Engaging with politics: teaching democracy

Alex M. George

When thinking about education for democracy in the Indian context, one encounters several challenges. This essay broadly classifies them into two categories – content and perspective.

Content: providing information is insufficient
Generally, two types of content are prescribed for the civics classroom. The first relates to political institutions and the second has to do with civic sense. Let us begin with political institutions. Among the bureaucracy and political leadership in the education sector, there is an assumption that it is the absence of information that has led to the absence of democratic behaviour. Even today it is largely believed that merely providing information is good enough to teach democracy as an idea. For instance, it is assumed that if children are told about constitutions or the political and administrative institutions, they will recognize the value of democracy. Hence, textbooks describe how a prime minister or president is elected. By reading this the children or the future citizens are expected to participate in elections and understand that we are a democracy. Such descriptions, until 2005-6, largely remained without references (and actually continue to do so in most textbooks) to real political parties and political processes (NCERT has tried to change this scenario by including in its textbooks the active role played by political parties in the functioning of a State). Therefore, when coalition governments are formed, a typical statement from a political science or civics textbook, such as: “The leader of the majority party is appointed as the chief minister”, remains incomprehensible to the students. Students and teachers struggle to interpret constitutional provisions that relate to situations where no single party emerges as the majority party. This scenario of not discussing politics is partly due to the assumption that politics is bad and civic education should not indulge in discussing political parties. This shying away from discussing real politics, under the garb of civic education, has restricted the discipline to nothing more than a redundant listing of information.

Orders from the Supreme Court or various ministries play a crucial role in defining civic education. Here are some examples of additions that have been made to civic education in the last two decades – how to cross unmanned railway lines by the Ministry of Railways; how to identify fake currency or write a cheque by the Reserve Bank of India; how to protect oneself from natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes by various courts or the Parliament. International organizations too push their agenda; they evaluate textbook content and compare across countries how many pages are used to teach the United Nations, human rights, children’s rights, etc. The plethora of such ‘guidelines’ from the State and international systems does not do much to go beyond prescribing informational content of civic education.

The second category of information in textbooks comes from what could broadly be called as ‘civic sense’. Earlier, textbooks used to make a mention of ‘social evils’ practiced in the Indian society and the corrective measures taken by governments over the years to stop such practices – that the giving and taking of dowry is illegal, untouchability has been banned, child labour is a punishable offence, consuming tobacco or alcohol is injurious to health, one must follow traffic rules, not litter in public, not disfigure historical monuments and public property, conserve water, protect the environment, etc. Thus we have a random amalgamation of laws, rules, and prescriptions relating to the everyday context and social systems in which the children live. By passing on these bits of information, the State claims that it has performed its duty in regulating ‘social evils’. It is the absence of complete or proper information that leads to violation and disorder in society. This is hierarchical – the notion of the learner and the state. A prescriptive text that expects the child to obey the law. This statement that ‘traffic rules must be followed’, ignores children living in places that don’t have pedestrian paths and possibly even roads, it ignores those living on the footpath, and those that are forced to keep away from certain streets due to the caste system. Here, the insistence on providing information about laws punishing or prohibiting certain practices is rather comical. In a way the State is passing on its responsibilities to the citizens; having informed citizens of their responsibilities, it seems that the State can withdraw from providing the infrastructure necessary to the people. Creating awareness is indeed the role of civic education. However, can this be done without references to the social conditions of the learner or recognizing the role of the governments?

It is necessary for civic education to acknowledge that compiling information about political institutions or social conditions does not necessarily create a more democratic society.

Perspective: politics is central and so is social structure
Primarily, civic education assumes that democracy is only a model for the political system. It evades the fact that democracy as an idea can have a deep impact on the social structures and not merely on the political institutions and political system. Civic education fails to recognize how the idea of democracy needs to be extrapolated to the social structures as well; such an action will force one to rethink social institutions and structures such as family, gender, caste, etc. Democracy in political institutions has to be seen in relation to the social structures. Unlearning the hierarchical nature of the society is central to the challenge of keeping civic education relevant.

