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We, The People Of India, Cannot Find Democracy In The Country

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Most people believe that democracy means voting in an election every five years. Elections in a representative democracy are, of course, an essential part of the very idea of political democracy. However, that doesn’t mean that the same concept of democracy is limited to this right to vote. Moreover, every country takes pride in calling itself a democracy, no matter how far away they are from it in reality, precisely because of the moral superiority and immunity that the idea of being democratic provides them.

The notion of democracy has evolved from direct democracy. The people directly deliberate and decide on legislation to representative democracy, where the people elect representatives to do that, such as in parliamentary or presidential democracy. Most decision making of democracies works on the principle of majority rule. However, other decision-making approaches like supermajority and consensus have also increased inclusiveness and broader legitimacy on sensitive issues and counterbalanced majoritarianism.

This is an image of a person holding a poster that reads Dissent if the Safety Valve of Democracy
Democracy has evolved from direct democracy where people directly deliberate and decide on legislation.

In present liberal democracies, the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority by enforcing individual rights. Thus, democracy differs from other forms of government where power is either held by an individual (as in autocratic systems like an absolute monarchy) or controlled by a small number of individuals (as in an oligarchy).
Democracy focuses on providing opportunities for the people to control their leaders and remove them without a revolution. The primary aspect of representative democracy is the political right of universal adult franchise.

Having the right to elect a representative in a periodic election isn’t the limit of political democracy. However, in a profoundly hierarchical society where there is rampant inequality concerning access to resources, social and cultural capital – expecting the representation to be fair and inclusive of the marginalised is deeply problematic. Therefore, affirmative action policies to ensure proper representation of marginalised and backward classes is one way to ensure justice in the democratic process.

But even that constitutional right of proper representation isn’t followed, and the established hierarchies remain unopposed. Elected representatives win elections based on economic, social and cultural capital and with corporate backing. Hence, they lack the incentive to create policies for the welfare of the people who elected them in the first place.

The assured term of 5 years after an election gives them ample opportunity to create policies the way they want to, without proper consultation with the people. Representative democracy functions by electoral victories. Thus, they have to appease the dominant groups to keep their power while completely undermining the interests of the marginalised.

Legal equality, political freedom and the rule of law have been identified as essential characteristics of a democracy. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes and the judiciary. However, our society is deeply governed by social hierarchies of caste, class, gender and colour. Most of the oppressed sections are underrepresented in these institutions of governance. Consequently, ‘democracy’ becomes a mere word on paper.

 

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The legal and political rights in a democracy can only be a reality when the hierarchies are abolished, and every individual has equal access to justice. Any state institutions created in such a hierarchical society will recreate and protect those hierarchies as the people occupying the positions of power will almost always come from the dominant groups. They will use the state monopoly on violence to brutalise any assertions that challenge their privilege.

Is it a democracy to feed people fake news and manipulated propaganda to reap political dividends? Is it a democracy to divert people’s attention from failures of the ruling class and issues that affect people? How can it be a democracy when capitalist corporations have a monopoly over every news, story, movie, content and media that the public consumes.

They also control the internet traffic and steal peoples’ data for their profit. This media is not democratic when we can only see representation of dominant caste, gender and race groups, bombarded with historical and cultural narratives. Democracy is not people just sitting there having no say in what they consume. Each individual has equal power to create and develop these narratives and stories while getting equal access to creating, publishing, and propagating them.

Democracy isn’t when people are constantly fed false narratives to don’t threaten the existing hierarchies. The increase in fake news and conspiracy theories and general mistrust of experts is due to limited groups’ monopoly on knowledge and means of communication. We can’t blame people for believing in fake news because they are actively kept from accessing and learning themselves. Then these ‘experts’ lament that people don’t trust them anymore and follow fake propaganda.

The only counter to fake news is democratising all knowledge and making the process transparent rather than asking people to blindly trust a few experts. If the people’s elected representatives believe that people cannot be trusted with the truth, then the whole foundation of democracy is at risk. For a democracy to function correctly, it is essential that the government respects the people and takes them seriously. Furthermore, to exercise their democratic rights properly, the government should be transparent and provide all the information that people demand.

