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What are institutions?

This note is meant for holders of money. The summary of the note is: it defines the term institution, elaborates on the idea of ‘reciprocity’, and describes the implications of adopting an ‘institutional lens’ of civil society for both organisations and philanthropists. Throughout this note, we have taken care to be deliberate about some of the terms we use. A slight shift in emphasis may result in different conclusions from the ones we present.


We are not in the habit of engaging in long correspondence with the organisations we serve. But towards those who have the responsibility of handling large quantities of money, we believe it is our duty to engage them as intensely as we can.


[There will be a few instances of text in parenthesis. Such text is incidental to the writing and maybe ignored, without loss of meaning, if it disrupts the flow of reading.]

We hold a very strong view on what the word institution means, or ought to mean. We base this meaning not upon our imagination: we infer it from established sources, of which three bear mention, namely, the discipline of value investing in the field of financial securities, literature on conservative political practice, and the freely and publicly-available original corpus of religious teachings (emphasis on small ‘r’).


Consequently, the meaning we place on the term ‘institution’ will differ from its mainstream variant. This term, in its original meaning, has vanished from business schools (arguably it never was there), social science curricula, teachings of economics, liberal studies, and for that matter art & architecture. More importantly, it has disappeared from ordinary family and social discourse. As a society there is collective amnesia, and consequences of this amnesia, in our view, explain away many disturbances we witness today, at a personal, small-group and large-group levels.


This (amnesia) is tragic as the examples of institutions are many: marriage; family; markets; money; constitutional representative republicanism; language and a variety of literary traditions that house it; the tradition of jurisprudence based on precedence; churches (across religious denominations) which promote congregation & collective learning; the time-tested ‘teacher-student’ tradition across all cultures; in more modern times, the unmistakable integration of distributed computing architecture across all facets of life; and even an honest feminist practice.


We have listed but a few instances of institutions. Their common-place nature guarantees that everyone experiences them, and with rare exception, can intuit their significance without any specialised training. Institutions, in this sense, are taken most for granted, without anyone realising they constitute the pieces on which a civilisation stands.


It is no accident of life that the things which potentially offer the greatest source of security, prosperity and personal development are ‘institutional’ in nature. It is also no coincidence that their wide-ranging occurrence ensures they are most prone to distortion, perversion and usurpation for wrong ends. Perhaps, because, the term institution comes attached with a halo. Each therefore strives to lay a claim onto it.


Quite logically then, the greatest abuse of the notion of institution is to misapply the term itself by associating it with phenomena like ‘patriarchy’, ‘caste’, RSS, the Roman Catholic Church, individual personalities, public positions, specific organisations, subjects such as natural science, specific ideas, ideologies, traditions, et cetera.


We reject such attributions as we do not see any definite line which connects them all. Conflating marriage as an institution in the same breadth as the RSS, or for that matter, patriarchy, seems to us a case of delusional thinking.

Defining the term ‘institution’

What then qualifies and separates out something as an institution? Why is something as banal as money an institution and the once-mighty Roman Catholic Church not an institution? Or for that matter, caste, with its unbroken longevity still fails the test?

The definition which we have managed to gather is this: an institution is a space or construct or scheme which emerges of its own accord in order to offer its participants a life-long mechanism to strengthen reciprocity in the most economical and non-disruptive manner possible.


Reciprocity, in turn, is the forging, sustenance and deepening of a self-reinforcing mutually beneficial relationship between persons or collectives.


A self-reinforcing mutually beneficial relationship, in turn, is one which does not cause harm to either side; offers benefit to both sides in an equitable (not equal but fair) manner; provides an opportunity to each to rise above their own self-centred considerations, likes, dislikes, prejudices, preferences; and thereby, create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.


A mutually beneficial relationship self-sustains if it is based on non-material considerations; or in other words, the basis of the relationship does not lie in expectation of a gain, but in seeing the relationship as an end in itself.