As briefly mentioned, one key element in the failure of discussing civic education is the deliberate silence on politics and political parties. It is indeed strange when citizen participation in democracy is mediated through political parties that textbooks, by and large, shy away from speaking about them. Also, why does ‘civic sense’ abstain from discussing basic social aspects of the Indian society? For instance, civic education expects awareness against gender and caste discrimination to emerge simply by providing basic information about the laws created to prevent them. Civic sense is expected to be created without recognizing that discriminatory practices are encouraged by our social institutions and norms of social practices.

Such a perspective in education emerges from the way morals are taught in Indian tradition, for instance by using the Panchtantra. A story is narrated, at the end of which children are expected to learn a moral. It does not ask what moral the listener deduces from the story. The narrator dictates the moral under an authority. It does not allow multiple interpretations. It is afraid of a conflict of opinions and perspectives that the listener may have. Thus, an undemocratic and hierarchical vision of knowledge is embedded in the learning system. Even the idea of democracy is taught as a prescribed definition by quoting statements like that of Lincoln, similar to how morals are dictated. The learner’s agency, their social world, their positionalities in contrast to each other’s in a classroom are not respected or engaged with. Children end up mimicking phrases from the quotations they learned, without necessarily engaging with them, thus making education itself undemocratic. Or as is the norm, the child will remember the story and not the moral.

Just as political concepts such as democracy, justice, equality are taught without engaging with the political system, the other aspect with which civic education disengages is the social context. Children are told that untouchability and dowry have been declared illegal. Yet, they are never told what it means to have caste practices. Children are never expected to engage with what it means to be married or have a family, what it means to be marrying within one’s caste or being brought up within a certain religion, what it means to be criminalized for expressing affection for a person of the same gender in schools. Therefore, it is not uncommon today that educated people often declare that they “grew up without knowing their caste.” People claim caste to be a thing of the past, yet every day there is news of caste-related violence, caste is one of the first things that is looked at during a marriage proposal. But then these practices are assumed ‘natural’ and uncritically accepted as the prescribed social structures for their families and communities. In this context, civics education seems ashamed of unravelling a key aspect of the Indian social structure – caste – and claims to create ‘civic’ sense. Undemocratic social structures are thus made invisible.

Popular discussion on civics education and civic behaviour is often painted as a binary. Civic education is expected to lead to behaviour that obeys whatever the State says. It does not provide any democratic opportunity or responsibility to question the State and its acts. Let us take an example of how the discussion on fundamental rights vs fundamental duties has emerged in the last few years in the context of students’ struggle for better university systems and freedom of expression within the universities or events around demonitization. During the last few years there were many occasions when ‘fundamental duties’ emerged as a point of debate; the teaching of fundamental duties was pitted against the ‘rights’ that students across the country were demanding, an act that the ruling government considered unpatriotic. As a solution to “instilling nationalism” among their students, universities are installing military tanks on campuses. If an adivasi or dalit stands up to the State for taking away his land and livelihood he is frowned upon. During demonitization, citizens were constantly reminded that their standing in queue to exchange their hard-earned income was as patriotic a duty as a soldier guarding the border. During such debates, it is hinted that civic education has put too much emphasis on the rights and ignored the duties.

Civic education is about engaging with politics, not merely by providing information or shying away and speaking in abstract constitutional language, but by understanding and creating opinion regarding everyday political events even if democracy is understood only in the political context. If we are willing to accept the need to expand the definition of democracy to include social structures then it is about relooking social structures, such as family and caste, that regulate our daily lives. It is about helping someone take a stand based on certain principles or ideas like democracy, justice, fraternity or equality; ideas which are political. It is about participating in a system of governance which involves political parties that regulate political institutions which have control over our everyday lives. It is about asserting our rights as a tribal, a transgender, a woman, etc., and recognizing that our social system and structures violate or contradict the political promises of democracy. The traditional view that civic education can be neutral is a myth. It needs to address social systems and structures, not as social evils but as institutions whose needs are central to understanding the political system. And that is a challenge.

Political systems do not want to change the manner in which civics is taught, they are afraid of the radical shift that will take place if people learn to recognize the power of democracy.

The author researched and worked in social science education for 20 years, which included civics or political science. This article draws from numerous interactions with teachers and faculty members who are involved in curriculum design and content development for various states and governments. He is currently struggling with a thesis idea. He can be reached at alexmgeorge@gmail.com.