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Report on the sixth annual History for Peace Conference: The Idea of Democracy


DAY 1 | August 4 2022

The annual History for Peace conference took place on 4, 5, 6 August 2022. It started with the opening address by Naveen Kishore, founder and managing trustee of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. He extended his heartfelt gratitude towards Megha Malhotra—director of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, who ideated and leads the project ‘History for Peace’, her fellow co-organisers, the audience, and the speakers gathered at the conference. He briefly outlined the proceedings of the conference which aimed to address and analyze the different perspectives on ‘The Idea of Democracy’.

As the title of the conference suggests, he pointed out how pertinent the scheduled discussions were in regard to the present situation of decaying harmony and widespread hatred. Before he handed over the microphone to Prof. Apoorvanand to deliver the keynote address, he emphasized on the urgent need to engage in a meaningful dialogue towards building on the idea of democracy in the face of an increasingly shrinking civic space.

Prof. Apoorvanand started his speech by expressing his solidarity with the current political prisoners—namely Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam among many others. Both activists, former students of JNU, who are currently languishing in jail under the UAPA case were arrested in 2020. They were alleged for being associate conspirators of the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots during the wake of NRC/ CAA Movement that shook the entire country. He particularly elucidated the incident that led to communal disharmony among the Hindu and Muslim religious communities. Houses were bulldozed, lives were torn apart due to death and rape threats, allegations were fabricated, and yet the hate mongers could live in peace. However, whoever spoke against them, got called out for their misdeeds and were jailed. Taking note of the enormous recovery statements from the victims and their families, he argued how genocide has now been turned into a “process” with the explicit attempts to nullify senses and voices of the people—especially those with deferred opinions, religion, gender, caste and the list of discrimination goes on.

He questioned the acts that indicate compulsory commemoration of ‘hindu-ness’ for example, the ‘surya namaskaar’ on World Yoga Day. He emphasized on the changes in the New Service Rules that prohibits scholars from expressing dissent as the scholars need to take permission to publish their opinions in the newspapers. It is through the students, he finds hope in despondence. Prof. Apoorvanand cites the example of students who enter the anti-NRC/CAA movement or march against attacks, saying they germinate dissent and fearlessness which delivers some light towards improved living. In conclusion, he alarmed us about the ‘unfolding fascism of an Indian variety’ that we are witnessing where the state has turned into a totalitarian state. To unfold the curtains of his statement, he suggested to look through, identify and rebuild our own unique space and responses where we ought to be content and responsible for our actions and reactions.

The next lecture, ‘Our History or Your History and Why History Anyway’, was delivered by Romila Thapar. She began with discussing the colonial notion of history writing that the British colonizer imposed upon their subjects by propagating the idea that Indians did not have a sense of history since they did not find parallels with their own understanding of the discipline. This is where their obsession with looking at India’s past in religious and racial terms begins which takes the shape of two popular theories: the Aryan Race Theory as well as the Two Nation Theory. She argues that the assumption in both these theories is that the superiority of one particular community is legitimate and foundational for Indian society. Both theories neglect that democracy and secularism are important markers of a nation state. These two theories went unquestioned until the mid-twentieth century when professional historians engaged and questioned them, thus discarding them largely in this context. This, she argues, is a significant distinction setting apart the professional historian from those who accept these theories that have now been revived in the Hindutva version of Indian history. The professional historian’s reading of the discipline is now being labelled as distorted by these same forces. Although we technically live in a democracy, freedom to debate and argue is not allowed anymore. Derogatory terms are being used for professional historians, especially women historians.

Thapar stated that we tend to forget that ‘Aryan’ is a language identity and not a racial one. Thus, mentioning Aryans as a race is an unhistorical and colonial approach to the past. There is no distinct definition of ‘Hindu’ within pre-colonial texts except for it being used as a marker for identifying people based on geographical demarcation. The identity of Hindu was, therefore, defined by caste and sect and not as a religious one. On the contrary, Hindutva defines a Hindu as ‘he whose ancestors were from within the boundaries of India—Pitribhumi and whose religion originated within the boundaries of India—Punyabhumi’. However, there were no defined boundaries until colonial times. Thapar noted how there are major discrepancies in historical, archaeological and genetic details. The Two Nation Theory stresses on the victimization of Hindus by Muslims. To the propagators of Hindutva, rewriting history is necessary. Thapar draws references to the Somanatha issue, and narrates how wealth and money are attached to religious actions, arguing how not only Muslims but numerous Hindu rulers looted temples in times of economic problems. During the question and answer session, Thapar highlighted the fact that religion does not come naturally to people and it is always taught. She stressed on recognizing the differences between belief, worship and ritual, and also on the significance of questioning. It is important to ask—whose history are we willing to write? Therefore, questioning the social contexts framing historical writing.

