRACY: Citizens at the Heart of Governance by Barry Knight, Hope Chigudu and Rajesh Tandon. Earthscan, London, 2002.

SINCE time immemorial civil society has formed the bedrock of organised living . Human history is replete with examples of ordinary people, self organising in groups, clans, tribes or castes and working for the common good. These assertions have also been the driving force of culture, regulating relations between people and providing them with a sense of identity long before the rise of the nation state.

The extant discourse on this thematic, however, has been far too narrowly focused on NGOs to the exclusion of other vital components of civil society. This book questions the negation and exclusion of the voices of citizens and tries to restore a balance by incorporating their views. Drawing on a two year research study, ‘Civil Society in the New Millennium’ sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation, the book is a landmark document based as it is upon the response of thousands of citizens from 47 countries.

The book argues that civil society should be defined as individual and collective action working towards common public good. The first part of this definition suggests that the unit of analysis of civil society should be ‘individual and collective action’ going beyond the discipline of organisational behaviour. The second focus, namely the common public good, brings in normative concerns. The Commonwealth Foundation realised the importance of giving citizens pride of place in civil society: ‘Citizens and their collective endeavours constitute the basic fabric of any society. Individually and together, citizens have always acted voluntarily to improve their communities and societies.’

Citizen action takes a variety of forms – campaigns for social, economic and environmental improvement, for human rights, activities aimed at amelioration of the poor, creating opportunities for education and gainful employment, preservation of indigenous cultures, and working for secure and peaceful living. To these can be added people’s movements and struggles for freedom. These actions lend strength to the ideas of democracy, pluralism, respect for human rights and good governance, as also social cohesiveness and harmony.

Interestingly, while the importance of citizen initiative and participation is gradually receiving recognition the world over, the citizens themselves are increasingly alienated from the processes affecting them. This disturbing scenario has to be seen in the context of a cumulative effect of the trend toward globalisation, competition and individualism that has instilled in citizens a sense of insecurity, and has consequentially embittered them. These trends, undoubtedly, have impacted on the health of civil society.

The debate on what constitutes a good society tends to capture the views of utopians and realists on the one hand and focuses on conflicts between tradition and modernity on the other. While the utopians have a vision of society based on the voluntary principle, the realists abhor attempts to realise a utopian vision because of an implicit commitment to a planned society. Similarly, votaries of traditional culture, regardless of their location, invariably decry the ways of life of those in the North and West. They basically advocate the best features of traditional societies, which involve a deep-rooted posture of tolerance, a highly evolved humanism and an ethos in which linguistic, religious or ethnic groups can appreciate the creative elements of others. However, such a humanist perspective can equally fall prey to fear, intolerance and aggression usually manifested in the form of communal conflicts or civil strife. The crisis has been aggravated by a new and unsympathetic worldview of traditional communities engendered by colonialism and its sense of progress.

The ’90s saw the emergence of a new model of societal development described in the book as a consensus model by leading lending agencies and global think tanks. This model has three key elements: democratic form of governance with devolution of some power and resources to local bodies, private enterprise and free market as the primary vehicle of economic development, and a greater role for civil society in the development process. The relative strength, sphere of influence and balance of power between these three components varies in a given society at a particular moment in time.

The ‘current’ consensus has, however, raised many questions, issues and concerns. Some of these centre on globalisation and the perceived threat to state sovereignty, democratic form of governance and its suitability in the East and South, the rationale for private enterprise and a free market economy, and the strength and capacity of civil society vis-à-vis its burgeoning responsibility.

In the recent past, society has undoubtedly made tremendous gains in terms of standards of living and technological advancements. However, if we contrast these with situations of widespread poverty, mass illiteracy, rising unemployment and alarming conditions of malnutrition and disease, it becomes abundantly clear that a lot more needs to be done.

In the post Second World War decades, nation states emerged as powerful institutions. This growing power was accompanied by ever-increasing responsibilities. However, this trend was countered by the growing influence of globalisation in the last decade of the 20th century which began to determine and dominate the economic agenda. The MNCs, international financial institutions and global capital markets vigorously advocated this as a panacea for many of the existing economic ills.

The revolution in the field of information technology added another dimension. This technology holds immense promise in that it can connect people instantaneously throughout the world. But a vast majority of people around the globe have no access to this revolutionary technology. This has created a gulf between the ‘IT haves’ and ‘IT have-nots’ leading to the marginalisation of the latter. Consequently, it has led to the process of ‘globalisation of elites.’

The advent of the new millennium has put tremendous pressure on nation states to attain better standards of living. Governments find themselves grappling with fewer resources and reduced capacities to satisfy soaring expectations of citizens. There are many problems that cut across national borders. Religious extremism, ethnic and nationalist identity politics, migration, drugs, HIV/AIDS, depletion of natural resources and so on, all demand urgent transborder solutions. The inadequacies of existing national and international institutions are too apparent to be ignored. These institutions in the present form, designed half a century ago, seem to have outlived their utility in fighting some of these crippling problems afflicting our society.

The present study is extremely ambitious, consulting over 10,000 citizens and involving an international, multicultural team of researchers. The research focused on three basic questions which were posed to citizens: (i) What is your view of a good society? To what extent does such a society exist today? (ii) What roles are best played by citizens, the state and other sectors in such a good society? (iii) What would enable citizens to play a more effective role in the development of society in the future?