By far, this last statement is the most significant: a notion that people come together, of their own choice, to derive something intangible, immeasurable and unquantifiable by the very act of relating, will not cut ice with many today. The desire to cooperate, to give, to support, to facilitate, to anchor, does not arise from an evolutionary instinct, but from the intuition that acting as such is the right thing to do and that each of us enriches and betters the other's soul. This intuition lies locked up in the deepest recesses of our conscience, and institutions emerge to lay bare this intuition to ourselves. The basis of any institution, is therefore, moral. There is no other succinct way of putting it.


[It does not need a postgraduate qualification to realise this: but it is quite likely that a postgraduate qualification is the most effective way to erase this from our minds. The mind subjected to overtly rational and analytical schooling will fail to relate to this. A reasonable mind, on the other hand, used to trusting its common-sense, will take but a little while to sort this out for itself.]


The word economical in the definition should not escape notice either: institutions do not draw more from society than what is strictly necessary for them to fulfil their mandate. An institution by definition is perpetual, and perpetuity, by its nature, cannot be expensive.


Similarly, institutions ‘emerge’ by a happy confluence of many factors, they cannot be engineered. Again, by definition, if institutions involve participation of many individuals, and exist in perpetuity, then they cannot be the product of any one mind or group of minds, and they cannot be controlled or governed by a few.


The attempt to ‘make’ institutions is an expression of vanity. Similarly, an attempt to control them results in an interventionist spirit not in harmony with institutional taste. Such projects all eventually fail: they fail to achieve what they originally claimed.


[As an example: a study of the technical design of bitcoin and the history of its emergence confirms the above propositions on emergence and control. Bitcoin is a child of serendipity like no other in recent memory and, despite the speculative frenzy attached to it right now, it is on its way to acquiring a money-like institutional character. It will become ‘good money’ over time, irrespective of the wishes of the sovereign. Someone triggered its creation, many evolved it, many use it and no one owns it, or can control it single-handedly, for it is wired into its code. Its very software design, wherein lies its institutional character, guarantees this. An attempt to modify its design to short-change this potential will result in its abuse and eventual decay.]


In short, an institution is that which enables its participants to be part of a collective, contribute to it without sacrificing their individuality, and benefit handsomely from this process of participation itself. All institutions, without exception, exist to help society achieve a sense of balance. It is their willful and unnatural abuse which results in disequilibrium. This summary proposition, and each of the individual ones upon which it is built, can be tested for each instance of institution which this note has called out.


[An aside on Feminism


This definition of institution may help understand why feminist practice may qualify as an institution. It first and foremost is more common-place than many of its practitioners may be willing to acknowledge. In our view, it echoes, in a different language, some of the time-tested principles of religious wisdom. It is not at variance with religious wisdom and gentlemanly common-sense (pun intended). It does not promote a zero-sum game but a win-win game. A truthful feminist practice organically forges a space for discussion, where participating individuals stand to walk away better than when they entered it. Feminist thinking, if practised with sincerity, leads to changing chemistry of relationships in a society in a manner that confirms to the definition of reciprocity.


Now, contrast feminism with communism, socialism, marxism, naxalism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, many fluffy parts of liberalism, the hardened parts of conservatism, the strident or radicalised parts of feminism itself, fascism, Hindutva, Capitalism (with a capital C), anarchism. Too much exposure to one or more of these will inevitably result in confusion, a visceral aversion towards some members of your own society, vain self-righteousness, anger, restlessness & anxiety, depression, an overtly competitive spirit, and many related ills. Reciprocity never enters the radar.]

Unpacking reciprocity: legacy, preservation, covenant

If reciprocity is the foundation of an institution (space/construct/schema), then what builds reciprocal relationships? It is surprisingly simple: the practice of integrity by the participating members. The practice of integrity, in turn, is girded by heedfulness that members bring to bear on their smallest of acts.


In grandmother’s speech, this is paying attention to proper behaviour: propriety, decorum, decency, civility, grace, courtesy, modesty, honesty, scrupulousness, loyalty, commitment, piety, fidelity, deference, respect, fairness, frugality, economy, accountability, responsibility, carefulness, endurance, perseverance, diligence, dignity. The list can be further extended and is indeed a distinguished one.


