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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 31, July 18, 2009

An Agenda for National Renewal

Saturday 18 July 2009, by Aruna Asaf Ali


The following paper by the late Aruna Asaf Ali was received from her in November 1991. The paper was prepared in response to a request from the Indian Association of Social Science Institutions (IASSI) for a publication to be edited by Professor Upendra Baxi (former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University), Dr (Mrs) Alice Jacob (Research Professor, Indian Law Institute) and Tarlok Singh. This paper was published in IASSI Quarterly, Vol. 14, nos. 3 and 4, January-June 1996. It was reproduced from there with due acknowledgement in Mainstream (September 28, 1996). The paper, Arunaji informed the IASSI, was prepared in association with G.N.S. Raghavan. —Editor

The best devised political structure will crumble if the men and women who use it are impelled by unworthy motivations of personal, family or party aggrandisement. The political and economic crisis that India is passing through has its roots in false values that have dominated our private and public life in recent decades.

The educated middle class, which provided the bulk of the leadership and cadres during the struggle for independence, has been allured by the self-regarding culture of consumerism, in imitation of the life-style in industrialised countries of the West. This has caused indifference to mass poverty and mass illiteracy, and bred corruption in the administration and malpractices in both the public and the private sectors of economic activity.

Formal education in schools and colleges supported by public funds is virtually devoid of ethical values. Self-indulgent hedonism and consumerism are actively promoted by the mass media of non-formal education, notably Door-darshan through its commercial advertising and many of its entertainment programmes.

Most of our young men and women, who have had the privilege of education, pay no heed to the less fortunate. Vivekananda said:

So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them.

This admonition is lost on the youth, most of whom have not been exposed to Vivekananda’s teaching. Driven by the craze for material possessions, many persons who are prominent in public life and the professions—and who thereby serve as example-setters—have ignored Gandhiji’s talisman:

Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.

Outlined in the paragraphs that follow are some steps that can perhaps help to improve ethical standards in individual and public life, beginning with reform of the attitude-forming institutions of formal education and the mass media.

1. Value Formation through Edcuation

The moral vacuum caused by the divorce of ethical values from education has been filled by the acquisitive culture of consumerism. Is it not time to consider the introduction, as a compulsory part of school and college curricula, of a course on the development of humane values? Such a course could cover the contributions made to the development of a humanistic outlook by the various religions, by outstanding thinkers and by the different schools of socialist thought, as well as by modern science, many of whose findings are supportive of the concepts of humankind’s oneness and of the ecological relatedness of all life on earth.

Gandhiji wrote a decade before independence:

I regard it as fatal to the growth of a friendly spirit among children belonging to the different faiths if they are taught that their religion is superior to every other, or that it is the only true religion. Fundamental principles of ethics are common to all religions. These should be taught to the children.

Maulana Azad said in February 1947, a month after assuming the education portfolio in the Interim Government:

The religious instruction often imparted in private institutions is of a kind which, instead of broadening the outlook and inculcating a spirit of toleration and goodwill towards all men, produces exactly the opposite results. The aim of religious teaching should be to make men more tolerant and broadminded. And it is my opinion that this can be more effectively done if the State takes charge of the question than if it is left to private initiative.

The Commission on University Education headed by Dr S. Radhakrishnan expressed itself in similar terms in the report it drew up in 1949. Referring to the Constitution of free India that was then being drawn up, the report said:

There is no State religion. The State must not be partial to any one religion. If this is the basis of our secular State, to be secular is not to be religiously illiterate. It is to be deeply spiritual.

However, the Constitution that came into force in January 1950 incorporated provisions that were contrary to the advice of Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad and Radhakrishnan. Article 28 prohibits religious instruction in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds. But, strangely, such instruction is permitted in privately run institutions even if they receive aid out of state funds. And religious minorities have been granted as a Fundamental Right the right to establish and administer educational institutions. Fanatical indoctrination imparted over the years in hundreds of schools run by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir is widely believed to have been a potent factor in the growth of fundamentalist and secessionist forces in the State. A review of the relevant constitutional provisions is clearly called for.

2. Role of the Mass India

The television system in India is publicly owned, and operated directly by the government. Access to this potent medium of non-formal education is unavailable to the mass of our people, who it does not serve. It brings information—often angled so as to promote the interests of the political party for the time being in power at the Centre—and entertainment—much of it meretricious—to those who can afford TV sets: the middle and upper classes, and also sections of the urban working class.

