DEMOCRACY AND ILLITERACY CANNOT CO-EXIST
Democracy, which postulates enlightenment, is, by and large, a blessing, and illiteracy, which implies ignorance, is a menace. How can the two coexist? Democracy assumes that there is a tough degree of political consciousness, a fair degree of education and intelligence, a continuous interest in public affairs and a full, abiding realization of the duties and responsibilities of true citizenship. No less important, there is tolerance of dissent and a willingness to accept the verdict of the majority. For all these qualities literacy is indispensable; where there is illiteracy the basic conditions for the success of a democratic set-up do not exist.
Again, democracy is government by discussion, response and consent. Where there is no discussion, no free exchange of views and no freedom of expression, which enables uninhibited exchange of views, there cannot be real democracy. These factors also presume the existence of literacy; how can there be discussion, debate and a free exchange of views on public affairs when the people are not literate and do not possess the basic qualifications, as well as a fair standard of intelligence which come with literacy and education?
There cannot be any democracy where there is no education, though there can be education even a high degree of it even where there is no democracy, as in countries where there is dictatorship, arbitrary and authoritarian rule under which there is blatant denial of the people’s fundamental rights.
Dissent there always will be, wherever there is a sizable society comprising people of different shades of opinion, having different approaches to life and sharp inequalities—social, economic or political. Democracy assumes that the people are fully aware of the value of dissent and differences of opinion, and they also know that all forms of nonviolent dissent should be tolerated in a democratic order. If I claim the right to hold and express any opinion, I must in all fairness recognize and respect the corresponding right of others to hold any views they prefer. Such tolerance of others’ opinions is essential in a democracy, while dogmatism, suppression of dissent and intolerance cannot be allowed in a democracy. If these are allowed, then democracy comes to an end and arbitrary rule (the very antithesis of democracy) replaces it, even when outward forms and pretences are kept up. Voltaire, in his famous letter to Rousseau, is reported to have said: “I do not agree with a word that you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”That is the true democratic spirit
Of course, there are inequalities of all sorts in every country. Whichever country, socialist or capitalist, claims that everyone there is equal—physically, economically, socially and politically—is merely putting forth a false and totally untenable claim. The lack of education, that is, illiteracy, creates more inequalities than any other factor. In this sense also, lack of education and democracy cannot go together. Either the people must become literate and knowledgeable, and possess a sense of discrimination between right and wrong and the fake and the genuine, or they will stand to lose every pretension to democracy.
Democracy can flourish only in a society where there is equality in law and where discriminations on various grounds such as sex, religion, caste and economic status are illegal. Fundamental rights are exercisable where there is a full sense of responsibility, because absolute freedom of action or expression is absolute nonsense. So there must be reciprocity, for which also there should be an educational background, that is, a fairly high standard of literacy.
The Indian masses, it may well be argued, are, by and large, illiterate, the percentage of literacy being only 36 per cent. Thus, the vast majority of the people in India are not illiterate, and even out of those who are somewhat literate the standard of intelligence and of the awareness of what democracy is and what it stands for is very limited. And yet, India is the world’s largest democracy and a fairly successful one too, as has been shown by the series of general elections held in the country since the attainment of Independence. How do we reconcile these apparently contradictory phenomena—democracy and mass illiteracy—if we assert that the v cannot coexist?
The explanation lies in the fact that democracy itself is education; the process is a teacher and an instructor in the art and responsibilities of citizenship. The masses of India have by now acquired experience of the democratic system, especially of elections during which they exercise their right of vote. They cannot be described as politically immature; they have given ample proof of their sense of discrimination by voting wisely, by rejecting falsehood and inefficiency and also by punishing through a rebuff at the hustling of those who are known to be corrupt.
In 1977 the Indian masses, notably those in the North who had suffered heavily in various ways through arbitrary rule and gross misuse of power (in the family planning excesses, for instance) by Mrs. Gandhi’s henchmen, rejected her and her party and gave a chance to the Janata alliance, for a change. But when the Janata leaders proved to be inefficient and incapable of working together for the nation’s welfare, the same illiterate voters rejected them, bringing Mrs. Gandhi back on the scene and entrusting her with even greater power and responsibility. The conduct of the Indian electorate won the admiration of all democratic and other people in the world.
So, we can say that even if 100 percent literacy is not ensured, democracy can function. It is true, however, that in such cases democracy suffers from several deficiencies and faults, as in India. In the U.SA Britain, Germany-and Japan, where literacy is almost universal democracy is more successful; about this there cannot be any doubt.