On Democracy

A couple of weeks ago, my erstwhile colleague Professor Prabhat Patnaik, who recently retired from the Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, wrote a thoughtful piece in The Hindu. One chord that the essay struck in my mind was on the nature of democratic functioning…

There is something in what he says for us to think about, especially since we (at UoH), are members of a publicly funded enterprise that is patently engaged in a social activity which, arguably, is for the greater common good.  Much of Prof. Patnaik’s essay is the contrast between democratic functioning and messianism which may not be entirely germane outside the context in which it was written, but there is a basic issue that needs consideration.

Democracy essentially means a subject role for the people in shaping the affairs of the society. They not only elect representatives periodically to the legislature, but intervene actively through protests, strikes, meetings, and demonstrations to convey their mood to the elected representatives. There being no single mood, freedom of expression ensures that different moods have a chance to be expressed, provided, the manner of doing so takes the debate forward instead of foreclosing it.

For all this to happen, people have to be properly informed. The role of public meetings where leaders explain issues, and of media reports, articles, and discussions, is to ensure that they are well aware. The whole exercise is meant to promote the subject role of the people, instead of being merely ‘masses’ and the leaders as true facilitators. Even charismatic leaders do not substitute themselves for the people, they are charismatic because the people, in acquiring information to play their subject role, trust what they say.

Alter legislature to Academic Council or Executive Council, substitute faculty meetings for public meetings, substitute leaders by Dean, Chair, Head or even Student Union president… the parallels are there. And I believe we need to reflect on the democratic versus the non-democratic at the UoH.

Democratic functioning is crucial to our growth. We need to have informed debates on all issues that concern us, devoid of acrimony. And with passion, but also with respect for contrasting points of view. One of the most important adjectives in the above paragraph, in my opinion, is informed. We have enthusiastically celebrated the Right to Information Act, but withholding information is still, regrettably, all too common at all levels. This makes it all the more difficult to have an informed debate, when so much information is simply not there in the public domain. It also does not help that the RTI is used by some as a weapon and as an instrument of mischief. They do not help the cause.

In any case, where and how is this information to be shared? Where is it to be discussed and debated? Given our commitment to scholarship, this is a question that should not need to be asked.  This blog is, of course patently meant for the sharing of ideas and concerns and also for sharing information. But this can only be very limited- in part because it would get tiresome otherwise, and in part because there are more issues that need our concern than can be covered in a blog.

I believe that everyone who is in a position of some authority can take a number of steps to bring about the democratic process, by inviting discussion and encouraging debate, and by helping to form positions and evolve opinions.This needs to be done proactively. And in a manner that encourages participation, is inclusive, and allows for dissent. Not that this is entirely missing in our campus- it just needs to become more common…

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7 thoughts on “On Democracy

  1. In the matter of sharing information, I believe it is also important to share information in a manner that people (all stakeholders) can understand. Too often important details are hidden inside pages of unreadable and obscure prose, and having “shared” such reports, the authors (and authorities) assume their responsibility of dissemination is fulfilled. Now that we have various media and forms available to us, it should be possible to make information available in multiple formats, in ways that are truly accessible to all those who should have it, and who need to understand it.

    • True. If it is information put out by the UoH administration, every effort will be made to share information in a manner so as others can understand. If it is sharing information that comes from other sources, I’m afraid there is little that can be done beyond making it (physically) accessible. Those who need to understand it have got to put in the effort: most of the time there is a reason for the “pages of unreadable and obscure prose”- ask a lawyer… or a philosopher!

  2. The point about democratic functioning is well taken and it is a feeling that must be FELT BY ALL so that it percolates to all spheres of academic life. I am not sure if the analogy of the legislatures and Academic/Executive Council works for the university administration because heads of various bodies are not elected. Even if we don’t change this form completely, we must take steps to make various bodies more inclusive. I am sure many feel that EC is not adequately represented by many components of the University. For instance, while every Professor is a member of the AC, there is very little representation of the Readers and Lecturers. Something needs to be done about this if we wish to be more democratic. Considering the fact that quite a few of the Professors don’t actually attend these meetings (one can draw on the statistics in the last twenty five years), there number could be reduced and maybe we can make a beginning towards greater participation of the Readers and Lecturers.

    • Representation based on any tangible criteria leads to some form of groupism. We shall therefore need representation from the SC/ST, women, minorities, physically disabled, students, non-teaching staff, LGBT and so on and so on. Can’t we find representatives who represent US, the students, the teaching and the non-teaching communities? True, we all have our own interests but why can’t we place out own selfish interests last? The truth is that we are not perfect and we do not expect to have a perfect representation.

      It is possible to work with an imperfect system. Conventional tools are provided in conventional democracy and we can add a few more if we need. We need to look at the basics and try to work our way forward. We may take two steps forward and one step backward sometimes but that is still one step net forward. The progress takes time to realize and the process is similar to evolution, made possible by small random steps, and natural selection, when we select the good from the bad. It takes time to decide good from the bad and that is a step that cannot be hastened.

      Academic life has a strong focus: common good. If we focus on this on the every subject that comes up in any meeting, we have achieved something tangible. The details are important, but not more than the goal itself. If we just act responsible, we are doing s decent job as a public servant.

      Communication is also an important parameter. He who has the strongest vocal chord finally wins. There are student members in the academic council who have never spoken on anything except the fee hikes. They really do not feel part of the system as most of the discussions appears to have no relevance for them. This is our failure, we have failed to communicate to them the background of the subject matter of discussions. Without proper background, most of the agenda items appear silly and trivial.

      Heads and Deans are appointed at the whims and fancy of the vice chancellor and they do not represent us. On the other hand, they decide practically all the matters that relate and affect us. If the selection is done wisely, we have no complaint. I am certainly not saying that election would have been a better alternative. Take a look at the teachers body, if you doubt me.

      It begins with US and ends with US.

  3. A rather dangerous anti-democratic phenomenon on the university campus has been the disruption of film screenings by aggressive student-groups. Rather than debating the issues involved or meaningfully engaging with them (nudity or nationalism, for example), these groups wish for a total ban on whatever they deem doesn’t suit their idea of ‘Indian culture’ or ‘decency’. Come on! The university is THE place where one learns to tolerate different opinions and values and debate them. Otherwise, what’s the difference between these university students in India and the prudish and authoritarian mullahs of Iran?!

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