The need for a place to learn about democracy has wide and varied connotations. India is diverse, plural and textured. It is also fragmented, divisive and divided - by religion, caste, language, class and gender. Indian democracy encompasses a multiplicity of ideas, structures and beliefs. The challenge to Indian democracy is to keep this pluralism alive, while understanding and promoting the strength of collective political action in the context of a modern Indian Republic.
The Indian Constitution has been an intelligent, courageous and successful attempt to protect both these realities within a paradigm of rights and obligations. In the last two decades, disregard of the principles enshrined in the Constitution - the preamble, the Chapter on fundamental rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy - has created the urgent need for political learning to make informed choices in a democracy. The inability to make such choices has led to the distortion of democracy from the grass root to parliament and national policy. The idea of a School for Democracy, originated about two decades ago to address some of these issues. The concept goes back to the Danish effort to take electoral democracy to its citizens at the turn of the last century, in what they called Folk Schools.
The Indian public discourse on politics, economics and social responsibility began to change in the last three decades, and what seemed a settled position on political choices for a secular democratic India began to disintegrate and be questioned. The public discourse that followed major happenings – the persistent social persecution of dalits, despite Constitutional protection, the emergency declared in 1975, the riots in 1984, communal violence stoked by playing on traditional prejudices in the eighties, nineties and genocide and the birth of extremist movements - provoked the need to understand the context of contemporary politics once gain.
Struggles could no longer be restricted to fighting poverty, but had to plan the protection of Constitutional and other rights. These occurrences rudely woke up a class of people who believed, that given the nature of our Constitution and obligations of the ruling class to maintain its sanctity, such action would be contained or countered. The people of India had largely taken political structures and their performance for granted. Their trust, in retrospect, seems naive.
In the hundreds of small and larger deliberations and analysis of the predicament that Indian democracy found itself in, some broad trends emerged.
Repeatedly and persistently three broad patterns of public responses brought this fact home. The first was the response of people kept on the margins of the modern political discourse, because of lack of access to formal learning and structures of power. The second was those who have access to formal learning but are denied better understanding either because curricula is too specialised or because these learners are victims of an inadequate system. There is a third group of people deliberately misinformed playing upon prejudices for acceptance. These undermined and destroyed democratic action. An attempt to re-establish rational discourse was perceived as the need of the day. That discourse required a basic political understanding which went beyond immediate and pressing concerns, to provide arguments to place in the public domain. The need to follow questions and doubts to their logical end and to explain and argue through issues takes time. Such reflection becomes the basis, and also sustains enduring democratic action. This combination of factors defined the need for structured learning for people to understand their own predicament and to have the freedom to choose what and how they need to learn.
In a pluralistic society there is bound to be asymmetrical and disparate perceptions and aspirations for change. However in a democracy these differences have to be balanced by a need to look for commonalities and connections, but in a manner in which none of the constituent parts loses its integrity and strength. This called for the creation of an unorthodox learning process which could absorb best practices created for learning. Further, it must also provide space for redefining issues and modes of dealing best with filling the gaps in understanding issues. The need for such a school was often discussed. It was shelved because the logistics of creating this space was daunting. Given the limitation of time and the absence of extensive committed human resources, the idea remained an abstraction.
In a more specific sense, the School for Democracy is also an outgrowth of the experience of people’s political mobilisation in rural Rajasthan in the last three decades. During this period, movements have strived to enable ordinary people to use democratic spaces to fight for their rights, including workers and women’s rights, the right to information, the right to work and further on to other rights. This experience has demonstrated that working women and men often develop a sharp understanding of modern democracy more fully through collective political action. They may have a more reliable understanding than professional “thinkers” in this respect. Yet, they may lack specific information to make informed choices to work with democratic institutions. We have also learnt that a more holistic understanding requires dedicated space and time for concentrated political education. The poor need this physical and mental space to learn, which is not easy to access in their crowded lives. Therefore, it was necessary for people working with issues of poverty to collectively reflect upon the socio-political, economic and cultural context of political action. For those engaged in discussion it was important to find answers, so that their action is based on informed and deliberated choices.
As non-party political processes gathered strength, the question of supportive education for political action became an imperative issue, the need for which was constantly felt. It arose because of a self expressed need of workers. For example, though united through economic stress and deprivation they may very often fail to see the linkages and connections between tradition and oppression, or modern development agendas and infringement of democratic rights. Arguments proffered in passing, fail to impact because of the parochial and limited nature of poor people’s lives, where both educational and literacy constraints are handicaps. This often resulted in their falling a prey to anti-democratic processes and getting involved in action which is fundamentally self destructive. This has never been more starkly visible than in the last three decades in our country. People have been mobilised on issues like communalism, which harms their unity. Workers rights and rights of ordinary citizens have been systematically corroded, through an apparently “democratic” process, with their acceptance!
This is not merely the predicament of workers and poor people. The steady and now almost complete infiltration of systems of schooling by unscientific and regressive politics has left thousands of young people literate but uneducated. Subjected to this unifocussed specialisation or doctrinaire ideology, a liberal understanding necessary for pluralist India is lost, further undermining democratic participation. Yet the arguments subtly and slyly worked into their young minds have taken root. No one time intervention without proper and cogent understanding is going to even begin the processes of re-education.
The either / or, manner of presenting issues (such as TV panel discussions) which aim at polarisation and sensationalism, and not engaging in discussion/dialogue does not lead to understanding. It has further entrenched prejudices and quick superficial judgements. There are always areas of grey and there is a continuing need to form bridges for better comprehension of one’s political dilemma. Even for those of us who have had the privilege of being born in elitist homes and studied for 15, 18 or more years, there is little space in the conventional system for stating our concerns.
That is why the place of democratic learning is a school in the best possible definition of the term. Placing it in the context of democracy provides the widest range of choices for every group that wants to learn. The school will therefore also have to provide space for developing and using effective tools of political education for participatory democracy.
While this is true of the poor, Indian democracy has met with new challenges as well as new possibilities. Large sections of the population continue to be excluded from democratic institutions and processes due to economic and social disempowerment. Officially their ‘power’ is often restricted to only periodic participation in elections. The quality of democracy has also been eroded by the further spread of corruption, the growth of authoritarian nationalism, the expansion of corporate power, increasing communalism, and related trends. Yet there are also new possibilities for democratic practice, associated for instance with the numbers of creative alternatives, such as revival of panchayati raj institutions and the movements for rights based access to services with a share in governance.
There is no place where the citizen may go to study and perceive the nature of democracy seen bottom up. Not merely in terms of elections as we said before, but as a political idiom for justice, equality and greater participation in governance. The School for Democracy hopes to contribute to the further expansion of democratic space in India. By nurturing understanding of the linkages between individual need and policy and governance, it hopes to check authoritarian tendencies and trends.