A Working Group on Software for Doordarshan, formed by the government, gave early in 1984 a report in which it came down heavily on the promotion of an acquisitive culture through the advertising of what must be regarded as luxury goods and services in a country which accounts for the largest number of the world’s poor. It also flayed the heavy reliance of Doordarshan on the screening of feature films to fill telecast time and attract more viewers and thereby earn more revenue from advertising. Many of the films are made to a formula of sadistic violence and vulgar treatment of so private and precious an experience as the man-woman relationship.

Also publicly owned and government-run, All India Radio, too, relies heavily on the broadcast of film music—many songs in which are of poor taste if not downright lewd—to attract more listeners and augment its revenue from commercial advertising. Radio, like television, is accessible only to those who can afford to by and maintain receiving sets. The challenge of providing access to radio for the rural poor, and making its programmes relevant to their problems and interests, is yet to be met.

It is remarkable that many daily newspapers and periodicals, though they are privately owned and run for profit, have made a better contribution to public good than the publicly owned media. The Second Press Commission said in its report (1982):

It is to the credit of the Indian Press that, despite its predominantly urban and middle class moorings, it has evinced interest in the problem of farmers, agricultural workers, artisans, tribal groups and other sections of the rural population. Though, judged by leadership or by ownership, it is not necessary for most of our newspapers to highlight the issues of poverty, the Press has made a major contribution by reminding readers of those who live below the poverty line and giving the ruling middle and upper classes a feeling of guilt.

The issues of autonomy and, more recently, of privatisation of television have attracted a great deal of attention, but not the more vital question of the role which Doordarshan and AIR can and ought to play in promoting a people-oriented process of development. Should not legislators, public workers and publicists bring pressure to bear on the government to make the electronic media instruments for elevating rather than degrading the tastes of the audience, for helping to spread literacy, and for raising the level of social consciousness?

3. Plight of Women among the Minorities

It is tragic that, due to considerations of electoral politics, secularism has virtually come to mean, among other things, non-interference with the personal laws of the minority communities. Not a single political party, of the so-called Left or the Right, has called for repeal of the Muslim Woman’s Act which was unfortunately enacted in 1986 in order to overturn a judgement of the Supreme Court which would have made the Muslim male liable, like other citizens of India, to pay maintenance to a divorced wife who is economically needy.

One would have expected political parties claiming to be progressive to want to take forward the process of women’s liberation in India which was initiated in the mid-1950s by the enactment of numerous reforms in the laws governing marriage, inheritance, etc. among Hindus. On the contrary, and obviously because of reliance on the conservative and male chauvinist leaders of the minority religious communities to secure votes, all the major parties except the BJP have, in their manifestos for the Lok Sabha elections of 1989 and 1991, either pledged themselves not to interfere in the personal laws of minorities or have remained silent on the subject of a common civil code. This in effect condemns Muslim women to the shame of having to endure polygamy. And it makes it necessary for women who marry under Christian law to continue having to prove a double offence—like adultery with cruelty, or desertion with adultery—in order to secure the relief of divorce from an unhappy marriage.

Surely, it is time for women as well as men who believe in women’s equality, irrespective of their party affiliations, to re-awaken the social conscience of our legislators. Public workers and publicists should demand the implementation of Article 44 of the Constitution which lays down as a Directive Principle of State Policy that the State shall endeavour to secure a common civl code to govern all citizens of India.

4. Gandhian Corrective to Planning

This need has been overdue for correcting the elitist bias which has distorted the process of planning that was initiated in the early 1950s in order to secure economic justice and equality of opportunity within the framework of democracy and civil liberties.

The elitist bias is highlighted by the Maruti cars, made in the public sector, which crowd our city roads, using up petrol refined from crude oil imported with borrowed foreign exchange. Another symbol of development that is oriented to serve the upper classes is the growth in air travel by the steadily expanding fleet of Indian Airlines planes which are bought with borrowed foreign exchange. The number of passengers carried on the domestic services rose from 790,000 in 1960-61 to 10,110,000 in 1988-89. Seventyfive per cent of these are expense-account air travelers. About six per cent more are those who travel at concessional fares, such as members of the families of Defence personnel and students—obviously not belonging to the economically weaker sections.