Sudipta Sen’s lecture explored the integral ideas of kinship, empire and sovereignty regardless of the religious denomination of the conquering powers upon the architectural constructions. ‘Monuments talk about acceptance, appropriation and power in a shared sense’, he said. History of the nation adopts much larger than said, it is neither about winners and losers. Prof. Sen elucidated some eye-opening insights about how monuments are the most basic remnants and imprints of history, whose present conditions can be read by the bewildered politics they experience, which mingled their philosophical meaning over the decades. Sen started off by placing these afore-mentioned never-ending questions pertaining to how monuments can be seen and perceived. How public monuments are becoming nefarious sites-what does patriotism look like dragging from the majority and minority counterparts? How the figures, emblems, etc, are assimilated, especially after the period of conquest? How are these sites re-used? How to deal beyond the aura of broken pillars? Thereafter, he brought in the concept of spolia: the Latin word simply means ‘sculpture reused in monuments’. Spolia plays an integral part of Indian history as well. The grandeur symbols of power that the emperors of ancient India displayed were so much so that they captured the attention of many museums. Sen simultaneously presented certain photographs about the places he was talking about as examples: The Arch of Constantine, The Umayyad Mosque etc. This politics of underlined truth that are seamlessly visible, rather crafted, lends to the idea of selective use and reuse of Indian history and its materials. Religious influences insist on identifying architectural types—especially through the motifs and elements. Sen exclaimed that it is difficult to suggest which temple was actually a monastery or a mosque! Before that we identified them as temples. On that note, he talked about Muhammad Ghori who built mosques of mosaics and terracotta in the northern regions of India. To conclude, Sen highlighted on the history of curiosity which is vital for the right to civic disagreements and to address the silences.

Sarukkai started off by highlighting questions about our regular social life: the concept regarding truth in democracy. He questions, ‘what is it like to be democratic?’, and the importance of shifting from a form of governance to the kinds of living and recognizing fraternity as the root of democracy. Democracy has to be a part of our daily life and not an isolated act. The word democracy is an ambiguous one and has different meanings. There are different levels of conceptual challenges in democracy. ‘The myth of people’ negates the value of democracy. It is important to understand what it means to be ‘the people’. A creation of a moral society based on the principle of learning to live together is necessary. Sarukkai goes ahead to compare between the Indian and Chinese models of democracy. There is a noticeable lack of democratic practices in the different agents of democracy in India. The fruits of democracy do not reach the lower rungs of society. The evolution of Indian democracy is almost at a standstill now, nowhere close to the Ambedkarite idea of free India. On the other hand, Chinese democracy refers to people’s dictatorship. Sarukkai identifies family as a potential political block. A family and a school in society are hardly democratic in any sense. There are several patriarchal tendencies that run through these institutions. The talk ended with the idea of a democratic self. It is important for every individual to become rationalists and work with social learning. The ideas of self-rule from Gandhi and self-respect from Ambedkar, together led to the formation of a ‘democratic self’. Sarukkai concluded with the statement that the purpose of democracy is to determine ‘the well-being of the worst off in a society, it is not the well-being of all of us.’ That adopting the ethics of acting on behalf of the worst off is the path to truly building a democratic society.