On the other hand, you will not find ambition, growth, productivity, efficiency, perfection, and their brethren here. Productivity, for instance, is helpful in the context of good behaviour: outside of it, the cult of productivity is lecherous.


More broadly, a heedful behaviour, a prerequisite for institutions to emerge, is marked by three primary aspects:

  1. Voluntary acceptance and self-imposition of norms of behaviour (self-restraint)

  2. An ability to pay careful and detailed attention to consequences of action (diligence)

  3. An ability to share with an open-hand without expectation (generosity)


The phrase ‘a man of character’ refers to those who possess these in reasonable measure. Such individuals honour their words, not exceed the bounds of law, and devote their time to benefit others and earn some living doing so. By its very definition, consistent ‘proper behaviour’ is the toughest of human endeavours. When a group of people behave this way over an extremely long period of time, their actions do add up and result in a corpus of precedent, wisdom, guidelines, norms, traditions, precepts, and customs. Cumulatively, this constitutes a veritable societal heritage and legacy.


Institutions emerge as a response to safeguard this legacy or heritage of right behaviour, the most valuable of civilizational outputs, whose birth is attended by much pain & sacrifice, as history shows time and again. The amnesia about institutions refers to forgetting this plain fact of what institutions are meant to safeguard.


Quite naturally then, when members of a society (especially its elites) choose to diminish the value attached to right behaviour, it results in a break-down of a society’s institutional building blocks. No amount of intelligent stratagems can help once the hardest and the most valuable of past human achievement is given a short shrift.


[The political economy of the world, after the 2008 global financial crisis, offers plentiful examples to validate the above assertion. That crisis in its turn was a result of manifest and extreme abuse of the institution of money. How money came to be debased to this degree went way beyond the walls of Wall Street and was the result of folly of all kinds of stakeholders in positions of prestige. The net result: an abuse of one of the most pivotal of societal institutions eventually had very damaging cascading effects, of which the political and social effects which we are all witness to today, and, for all one knows, unknowingly co-conspirators of.]


But there is a reason why this amnesia (how to behave well) is a permanent feature of history. For, preserving a legacy, least of all a behavioural one, is a dull project: all it requires is taking time to understand the past better, and improving upon it a little every day. There is no excitement, no quick fixes, no idea of ‘change’, and whatnot.


When more novel things present themselves to the restless curiosity of the intelligent and/or rich and/or powerful to attend to, why would they bother wasting their while on things dull, routine and incremental? Vision of the illusive future always holds far more speculative promise than the dreary drum-beat of the past.


Yet, preservation of heritage is, above all, a project which offers its executors the highest level of contentment, more than any excitement heralded by an imaginary future can offer. For, preserving a heritage and legacy is, in its essence, maintaining or fulfilling a moral covenant, and no source of contentment can compete with the knowledge that one honoured a covenant entrusted to oneself. [This is a self-evident proposition which needs no proof for it cannot be proved. It can only be known by those who make the requisite effort and reflect on the meaning behind their effort.]


This then offers an alternative summary (not definition) of the term ‘institution’: each institution provides every willing soul access to a legacy which encodes the covenant it (institution) safeguards, helps them honour that covenant, and in doing so, offers an opportunity to add their own contribution (to that legacy).


This alternative understanding of institution finds expression in terms and phrases such as patriotism, family honour, ethical & responsible business practice, and of being a professional. For they all are strung together by the same sentiment of duty, a duty to pay down the obligations we all are beneficiaries of.


A collection of various kinds of institutions then bind society into a continuous exchange of covenants. To the degree that such exchanges occur with an awareness of the covenants underlying them, society holds itself in harmony (coheres). To the degree they deviate and dishonour the covenants, society drifts apart (breaks).


Participating in such exchanges is a skillful act, because each of us is both a lender to and borrower from society’s balance sheet. In helping others not lose sight of this is where civil society organisations and philanthropy come into picture.