Industrialisation has been pursued as an end in itself, with the production of luxury goods, which yield high profits, increasing by leaps and bounds while the basic needs of life are still beyond the reach of the majority of our people.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the initiator of planned development, himself had second thoughts about industrialisation as the sole cure for mass poverty. He confessed in the course of a debate in the Lok Sabha on December 11, 1963:

One thing that distresses me very greatly is that there is a good number of people in India who have not benefited by planning, and whose poverty is abysmal and most painful. I begin to think more and more of Mahatma Gandhi’s approach. It is odd that I am mentioning his name in this connection. I am entirely an admirer of the modern machine, and I want the best machines and the best technique. But, taking things as they are in India, however rapidly we advance towards the machine age, the fact remains that large numbers of our people are untouched by it, and will not be touched for a considerable time. Some other method has to be evolved.

The alternative approach is what Gandhiji advocated, namely, economic growth based as far as possible on utilising local resources of manpower and material, at the level of the village cluster and region to meet local needs. “What I object to,” he said, “is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. Men go on ‘saving’ labour till thousands are without work. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind but for all.”

The increasing integration of India’s economy has not been an unqualified blessing. Many luxury goods are manufactured in far parts of the country and carried by diesel-based transport, by rail or road, to the metropolitan and other major cities where purchasing power is concentrated. It is true, on the other hand, that surplus wheat from Punjab helps to feed people in food-deficit parts of the country. We need to examine whether integration of the national economy can be so regulated as to benefit the common man primarily.

Similarly, integration of the world economy as at present structured unites and benefits primarily the ruling elites of the various nation-states. There are examples galore of foreign collaboration, financial and technological, for the manufacture of luxury goods and provision of luxury services for the upper crust of India’s population.

Technologies are, in themselves, value-free. Whether they are applied for increasing the amenities of the few or for providing a decent living for the millions depends on the values that impel those in authority.

5. Party Funds and Election Expenses

Compulsory audit of the size and the sources of party funds, and compulsory publication of the findings is an issue from which political parties tend to shy away, obviously because there is much that they would like to hide. Yet it is essential for cleansing our public life, along with the prescription and enforcement of a reasonable limit on election expenditure by a candidate, including expenditure incurred on his campaign by the political party to which he belongs.

There are several other electoral reforms which need urgent attention. One is the empowerment of the electors to recall their representative if by his performance in or outside the legislature he has lost their trust. Another is a package of measures to discourage frivolous candidature that results in having to print ballot papers of unwieldy size which are as confusing as they are expensive. Among such measures could be a requirement of sponsorship of a candidate by a specified minimum number of eligible voters in the constituency, and increasing the amount of deposit to be made by a candidate. The deposit no longer deters a frivolous candidate, thanks to decades of inflation.

The requirement of countermanding an election on the death of a candidate is another feature of our election law which requires to be rationalised. A solution could be to permit a political party whose candidate dies to nominate another in his place, and not to let the death of an independent candidate impede the election process.

Since there is some advantage perceived by political parties in each of the existing and obvious defects of the electoral system, it is for concerned non-party citizens to mobilise and exert the pressure on public opinion to force the enactment of reforms.

6. Proportional Representation

A major defect of the electoral system which has remained unremedied because it has benefited one or other political party, at one time or the other, in the elections to the Lok Sabha or to State Assemblies, is the first-past-the-post basis of representation.

It is not surprising that, amidst the turmoil of partition, the system of single-member consti-tuencies introduced in India by the British was continued after independence without critical examination. But the very first elections held in 1951-52 should have opened the eyes of political parties to the inequity of this system. It has since come under criticism in Britain itself because there, as in successive elections in India, the system of first-past-the-post has in effect denied representation to a large section of the electorate. A candidate who secures, say, 40 per cent of the votes cast in a multi-cornered contest becomes the sole representative of the constituency, with no voice in the legislature for the 60 per cent who did not vote for him. Similarly, political parties often secure huge majorities in the legislatures on the strength of less than half of the popular vote.

Instead of encouraging political parties to work together in coalition governments as they would have had to much of the time both at the Centre and in several States if we had proportional representation, things would have been different. The present system has encouraged confrontationist politics. It has led to demands for the premature resignation of governments before the end of their term—what is described s ‘destabilisation’—by political parties which have been denied their due measure of representation in the legislature. Bandhs and other forms of agitation have frequently disrupted normal life.

