Our daughter came home from school one evening, fuming with indignation. The school administration had cancelled the 10th-grade school function, a much-anticipated annual ritual. She spent a sleepless night, and went huffing into her principal’s office the next day: “Mr J, what you have done is unfair! How can the school take a unilateral decision like this without even consulting us!!”
The school principal—a patient man, wise beyond his years—agreed that there had been a communication gap, and provided her the reasons. As her temperature cooled, she moved on to a larger point. “The problem is that we don’t have a platform to raise such issues in our school. What we need is a student council.”
He instantly agreed, and asked her to put together a proposal. When she discussed this at home that evening, my wife and I got more excited than her, given our work on increasing participation in our cities. I suggested, “If your principal is interested, we could help him to take this idea forward in the school.”
We met a week later. He handed me a dusty file that had clearly been extracted from some old cabinet just for our meeting.
“This is the file on my last attempt to form a student council,” he said. “That was 20 years ago. I was new here and almost lost my job.” The resistance was near-universal—“students are here to get an education, not to learn how to form a union”, “we know what is best for the students”, “we don’t have time to take up this additional burden.”
Looking back, he said: “Maybe now is the right time to do this”. An after-school meeting was scheduled for a few weeks later.
Incidents like this serve as a prism to understand the social fabric underpinning the relationship between citizens and their government. In an authoritarian society, the structure is like a pyramid, with the government on top and the people below. In a democratic society, the relationship is flipped: the people are above, and government is below. We learn about ourselves by examining our behaviour in various group settings: in our families and workplaces, our hospitals and religious organizations, and in our schools and colleges.
Authoritarian structures, generally, have a controlling figure—head of the family or CEO—who sets the rules for others to follow, often without complaint. The issue is not the quality of the authority—it could be benevolent, and ensures that everybody in the group benefits—but the structure of power itself.
Democratic structures also have leaders, but decisions are arrived at through discussions and debates. Here, disagreements are not seen as disruptive, just as differences of opinion.
Since independence, we have labelled ourselves a democracy, which means the people are supposed to be on top, and the government below. But just calling ourselves a democracy doesn’t mean we actually behave as one. In fact, the reverse is true: we still function pretty much as an authoritarian society in most of our group settings—homes to hospitals, colleges to companies. This, therefore, extends to our governments as well. We go to our politician with folded hands, begging for favours or patronage. We have bureaucrats who resist the reality that people could actually solve their own issues if given a chance, instead stating, “We have the exclusive right to solve public grievances”. Even our cliches betray our thinking—“government authorities”, “powers that be” “political masters”. We need to turn the pyramid upside down.
Fortunately, societies are not static, they evolve. The world is progressing towards more democratic structures, celebrating equality and individual liberty. In India, as more people taste economic empowerment, we are beginning to clear the cobwebs of our social and political freedom. This signals the death of irrelevance. Our authoritarian structures are beginning to crumble. Most importantly, in our own minds.
As for the student council, we held the after-school meeting with several concerned adults. There were many issues and heated exchanges. One moment-of-truth question was: “If you are unwilling to share even a little decision-making space when you have power within the school, are you surprised when government behaves the same way outside?” After a month of constructive deliberation, the school decided to go ahead with the idea. Two weeks ago, elections to the first student council were held. More than the outcome, the process itself was a revelation. It was a little gem to show that Indian society is slowly turning upside down, with the people finally getting to be on top.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at email@example.com