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The Idea of Democracy | 4, 5, 6 August 2022 | Calcutta


Updated: Jul 15, 2022

The term democracy originates from the Greek word dēmokratiā which drew itself from the terms dēmos (‘people’) and kratos (‘rule’).

Thus, a democracy draws its strength solely from the people.

The 1789 storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, the Springtime of the People—1848 Revolutions across Europe, the 1918 women’s Suffrage movement in Britain, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the 2011 Arab Spring—these are historically some of the biggest struggles that have seen the world mobilize and rise in defense of the idea of the democracy.

What is so powerful about this idea of democracy, why does it resonate so strongly with people’s struggle across time and space?

On the other hand, historically, every few decades the world has also witnessed the rise of authoritarian rule and the backsliding of Democracy. This is one such time, when increasingly we are witnessing more countries moving towards authoritarianism than at any other point in the recent past. The optimism and the triumph of Democracy that the world witnessed at the dawn of the 21st century has rapidly diminished.

What are the patterns and conditions of democratic backsliding? How does civil society resist the encroachment of this rapidly shrinking civic space? What is the role of print/electronic media and social media in the rise of populism? What is the role of the judiciary in upholding the rule of law? How has the ‘new normal’ of Covid 19 impacted the state of democracy worldwide? Above all, what can education institutes do to instil democratic values in young minds? What can educators do to inspire active citizenship?

Everything is dependent on political power in the country today—the good, the bad and the indifferent. So, do we just say: We have no access to this power and therefore we give up? Or do we say: We cannot change the political power but, within our little circle of activity, we can do what is possible? And I would say that is the way in which many of us have functioned all our lives. We have not attempted to change the political power. If you are not in a position to fight the political power, then please use your little energy and activity to make half a dozen young people think. The process of thinking involves the process of agency. —Romila Thapar

In keeping with the urgent need of our times, History for Peace explores The Idea of Democracy at the annual conference for teaching history in Calcutta this year.

Speakers: Romila Thapar, Krishna Kumar, Arun Thiruvengadam, Sudipta Sen, Sundar Sarukkai, Anurag Bhaskar, Apoorvanand, Arvind Narrain, TM Krishna, Shahnaaz Khan, Shivangi Jaiswal, Smita Bhattacharya, Juraj Varga.


To participate, fill in the registration form right away! Access the form by clicking on the button below.

Last date to register:15 July 2022


The Conference Program

(This is a tentative schedule subject to minor changes.)

Yule Hall, Tollygunge Club

4 August 2022

8.30 a.m. Registration

9 – 9.15 a.m.

Opening Address: Naveen Kishore

9.15 – 10.30 a.m.

Keynote Address: Prof Apoorvanand

Apoorvanand Jha is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi where he has been instrumental in redesigning the department’s academic program.

Dr. Jha has worked on the development of Marxist Aesthetics in Hindi Literature. He was part of the core group that designed the National Curriculum Framework for School Education in 2005 and was a member of the national Focus Group on Teaching of Indian Languages formed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He has worked with the committee to advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India under the Chairmanship of Professor Yash Pal. Created by the Government of India in 2008, the committee worked to craft a new vision plan for the sector of higher education in India.

Dr. Jha has published two books of essays in literary criticism: Sundar ka Swapna and Sahitya ka Ekant. His critical essays have appeared in all major Hindi journals. Apart from his academic and literary writings, he also contributes columns in Indian newspapers and magazines on the issues of education, culture, communalism, violence and human rights.

10.30 – 10.45 a.m. Coffee break

10.45 – 12.15 a.m.

Our History or Your History and Why History Anyway

Romila Thapar

When the British colonized India, they searched for histories of pre-modern India on the model of Herodotus and Thucydides and could not find them so they declared that Indians had lacked a sense of history. This therefore required then to construct a history of India afresh which they did in writings of James Mill, Elliot and Dowson etc. Among their many theories, two have been crucial to the politics of India—in the formulations of political parties from the 1920s and even more, in post-colonial politics. Interestingly, both are relevant to a discussion on democracy. These two were the theory of Aryan race and the two-nation theory, essential to the construction of Indian history by colonial writers. Both have been systematically questioned and discarded by historians of India in the last half century. Nevertheless, they had already become the foundation of Muslim and Hindu religious nationalisms in India.