Research teams took care of the ethnicity, gender, age, tribe and other characteristics of the different categories of citizens to be interviewed. Based on their ‘visibility’ with regard to power in society, the respondents were divided into four categories: (a) invisible citizens – persons typically not seen, heard, engaged, acknowledged or empowered within society; (b) visible citizens – typically leaders of particular groups; (c) interlocutors – typically prominent people in voluntary, public and private sectors, social observers, politicians and journalists; and (d) coanalysts – people who study how societies work; academics, consultants, policy analysts, government observers and others.

The process involved garnering responses from invisible citizens first, and using the results to inform discussions with visible citizens. These in turn led to informed discussions with interlocutors and, finally, with coanalysts.

The study, however, was marked by a number of limitations. For example, the questions were framed without community consultation by professionals, although they proved to be close to people’s hearts; a few of the national partners were unaccustomed to participatory ethos; and the primary data are subjective because of the quality of reporting.

As noted earlier, the book attempts to catch the nuances of all the different voices around the Commonwealth countries. Despite the enormous diversity of countries, sex, age, priorities and compulsions, the voices of citizens are remarkably coherent and consistent. All focus on three distinct but inter-related categories, namely, basic needs, associational needs and need for participation in governance.

Fulfilment of basic needs constitutes the critical foundation. Three kinds of basic needs emerged from the study as being important to citizens. First, citizens yearn for a society where economic security for all is a reality. However, citizens link economic security with meaningful occupation and not doles or some other compensatory benefits because the latter ‘grinds down the spirit.’ Human security without dignity is not desirable.

Second, basic social services like food, water, shelter, education, sanitation and health are essential requisites of a good society without which citizens cannot lead a dignified life. The ‘good life’ is always seen in conjunction with the availability of and accessibility to these services for all. Finally, the need for physical security and peace. Citizens have a universal preference for a society free from violence and threat to physical well-being, more notably for women and children. Across regions and socio-political settings there is unqualified condemnation of crime, violence, killings, strife, attacks and war, whether by sub-cultural or ethnic and political groups. Citizens believe that ‘if there is no peace there is no freedom.’

The second category concerns expectations about human association with other people, aspects such as respect for culture and heritage and a tradition of caring and sharing among the community.

Citizens across the Commonwealth countries want the good society to promote cultural elements like music, art, craft, dance, dress, food and language to be preserved for posterity. There is universal belief that a society devoid of communication and associative values and norms drawing from its cultural heritage is not a good society. Hence the stress on preservation of patterns of governance and justice based on traditional and cultural roots.

Here, one has to understand that these opinions are not equated to ethnocentric ideas. Instead, what they seek is a fine balance between the traditional and modern systems. The values of honesty, openness, integrity, respect, cooperation are vital elements of a good society which find support in both traditional and modern belief systems.

The second aspect of association stresses values and spirit of cooperation, a feeling of identification with the neighbourhood or the larger community, love, compassion, respect, unity of support and caring. These are viewed as a precondition of economic growth and as indispensable elements of a good society.

The third category concerns citizens’ expectations concerning participation in governance. The study highlights two aspects of participation, the first equal rights and justice and the second, responsive and inclusive governance.

The hallmark of a good society is that it not only professes but actually practices social justice. Equally, all citizens must enjoy freedom of speech, information, association and assembly. There is a remarkable consistency about the need for a non-discriminatory and unprejudiced structure at all levels. Discriminations based on gender, age, race, caste, religion, ethnic or class can confer or hinder equal opportunities. Citizens should not be favourably or unfavourably treated on the basis of their status – whether ascribed or achieved.

The study is an affirmation of citizens’ desire to see that gender justice is realised. Women across class barriers feel that they are not accorded opportunities to participate in decision-making processes at any level and that they are ‘confined within strict boundaries.’ These socio-cultural limitations are stifling. As in the case of women, citizens expressed unequivocal concern about equal rights and justice for indigenous communities, minorities, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. Curiously, equal rights for indigenous communities also include the right to self- determination.

Citizens have an innate desire to be heard and listened to on a regular and continuing basis. Their idea of a good society is one in which they can partake in policy-making. Apparently, they are not content with voting rights alone, and want a society characterised by responsive and inclusive governance. There should be ample space even for dissenting political voices.

Based on the criteria that individuals set for a good society the study revealed that there is widespread disappointment and disillusionment. Even in countries with marked economic progress, leading to increased income and greater access to modern amenities, most ordinary citizens felt that the realities of life do not match with their vision of a good society.

Citizens are bedevilled by insecurities – economic, social and physical. They are seriously concerned about assured livelihood for their families. On the social side, there is deep concern about inadequacies in the quality and regularity of basic public services. Even in the developed countries of the North, services such as water, transport, education and health have suffered. Wherever the market has ventured to supply these services, a majority of citizens find them unaffordable. Elaborate social safety nets are not in place in most countries. Even where such institutional mechanisms exist, they have utterly failed to provide adequate security.

The third dimension of security is physical. War, crime, terrorism and drug peddling have added to the problems of ordinary citizens. Women and children constitute the most vulnerable sections. Criminals and anti-socials go scot-free and hold the neighbourhood and community to ransom. The new enforcement agencies are either weak or timid, leaving the unscrupulous elements free to run amok. This deadly combination of economic, social and physical insecurity has brought untold anxiety to citizens across regions.

