Frank F. Islam
As India approaches Independence Day on August 15, it is an appropriate time to celebrate the past and Indian democracy. It is also a time to contemplate the future and the democracy that India should become. India has the opportunity, the responsibility, and the capacity to be a global beacon of hope for democracy. There is a critical need for India to become that beacon.
Freedom House, the organisation that looks at the quality of freedom in countries around the world, titled its 2018 Annual Report, Democracy in Crisis. The opening sentence of that report reads: “Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterised by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”
There is a vacuum. And, India — which is by-far the world’s largest democracy with a democratic system that is still young and maturing — is positioned to fill that vacuum.
India’s democracy is far from perfect, however, The Economist acknowledged many of India’s deficiencies in an article in its June 2 issue, pointing out numerous attempts recently to “game the system” through “horse trading and bald-faced influence peddling”. Combine this with undemocratic actions such as the recent spate of mob lynchings across the country and it becomes obvious that India has much work to do.
There are three key areas in which action must be taken for India to be able to shine its light of and for democracy world-wide:
* Ensure effective civic education for younger students.
* Pursue an intensified agenda of inclusiveness and economic equality and opportunity for all.
* Free the free press.
Of all the most critical, in my opinion, for enhancing Indian democracy is universal and effective civic education for youth.
I put this at the top of the list because a 2017 Pew Research Center survey of citizens in 38 nations revealed that only eight percent of the Indian respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy. This response ranked at the very bottom for the nations studied.
A strong democracy demands a full-throated commitment to democracy and a complete understanding of one’s obligations as a citizen. That commitment and those obligations are learned through effective civic education in the younger years.
The youth of today are the citizens of tomorrow. There is something that can be learned from the US about the impact of the presence or absence of that education for youth.
Historically, for much of the 20th century, the US placed emphasis on civic education for school students in the earlier school years. This emphasis has declined substantially in the 21st century and the focus has been placed on science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) education and teaching to the test on those subjects. This shift and its negative impact on support for American democracy — especially among youth — has troubled both citizens and academics alike.
That is why nearly 90 percent of poll respondents to a national survey conducted recently by The Democracy Project reacted favorably to a proposal to “ensure that schools make civic education a bigger part of the curriculum”. In the US, in March of this year, the National Council of Social Studies issued a positioning statement recommending that effective civic education “should target the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to ensure that young people are truly capable of becoming active and engaged participants in civic life”.
An educational initiative in India that has this targeted focus is the Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA). Its programmes are designed to “empower children and youth with knowledge, skills and competencies for active citizenship”.
India’s political, business, civic and educational leaders should collaborate in looking at CMCA and similar programmes in India to develop an effective civic education approach to be implemented in classrooms across the country to prepare all its youth to discharge their civic responsibilities. A comprehensive programme of this type could be transformative.
The Sage Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, published in 2008, titled its chapter on India, “Citizenship Education in India: From Colonial Subjugation to Radical Possibilities”. If India is to become a global beacon of hope for democracy, imagining will not make it so. But failing to imagine it will make it impossible.
Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought Leader based in Washington, DC. The views expressed are personal.