12.15 – 1.30

Historical Monuments in the Public Domain

Sudipta Sen

A democracy survives beyond the confines of the ballot box not only through a people’s political pulse of the present and apprehensions of the future but also through a nuanced, plural and inclusive sense of the past. The freedom to study and interpret the history of the subcontinent that preceded the birth of the independent Indian nation-state, and the right to civic disagreement over which aspects of history are most consequential to the story of the nation and its people, are indispensable to the longevity and vitality of any great democratic experiment. My presentation addresses the perils of the weaponization of history, especially anachronistic and deliberate misrepresentation of historical monuments for partisan, political gain—dating from centuries before the advent of the modern nation-state—as symbols of national shame and triumph. In ancient and premodern India, much like in any other part of the world, the seizure, spoliation, assimilation and protection of sacred spaces were integral to the ideas of kingship, empire and sovereignty, regardless of the religious denomination of the conquering powers. Along with the idea that all premodern empires and kingdoms sought to exploit and patronize sacred spaces and edifices for the purposes of secular authority, we must also teach our students of history the many-layered understanding and acknowledgment of architectural monuments in the distant past as structures that owed their aura and reverence to shared aspects of antiquity, myth, religiosity and popular piety that often cut across the many divides of language, religion, creed, caste and sect.

Sudipta Sen, currently in India as a Fulbright-Nehru fellow affiliated with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, is a professor of History and Middle East/South Asia Studies at the University of California, Davis. Trained as a historian of late Mughal and early British India and the British Empire, his recent work focuses on the history of the environment. Sen has taught at Beloit College, University of California, Berkeley, and Syracuse University, NY. A recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for his contribution to research and teaching at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, he was recently awarded the Sir William Jones Memorial Medal by the Asiatic Society of India for his lifetime contribution to history and Asian studies. His most recent books include Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River and a co-edited volume, Terra Aqua: The Amphibious Lifeworlds of Coastal and Maritime South Asia.

1.30 – 2.30 p.m. Lunch

2.30 – 3.45 p.m.

The Social Life of Democracy

Sundar Sarukkai

Drawing from his new book The Social Life of Democracy (Seagull 2022), this talk will explore the significance of Ambedkar’s view that democracy is not a form of government but more a form of society and mental disposition. Such a view will imply that democracy should be understood as a form of social life which has to be part of our everyday practice. But the foundation for such change can only occur by a critical understanding of democratic action, the function of democracy in different domains ranging from homes to government, examining its relation to labour, to science as well as religion, analysing the ethical processes that are central to democracy and finally clarifying the concepts of truth in politics and the ideas of freedom and choice.

Sundar Sarukkai works primarily in the philosophy of the natural and the social sciences. He is the founder of Barefoot Philosophers ( His latest book titled Philosophy for Children: Thinking, Reading and Writing is published in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. Other books he has written include Translating the World: Science and Language, Philosophy of Symmetry, Indian Philosophy and Philosophy of Science, What is Science?, JRD Tata and the Ethics of Philanthropy, and two books co-authored with Gopal Guru–The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory and Experience, Caste and the Everyday Social. His latest book is The Social Life of Democracy (Seagull 2022). Sarukkai was a professor of philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies until 2019 and was also the Founder-Director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities.

3.45 – 4 p.m. Coffee break

4 - 6 p.m. Parallel Workshops

5 August 2022, 9 – 10.30 a.m.

Children and Justice

Krishna Kumar

As a social category, ‘childhood’ has formed a difficult frontier for India's democratic institutions of law-making and justice. The Right to Education (‘RTE’) law, took a full century of reluctance and debate to take shape. Within a decade of its promulgation, this comprehensive law has begun to face diminution and neglect. This story is not unique: other struggles to provide justice during childhood have had similar experience.

Krishna Kumar is an Indian intellectual and academician, noted for his writings in the sociology and history of education. His academic oeuvre has drawn on multiple sources, including the school curriculum as a means of social inquiry. His work is also notable for its critical engagement with modernity in a colonized society. His writings explore the patterns of conflict and interaction between forces of the vernacular and the state. As a teacher and bilingual writer, he has developed an aesthetic of pedagogy and knowledge that aspires to mitigate aggression and violence. In addition to his academic work, he writes essays and short stories in Hindi, and has also written for children. He has taught at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi, from 1981–2016. He was also the Dean and Head of the institution. From 2004–2010, he was Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an apex organization for curricular reforms in India. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India in 2011.