Citizens are at a loss to understand the frantic pace at which changes are taking place and the forces that are at work. The erosion and rapid transformation of family, kinship, neighbourhood and community bonds have accentuated resulting in individualistic tendencies. These traditional bonds were, in the main, responsible for social harmony, cohesiveness, solidarity and stability. The growing pressures of spatial mobility and urbanisation have not only shaken the foundations of traditional institutions but brought to the fore a new set of values characterised by unbridled competition, consumerism, individualism and insatiable desire for material gains. The age-old values of character, contentment, generosity and mutual help are under stress. Citizens across the Commonwealth have failed to keep pace with the changes. Some have preferred to retreat into the ‘good old days’ characterised by tradition. Others are seeking new ways of defining themselves, many a time on the basis of narrow and parochial identities.

Citizens find the performance of their governments lacklustre and generally not in tune with ground realities. There is an all-pervading feeling of betrayal, disenchantment and disillusionment with the way governments have dealt with issues and problems of society. Political leaders and public officials are seen as corrupt, inefficient, inept and cut-off from the realities. People occupying seats of power are found inaccessible. Dissenting voices are increasingly suppressed and sycophancy attracts premium.

While there was a striking similarity of views across diverse cultures and societies, there were visible variations between different kinds of people. Citizens in some Commonwealth nations opined that several aspects of a good society are already present. Citizens in Mauritius, Seychelles, Malaysia and Trinidad and Tobago have recently seen their living standards improve which probably explains the basis of such an assessment. Governments in U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand have embarked on a course of reform in response to growing citizen expectations. This has enabled citizens to participate in the process of governance. It is only logical, therefore, that they are beginning to see elements of a good society.

Despite examples of resistance to the process of globalisation, in most countries there are pressures from within to move towards a globalised culture. Governments have to cope up with the challenge of maintaining a harmonious balance between continuity and change. Many governments are grappling with conditions of civil war, internal rebellion, and ethnic and separatist conflicts that have rendered purposive governance difficult. In such situations citizens can easily be drawn into adversarial and conflictual processes operating in their society. Another variation is seen where the state has no clue on how to respond to the pressures from within and without. This confused scenario is marked by a relationship between the state and citizen where both conflict and cooperation, repression and responsiveness and support and apathy are clearly visible.

Such a perception of reality may, on the surface, sound depressing and grim. But, it has another facet. Citizens have not lost all hope of a good society in the future. They may not know what difference their efforts can make but do believe that the future holds immense promise.

Citizens want not only a strong, efficient and effective government but one that is responsive. First, a large majority expects the state to do all it can to help citizens meet their basic needs without compromising on principles of efficiency, effectiveness and equity. Second, they want the state to go beyond the role of a provider and act as a facilitator and enabler for citizen action in building a good society. The facilitation can be through policies, programmes and allocation of resources, but accompanied by a comprehensive and supportive attitudinal and behavioural change. The state ought to see citizen initiative as an asset, not an irritant. Third, citizens want the state to faithfully and diligently act as a promoter, meaning thereby that government must act beyond the letter and embrace the spirit. Governments must not only frame laws, policies and programmes that are sound but must act proactively to see that these are implemented effectively and without fear or favour. In so doing, government functioning would have to be transparent and accountable.

Of course, citizens have a role for themselves also. While many find it difficult to comprehend an exact role, they do want to meaningfully contribute to the building of a good society. They perceive themselves working as ‘active citizens’ by preparing the next generation to become responsible citizens, even though many among them are apathetic and self-centred while others are too preoccupied in securing livelihood with little or no time and opportunity to be active citizens.

A closer look at the expectations, both for themselves and for their leaders, clearly indicates a discernible pattern of complementarity between the role of the state and citizens. Talking of needs, citizens expect the state to play the role of a provider. Here active citizens complement the state role. Likewise, citizens desire the state to play a facilitator’s role in building collective citizen action, which in turn helps strengthen associational aspects of society. Additionally, the state is also expected to play promoter by creating an enabling environment that allows citizens to participate in building a good society. Here too, citizens complement the state’s role by engaging themselves in the public arena.

The emerging consensus about what constitutes a good society is markedly different from that in the past. It can form a blueprint for a focused action in the new millennium. Key elements of this are – strong state, strong civil society: citizens want a strong state, which can deliver efficient and effective performance. Provision of essential services that can ensure economic, social and physical security of all citizens is at the core of citizens’ expectations. The policies and legal framework must support human rights and social justice for all. A part of the expectations underline government’s role as a sensitive facilitator to ensure both citizen action and citizen participation.

Citizen expectation is not limited to their governments. There is a felt need for a strong civil society in which citizens are aware of their rights and responsibilities, are well informed and able to participate in local associations and organisations to work on a common public agenda. They visualise an active role for themselves in the family and community where they can demonstrate assertive leadership that is at the same time value-based and ethical. People would have to show solidarity, generosity and mutual support to their fellow citizens to help build a civil society with sound foundations. They would have to do away with passive, self-centred and narrow considerations. However, to realise the goal of a vibrant civil society, citizens would have to be first enabled and encouraged to engage with public institutions, officials and leaders on matters of public concern.

