Unlearning undemocratic values

India’s long-standing legacies of caste, gender and class antagonism replicate on campuses as well. As higher education moves forward, it does so on these social cleavages

December 26, 2013 12:34 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

The brutal sexual attack on a young woman in Delhi, in 2012, and a savage attack on a girl student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on its campus this year are just two examples of extreme violence that have shocked the nation. Acts of sexual violence are common despite public outrage and the fear of legal action. Equally disturbing was the mass exodus of citizens of north-eastern States from Bangalore in 2012. Instances of caste discrimination and violence occur at regular intervals to which we have become quite immune. Occurrences of discrimination based on caste, gender, race and religion are not disparate but a reflection of the ways in which our society works. Traditional values contradictory to democratic norms and practices continue to shape the behaviour of our children and adults in their formative stages through socialisation in the family and society. Public policy can do little to influence this informal learning which is at variance with the principles of equality and respect for differences.

Education can be an instrument of change. But nation-building would require reform in education; unlearning of undemocratic values is as important as the learning of democratic ones. Unfortunately, our education system, with its present curricula and pedagogy, has less to offer by way of civic learning and democratic engagement that shapes good citizens out of men and women. This is not to say that we do not have goals for education, for the education policy talks of national integration, equality and the development of a common culture. Selectively, some civic learning also takes place through courses on human rights and gender. But all these have remained on the periphery of learning in school and higher education. The prime focus in our schools and higher education learning system seems to be only on preparing students for the job market. Civic learning and democratic engagement have not become the core component of our teaching. J.A. Banks, an Afro-American academician, observed that “the role of education in the 21st century is to prepare students ‘to know, to care, and to act in ways that will develop and foster a democratic and just society’ and to ‘develop a commitment to personal, social, and civic action, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to participate in effective civic action’.”

Civic learning is pivotal when dealing with diversity in societies. The United States is one such example. Beginning 1995, it developed an education policy to deal with diversity by bringing about reforms in curricula and pedagogy for civic learning and engagement in colleges and universities. The education for diversity has four elements: knowledge, values, skills and action. Reform in knowledge includes a new curriculum with themes that deal with diversity, inequalities, racism, sexism, religious oppression, classism, anti-Semitism and heterosexism. To develop individual capabilities and skills, it introduced new pedagogical methods like inter-group dialogue and mixed peer group, where students from diverse groups interacted and learned to respect differences. Through new knowledge and skills, they unlearned many things that they had imbibed from family and society and also developed skills and capacities to deal with diversity and differences in a democratic way. The third component was to motivate the students for action. These reforms were expected to enhance the “civic capital” among youth for enhanced citizenship. Sixteen years later, in 2011, a review indicated positive outcomes not only in civil learning and engagement but also in their academic performance.

Missing goal in education Campuses of higher education in India have moved from being relatively homogeneous to becoming more diverse. Figures at the macro- and micro-levels will make this clear. In 2008, of the total number of students in higher education, about 45 per cent were from rural areas and the rest from urban areas; 42 per cent were women and 58 per cent, men. Social composition comprised four per cent Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 per cent Scheduled Castes, 35 per cent Other Backward Classes and 48 per cent, the rest. Hindus accounted for about 85 per cent followed by Muslims at eight per cent, and Christians and others at three per cent. Although a majority of students were relatively better off, there were poor students as well. About a fourth were from private institutions and the rest from government and private-aided institutions. The medium of instruction for about half of them were the regional languages, and English for the rest.

JNU represents Indian diversity at the micro-level. In 2013, about half the number of students are women; about 41 per cent are from a rural background and 59 per cent, from cities and towns. The caste/ethnic composition is eight per cent STs, 15 per cent SCs, 32 per cent OBCs and 42 per cent others. About 26 per cent are from low-income groups, 19 per cent from the medium-income level, and 54 per cent from the high-income bracket. About 21 per cent are from public schools, and the rest from other schools. Besides, they come from 26 States and 235 universities/colleges, representing different language and cultural backgrounds.

In this widening diversity, students from low castes, the poor, women and those from different religious, regional, rural and language backgrounds live in the company of high caste, urban and better off males who dominated the higher education campus scene for long. With greater diversity, students bring with them ideologies, values and differing ways of dealing with others. While diversity provides a unique opportunity for students to experience its richness under one roof, it also poses challenges of living in a socially inclusive way. It tends to induce social and peer groups around “identities” and develop a divide in social relations that are along caste, ethnic, class, linguistic, regional and religious lines. Exclusionary behaviour also brings on discrimination, psychological and physical violence for the low castes and women. Thus, the nation’s long-standing legacies of caste, gender and class antagonism are replicated on campuses. As higher education moves forward, it does so on social platforms of caste, gender, and class cleavages. A study by Prof. Mary Thornton and others of five higher educational institutions in India and the United Kingdom, in 2010, observed “that separation of groups on the higher education campuses studied is pervasive and ubiquitous. While some such separation may be for supportive reasons, convenience or inertia, at other times it is due to overt discrimination on the grounds of race, region, nationality, caste, class, religion, age or gender.” In 2013, Samson Ovichegan, in a study on the experience of Dalits in an elite university in India, observed that “this university is yet another arena in which the practice of caste division continues to exist. The university environment reinforces and maintains a divide between Dalit and non-Dalit. Dalit students do, indeed, experience overt and covert discrimination based on caste at this premier university.”

Crucial moment Higher education in India today lacks the potential and capacity to promote cognitive knowledge, social skills, values and actions for civic learning and democratic engagement that are so essential to build citizenship. A U.S. report on education, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future , observed that “… unlike liberty, civic knowledge and capability are not bestowed at birth. They are hard won, through education at all levels and through taking seriously the perspectives of others. Democratic insight and competence are always in the making, always incomplete. Therefore, civic learning needs to be an integral component of every level of education, from grammar school through graduate school, across all fields of study.”

This is a crucial moment to use higher education and the pathways to it as a “carrier of democratic values, ideals, and processes,” and narrow the divide between the ideals of the Constitution and the reality of the daily lives of our people. It is a critical movement for India, when we have hardly made a beginning in education to deal with diversity, discrimination and sexism.


JNU and Delhi University have been pushed to strengthening the mechanism to deal with gender violence and sexism. While these are good steps, the direction needs to be well thought of. Of the two ways of dealing with gender and caste discrimination — legal safeguards and gender sensitisation and learning — the focus so far has been on the former. Though essential, legal safeguards need to be supplemented and supported by a strong component of civic learning and engagement. The measures have their limitations in reforming undemocratic behaviour. Laws discourage wrongdoing but do not necessarily correct sources of undemocratic behaviour. Laws do not strengthen people’s knowledge and social and cognitive skills for democratic practice. The Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955 and other such acts related to gender have been in operation for about half-a-century. Yet, untouchability is still prevalent just as gender discrimination and violence are. Education can help in the unlearning of undemocratic values and practices. We need a two-pronged approach: legal safeguards and civic learning to enhance knowledge, and the social and individual capacities of students to deal with gender and caste discrimination and violence. The goal of higher education, in imparting knowledge and career preparation, needs to be combined with a third national goal of fostering an informed and engaged citizenship, and reducing the “national deficit in civic capital.” The “Crucible Moment” report emphasised the point that “constructing environments where education for democracy and civic responsibility is pervasive, not partial; central, not peripheral.” This requires reform in our educational system to develop a generation that will be more sensitive and engaged in the promotion of gender and caste equity, freedom, and fraternity, and reduce dependence on legal safeguards.

(Sukhadeo Thorat is professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research. E-mail: thoratsukhadeo@yahoo.co.in )

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