10.30 – 11 Coffee break

11 – 12.30

Ambedkar’s Ideas on Democracy

Anurag Bhaskar

India’s struggle for independence from the British rule was interlinked with the struggle of marginalized communities for of an equal social order. For them, independence was not political but also social. The marginalized communities led by leaders such as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Jaipal Singh Munda, and others, continuously engaged with the issues concerning the foundations of a modern democracy. In particular, Dr Ambedkar re-conceptualized the contents of a democracy to envisage egalitarianism in a deeply unequal society which India has been. Dr Ambedkar pursued an imagination of a democracy containing constitutional safeguards for the minorities (social and religious). However, several of the ideas suggested by him were not accepted during the drafting of the Indian Constitution. These ideas reflect on what democracy ought to have been. In this presentation, I will be discussing Dr Ambedkar’s ideas on democracy and their relevance in contemporary times.

Anurag Bhaskar is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. He is also an Affiliate Faculty at Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, USA and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Delhi. Anurag pursued his LL.M. from Harvard Law School (2018–19) and B.A. LL.B. (2012– 17) from RMLNLU, Lucknow. He has also clerked for Dr. Justice DY Chandrachud, Judge, Supreme Court of India, during 2017–18. Anurag is a recipient of the Bluestone Rising Scholar Award 2021 conferred by Brandeis University, USA, and the Indian Equality Law Fellowship 2022 at University of Oxford. He is one of the founders of CEDE, an organisation working towards increasing representation in the legal profession and the judiciary.

12.30 – 1.30 Lunch

1.30 – 2.45 p.m.

Constructing Indian Culture

TM Krishna

Essential to building the idea of a nation is identifying a singular culture and prioritizing a set of cultural practices. From before independence and after it as well, we have worked systematically to establish such a culture. Everyone in positions of power, irrespective of their political or philosophical bent, have participated in this programme. The term ‘Diversity’ has been used in condescension, as tokenism rather than with respectful engagement. The ‘diverse’ were and are used in a utilitarian manner. Socially vague constructions such as right, left or conservative and liberal blur when the question of culture appears on the horizon. Taste and preference are used as excuses to propagate an internalized cultural agenda. Caught in this vortex are artistic practices. As we struggle with a social environment that is deafening and numbing, we must introspect on our past and critically evaluate our understanding of culture.

TM Krishna is one of the pre-eminent vocalists in the rigorous Karnatik tradition of India's classical music. As a public intellectual, Krishna speaks and writes about issues affecting the human condition and about matters cultural.

He is the Founder Trustee of Sumanasa Foundation, established in 2005, with the objective of engaging with the arts and the community. Sumanasa enables communities to develop culturally vibrant spaces and create platforms that present artists and art forms from marginalized backgrounds. It helps create different avenues for artists to engage in social dialogue, and in building appreciation and interest in the arts.

In 2016, Krishna received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions’.

His path-breaking book A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story, published by Harper Collins in 2013 was a first-of-its-kind philosophical, aesthetic and socio-political exploration of Karnatik music. He has been part of inspiring musical productions and collaborations that are unique and unusual aesthetic conversations between art forms and communities across social spectrums.

2.45 – 3.15 p.m. Coffee break

3.15 – 5.30 p.m. Parallel Workshops

6 August 2022, 9 – 10.30 a.m.

Democracy and Authoritarian Constitutionalism in India: A Historical and Comparative perspective

Arun Thiruvengadam

In this talk, I will seek to understand the situation in contemporary India by tracing the roots of constitutional authoritarianism within its own recent history and by seeking to draw lessons from the experience of other nations. While some of what is unfolding in India has unique patterns and symptoms, some other developments are part of larger trends that are being experienced in other regions. Drawing contrasts and parallels can, I will suggest, lead to constructive insights for the way ahead.

Arun Thiruvengadam is a Professor of Law at the National Law School, Bangalore. His primary teaching and research areas are comparative constitutional law, and Indian constitutional and administrative law. He is the author of The Constitution of India: A Contextual Analysis (Hart Bloomsbury: Delhi, 2018) among other works. He has maintained an active teaching role in a visiting capacity at several universities in Asia, North America and Europe. He has previously been a participant in workshops organised by History for Peace and other civil society groups that seek to make discussions about democracy and constitutionalism accessible to the broader public.

10.30 – 11 a.m. Coffee break

11 a.m. - 12.30 p.m.