Deepening and enrichment of democracy: the emerging consensus envisages participatory democracy and responsive government as the cornerstone of a strong civil society. Citizens must be involved, heard and afforded an opportunity to contribute on issues that have a bearing on their lives. Democracy has hitherto been defined in terms of existence of political parties, elected legislatures, an independent judiciary and an impartial executive. A just, open and honest government with respect for the rule of law and human rights are other attributes of a functioning democracy. Interestingly, citizens aspire to not only consolidate the existing institutions and structures of democracy but to move forward and ensure their deepening and enrichment for the next millennium. This would entail attitudinal, behavioural and procedural-structural adaptations.

Enlarging citizens’s action: formalised organisations (e.g., NGOs and VDOs) have received attention, acclaim and resources for their contribution to society. They are important players but it is equally critical to acknowledge, encourage and support citizen action that manifests itself through invisible and informal institutions. Citizens, individually or collectively, manifest themselves in myriad ways for the common good. These citizens are recognisable and felt even without the support of formal organisations and work through local or indigenous affiliation of caste, kinship, family, religion or ethnicity. These citizens are the essence and rationale of a civil society.

The study has dealt extensively with citizens’ voices, their assessment of the existing realities and preferences. Taken together this brings us to the central question of what needs to be done by the state, citizens and intermediaries. Drawing upon the insights gained from citizens, the study goes on to deal with all that is needed from these actors.

First, it is imperative for governments to act decisively and effectively for the realisation of citizens’ vision of a good society. To this end, leaders need to act with courage and a sense of purpose. Second, the buck does not stop at state action; the imperative is to ensure citizen participation. Another essential element is collective action to address local problems. This would foster a spirit of unity and solidarity. The goal of responsive governance would be a distant reality if citizens do not engage with public policies and problems.

Finally, intermediaries like NGOs, trade unions, religious organisations, media and academics too must redefine their roles to become effective enablers. The role of intermediaries in the new millennium is to promote effective citizenship, encourage leadership by citizens, and build linkages between citizen leaders and citizen collectives on the one hand and public agencies and officials on the other.

Shailendra Kr. Dwivedi


DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE IN INDIA: Challenges of Poverty, Development and Identity edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Sudha Pai. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.

THE last decade of the 20th century put India on a roller coaster ride of change, and the telltale signs of disarray strewing the polity, society and economy have thrown up new realities and questions. Subsequently, there has emerged a new literature that seeks to document and interpret these changes.

This collection of nine essays, compiled by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Sudha Pai of Jawaharlal Nehru University, is an investigation into the role of the Indian state at a time when local and global players, non-governmental organizations and civil society associations, are claiming greater mainstream roles for themselves.

On the one hand, globalization and its most favoured tool, economic liberalization, has thrown open the Indian economy to the chill winds of international market forces. The short-term results of economic reforms, at best, have been ‘ambivalent’, and the social consequences, ‘chaotic’. On the other hand, political assertions of subaltern identities have cleaved society in new ways.

How have the contrary pulls of globalization, with its penchant for homogeneity, and identity politics which thrives on parochial definitions of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, impacted Indian democracy in the 1990s? The editors argue that while globalization has ‘emasculated’ the state by emphasizing the role of extra-state actors like the market and international organizations like the IMF, WTO and the World Bank, it has been unable to reduce it to a vestigial entity. This is because newly mobilized groups, brought on to the political stage by the democratic upsurge that swept India at the beginning of the ‘liberalization’ decade, seek to redefine and/or enlarge the role of the state in guaranteeing them equality and equity in public life.

The essays are a mix of theoretical exploration and empirical study. Part I of the book examines the role of economic policies, political cultures and bureaucratic apparatuses in implementing development policies and poverty alleviation programmes. Each of these essays emphasizes the need for capability enhancement of the state to guarantee development, especially in the aftermath of liberalisation, which has seen the numbers of India’s absolute poor shoot up in all states except five. In the fourth essay of Part I, Jayal identifies six alternative models of governance, from state-community partnerships and grassroots governance to the attempts of newly politicized groups such as the dalits to capture state power.

Across the board, the authors envisage a greater role for the state in guaranteeing socioeconomic and political development, even though they admit, ‘in the new international political economy, the future of the state…is uncertain.’

Part II of the book scrutinizes the language of identity politics in an age of unprecedented inter-connectedness. As the sovereignty of nation states melts beneath the fierce transformations wrought by globalization, and geography becomes history for the new global civil society, groupings based on ethnic, religious, linguistic and caste identities are pock-marking the very concept of nationhood. Nationalism is no longer a cohesive force; instead, as Jayanta Sengupta illustrates in his essay on the politics of Oriya identity, globalization has helped sub-national communities appeal to international groups for help and assistance.

The essays by Sudha Pai, Ghanshyam Shah and Eleanor Zelliot closely examine the rise of the dalit movement and its political face, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and how it has challenged the hegemony of the Indian state in the 1990s. Shah’s essay on the limitations of the dalit movement in bringing about an essential change in their position, despite the presence of supportive factors, is especially lucid and insightful.

Most of the essays conclude that the twin processes of globalization and identity assertion have led to a refashioning of state power and function. In time, this might lead to a truly indigenous conception of the Indian state; so far, most theories of the Indian state have borrowed heavily from the western liberal tradition.