DAY 2 | 5 August 2022

Beginning the second day of the conference, Krishna Kumar’s session addressed the rights of children, whom he described as ‘late entrants’ into the discourse of democracy. Kumar raised pertinent questions about the very category of ‘child’ and the difficulties in their being able to access justice since the system is so designed as to require the victim to articulate the violation of their rights. Children, economically and emotionally reliant on adults, are especially vulnerable in this regard since the articulation of a violation can only happen if there is recognition of one's rights. In terms of gender disparity, the question Prof. Kumar raised was if girls really have a childhood in the same way as boys do. Prof. Kumar illustrated his point about the state's neglect of children further by drawing upon the example of the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam that caused major displacement followed by the loss of sources of income for adult members of the population. While they received help from the state to some extent, the impact this displacement had on children was never assessed. ‘If the reports are taken into consideration, it can be seen that the consequences will be far more bitter to children than adolescents’, Kumar remarked with conviction. Prof. Kumar then moved on to discussing the Right to Education Act and the kinds of reception this long overdue and essential legislation has had from various quarters.

Anurag Bhaskar, in his lecture discussed the relevance of Dr. Ambedkar’s views in recent times. After contextualizing links with global history and briefly narrating social reform movements in India, Bhaskar quoted Ambedkar on citizenship and democracy. References to several unequal practices were made and two of Ambedkar’s most important ideas were mentioned: a democracy must focus on a social system, and the social reforms must focus on political reforms. Bhaskar focused on the entrenchment of rights as a remedy and on several occasions, questioned the double standards of Indian politicians. He talked about democracy in terms of shifting paradigms and trends in nationalism and also the urgency to talk about the real needs of lower classes of the society. According to Ambedkar, ‘Only democracy can revolutionize human potential without any form of violence’. The speaker discussed parts from Annihilation of Caste and Ambedkar’s writings on the legislature.

Ambedkar wrote three documents on how his ideas on democracy could be entrenched in a written form as in the Constitution for the days to come. It is important for a democracy to understand the need to protect interests of the minorities. Bhaskar connected the history of inequality in India to African-American history in the US. Reading Ambedkar leads us to look at the height of social injustice which is the other side of the freedom movement that we tend to neglect. The speaker ended the talk by discussing the events that took place in the Constituent Assembly after the formation of the Constitution, elaborating on the radical nature of Ambedkar’s incorporations and thoughts.

In the following talk delivered by T.M. Krishna, he discussed the idea that ‘art’ is capable of healing social divisions while simultaneously demonstrating the effects of social injustice on culture. T.M. Krishna started by sharing an anecdote from a conversation with Naveen Kishore about the differential cultural understandings of the practice of eating—while standing or sitting respectively that they learnt from their families in their childhood. This anecdote helped us to fathom the complexities in the process of establishment of culture. According to him, art is by default a performance attribute—a kind of externalization of what we understand and believe as culture—with culture being habitual in nature. Therefore, the experience itself is constructed. Its possibilities emerge from the contact between the artist as the catalyst and the receiver—who are perhaps receiving memories, sexuality, community and so on. Krishna elucidated about his own experiences of growing up in a cosmopolitan family in an anglicized upbringing amid which he became a connoisseur of carnatic music. He talked about Mylapore, an area in the suburbs of Chennai, where carnatic music is taught. He questioned our understanding of diversity, which has now become such an oft used word, and its place in the experience of culture. Krishna remarked that ‘diversity is the biggest fraud’, as the word diversity is said after the norm is established—if there are no norms, diversity does not exist. Aesthetic sense is not about beauty but about some empirical understanding behind the idea of beauty which is delivered with absolute intentional dominance in the construction of beauty. If we think about our reactions, we perform everything from our established thoughts and not from our intellectual philosophy. The idea of ‘art’ is to create ‘illusion’. For example, when people remark that they ‘went into a different world!’ after watching a play, it is distinct from reality. Furthering that thought, he argues how art is an abstraction that helps to see reality.

There is a strict hierarchy of cultural and art forms, where the ones that are not seen as part of the elite culture emphasize on the body in a way that ultimately removes the mind. He illustrates this argument by sharing a conversation he had with a koothu artist, P Rajagopalan, who exclaimed that art, for him, is hard labour of physical activity—rather similar to that of a carpenter. ‘The prominence of the mind is removed and the body becomes important in degraded culture—much like labour.’ This, Krishna admits shook him—it had never occurred to him because art for him is beyond labour. Therefore, the societal place of the artist, circumstances and construction of their art form feeds into the making of this starkly differential understanding and experience of art and the artists themselves.