Looking at civil society from an institutional lens


A civil society organisation by definition allows for varied and multi-fold participation. A civil society organisation is not and cannot be an institution. Rather, civil society provides a medium through which members of society re-establish their links with the underlying societal institutions, and it is through civil society that they learn to participate in institutions consistent with their meanings. In other words, civil society nurtures the skill to behave with an institutional mindset.


But for civil society to do so, it has to first disabuse itself of the notion that it exists to change society. It has to realise its role is really to hold a mirror to the society, and that, it is upon society itself to heed and change.


If civil society chooses to play this role, it is not out of anger at its fellow citizens, but out of a sense of pathos and deep sorrow at being witness to a spectacle of precious legacy being laid waste. The sentiment of change is presumptuous; the sentiment of careful and painful consideration clothes humility.


Transferring charity, supporting the sovereign to fulfil its welfare schemes, supporting eminent corporates to compensate for their excesses, pile on more research upon an already existing mount of unread one, do not advance the meaning of ‘showing a mirror to society’. There is a role for these activities, and a non-profit might as well do them. These activities, however, do not meet the test of resurrecting societal institutions.


Neither is it the place of civil society to blur the lines between politics and civility, to become interventionist when all that is demanded is a repeated reminder, to theorise when a simple application of common-sense shall suffice, to arrogate itself the right to presume what lies in the best interest of another. Here too, there is a place for these activities, and a non-profit might as well carry them out, and that too with success. But these too do not meet the test of reviving societal institutions.


A civil society, when filtered through an institutional lens, appears on the whole quite modest and benign. Through its work, whether it be research, advocacy, field projects, et cetera, civil society aims to revive reciprocity. And it may carry out this project skillfully to the degree it enjoys goodwill [the good wishes and respect others hold towards someone or something out of their own accord, not as a result of concerted brand-building. Goodwill is bestowed, a brand is acquired].


Goodwill towards civil society is but a result of admirable behaviour. The admirable behaviour is but a by-product of civil society's integrity: the close and consistent alignment between practice and preaching. This consistency is, in turn, a result of the heedfulness it brings to its governance and administration. In the final analysis, a civil society defines itself not by its work, but through a realisation of its own role and its own conduct aligned to its role.


Quite appropriately then, Goodwill, Governance and Administration correlate with the three pillars of sound behaviour: generosity, self-restraint and diligence. Yet, the route to that goodwill, the most valuable of personal or organisational treasures, lies through governance and administration. These two, like the term ‘institution’ are routine, common-place, dull and boring; but, again, like institutions, of profound every day significance.


A well-governed and well-administered civil society organisation is an asset to the community it is part of. It becomes a point of reference for others to rally around or draw inspiration from. It, through its very behaviour, provides a space to re-establish the geometry of reciprocal relationships.


Today, the worry of the death of civil society is misplaced: society is always full of sufficient troubles to excite an animated soul. No one needs to lose sleep over dearth of action. It is also not FCRA amendments that will cause irreparable harm to civil society. What will break its back is rather the consequences of its own accumulated defects from its own past behaviour.


The crisis of succession, under-investment in its own teams, an organisational culture at odds with the founding values itself, an inability to articulate simply what it really stands for, the abuse of language by creeping false scientism, the widening generational gaps in value-systems in the ranks of those make it, ad-hocism in decision-making, serving donors instead of serving society, a forgetfulness of its own relation to wider society, a disengaged governance mechanism : they all hint at the defects. It is indeed difficult to pour water on the fire outside when the faucet inside is leaking.


Such defects are not unique to organisations or individuals in civil society. They abound across all fields as far as the eye can see: but, by definition, if civil society exists to correct imbalances, it must itself possess a much higher sense of balance.


This is not an indictment of civil society organisations: it is the conclusion one is led to upon adopting an institutional lens of civil society. It is perfectly fine to view large swathes of the “development sector” as agents of change, but that is a wholly different view and not in consonance with the sense in which the term institution is used here.


