What is the real path to a democratic and just society ? The question is a complex one. However, there is a simple way to think about this. A democratic and just society satisfies two conditions:
1) The most marginalized sections of the society are able to organize and voice their concerns.
2) The institutions of governance up to the highest level are compelled to not only hear this voice but act on it.
In history, point two has typically followed point one, but not before much upheaval and bloodshed. In the Republic of India, we were able to get to two before one, at least in theory. Our institutions of governance and representation are formally democratic. However, a host of factors keep the marginalized of India silenced. I attempt to list a few of these factors here:
Historically, illiteracy and denial of access to scriptures has been the main tool of India’s high castes to keep the mass population marginalized. The same attitude persisted after independence, with mass literacy being opposed by the dominant groups in various ways. Quite obviously, there is little chance of marginalized groups developing an effective voice without literacy.
In recent years, there has been a shift in educational policy, with the Right to Education Act being a truly inclusive step. However, the quality of education remains poor, with a shortage of teachers and a curriculum and testing regime driven by elite interests.
India’s language of power is English, it is the language in which decisions are deliberated and taken. Talking to power is difficult without being able to write well in this language. Needless to say, the most marginalized groups are the ones most deprived of English language proficiency.
Entrenched institutions of caste and patriarchy:
These are the principal agents of enforcing silence. The widespread belief in certain groups (mainly upper castes and male) that they are superior to others and that any protest or assertion from the others is a threat to them is the fundamental basis of oppression. Typically, such a belief is created and perpetuated to continue the economic and social dominance of the elite groups.
On the issue of gender, our society lionizes the ‘silently sacrificing’ Indian woman. Silence and patience are held up as the greatest virtues for the ideal Indian woman, and they are thus excluded from every decision making process.
Control of media by vested interests:
This is perhaps the subtlest of ways in which large groups of society are systematically silenced by an institution. But it has been shown that big media is structurally dependent on big business and the government for its survival, and will resist reporting against dominant ideologies and state narratives, even if free on paper. Where these ideologies and narratives clash with the interests of the marginalized, the media will side with the dominant groups, compelled by its dependence on them.
In India, both the news and entertainment media are also affected by an appallingly low presence of marginalized groups, especially Dalits. This is absolutely critical, you would not see anywhere near the coverage of India’s rape and sexual/physical abuse crisis had Indian women not entered the media (especially the English electronic media) in large numbers.
Centralized political structure:
Indian democracy’s representative structure fails to create a meaningful space for smaller ethnic groups. Communities like the Mizos, Manipuris and Nagas have just a single representative in the Lok Sabha. Communities like the Munda and Santhal are also barely visible in the Parliament. The flaw here is in the Rajya Sabha, which performs effectively no representative function and is simply a political tool in the hands of parties to hand out patronage. The so called Council of States should be reformed so that it actually becomes a channel for the voices of these marginalized states and their people rather than just a rubber stamp or retirement club.
Despite claiming to be a democracy, India retains a number of repressive laws. Prominent among these are Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which silences sane voices in the conflict-ridden regions of the country. The government also does not allow FM radio to broadcast news, a law against the spirit of free speech. Finally, the Constitutional provisions restricting free speech in the name of public decency and order (which were originally not in the Constitution, but added due to the volatile post-partition atmosphere) and some colonial vestiges like the sedition law continue to silence and intimidate the marginalized and everyone who stands with them.
This is especially true for populations in deeply forested central and North East India. These areas are ‘unreached’ and populations there are simply unable to get their voices out. This is an aspect technology can help with immensely. See an example from Chattisgarh, which overcomes both geographical and language barriers: CGNet Swara.
There are other factors that I have probably missed. The enforced silencing of the population is the greatest problem social justice has faced, anywhere in the world. It is time for everyone to break these barriers. A ‘developed’ and prosperous society will be a natural corollary.