DEVELOPMENT: Welcome to Loktantrashala, a school being built by Aruna Roy that will focus on protection of fundamental rights

What makes a democracy work? What are the issues that matter most in a truly secular democratic process? Do you feel a serious urge to ask, question, discuss and debate on all these issues? At the School for Democracy (SFD) or Loktantrashala, one can learn, share and facilitate in an ‘informally formal' set-up. Coming up near Bhim, about 110 kilometers from Ajmer in Rajasthan, it is the cherished dream of noted social activist and Magsaysay award winner Aruna Roy.

This somewhat unusual Loktantrashala, not attached to any regular university, is not meant to issue any degrees. Nor would you get any grades. Still, it would be a unique place to satiate your quest for learning. It is the school that vows to learn as well as facilitate learning about protection of democratic rights.

There is always a need for political learning to make informed choices in a democracy. The inability to make such choices can lead to distortion of democracy, right from the grass root to the highest level. SFD hopes to address some of these issues.

The school is now nearing completion and is likely to be fully functional from January next year. We are working on the format and by the end of December, we will have a “clear blue print”, Ms. Roy said. “Anyone can opt as faculty and the facilitators, if they want, can also be learners,” she added. There will, however, be no payment or honorarium for teaching.

The learners will have to contribute in either cash or kind. A rural woman attending a session may bring a small sack of grain and a well to do group may contribute in cash. The food will be same for everyone and all will have to help maintain the place or help in cooking in a truly Gandhian manner, she said.

Near the main meeting hall of Loktantrashala stands a board with details of income and expenditure ever since inception of the project in 2003-2004. Ms Roy says funds for the construction and infrastructure of school have been collected from lots of people. Noted social activist Kamla Bhasin, writer Arundhati Roy and several others have contributed to the project. “We will have a corpus fund to run the school,” said Ms Roy.

The school stems from Ms Roy's own quest to learn more. “It was in my thought for a number of years…We are frozen in a hierarchical system where we seldom learn. We are never supposed to question, ask or contradict.” At the turn of the last century we have seen the Danish effort in taking electoral democracy to its citizens through the experiment of Folk Schools. The SFD will be a somewhat similar exercise, she said.

In a more specific sense, the SFD can also be seen as an epitome of the experiences of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS), which has worked hard to enable ordinary rural folks to use democratic spaces to fight for their rights. Yet, SFD is not an off-shoot of MKSS, Roy founded way back in 1990 along with her long time trusted allies Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh.

“The learners may get an opportunity to understand the electoral system of the representative democratic process and institutions and the non-party political process inherited from Mahatma Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave. The school will also deal with the role of culture and religion in a secular democracy. We do not, however, intend to work towards definitive ends or prefixed targets,” Ms Roy said.

Tentatively, there are plans to facilitate three broad types of learning to begin with. The first will be theoretical learning about varied aspects of democracy. The second will be collective learning through action followed by reflection. The third will be the organising of specialised groups to look at specified issues of concern, like for example wages being looked at by a ‘People's Pay commission'.

The SFD board meeting, attended by Sanjay Kak, Jean Dreze, Tripurari Sharma among others, chalked out a road map for the coming year, said Nikhil Dey. The SFD will have a library, resource centre, training halls and boarding facility.

Ms Roy looks forward to what she prefers to call a “shift to being a grandmother,” where she would get an opportunity to sit, talk and reflect on many more issues.

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