A choice


An institutional world-view is not difficult to grasp. It, however, is exceedingly difficult to acquire conviction in. The human mind finds the simplest of thoughts the most discomforting. But, if adopted, such an outlook can inform, amongst other things, how capital is allocated: in the world of business as well as philanthropy. But it does confront a wordly challenge: this mode of capital allocation will not earn its executor any laurels, certifications, or make for novel dinner-table conversations, for subtlety has never won a popularity contest.


Those who make this choice: the choice to operate institutionally: voluntarily opt, as we have learnt to say, to humble their intellect in front of their temperament. Upholding this choice requires that those who make this choice base their work within the overarching and non-negotiable frame of reciprocity. Under such a frame, attention shifts from outputs and outcomes to the persistent realisation that relationships are an end in themselves, and that they, at all cost, cannot be damaged without severe consequences.


How many in civil society will prefer to base their entire self-worth on their ability to architect a geometry of relationships over a painfully extended period of time, have the ability to see through the ‘store of value’ (real capital) that such architecture holds, and never receive any credit for it for they were quite subtle in the way they went about it? How many find their motivation solely from this act? Today, what cannot be seen, felt, and measured cannot attract attention, capital, and talent.


Yet, we believe such a project is an actionable one. Every honestly run non-profit set-up has some degree of ‘civil society character’ ingrained within it. This is largely due to the quality of relationships it has come to acquire over its long period of work. We can think of not a single instance (among those who we work with) where such a pivot is not possible. The challenge though is a psychological one.


In particular, four factors impede an organisation to see through its own ‘civil society character’. They are:

  1. An uncalled for compulsion to get influenced by what others are doing.

  2. Bending in front of the hand that grants, without realising that in so doing it is fulfilling the grantor’s mandate, not what it was truly set-up to do.

  3. Personal ambition, financial & positional insecurity of a few at the top.

  4. A creeping sense of ease and comfort, or its converse: a sense of fatigue & dejection.


All these four factors have the net effect of reducing cohesion (integrity) and rhythm within the organisation and its work. This lack of cohesion ensures that it is unlikely that these same organisations can try to strengthen cohesion outside.


These factors also give rise to many inconvenient questions. In particular, how willing is an organisation to cede to the boredom and attention-to-detail this kind of project demands? Is it willing to accept the financial uncertainty which attends to such a stance? Will it be able to overcome its own vanity of receding from the centre-stage and moving to the margins? Will it be able to accept that this will have a direct effect on the growth of what it can pay its people? Will it be able to stand firm when, whom it sees as their peers, race past it in the size of their balance sheets and paychecks? Will it be able to dig its heels in at any cost? Will it avoid the temptation to succumb to intellectual speculations, faddish academic categories & qualifiers, instead focus exclusively on real relationships between real persons? Will it be able to avoid the language of power between groups, and focus instead on the language of harmony and betterment of relationships within and between groups?


Holders of money purporting to support such projects too confront the same challenge. An ‘institutional-strengthening’ project does not cost much to fund each year. It is unremarkable for it evades a log-frame with neat chains of causations. It is terribly frustrating for it demands unusual time horizons: it is a project which will pass on from one generation of programme managers to another. At annual reviews there will not be much to speak of in terms of stories or narratives. It is, in short, a career suicide.


Will a section of philanthropists be in some ways comfortable suborning their ideological moorings to the dull demands of an institutional project with its clear moral undertones, which will be at variance with a wholly liberal world-view? Under an ‘institutional’ view, one does not speak of feminist organisations or feminism, but feminist practice (a short-hand for sound precepts) inside many an organisations. Funding grantees to practise sound behaviour is not fun: no one likes to play the matron-in-charge indefinitely.


For playing the matron invites two rebukes: it is deemed moralising, and in the postmodern (or post-post-modern) world one inhabits, it militates against giving prominence to subjective-self over hardened truths of behaviour, a fact made knottier with a predominantly young demographic [if one has to always walk on eggshells, there ain’t much walking left to do].

Such a project also demands wit, parody, sarcasm and irony in good measure: it requires one is able to take one’s work seriously without taking oneself too seriously. In India of today, a look outside the window will tell how few corners are left to laugh at oneself, and laugh with others.