Even though a few essays are extremely assertive, the overall tone of the book remains tentative and exploratory. But then, in the absence of a wide body of domestic work on the subject to which the authors can refer to, literature on a dynamic as recent as globalization and its relation to identity politics, is wont to be.

Anupreeta Das


INDIA: Development and Participation by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

IT is not often that a second edition of a book makes for an engaging read, more so for those familiar with the first. The usual situation is one of a revised introduction and some updating of empirical details. It is thus reassuring that this Dreze-Sen offering is a clear departure. Not only have the authors added three new chapters: population, health and the environment; the social costs of military expansion; and the challenges of democracy, the thematics considered in the previous edition (1995) have gone through substantial elaboration and revision. Add to these an excellent bibliography (pp. 415-478), and no one can complain that they have been short-changed. In a nutshell, well worth the effort and expense.

The earlier edition was, expectedly, concerned with making sense of a new India – one that from the mid-1980s was seeking to break free from the stultifying presence of the state, not just in the provision of social services and law and order but in the generation of wealth. It is undeniable that the efforts, hesitant and half-hearted, to prise open both the economy and polity were more a response to external stimulus and pressure than an internal realisation. Little wonder that the shrill debates on reform, in particular the implications of globalisation, have remained trapped in an either-or public discourse, better suited to inform the reader of the ideological proclivities of the authors than facilitate a reasoned and measured assessment. The Dreze-Sen book, both editions, remains an uncommon attempt at going beyond ideological posturing.

Unlike many radicals who see India’s new open economy policy with trepidation, Dreze-Sen argue that the economy has done reasonably well, more so since the latter half of the ’90s witnessed a global slowdown. Simultaneously, however, our governing elite has done little to address deeply entrenched social and political inequities such that progress on key social indicators has in fact been slower than earlier. They also highlight the growing tendency towards authoritarianism and communalism. Of particular concern is their discussion of India’s military expansion, including the nuclear tests of 1998, which (not surprisingly) have only contributed to a heightening of insecurity both within and without.

They do, of course, remain firmly wedded to pushing the agenda of both widening and deepening democracy, for it is in engaged public action, as much by civil society actors as the political class, that they see hope for a vibrant India. The resultant strain such public activism places on institutions of governance is seen more as a sign of hope than despair, despite all the attendant travails of transition.

If social progress is to be mapped on the grids of freedom and opportunity, for individuals and social groupings, it is clear that India’s record is at best mixed, whether we look at it temporally or in a comparative frame of other post-colonial societies. It is this frame that helps unravel social policies – be they related to hunger and nutrition, health and morbidity, or education and competence – more than bland economic data on growth of per capita incomes and inequality. Sen and Dreze stress the causal connection between political participation and the reduction of inequalities, which alone can provide content to democracy. Fortunately by looking at both intra- and inter-regional experiences, they have provided us a complex and textured narrative that facilitates the reader to overcome the binaries of social discourse.

Of course, they keep harking back to their favourite example of Kerala, in particular how low per capita incomes have not come in the way of a substantially higher human development index. Nevertheless, one does feel that the authors over-read Kerala’s achievements – be it educational, medical or political. If anything, Kerala’s exceptionalism remains fragile – its success over much of the previous century has left it less capable of steering through the new challenges. The authors do recognise the dangers in the state’s reliance on remittances. They are less appreciative of both its institutional rigidities and the highly communalised polity which, in the context of an electoral democracy, makes change difficult.

More convincing is their discussion of liberalization, where both state and market, and public action, play key and decisive roles. Unlike conventional radicals, they are critical of the role of the public sector, in particular its ‘pampered’ workforce. They are thus amenable to an ‘opening out’ of these arenas. But, and this is important, not quite in the way our policy- makers are doing by seeking to divest the state of social responsibilities and expecting private capital without social regulations to ensure the provision of public goods.

The chapter that explicates their position best is the one on education. Drawing on the PROBE report, they point out how a state like Himachal Pradesh has been able to achieve very high literacy and school participation rates for both boys and girls in less than two decades, and almost all of it through government schools. Clearly the disadvantages of scattered hamlets in remote locations that dramatically add to institutional costs can be more than offset by a combination of political will and high civic engagement. Even if we know less about the pedagogic content of school education, at least the state has schools which function, teachers who teach, and students who attend. It is worth noting that unlike economically more advanced states, educationists in H.P. are not discussing matters of enrolment but issues of quality.

It is impossible in the course of a brief review to even indicate the rich discussion in different chapters, including the one on militarism and democracy, or the debate on economic reform and social policy. And yet, while hugely appreciative of the book, there is simultaneously a feeling that the authors are insufficiently engaged with the real world, one that we have been living within the last year. Both the shifts in global politics post 9/11 and the appreciable hardening of the social right, as exemplified in the developments in Gujarat, make most of us far more apprehensive about our future as a liberal polity, poor maybe but affording the social space for harmonious living. The intention is not to read the current breakdowns into the future. Nevertheless, there is something amiss in an analysis that can miss out such major changes.

Like Dreze and Sen, one would like to be cautiously optimistic about the future. Yet the feeling that we have still to see the worst refuses to go away.

Harsh Sethi


BUILDING WOMEN’S CAPACITIES: Interventions in Gender Transformation edited by Ranjani K. Murthy. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.