Thereafter, in discussing the place and agency of the people in what is now increasingly prevalent in the practice of archiving, he emphasizes on the need to recognize and ask: whose voice is being archived and by who? What purpose is this serving? He illustrates this by citing an example of the fisherfolk songs which became extinct with the invention of the motor boats. Thereby, questioning whether this lament for the loss of the songs is at all seen as a loss by the people who sang these songs themselves. He concluded with thinking about how we could potentially deal with these dichotomies within the arts, emphasizing on the urgent need towards creating these in-between spaces for broadening the scope of such conversations to engage with the arts more meaningfully.

DAY 3 | 6 August 2022

Panel Discussion

In place of a talk by Arun Thiruvengadam who was unable to make it owing to health reasons, the morning of the final day of the conference began with a surprise panel (sprung on the panel by the organizers, Apoorvanand joked). The panel comprised of Arvind Narrain, T.M. Krishna, Krishna Kumar, Romila Thapar with Apoorvanand as moderator. The panel discussed broadly two questions put forth by the moderator: How does each of the panel members perceive the context and theme of this conference (the idea of democracy)? and what these current times mean for them in the domain of their respective professions?

Arvind Narrain dwelled on the central theme of his book in his response to Apoorvanand's question, looking comparatively at the violations of democratic norms and people's rights during the Emegency and those today. He emphasized one key difference namely the popular support for the state's actions, as well as the use of parastatal agencies which further the state's spoken and unspoken agenda with no interference from the state and little to no accountability.

When asked by Apoorvanand if the context vis-a-vis the status of democracy is different in Tamil Nadu than the rest of the nation, T.M. Krishna denies this as wishful thinking but does assert that a certain space for social dialogue in Tamil Nadu has historically been repeatedly created, from at least (and perhaps even preceding) Periyar. What gravely concerns him is the absence of a social mechanism to keep the youth of today grounded in the 'attempted worldview' of democracy—a lacuna he doesn't feel only schools can address.

Next, Krishna Kumar began by reflecting on the nation-building project his active years of teaching coincided with, a common tendency during which was to compare the nation-building project in India with that in Pakistan. Kumar shared that his visits to Pakistan brought him the realization that both were democracies in the procedural sense but were worlds imagined by the elite, as distinct from 'the masses'—a distinction visible even in the dichotomy held up between the school teacher and the university teacher, leaving even the domain of the teaching profession deeply undemocratic. Kumar expressed concern that while we sit and worry about the future our youth will find themselves in, the youth themselves are unbothered, their phones and screens providing entertainment while constantly demanding time and attention.

Romila Thapar began by stating that we as a society have not sufficiently questioned the imprints colonialism has left on us. She held her own generation responsible, as youth witnessing Indian independence, for not doing enough to ensure that a socialistic pattern of society and secularism are entrenched in us. Thapar asserted that secularism is not simply the coexistence of diverse religions within a society but structurally, for clear distinction between civil institutions and religious organizations. 'People are building parties and governments not on the basis of representation but on the basis of defection', Thapar remarked, commenting on the changes in democratic culture in political practice.

Following the panel, was a lecture delivered by Arvind Narrain that looked at the BK–16 case or the case of the 16 arrested activists in relation to the violence at the 2018 annual celebration of the Battle of Koregaon at Bhima Koregaon—focussing on primarily two points: Why has the state targeted the BK–16 activists; and why should we be concerned about it? In this pursuit, he traced the many amendments made to the UAPA, as well as the varying forms of anti-'terrorism' legislations the Indian judiciary has passed over the decades. Narrain highlighted the ways in which a law like the UAPA is distinct and dangerous for a democratic society: one, that it has no sunset clause, which would require the law to be renewed by vote of Parliament every few years; two, that it has introduced a provision which makes the grant of bail nearly impossible, leaving the decision to whether or not the magistrate is convinced the offence has taken place. In his analysis of the case, Narrain outlined the four kinds of activism he believes the BK–16 were actors of, which makes them impossible to appropriate and a threat to the state.

His talk was followed by parallel workshops, and the conference concluded with the world café. At the end of the second day, all the participants had been asked to drop their views anonymously about something they thought was undemocratic in the school premises into a ballot box. The participants were divided into smaller groups at the world café on the final day where those chits were randomly distributed for them to discuss how those issues could be potentially resolved or improved towards creating a more democratic fabric in these institutions.

