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Soumi Banerjee on the Shrinking of Civic Spaces in India: "NGOs are attempting to shift away from activism"

Photo of Soumi Banerjee, 2022.
Soumi Banerjee explains how her PhD research focus changed during the corona-pandemic.

Soumi Banjeree, 28, is currently doing a PhD at Lund University’s School of Social Work and occupied the coordinator position at SASNET during the autumn. Alongside organising and making sure panellists make their way to Lund for our seminars, she has drafted research articles and worked on her PhD thesis this past semester.

However, Banerjee's position as coordinator in 2022 was not her first association with SASNET. 

– I started at SASNET in January 2018 as a teaching assistant. My responsibilities were similar to a coordinator’s role, arranging and planning seminars highlighting research on South Asia. I enjoyed my time, and when asked if I wanted to fill in as a temporary coordinator, I was delighted to take the position, she says.

Banerjee first moved to Lund from her hometown Kolkata, India, in 2016, where she started her master’s degree in Global Studies. In 2020, she started a PhD, investigating the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for civil society in India – a research interest that was sparked due to a new amendment in India during the corona pandemic: 

– At first, I was more interested in investigating populist politics in India. But as the pandemic hit, it opened up a discursive space for control and autonomy within populist politics, especially concerning civil society operations. I got more interested in acts and politics, such as the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) in India. 

The FCRA restricts NGO operations by limiting access to foreign funding for alleged non-compliance with norms which has contributed to regulatory ambiguity and fragmentation with the voluntary sector. As the FCRA was enforced during the high tide of the corona pandemic, Banerjee explains how the amendment had even more devastating consequences than it otherwise would since it removed funds from important grassroots NGOs during an already precarious time:

– What is disturbing is that the amendment stripped off those organisations doing the most rescuing work during the pandemic. The government failed to play the primary caregiver, and people depended on these foreign trusts for help and services.

Being halfway through her PhD and now having fulfilled her role at SASNET, Banerjee will return to India in the spring to conduct fieldwork. The plan is to interview staff from several influential international NGOs to get an understanding of the phenomenon of the ‘shrinking of civic spaces’ and how it affects organisations’ ways of working today: 

– The recent changes in the legal framework have brought about significant shifts in NGO operations. The challenges the INGOs face in manoeuvring and navigating a restrictive political space is real and something that needs further study. 

Alongside her PhD, Banerjee has drafted two research articles on the subject. The first one, “Identity in Organizational Design: A Qualitative Exploration of Identity-Driven Institutional Work Among Ten Highly-Influential INGOs in India”, dives deeper into what happens to NGOs and their organisational design when the Indian state is monitoring and constraining the space for activists to exercise their right to engage in society. 

In this situation she finds that activists turn even more to their moral obligation – and this leads to an increase in their desire to try and help others: 

These activists are very determined with what they are doing – they are not easy to get rid of, or to hound off the political scene, she notes. 

Her idea for the second article, “Performing agency in shrinking spaces: Acting beyond the resilience – resistance binary”, comes from certain statements she gathered during earlier interviews with activists, in which she became aware of how the NGOs are adjusting to a situation where the government does not favour organisations that are perceived as political: 

– NGOs are attempting to shift away from activism to more service-delivery paradigms as those guarantee support and survival. So, at this critical juncture when democratic principles are increasingly threatened, it is imperative for civil society to engage with questions of its own systemic depoliticisation, she concludes.

The articles are estimated to be published in the spring 2023. 

To read more about Soumi Banjeree’s research, please see this link.