THE globalization of the economy has affected the lives of men and women differently and to a large extent led to the further marginalization of women, particularly from the disadvantaged sections of society. The ‘trickle-down’ approach adopted in India did not deliver the goods in an equitable manner. It failed to grapple with power relations underlying the construction of difference between men and women and between different groups of women. With the advent of market reforms, these differences got exacerbated. The decentralization or localization of the political process in the 1990s, along with reservation for women and marginalized communities, did not bring about any marked changes in the women’s situation in India.

Poverty and violation of human rights in the broader context act as major barriers in the way of women exercising power. Therefore, the challenge is to work towards the economic, social and political empowerment of women from the marginalized sections of society. Women’s empowerment essentially refers to a process of exposing the oppressive power of the existing gender (social) relations, critically challenging them, and creatively trying to shape different social relations (p. 19). Surprisingly, the popularity of liberal feminist discourse in the Indian context has been the major constraint in gender-transformative capacity building of women. Gender as a category becomes just an add-on component to various development practices, leaving the core issue of social construction of gender relations untouched. It is also necessary to take into account the differences among women to make these efforts more relevant to the Indian situation.

The book brings together lessons from the grassroots training undertaken by various NGOs and intermediary organizations to strengthen the capacities of women. Various case studies highlight the multiple dimensions of women’s subordination, be they quarry workers in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, silk reeling women entrepreneurs in Karnataka and West Bengal, or fisher-workers of Andhrathari in Bihar. The first part of the book essentially deals with case studies on building capacities of women around specific issues. With the objective of empowering women in gaining control over their bodies, fertility, sexuality, income, labour power, community resources and strengthening their political participation through training, they also illustrate the challenges they face in transforming social norms.

The second part of the book highlights the experiences of groups in strengthening the capacities of women and men of different age groups. The primary focus of work by ASMITA in an urban slum of Hyderabad has been to highlight the fact that the patriarchal relations between men and women are not limited to the family but extend into the public sphere as well. There is a need to empower women through training to find ways of countering and changing this overall social environment. The training strategy based on process work in Gandhipuram, Karnataka, emphasized the need for women to have a space of their own. Women’s exposure to the outside world should be based on the perception of the woman as an individual first and a housewife later. Similarly, DAWN’s experiment of organizing training programmes for adolescent girls in the rural Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu points to the possibility of acquiring skills in non-traditional areas.

The case studies in the first and second part of the book predominantly use training as a strategy for capacity building of women. In contrast, the case studies in the third part highlight training and non-training strategies that could be used in gender transformative capacity building of women at the grassroots. B.K. Anitha and Anita Gurumurthy’s paper discusses the potentials and limitations of the feminist approach. Feminism recognizes that women (as also men) are a socially and politically constructed category that varies by caste, class, ethnicity and other factors (p. 230). However, its real challenge is to resolve the contradiction between endorsing noble ideals such as women’s equality and actually making changes for realizing these very ideals. The paper also analyses the extent to which non-gender specific research institutes can act as a site for launching a feminist research project.

Edith van Walsum and Rama Devi Kohli’s paper reflects on the collaborative efforts of AME (agricultural man ecology), a professional support organization and a number of NGOs involved in the sustainable dryland agriculture in the Deccan plateau of Andhra Pradesh. There is a great need to make technological development participatory. Women’s involvement in the PTD (participatory technology development) process does give them access to detailed knowledge about output and yields on their farms, as well as their translation into monetary returns. It will increase women’s decision-making power and thereby enhance their mobility to the outside world, which is considered as exclusively belonging to men.

The Shikshakarmi programme, an educational initiative by the Government of Rajasthan discussed in Shobhita Rajagopal and Kanchan Mathur’s essay adopts a social relations framework to unravel gender aware policy, planning and training. In contrast to Moser’s ‘triple role framework’, the social relations framework emphasizes the need to analyse social relations between and among women and men within relevant institutions such as the household, community, market and the state and the way they create and reproduce gender inequality in society. It also helps unravel the mechanisms through which women and girls are excluded from the educational process. Shubha Chacko’s essay emphasizes the need to develop relations based on mutual learning between an outsider and women from marginalized communities. ‘It is from the coolie women and men that I understood the nuances of development and the complex nature of caste, class and the gender victims’ (p. 343).

The case studies suggest that the capacity building efforts can neither be planned at the top-down level nor can any standard model cater to the different needs and priorities of women occupying multiple identities. The process of empowerment is iterative, non-linear, and never complete in nature. The need is to help women themselves understand the complex and hidden processes of subordination and evolve collective strategies in the form of alternative organizations to tackle them. Engendering intermediary organizations like NGOs, autonomous women’s groups, research institutions, consultancy groups, and government departments and sensitizing men about gender concerns could be of great help in making these tasks effective. The real challenge before the gender transformative capacity building strategies is to intertwine the process of training with an efficient delivery of gender equity in practice.

Ritu Agarwal


THE HINDU WIDOW IN INDIAN LITERATURE by Rajul Sogani. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

THE widow – particularly the Hindu widow – has been a subject of peculiar fascination for Indian writers, and has almost as many forms as the mother goddess. She is the forbidden woman, unadorned yet sensuous, a sexual being who is proscribed from intimacy, sometimes consumed by her desires and sometimes transcending them. She is the fallen woman who defies retribution in this life and the next to satisfy her sexual cravings, destroying herself and her family in the process. She is the destitute, the ultimate symbol of subordination and suffering, clad in rags and surviving on scraps, the woman who has lost not only her husband but also her identity, her means of livelihood and her claim to survival.