Workshop Day 1, 2 and 3

Shivangi Jaiswal and Smita Bhattacharya

Teaching Democracy: Some Pedagogical ‘experiments’ ‘in and out’ of Classroom

In this workshop, the participants were divided into five groups where they engaged in several activities to delve deeper into the concept of democracy. The first and second activities revolved around together deciding upon 5 must teach concepts in class which would help students understand what democracy means. Several concepts were decided upon by the groups: equity, dialogue, questioning, integration, rationality, accountability, rights and responsibilities, justice, plurality, idea of nation state, freedom and so on. Each group spoke about one concept they decided upon—the favourite among the groups being ‘equity’. An interesting discussion ensued regarding the intrinsic, fine differences between the words equity and equality. During the activities, the facilitators—Smita and Shivangi—discussed that it is not the aim to always arrive at a conclusion but to make the student groups in classes function in a democratic manner.

Through worksheets and a concluding fishbowl activity, the workshop sought to indulge the participants into more collaborative group work. The last discussion had two questions each speaker could speak on: Are democracies worth protecting? Are democracies at risk in current times? Various opinions floated through this activity. Someone said that we should appreciate the fact that we’re at least living in a democracy while another said that we live in a ‘fluid democracy’ where we’re always suspecting if we have a safe space at all. An observer also pointed out that every participant was trying to justify their own view and was less invested in understanding what the other person is trying to say. Equality and the right to dissent were viewed and stressed upon as important markers of a democracy. Everyone agreed on looking at democracy as a virtue, and of course, something worth protecting in these times of crisis.

Shahnaaz Khan

Engaging the invisible: Democratizing the curriculum through the pedagogy

The content and methodology of Shahnaz’s workshop was similar on both days with different participants who were in rotation among the audience members. She distributed one indoor game on each round table and started by giving a task of creating a story by each group comprising a round table. The idea was to establish a story with the following cues as: Where? [location/ space]; When? [time]; Who? [two characters]; What? [narrative]. Each table was provided with the QR codes to look at the cues for each table related to the indoor games given physically. They had to play a mystery game and the purpose was the quest to reach a common juncture. The task for each table were as follows: Table 1: Cue- Political Map [Words: Protest Movement, Resident Schooling]; Table 2: Cue- Monopoly [Words: Economic crisis, Debt]; Table 3: Cue- Chess [Words: Language, Syntax, Food History, Folk Gesture, Culture]; Table 4: Cue- Snake & Ladder [Words: Rise and fall]; Table 5: Cue- Philosophy [Words: Moral Responsibility, Absolute Sense, Decision, Time- Global warming, Social media and GenZ]. Shahnaaz discussed the dialogues that have been built up within the groups while working on the game, to find a perspective. ‘What is normal and what is not?’ The instances that came up from the participants’ responses were: Why does a woman take up a man’s surname? Recent education system which is working towards making students non-conformists. Social attitudes, which questions the father figure, among others. In the task of identifying the invisible, the nuances that came up from the games were about excavating different layers of perspectives. To intellectually stimulate someone, one shall convey the narrative by stepping out of the context i.e. ‘heutagogy’ that implies child centric learning.

Juraj Varga

Pedagogy for Democratic Culture

Juraj Varga’s workshop drew upon EuroClio’s pedagogic practices. EuroClio deals with competency of democratic culture in 20 different counterparts under concerns of dignity and human rights, project learning to disagree. He stresses on the analysis of visual sources. For example, he displayed a picture of a giant ship and opened the house of participants for interpretation. Some of the significant interpretations were: Mass migration, workers’ scene, mass exodus because of certain push factors, economic crisis and political crisis leading to humanitarian crisis.

After a phenomenal round of visual analysis, the round tables were occupied with reading texts around these visuals closely. They then discussed practical ways of taking these conversations into the classroom. The second task involved looking at pictures/photographs and to link them with the paragraphs from the given readings in the previous task. This task implied the actual completeness of the visual imagery and literary imagery, to draw clarity of what was written/ archived to that of what is actually existent, where the perspective might vary at different levels.

[Images courtesy: Anamitra Sinha and Sripurna Majumdar]

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