Some principles for an ‘institutional grant’


In our conversations with civil society organisations, when we have got a chance to weave in this world-view, a pattern to those conversations has emerged. It follows the road of the following questions:


  1. What is the covenant that is being claimed to be upheld (by the organisation)?

  2. What is the language which simply and most ably expresses that covenant?

  3. Using that language, how to understand the gap between their conduct and their claim?

  4. What is the one measure to pursue relentlessly to make that language manifest in work and bridge this divide. i,e., achieve integrity?


In an intellectually sincere organisation, it is surprising the amount of soul searching this evokes, and the frictions & conflicts it engenders . This introspective churning, if successful, yields a self-image of an organisation which defines itself less by its programmes (what it does), but why and how it carries them out.


For, in the ‘how’ lies the answer to the question ‘what is the one measure to close the divide between conduct and claim’. Very often, it involves a surprisingly self-evident and simple shift, a shift which was in plain sight all the while but ignored, for it seems impossible to believe that that was all that is required, that that is all it would take for the organisation to be true to itself and that, it is possible to earn an honourable living doing so.


If any grant is designed as an institutional strengthening grant then it will have to, by design, provoke a process of the above nature. And once something is provoked and yields dividends, then the grant also has to stand-by for an extended period of time. For it will take a while for the organisation to perhaps acquire that greatest of management virtue: comfort with boredom, i.e., doing only what is strictly necessary.


This degree of selectivity and consistency demands a degree of financial independence, prudence and conservatism. An organisation which trods this path is bothered not so much by the quantum of money at its disposal, but the predictability of it for a sustained period of time [any examination of a truly respectable civil society set-up, in this sense, shows that they were beneficiaries of donors with enviably long time horizons].


Based on the above, an institutional building grant will be characterised by two promises: to provoke and to provide predictability. The grantor, in turn will have to demand two other P’s in return from the grantees: that they exhibit prudence and propriety to the highest degree possible.


To these four, we would add another: permeability. The grant will have to encompass those organisations left out of sight. A truly institutional grant has to cast its net as wide as it can, geographically.


We do not make any claims with regard to the exclusive superiority of an institutional view of conducting one's affairs. We are, however, persons of practice, and as practitioners, we can safely assert that adopting that view has provided much by way of benefits to us. Along the way we have fought our own ghosts and realised the wisdom behind the message: as you age, intellect matters less, and temperament much more. That in a nutshell is the real change that institutions demand of each of us, one unlikely to ever occupy the pages of a scholarly peer-reviewed publication.



P.S. Our ability to articulate our intuition is an evolving project for us. This is the second detailed note we have produced regarding this topic. The first was a presentation, along these same lines, to a group of youngsters at a foundation’s fellowship. That was meant for youngsters aiming to be professionals in the development sector. We are not sure whether they understood any of what was said, let alone appreciate it. But we keep trying, for we are only practising what we profess: share generously what has benefited us. Perhaps one day, we would be able to compact it all in one page. But we have our doubts, for common-sense remains the hardest to get across. Yet we do not tire, for we realise, even if we fail to bring clarity to our audience, in the act of doing so we at least bring it to ourselves.



P.P.S: An aside on the term ‘life-long mechanism’, or, defining a non-interventionist spirit.


The term ‘life-long mechanism’ used in the definition of institution is of special resonance in today’s age: an age marked by a pace of rapid change and resultant multitude of dissonances.


In a given lifetime, it is certain that each of us will witness many ‘seasons’ across several facets of our lives. As but one instance, we may be born into a certain kind of political system, and end up dying in a totally different one. As any historian can attest: underlying this seasonality is a cyclicality, that is, there is a pattern and logic to how these seasons change (‘history may not repeat, but it surely rhymes’). All phenomena, natural and man-made, follow this rhythm, including the behaviour of financial markets for instance.


This rhythm exists on account of the principle of ‘reversion to the mean’. That is, there is a ‘centre of gravity’ around which things change. Deviation too far from this centre leads to collapse of one cycle and beginning of a new one. The present political economy of the world is in the process of such a painful collapse and, hopefully, a renewal. Many seemingly established tenets will slowly wither away, including perhaps the current notions of democracy. The leniency, greed and arrogance of previous political regimes bred the virulence of the present ones. It was but to be expected: for the present is but always a recompense for the past.