The BK-16 and the idea of Indian democracy

Arvind Narrain

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) has become the tool with which dissent is sought to be clamped down. The strands of activism the state seeks to clamp down upon as embodied in the lives and work of the BK-16 include Dalit activism, Adivasi activism, legal activism, civil liberties activism and academic activism. The BK-16 stand for a plural understanding of Indian democracy with dissent as its cornerstone. To remember the BK-16 today is to take forward Milan Kundera’s aphorism, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’.

Arvind Narrain has been involved with research, writing and practice related to law and social concerns and visiting Faculty at the National Law School and Azim Premji University. He is also the President of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties Karnataka. He is the author of India's Undeclared Emergency, co-editor of Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law as well as the co-author of Breathing Life into the Constitution. He was also a part of the team of lawyers challenging Section 377 of the IPC right from the High Court in 2009 to the Supreme Court in 2018.

12.30 – 1.30 p.m. Lunch

1.30 – 3.30 p.m. Parallel Workshops

3.30 – 5.30 p.m. World Café with Coffee


Pedagogy for Democratic Culture

Juraj Varga

In this workshop, we will together explore the Competences for democratic culture (CDCs), multiperspectivity and place-based learning—elements and concepts that are strongly present in most of EuroClio’s work and used in many European countries. We will grasp and experience specific outputs of the projects: Learning to Disagree and Sharing European Histories as inspiring methodological examples and good practices.

Juraj Varga is the Chairman of Centre for Education and Innovations, Slovakia and a Board Member of EuroClio—the European History Teacher’s Association, Netherlands.

Engaging the Invisible: Democratizing the curriculum through pedagogy

Shahnaaz Khan

The Workshop will engage with national and international curricula to explore invisible perspectives, histories and positionalities. Participants will work as learners and as experts to peel what remains unsaid and unexplored in the curriculum. The hands-on session will include interventions and insights to empower students and educators in a journey of pedagogy and heutagogy. Skills and themes to be explored in the workshop are depolitical and apolitical curricula, role of student and teacher identities and contexts, and pedagogies of power and peace.

Shahnaaz Khan engages with issues of identity and peace within and beyond spaces of learning. She teaches Political Science in Shiv Nadar School, Noida, along with working on human rights issues in partnership with national and international organizations. A double gold medalist, she has just completed an MPhil in Knowledge, Power and Politics in Education from the University of Cambridge. She has explored these themes across stakeholders with workshops, talks and articles with History for Peace, Katha Labs, TEDxGateway, The Hindu, Hindustan Times among others.

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

Shivangi Jaiswal and Smita Bhattacharya

The institution of the school, the role of teachers, and the pedagogy around textbooks play an important role in developing children’s understanding of the world around them. As social science educators across curricula and schools, one must have engaged with teaching a theme/sub-theme or a full chapter on democracy/principles of democracy at some point in their classrooms. In the light of the changing meanings and forms of democracy in the current times, do we need to pause and reflect on our teaching practices to make students not only understand the idea of democracy but also critically evaluate the current state of the same? To be able to understand democracy critically, students need an in-depth understanding of concepts such as equity, equality, freedom, diversity, participation, justice, dissent, etc. Such concepts need to be taught not only through Social Science textbooks inside the classrooms but also by bringing the significance of these ideas alive in the lives of children beyond the classrooms.

Children learn not only from textbooks but also from the world that is beyond textbooks and classrooms. Besides the textbooks they read, the everyday classroom practices, their experience with the ‘rules’ and regulations of the school, the different forms of media (for instance, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter) they use and consume, and their lives as children at home and in the neighbourhood play a significant role in shaping their thoughts as they grow up. In this age of digital information overload, do we need to re-think our role as educators? What are the skills that we need to equip our students with to make them read the world around them through a critical lens? Moreover, how could we build empathy among students and make politics come alive for them? Can we re-imagine the teaching of Civics at the school level? How could school teachers create classroom practices that develop a critical understanding of democracy among the students, and build a foundation for a more active engagement with social and political issues?

In this workshop, the high school social science teachers will engage in a set of activities and discussions to collectively brainstorm on some of these questions and think of ways in situating students’ learning in the real world.

Shivangi Jaiswal holds a PhD in Modern Indian History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She has previously worked with the Integrated Labour History Research Programme of the Association of Indian Labour Historians and V. V. Giri National Labour Institute. She currently teaches History in the International Baccalaureate Programme at Pathways School, Noida.

Smita Bhattacharya has done her M.Phil in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has been a teacher for two decades. She currently teaches History, Global Politics and Theory of Knowledge at Pathways School Noida.

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