A democratic society should first democratise access to information for everyone. The control on the generation and flow of knowledge and information should not be limited to a few people or dominant groups. On the contrary, a true democracy ensures that each individual has access to create new knowledge, communicate that with others, and have access to every knowledge created by others before them and those around them. The invention of the printing press and the internet are considered two significant events that made the democratisation of information possible.

This is an image of a woman holding a poster that reads Save Democracy
The only counter to fake news is democratising all knowledge and making the process transparent rather than asking people to blindly trust a few experts.

But even today, the research conducted by public money is inaccessible to the general public. It is monopolised by large publishing firms, which gatekeep scientific knowledge from being available to everyone. In such a world, websites like Libgen and Sci-Hub, which provide free access to millions of research papers and books without regard to copyright, bypass publishers’ paywalls are a step towards democratising knowledge. This rapid opening up of research knowledge has allowed millions of people to expand their understanding and use that knowledge to improve their lives.

The advantage of providing open access to knowledge is visible from the technology boom in the internet era that allowed thousands of people to access, edit and create new technologies, software and applications more efficiently and faster. The common misconception of celebrating a few billionaires for technological advancements in the IT era is misguided. The collective effort of thousands of people who had access to free knowledge was made possible by the internet, making this giant leap in technological progress.

Massive open collaboration projects like Wikipedia show the power of people to create and distribute information and the ability of modern technologies like the internet to democratise knowledge. Scientific institutions should open up and provide all the knowledge in an open platform like the arXiv server so that everyone interested can access and use it. The open-source model allows people to participate directly in software development, rather than be consumers, through contributing opinions and modifications for free.

Similarly, Arduino and littleBits have made electronics more accessible to people of all educational backgrounds and ages. The development of 3D printers also has the potential to democratise production increasingly. This spread of knowledge and ability to perform high-tech tasks has started to challenge previous conceptions of expertise which was believed to be a realm of the upper class and upper caste.

The internet has been recognised for its role in promoting increased citizen advocacy and government transparency. But for these technologies to be used democratically, they need to be released from corporate patents and capitalist control.

 

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Another aspect of a democratic society is that every individual has to be provided with the ability and means to pursue the education they choose for their own intellectual and creative desires. The quality of education obtained shouldn’t depend on race, class, caste, creed or colour but on the will to pursue it. A society that treats education as a business and pushes kids to child labour cannot be democratic.

We have seen how the digital divide created by the Covid-19 pandemic restricted access to education for millions of children. Nevertheless, the children of dominant groups continued with the business of paid online education. The current education system only ensures that elite groups have a monopoly over knowledge production and recreates the Brahminical system once again by excluding marginalised sections.

Democratic education aims to remove the hierarchical power structure between teachers and students. It centres the ideal of democracy as both the goal and a method of instruction in teaching. It brings democratic values to education and can include:

  • Self-determination within a community of equals.
  • Such values as justice.
  • Respect and trust with the students’ voices being equal to the teachers.

Democratic governance of schools implies the active participation of the entire school community, including the students. The collective decision-making processes that define the school are the curriculum, appointment and dismissal of teachers, creation or amendment of rules and general expenditure. It also provides students with the autonomy to manage their learning process rather than be wholly pushed under the authority of teachers.

When teachers lose their coercive power over students, issues like sexual harassment and assault, torture and discrimination will be reduced as students don’t have to worry about backlash for calling them out. Children should be taught about conflict resolution mechanisms in democratic decision making. They should experience democratic participation to become active participants in the control and organisation of their community.

Studies on democratic schools in the UK, Israel, US and Australia indicate that democratic schooling produces greater motivation to learn, increased interest in science, higher self-esteem, increased success in higher education and more respect for students with disabilities among students.

