C-20's Motherly Saint and Global Civil Society

By Jill Carr-Harris


It came as quite a surprise to hear Mata Amritanandamaya Devi’s (Amma’s) appointment as the head the Civil Society body (C-20) that works in tandem with the G-20 states under the leadership of the Government of India for this year 2023. Amma (meaning Mother) is a Hindu spiritual leader, guru to her followers, and provider of large amounts of humanitarian support mostly in India and outside. The question posed: Is the C-20 going backwards or moving forward by bringing this well-loved motherly saint to the head of a platform of international civil society organizations?

There is no doubt Amma is well-meaning; she has worked relentlessly to vitiate suffering from people’s lives over four decades. However, in assuming a leadership position in the C-20, her task to garner democratic and transparent governance of the G-20 may be challenging. Will she be able to bring forward the socio-economic issues from the 800-plus civil societies from all over the world?

Is Amma a Square Peg?

Since the C-20 was established in 2013, certain norms and conventions have been observed that were adopted as principles in 2019, related to ‘the inclusion of different civil society actors; the transparency of decision-making, the valuing of freedom and independence from undue influence by any non-civil society actors, diversity and inclusiveness, and the over-arching values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment’. With few exceptions, these have been reaffirmed by the C-20 over the past ten years, the most recent years being in Japan in 2021 and Indonesia in 2022. Given this backdrop, does Amma not look like ‘a square peg in a round hole’? On the other hand, her ascendency may illustrate a graphic change in civil society that is worthy of attention.

Amma is viewed as one of the exponents of India’s revivalism of its ancient culture

India, for the first time has become the Chair of the G-20 for the year 2023. The G-20 set up in 2008 was meant to bring a larger grouping of countries together for global decision-making beyond the western countries that constitute the G-7. The G-20 is made up of 20 countries that control 85% of the global economy. The Chair of the G-20 is done on rotation. The agenda for this year’s negotiations will culminate in a Leader’s Summit on the 9th and 10th of September 2023 in New Delhi. India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has pointed out in recent public appearances that the task of the G-20 is ‘to forge common ground among countries that are deeply polarized’. He shows that India is a leader of the Global South and can play this role effectively. Jaishankar’s own leadership has exemplified prudence and measured independence whether dealing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Climate Conventions or his strong stand on National Security in relation to China. Jaishankar’s detractors accuse the Indian foreign service of defensive diplomacy; however, it is evident that India’s top diplomat is well-informed and widely-respected.

Jaishankar’s setting the agenda for India’s leadership at the G-20 with countries of the Global South such as Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and so forth, would normally bring into prominence their civil society actors. It could be argued, as it is in India, that civil society organizations, which are recognized by the Government, are those that are handmaidens of a country’s economic development, and not those considered as disrupters of economic growth especially when the Government advocates for a range of policies for bringing large populations out of poverty to prosperity.

There is a prevailing view in India that it is uniquely situated because of its ancient culture(s) to provide an alternative narrative to western development. It challenges the colonial mind-set which takes away independence in state-craft and therewith keeps many governments of the Global South in a slavish position to the trade and development policies of western industrialized countries.

Reviving Ancient Cultures

Among the many G-20 countries of the Global South, India’s agenda for an alternative narrative is likely to be a welcomed step for many states in their drive for greater economic independence. The ancient cultures of India will also be displayed which are unique to the sub-continent. Amma is viewed as one of the exponents of India’s revivalism of its ancient cultures. She is a simple woman known for her hugging, and blending motherly love with service. She has created many educational institutes, built the biggest hospital in Asia, undertaken many environmental projects in terms of conservation of rivers and reforestation.

The motherly, service-oriented view of women is also a beautiful part of the family life that pervades in many parts of India. Yet it is not something that can be imposed on others. Some may take a more cynical view that this portrayal of women in making them goddesses (devis) does not cohere with the restrictions women face in terms of their voice, movement and independence in society. Because of these restrictions, men are in the decision-making positions, oftentimes using women to buttress their own power positions. Since the C-20 is mainly about the global political economy, the service-oriented Amma may be coopted at the hands of others.

This need not diminish the fact that the Indian leadership finds western development disruptive of its cultural and religious traditions. There is a need to have a multi-focal world. If India’s leaders find spaces of tolerance where different ancient cultures of different regions of the world can also be recognized and supported, than there is likely to be less polarization and more peaceful coexistence, a stated goal of the governments of the G-20. ‘Coexistence’ has a range of meanings: it can be tolerance of different ethno-religious identities with a sense of separateness, or with mutual understanding. If Amma can pull together a platform of diverse actors with mutual understanding and make the governments accountable, and push for more peaceful coexistence, then the C-20 can play a positive role in shaping the G-20 policies. This would indeed be moving civil societies forward.

Dr. Jill Carr-Harris has worked with civil society organizations for over forty years at the United Nations, and in Canada, India, Philippines and Bangladesh. She is currently at the International Gandhi Initiatives for Nonviolence and Peace in Southern India.

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