What does ‘solidarity’ around civic space mean in the light of the Indian response to COVID-19?

7th June 2021 by Deborah Doane

This blog post is written by Deborah Doane, who along with Sarah Pugh, authored the Solidarity Playbook, a collection of case studies and best practices on how organisations and coalitions have developed resilience and solidarity mechanisms to civic space restrictions and changing operating conditions for civil society.

The tragedy that is befalling India in real-time as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is also a consequence of a government intent on trying to destroy its own civil society, both through a crackdown on foreign funding, one of the typical tactics in closing civic space; and by suppressing dissent through whatever means possible.  

Foreign funding restrictions imposed in 2013 under the previous government were just the start of this severe assault on civil society that saw international civil society organisations (ICSOs) Amnesty and Greenpeace seriously targeted, with Amnesty ultimately withdrawing from the country, no longer able to function effectively.  

The intimidation that befell foreign ICSOs eventually impacted local CSOs too, as the crackdown on dissent accelerated. In the last six years, over 13,000 NGOs’ licenses were cancelled, as the government made a concerted effort to stem the flow of foreign funding.  

Much of the assault on civil society came to a head just prior to the pandemic, which saw strong and sustained protests against the new Citizenship Amendments Act (CAA) which put Muslims at a disadvantage and more vulnerable compared to Hindus in having to prove their Indian identity, perceived by many to be a direct assault on the secular underpinning of the Indian State.  

COVID-19 provided the perfect opportunity for the government to halt the protests altogether and dampen the voice of civil society even further. Protests were virtually outlawed, movement was restricted, and activists were silenced or arrested, whilst the government pressed ahead with even more restrictions on foreign funding coming into the country, even as late as last September, in the midst of the pandemic. As Vijayan MJ writes for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “The government converted a health crisis into a law-and-order issue, and democratic governance slid into a police raj.”   

Thus, it’s clear that civic space – and our response to it in global civil society – is at the heart of a solidaristic pandemic response in India. 

Even in the absence of foreign funding and in spite of imposed restrictions, local civil society actors have been heroic in their efforts providing much-needed emergency relief across the country.  Communities have stepped in, whilst rights-based groups moved from advocacy to relief mode quite swiftly in response to the rising disaster impacting migrant workers and many of India’s poorest. But local CSOs have also highlighted that because of the civil society crackdown, they have been entirely (and needlessly) hampered in their efforts. Indeed, they point out that without such restrictions – either on funding or on dissent, the COVID-19 crisis in India could have been far less severe. 

National organisations in India have been able to place some pressure on the government to try to at least delay some new foreign funding restrictions and registration requirements so that much-needed humanitarian relief funding can make its way more easily to smaller, responsive local CSOs. As of the time of writing, this is as yet unresolved.  

Internationally, pressure exerted from the now global People’s Vaccine campaign, involving many ICSOs, has been a tremendous effort to challenge patent protection which could make a massive difference for India. This is an obvious value-add role for ICSOs in the face of a pandemic, but it doesn’t speak to the issue of civic space per se. Given the layer upon layer of complexity, well documented by the likes of Arundhati Roy and others, it’s very easy to feel that anything ICSOs can do is all but meaningless.  

However, the case studies in the Solidarity Playbook have shown that there are multiple actions that ICSOs can take when it comes to civic space, ranging from quiet solidarity to more public, political solidarity. The risk for ICSOs in India has often been that speaking out can do more harm to their efforts – and to local actors – than good. But the countervailing risk is that remaining silent can also enable an already repressive regime to become even more repressive. So how can ICSOs navigate this complexity?  

Here, two key broader lessons from the Solidarity Playbook are relevant. First, that ‘civic space’ is a strategic opportunity to shift an organisational strategy. COVID-19 has demanded a real shake-up in how ICSOs are organised, as the freedom to travel and send expats from the north everywhere is virtually off the table. In most parts of the world where ICSOs are present, traditional business models have turned upside down. ICSOs are finally starting to ask themselves how to collaborate with partners differently and better, in light of the new normal. It’s not about ‘empowering’ or ‘capacity building’ anymore. Instead, it’s about recognising the power that communities have and identifying ways to create new forms of collaboration – and build solidarity alongside those on the ground.  

Where foreign funding is allowed, this can mean shifting to providing more funding mechanisms that enable communities to plan and allocate resources, something the #shiftthepower movement has long been advocating as a strategy to respond to closing civic space. COVID-19 only makes this more urgent. 

This is where the second lesson from the Solidarity Playbook becomes equally relevant. Whatever solidarity mechanism an ICSO adopts in the face of closing civic space, it must be negotiated with national and local civil societies – and the communities in which they are working. Speaking out through international advocacy or diplomacy may be the best course of action, as would prioritising international fundraising, but they may not be. How ICSOs collaborate equally with national and local partners, whilst helping to share any associated risk, is at the heart of what ‘solidarity’ really is. This will help in the long-run too – by strengthening local civil societies and local communities alike, and putting them in the driver’s seat.  

 “In India, the battle against the pandemic cannot be separated from the battle to regain democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and human rights,” Vijayan MJ goes onto say in his essay for the Carnegie Endowment. It’s difficult to watch the dual crises of closing civic space and a global pandemic. But it’s heartening to know that as ICSOs, it’s still possible to act deliberately and in solidarity as allies with those at the forefront of local responses, and that our efforts in the short-term can have a positive long-term impact too.  

Deborah Doane

Deborah Doane is a writer and consultant, who has worked across civil society for over twenty years as a leader, campaigner and analyst, covering human rights, development, environment and economic justice issues. Most recently, she was the Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society, and now works in a portfolio capacity with a range of clients in philanthropy and civil society. She is a partner of RightsCoLab a think tank where she works on the future of civil society. She blogs regularly for the Guardian on International Development and civil society issues.