When we understand what democracy means and how vastly it can and should be practised, we realise that the world we see around us is anything but democratic. Be it any social, economic, political or cultural interaction the individual participates in. There exist hierarchies of gender, caste, religion, colour, class, creed, cuisine, language, culture and nationalities.

There is always a dominant group that controls power in each of these hierarchies who exploit the underprivileged. We need to realise that the existence of these hierarchies and our failure to identify and destroy them shows how far we are from being in a democratic society.

Who produces and consumes creative and intellectual work depends a lot on the hierarchies present in society. Therefore, the visibility provided to intellectual and creative works done by different individuals from different social sections of the society is different due to the inherent hierarchies present. This is why knowledge produced by Bahujans or indigenous communities is considered inferior to Brahminical society’s so-called ‘classical’ and ‘pure’ works.

When there is a monopoly of a dominant caste in deciding the quality of work, the aesthetics of the marginalised won’t be regarded as a great work of art by these art critics and savarna audience. In contrast, any work that fits within their idea of art will be celebrated. This leads to a reinforced mechanism that systematically erases the creative outputs of the marginalised sections.

 

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A true democracy identifies the value of these diverse cultural expressions by ensuring that all sections can enjoy and evaluate the work, and an exclusive dominant group never decides the verdict. Our social and personal life is full of taking away decision-making power from others. Children are taught to respect authority without questioning and trust the decisions taken for them by others.

This culture is reinforced inside our patriarchal families where the male head of the family does all the decision making for the women and children. In our schools, our teachers unilaterally decide everything with no input from students. In academia, our professors have complete control over the discourse and life of the students. In workplaces, our boss has complete control over workers and decides everything. Our social and political institutions decide on policies and laws without any deliberation with the people who will be impacted.

Unless we instil the habit of democratic decision making where everyone gets to take part in decisions and policies that affect their own lives, people will always look for benevolent leaders to delegate that responsibility to. Unfortunately, this search for a saviour and leader builds the cult of hero-worship, which encourages a blind allegiance towards a leader, even subverting their self-interests.

This is an image of a person holding a poster that reads Error 404 Democracy Not Found
A true democracy identifies the value of these diverse cultural expressions by ensuring that all sections can enjoy and evaluate the work.

Democracy cannot exist in a hierarchical society where the accumulation of power is justified using Brahminical, patriarchal myths of the superiority of a few over others. We should not support any system that concentrates power in a few’s hands and makes the decisions for us. A complete democratic society should be the ideal that we should aim for and constantly work towards moving closer to it.

Only if we prefigure the world we wish to live in can we identify the issues currently prohibiting us from being a democracy. Then, once we identify the problems limiting us, we can establish a more democratic system step by step.

Sources:

  1. A. Tangian, “Analytical Theory of Democracy: History, Mathematics and Applications,” Studies in Choice and Welfare, 2020.
  2. “Library Genesis,” [Online]. Available: https://libgen.is/.
  3. Sci-hub. [Online]. Available: https://sci-hub.ren/.
  4. “arXiv.org,” [Online]. Available: https://arxiv.org/.
  5. “Arduino,” [Online]. Available: https://www.arduino.cc/.
  6. Y. Waghid, Pedagogy Out of Bounds: Untamed Variations of Democratic Education, 2014, p. 33.
  7. “Sociocracy in Schools Map,” [Online]. Available: https://schoolcirclesfilm.com/sociocracy-in-schools/.
  8. G. D. Baker, R. M. W. Travers and M. V. Cassell, “Progressive Education Association (U.S.). Informal Committee on Evaluation of Newer Practices in Education,” in New Methods Vs. Old in American Education: An Analysis and Summary of Recent Comparative Studies, 1941.
  9. D. Vedder‐Weiss and D. Fortus, “Adolescents’ Declining Motivation to Learn Science: Inevitable or Not?,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 199-216, 2011.
  10. “Democratic Schools,” Alternatives to School, [Online]. Available: https://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/.
  11. P. Gelderloos, Anarchy Works, 2010.
  12. “The Hannam Report”.

This article was first published in Round Table India.

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