Within the ruling party, at the Centre or in a State, the present electoral system invests the principal vote-getter with absolute power because he has secured a huge legislative majority. It has encouraged a domineering style of prime ministerial or chief ministerial government. Over the several decades when a single party commanded on overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha with less than a majority of the popular vote, the office of the State Governor was reduced to that of a cat’s paw of the Central Government, and even the high office of the President was shorn of its dignity.

It is by the accident of a ‘hung’ Lok Sabha that the autocratic style of prime ministerial government has yielded place to a consensual approach at the Centre, following the 1989 and 1991 elections. Structural reform, on the basis of representation for political parties proportionate to the size of their actual following among the electors, is necessary if the politics of confrontation is to be replaced by consensual politics on a secure basis.

The Indian Left as part of the Congress used to demand proportional representation in the pre-independence years, in elections within the Congress organisation. But post-independence, when elections enabled the Communists to secure power in the States of Kerala and West Bengal with less than half of the popular vote, their enthusiasm for proportional representation has declined. It is for concerned non-party citizens now to educate opinion and press for the reform.

7. Volunteers for Development

The history of political democracies the world over has shown that adult suffrage and secret ballot are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the liberation of the masses. The emancipation of disadvantaged groups—whether Hajijans, women or tribal people—requires action by dedicated workers to raise their consciousness and to organise them to secure in practice the rights that are supposed to be theirs under the country’s Constitution, laws and government programmes. Without this, the poor and the exploited tend to give their votes to demagogues rather than to true representatives of their interests. The right to cast a vote every five years brings them only some crumbs from the well-stocked tables of the privileged.

Fortunately, despite the decline in the standards of public life and the increasing vogue of hedonistic consumerism, among the tens of thousands of young men and women who complete their education each year, there are hundreds who would like to apply their energy and talent to the betterment of society. But there should be organisations that will enable, by providing an appropriate living allowance, such educated and socially concerned young persons to apply themselves to nation-building and consciousness-raising work among the disprivileged. If they find no outlet for constructive expression of their social concern, some of them turn to the barren path of violence, Naxalite or other. Others get sucked into the rat race of careerism in public or private employment.

The work of volunteers for development is vastly more cost-effective than that of development departments of the government. This has been demonstrated by examples such as the Social Work and Research Centre at Tilonia in Rajasthan, the Hoshangabad experiment in rural health
and education by Dr Anil Sadgopal and his colleagues, the community health project of Dr R.S. Arole at Jamkhed in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra and, in the same district, the impressive demonstration at the village of Ralegansiddhi by Anna Hazare, an ex-serviceman, of the possibility of rural regeneration through people’s self-help.

Such good work can be multipled manifold if non-official organisations of integrity emerge in each community to sustain the work of local volunteers, with support from donors who would like to help with money even if they canot give their own time to social causes.

8. Protective Discrimination

The special provisions authorised by the Constitution in favour of disadvantaged groups have not benefited the generality of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Only some of these groups (like certain educationally advanced tribal communities of the North-East) and privileged members of each group, who have had access to education, have derived the benefit. These beneficiaries have in turn been happy to be coopted into the existing unjust social order. They have been no more sensitive than offers to the condition of the majority of Harijans, the most backward among tribal communities, and the illiterate and poverty-stricken among the OBCs.

The only corrective that has been discussed so far is to limit the benefits of reservation of seats in educational institutions, and of employment in public services, to students and candidates from the poorer sections within the social groups identified for protective discrimination. While tis is certainly desirable, a more radical approach to the concept of protective discrimination is called for.

Protective discrimination should mean denial of free or subsidised education, specially of higher and professional education, to students from well-to-do families—of whatever caste or ethnic origin. These should be made to meet the cost of education. The public funds thus saved should be applied for augmenting the financial outlays on the universalisation of elementary and secondary education and a manifold expansion of facilities for vocational training. There should be provision of free tuition, board and lodging for students from needy families—irrespective of caste or ethnic origin—subject to minimum levels of performance, from the primary to the highest stages of education. Special incentives should be offered for encouraging the enrolment of children, specially girls, living in urban slums and in the villages.

Universalisation of educational opportunity on the above lines will, over a period of time, render unnecessary the prevailing forms of protective discrimination based on caste and ethnic origin. They have only led to a competitive fuelling of social antagonisms by cynical politicians in search of votes.

(Mainstream, September 28, 1996)

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