Writing in the nineteenth century, Georg Hegel imagined ‘civil society’ as a sphere of social action distinct from the state. He viewed it as comprised largely of formal organisations. It was this Hegelian vision of civil society that political scientists and development scholars picked up in the late Twentieth Century.
Yet civil society is different in the village of Bemni, where I was living recently with my wife, Dr. Jane Dyson, and two children, Florence and Finn. We were conducting preliminary research for an Australian Research Council Grant on youth politics in India.
Bemni is located at about 2,500 metres in Chamoli District in Uttarakhand. Until 2009 it had no road, phone coverage or electricity. But it is has changed massively in the past ten years. Most people now have mobile phones, migration out of the village for work has increased, and people are getting more educated and marrying later. Jane Dyson has described the village and social change in her book Working Childhoods (CUP 2014).
Youth in Bemni, aged between 18 and 35, often find it difficult to acquire work. But they engage in a wide variety of civic action – and it is this everyday activity that forms the substance of our research. It consists of all manner of things, from helping others with a medical emergency, to organising religious ceremonies to ward off evil spirits, to collaborating in the repair of a village roof, path, or water pipe. It rarely occurs in formal NGOs or associations but it is crucial for the successful social reproduction of the village.
A few weeks ago a typical example of youth civic action occurred. At 6.30pm on a Tuesday, news reached the village that a goatherd had been bitten by a dog on a path deep in the mountains above the village. The bite was bad and he needed a stretcher. Twenty-three young men quickly assembled to help, and I accompanied them up the mountain.
We climbed quickly through the fields of millet along a mountain trail. As we rose, the rhododendron flowers turned from red, to pink, to white – a signal of the growing altitude.
It is a tough track in the day. At night it is abominable. Sections of the path were foot-wide tracks cut into almost vertical sections of scree. There seemed to be a gentleman’s agreement that we would take these sections fast.
We took our minds off the real danger by invoking imagined terrors. We joked about the possibility of seeing ghosts. Some of the men let out screeches to alarm their friends. Others imitated leopards or bears.
After three hours of climbing, two men were complaining of headaches. My friend Jaibir warned that we might be out all night. We had no idea where to find the goatherd. I started wondering why I had come on the mission, and it became bitterly cold.
But then success: At about 10pm we found the man with the dog bite. He was lying beside a fire on a section of grass and scree.
Visibly relieved, the village party gathered around the fire. After three hours of solid climbing, we had reached about 4,600 metres. The Milky Way loomed above us, and the goats’ eyes on the mountainside shone green in our torchlight. We huddled close to the blaze and let the flames lick our hands.
Two of us quickly cleaned and dressed the man’s wound and divided rations of biscuits, chapatti, and pickle. We agreed that we could not haul the man down on a stretcher – the path was too treacherous. But one in the group knew someone with a horse who could carry him to the village early in the morning.
After about half an hour on this high mountain, and leaving a good supply of biscuits and blankets with the wounded man and his friend, we plunged back into the night.
The joking and horseplay became more boisterous as we descended. At one stage a young man jumped on my back, “Hey brother” he shouted, “I need a ride!” There was a competitive element to the faster downhill sections. The journey was a blur of rocks, twisting paths, and jogging.
Back in the vicinity of Bemni, the men streamed out of the narrow ravine that we had been following and spread out along various village paths.
My friend insisted on stopping for a country cigarette as we watched the young men’s head torches – pin pricks of light – wending their way home. Various shouts of ‘goodnight’ and ‘see you tomorrow’ drifted up the hill.
My friend was quietly jubilant. “It is a sign of a good village that 23 men will come to the aid of a fellow.” He added: “And all the men are young.”
Such small acts of mutual assistance form a good part of what counts as ‘civil society’ in Bemni. “It’s just what we do,” my friend said.