This fact of ‘reversion to the mean’ has found independent expression in many disciplines, for example, the chaos theory in physics (there is order in disorder). Much of eastern metaphysics too has been preoccupied with its study. A serious reading of history can actually be seen as a close study of human behaviour to realise this fact for oneself. But this idea is not for the intellectual alone but also for the man of the world: it is quite central if anyone desires to make money, for it is what governs the institution of money. The discipline of value investing we referenced at the very beginning too is quite animated by this idea.


But, as usual, the most compact expressions of the deepest of truths are always found in the religious corpus (for they speak directly to the heart). Further, they do not simply stop at describing the disease, but also offer a remedy. The Qur’an in one if its shortest Surahs (103) best captures this:

  1. Time and age are witness,

  2. That man is certainly in loss,

  3. Save (except) those who believe (i.e. those who are heedful)

       and do righteous deeds (i.e. uphold duty),

       and counsel one another to the truth,

       and bear with fortitude the trials that befall.


The last ayat of this Surah defines the sense in which we have used the term institution throughout this document, i.e., despite all the upheavals a person may experience in a single life-time, institutions provide a place of refuge, offer a possibility to find a sense of balance, and move forward.


That last ayat also defines the sense in which we have used the term civil society: vehicles which allow people to reconnect with the institutions that surround them, but which are not so easily seen and felt.


Now, civil society can play this role well provided it has a truly non-interventionist temper. It is a temper that enables civil society to act as a centre of gravity, calm and reason as clearly implied in counsel one another to the truth and bear with fortitude the trials that befall. Philanthropy which supports civil society to develop this temper qualifies as an ‘institutional philanthropy’. But the path to reach this non-interventionist temper requires making sense of the term ‘truth’ in the phrasing ‘counsel one another in truth’.


To repeat once more a recurrent motif of this note: the notion that the truth is straightforward, concerned foremost with right behaviour, and in no need for being decorated with new ideas, ideologies, dogmas, new-fangled theories and speculations is tough for many to digest. But, if digested, it may divert energy towards making deeper meaning of the past rather than envisioning a new vision and mission for the future.


For, the future is already wired into the past: the better we understand our own past, the better we can see the road ahead, and save ourselves while others around us err. This, in a nutshell, is the definition of a non-interventionist spirit. Or, as General Kutuzov of the Tsar Alexander’s army (in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) remarked (paraphrasing): that war is the best which is never fought. He would surely know for he was in charge of deciding whether to put the lives of many at stake to serve someone else’s vanity.


A non-interventionist temper encourages not to view the work in civil society as a fight for rights, equality of power, oppression by the State against the citizens, domination of upper caste against lower caste, but of recognising all kinds of imbalances and their interconnections and to act to balance, harmonise, relate, fuse and cohere.


Evidently, the language used to frame the situation informs the response to it. Even if there is discrimination, calling it out aloud incessantly will not decrease it, it will only help it acquire newer and more devious and violent forms. Unless hearts change, actions will not. No change in law of the land will cause this, true education alone will.


[Wasn’t it this void that the civil society was then meant to sincerely fulfil? All its work, programmes, projects and theories of change, were but a means to relate, foster a dialogue and make an attempt to build perspectives so that at least a certain critical mass of society acts thoughtfully. When did chasing targets, including targets of ‘creating leaders' or ‘agents of change’, enter into the fray, not to mention the complete abuse of language this has engendered?]


To rile a few hearts then: it need not be man versus women, but it can be man and women, and it is perfectly fine if man is written before woman provided the hand that writes that ‘and’ knows fully the meaning that that conjunction implies. The fight around an ‘and’ eventually will result in an ‘or’ and quite likely degenerate into a ‘versus’ in less skillful hands. It is a war not worth fighting. We believe feminism may voice an objection but hopefully not too loudly.

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