Sometimes she is bitter and vindictive, the cruel harridan who seeks to avenge the injustices of her own life by destroying the happiness of other women. She is the eternal mother, who sacrifices her own needs and desires to give her children the life they aspire to. She is the saintly keeper of traditions and values, the woman who transcends the ugliness of her physical existence to become a symbol of religious purity and power. And sometimes she is the subversive woman who challenges every social institution to assert her own identity, who struggles to claim her right to live and love and be happy.

Rajul Sogani’s book is a fascinating journey into the world of the widows who people the pages of Indian literature. Sogani turns to novels to interpret the experiences of subordination, exploitation and marginalization of women who have lost their husbands. The novel, which Sogani describes as an inherently subversive form, provides the writer with the widest possible arena where the tensions between opposing values and discourses can play themselves out. The novelist is concerned with depicting ‘life in motion’ through describing objective reality with its real driving forces and contradictions. Partisanship is an inherent aspect of the novel, which contains both introspection and social criticism and acts as a vehicle for the writer’s ideology and beliefs and reflects the writer’s perspectives. Yet, a good novelist does not completely dominate the characters and plots in the novel, but lets them live their own lives. As a scholar of literature, Sogani’s attempt is to identify and interpret the overt meanings conveyed by the stories and the delineation of characters, and match them against the ambiguities and silences that reveal the writers’ own location in relation to the mainstream of the time.

Sogani’s research covers novels mainly in Bengali, Hindi, Marathi and Assamese (all of which languages she reads herself), and translations of classics from Kannada and Punjabi. Despite this wide-ranging sample, there are some distortions, perhaps inevitable given that the novel itself is a somewhat elite form of writing. Sogani points out that the majority of the authors of these texts are English-educated, upper caste and upper class men. Apart from a few historical romances, the majority of the protagonists also share this background. Only one novel in this large selection – Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chadar Maili Si – concerns itself with the lives of peasants and the working class, and only one – Sheikh Andu, by Shailbala Ghoshjaya, a remarkable but little-known Bengali woman writer – has a working class Muslim as the central character.

Feminist writings emphasize the fact that the identity of the Hindu widow is constructed around her sexuality. Sogani’s book reflects this perspective and is organized into chapters around the varying expressions and suppressions of sexuality – widow remarriage, the widow in love, the transgressing widow, the fallen widow and the old widow who has become asexual with age. These divisions also follow a rough time line, marking the changing preoccupations and perceptions of writers at different periods. It is a journey with some unexpected twists and turns – not, as some might imagine, a smooth evolutionary progression from oppression and persecution to an enlightened recognition of autonomy and identity. Instead of a stroll down the high road of history, Sogani offers a cross-country trek, a mapping of the complex and often confusing ways in which Hindu society has dealt with women – justifying their subordination while yielding to their determined assertions of self, hailing their claims to identity and autonomy while punishing their transgressions of boundaries, and glorifying their essential virtues while demonizing their sexuality.

Sogani’s book underlines the fact that, from a feminist standpoint, the earliest Indian novels reflect a far more progressive perspective on the rights and status of widows than the novels of the nationalist period. The writers of the pre-nationalist period, fired by revolutionary and humanist ideals, put social norms and institutions under the spotlight to reveal their underlying injustice and oppression. Most novels of this period have a widow as a central character, and describe in vivid detail the indignities and cruelties that widows are subjected to in both their maternal and marital homes. These served as vehicles for the writers to take forward their political campaigns for women’s education and widow remarriage. Yamunaparyatan (Marathi), considered the first Indian novel, contains a merciless dissection of the hypocrisy of Hindu priests who are depicted as participating in the worst forms of oppression and exploitation while professing the highest ideals. Other Marathi novels of this period seem startlingly contemporary in their positions on women’s sexual rights, for instance in their analyses of the manner in which Hindu society allows old men to marry young girls, but denies young widows the right to a normal and meaningful life.

In contrast to these reformist texts, the widow in the novels of the nationalist period becomes a vehicle for the project of constructing an ideal Hindu nation. The majority of these novels portray the widow protagonist as the highest ideal of the Indian woman, voluntarily renouncing her sexuality and dedicating herself to the service of the nation. Untouched by desire or ambition, she becomes a symbol of the triumph of Indian spirituality over western materialism. Sogani’s analysis highlights the manner in which these novels glorify the suffering and renunciation of young widows in love with men dedicated to the higher ideals of independence and nationhood. These women generally resolve their predicament by committing suicide, becoming ascetics or (as in Sarasvatichandra) supervising the marriage of their lovers to another woman, thus desexualizing and reestablishing their own comradely relationship as partners in the nationalist enterprise.

Portrayals of older widows in well-known novels of this period draw on the powerful imagery of the nation as mother, calling on her children to sacrifice everything to free her from the foreign yoke. The heroines of several novels by Premchand sacrifice personal happiness to provide the nation with a leader, thus fulfilling the highest calling envisaged for women by nationalists. Many of these women are departures from portrayals of widows as victims, and are depicted as strong and independent characters. The fact of their agency makes their espousal of traditional values, and their willing acceptance of the constraints imposed on them by patriarchal traditions and morality, even more compelling to the reader.

