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- The Supreme Court of India’s verdict in the case of Indian Social Action Forum or challenging the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2011 on March 6, was one of the most decisive affirmations of civil society's role as a political actor in India. The judgement reaffirmed the legitimate and critical role civil society has to play to ensure that democracy in India thrives, including through political action. With far-reaching consequences, the judgement upholds the right of civil society to undertake political work and action. At the heart of this is the distinction between political action for political power on the one hand; and political action for furthering rights, development, human dignity, constitutional values, and democracy, on the other. The court has clearly pronounced that political work as defined for democracy and rights is legitimate.
- There will always be a large segment of civil society doing charitable work. They are much needed in a country like India which continues to see endemic and extreme poverty, diseases, and large populations without basic human needs. However, another large part of civil society is, by definition, engaged in political processes for building just, peaceful, humane, and sustainable futures. In great measure, their primary engagement is with the question of uneven and unjust distribution of power, and its consequences on individuals and societies. These might be seen as different paths, but the central theme of democratising "power" remains fundamental to the varied, diverse concepts of civil society.
- Despite such strong ideological rationale for civil society's political work, we have moved to a space where our aspirations and rhetoric are political, but praxis and practice are apolitical. [...] By definition, civil society has to work within a framework of non-violence, but it does not mean that we cannot offer radical responses to injustice and indignity. Our inability to deal with chaos and engage real power has made us a marginal actor in the central discussions of the public domain shaping our polity, society, and economy. The process of this disengagement with politics is paving the road towards civil society's marginalisation.
- At this moment, when the foundational values that defined the 20th century are under stress and the social contract is undergoing unprecedented revisions, as ideas and ideals of citizenship, nations, democracy, justice, and freedom are being redefined; civil society cannot sit on the side lines and remain neutral. It needs to reengage with communities and politics to play a central role in defending, deepening, and promoting the progressive ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, justice, and democracy.
- Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
- Pluralist societies are not accidents of history. They are a product of enlightened education and continuous investment by governments and all of civil society in recognizing and celebrating the diversity of the world’s peoples.
- I believe leadership everywhere must continuously work to ensure that pluralism, and all its benefits, become top global priorities. In this effort, civil society has a vital role. By its very nature, civil society is pluralist because it seeks to speak for the multiple interests not represented by the state. I refer, for example, to organisations which ensure best practices such as legal societies and associations of accountants, doctors and engineers. The meritocracy they represent is the very foundation of pluralism. And meritocracy is one of the principles of democracy itself.
- Civil society organisations make a major contribution to human development, particularly when democracies are failing, or have failed; for it is then that the institutions of civil society can, and often do, carry an added burden to help sustain improvements in quality of life. I believe strongly that a critical part of any development strategy should include support for civil society. I know that Norway supports this approach and works actively with its own civil society organizations to build capacity in the developing world.
- We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the general authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true, that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
- James Madison "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" (1785), § 1, opposing a "Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion".
- The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the earth itself belongs to no one!”
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