It is in discussing the novels of Bankimchandra, Saratchandra and Tagore and their treatment of the transgressing widow that Sogani’s book achieves its peak. Viewed from a feminist lens, the theme of the widow who overthrows convention and defies social codes to come between a husband and wife, makes visible the weaknesses and contradictions in the institution of marriage. While most readers know Tagore as a sharp and perceptive critic of injustice within marriage and the family, Sogani dissects some of his best-known novels to expose his discomfort with women’s own attempts to question these institutions. The transgressing widows in Chokher Bali and Jogajog are punished for their unbridled expressions of sexuality, as much as the transgressing wives in Charulata and Ghare Baire.

Sogani’s comparison of Bankimchandra’s Krishnokanter Uil and Vishavriksha with Tagore’s Chokher Bali shows the former in an unexpectedly progressive light. While Tagore’s disapproval of unrestrained sexuality even within marriage is obvious in his treatment of Asha, Bankim challenges the traditional ideal of wifely devotion – his female protagonists are portrayed as self-respecting individuals who do not meekly accept violations of their rights. Their devotion is conditional on the husband’s fulfillment of his obligations. Tagore on the other hand upholds the Hindu philosophical ideal of the woman who does her duty without thought of her own sufferings. His harshest delineations are reserved for women who fail to live up to the high ideals of motherhood and the maternal code of conduct that places the welfare of children and the family above all else.

Sogani’s discussion of Saratchandra’s novels and his fascination with the theme of the fallen widow contains some valuable insights. Saratchandra’s depictions of women are perhaps the most complex in modern Indian literature, and reflect a liberal and humanist perspective of their rights. His fallen widows are victims of poverty and social oppression rather than any inherent moral depravity, and deserve sympathy and compassion rather than punishment. Saratchandra’s novels broaden the traditional definition of a good woman as a chaste woman, to include all those who were honest to themselves and to others, regardless of their chastity or moral status. In Charitraheen, Srikanta and Shesh Prashna, his heroines are all fallen widows by traditional definitions, but also women of outstanding strength and integrity. Sogani points out that Saratchandra is perhaps the only novelist of this period who is convincing in his portrayal of the manner in which class operates to deny a woman’s subjectivity and allows upper class men to enslave her by drowning her in their ideologies.

Sogani unravels the depictions of the three fallen widows in Srikanta to build up her analysis of Saratchandra and his views on women. Women, according to Saratchandra, are trapped by the essential tragedy of their sex – the fact that they are not free to choose their own fate, however unfair it may be. Through Abhaya, he comments trenchantly on the conventions of upper class Hindu society. She believes that ‘staying in a loveless marriage is akin to prostitution, that Christianity and Islam are more liberal in their treatment of human beings than Hinduism and are therefore more successful as religions.’ She does not believe in the glorification of suffering ‘since there is no evidence that it is conducive to the well-being and fulfillment of an individual.’ Yet, Saratchandra seems afraid of his own creations – all his strong women are inextricably tied to weak and selfish men, not by conventional bonds but by their own needs, unwilling to follow the trajectory that would seem logical for women of their stamp. While his novels raise some disturbing questions of sexual and economic inequality, despite his condemnation of upper caste Hindu patriarchy, he acknowledges women’s sexuality only to deny it respectability.

Sogani’s exploration of widows in novels by women writers is disappointingly brief – it raises some complex and interesting questions but only skims the surface in engaging with them. She feels that most critics have not been fair to Indian women writers – in her opinion, this is the result either of a phallocentric bias or an uncritical application of ‘western feminist theories’. She emphasizes that Indian women writers have to be considered in their own historical context and on their own terms, and pleads for a more complete reconstruction of the female literary tradition. Her comparison of novels by some outstanding but little-known women writers in Bengali, Oriya and Assamese, sees these texts as an ‘important and significant part of the same tradition, even as they represent another point of view which constantly questions and subverts male assumptions.’ Sogani’s analysis focuses on what these novels reveal about the feminist consciousness of the writers and their protagonists – their awareness that, as women, they belong to a subordinate group, that they must join with other women to struggle against this subordination and their alternate visions of societal organization.

In the process, Sogani has pulled some significant texts by ‘minor’ novelists that are surprisingly radical. Feminists are familiar with Rukhsana’s Dream, the short story by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain that describes a women-centred world. Not so well-known is Jeebandola (Bengali), which expands and concretises that vision on a larger canvas. Written in 1930, this novel depicts a vision of gender relations based on equality and cooperation rather than on dominance and subjugation, and addresses issues – such as workable alternatives to the traditional family – that Indian feminists are still struggling to translate into real-life terms.

This book has its weaknesses. Some notable works that this reviewer would have liked to see included have been omitted, but perhaps this is inevitable in such a collection. The style is sometimes pedantic, and Sogani’s fondness for tables to illustrate her comparisons between different novels is distracting and adds little to the text. Yet, these are minor irritants. The book as a whole is a work of undoubted scholarship written with love and care, which this reviewer found fascinating – definitely a distinguished addition to the growing body of feminist writing on widows and widowhood.

Kalyani Menon-Sen