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The Social Life of Democracy - Sundar Sarukkai


This lecture was delivered as part of the 6th annual History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' which was hosted in Calcutta through August 4, 5, and 6, 2022.

I am very happy that the theme for this conference is democracy because I have just finished writing a book called The Social Life of Democracy (Seagull Books, 2022). The primary motivation for this book was to incite discussions on democracy in the public domain.

When I was listening to Professor Apoorvanand today, I felt chills hearing about what’s happening. Part of the confusion lies in not knowing what exactly one can do in this situation. Being in academic disciplines and programmes, we are focussed on things like research and higher education and so on. At some point in my life, I recognized that I was able to deploy the power of philosophy in that kind of an environment. So, along with a few students we started a group called the Barefoot Philosophers whose primary aim was to try and bring philosophical thinking, critical reasoning and methods of doing something with our forms of thought to the larger public. It began as a series of interventions with the public—particularly the public who don’t politely listen to us and agree with us. That was our aim. Often, we found that if we were around people who seemed to agree with what we said, it was much easier for us to do our work but the impact of our work was quite minimal.

But the moment we had to encounter groups and individuals who don’t agree with us, they would react quite unfavourably to our work. The question was to find ways of debate, discussion and thinking together through these difficult questions. So, the Barefoot Philosophers started in that form. I realized that in addition to the public, a more important intervention was needed with children. That is why we tried to bring philosophical thinking to them; not philosophy as a subject or the content of what philosophers have written but philosophical thinking as a practice, to actually consider what it is to see, to think and to read.

The difficulty of bringing questions related to philosophical thinking to children taught me a lot about philosophy and about what it means to conduct conversations with people who either don’t understand you or disagree with you. There was an interest in trying to see how we could bring these questions—these themes of ideas which we take for granted in our day-to-day social life—and show them why people take different positions on it. How do you understand the presence of the conceptual world in our ordinary life? How do you understand a word like democracy? Everybody uses the word. To us, this was a challenge during our work with the public that disagreed with us. How do I communicate to them what democracy means? I see this as a larger project of philosophical thinking—the clarification of conceptual foundations of ideas. These have to draw from history, sociology, philosophy to ensure that our theoretical work is really palatable. So, in the book I deal basically with the concept of democracy—what does it actually mean, what are its ethical foundations and, the idea of truth, what does truth have to do with democracy, theories of truth, the kind of a truth that works in democratic transactions like politics and freedom—one of the most key attributes of a democracy.

In this talk, I will share a part of my arguments from my book. The whole book is actually influenced by an Ambedkarite view towards democracy. It’s not a scholarly work on Ambedkar because I want it to be a conversation with people. So, I’ll begin with this very important and interesting suggestion in Ambedkar’s own writings and cite two of his famous quotes: ‘There cannot be democratic government unless the society for which it functions is democratic in its form and structure.’ Is democracy just about politics, or is democracy about something larger than politics? Of course, we have to understand politics itself, how politics relates to society and so on. The second quote is this: ‘If the mental disposition of the individual is democratic, then the democratic form of government can be expected to result in good law.’ So, for Ambedkar, two very important points are: (1) democracy is not just about the government in the specific sense of political governance unless society is democratic and (2) the mental dispositions of individuals have to be democratic. These, to me, are very important pointers to how we can reflect upon the idea of what it is to be democratic. This is the question I want to pose to you today: What is it to be democratic? Governments can be democratic, we can be democratic, individuals and communities can be democratic but what does it actually mean? Ambedkar’s important insight about democracy’s relation with both the form of society and the mental dispositions of individuals has largely been forgotten in our everyday discourse.

Ambedkar also refers to democracy as ‘philosophy of life’. We know well from Ambedkar’s scholarship that he was deeply influenced by his teacher John Dewey, who was also an important educationist, particularly as a philosopher of education. Dewey expressed the importance of democracy’s relation to society thus: ‘Democracy is more than a form of government. It’s primarily about associated living of conjoined communicative experience.’ There’s an important distinction between what Ambedkar understands by ‘associated living’ and what Dewey understands, but you can see that the shift from democracy as something to do with governance to forms of living is a very important shift. Ambedkar is very clear that the way to democracy is through the three values of the French revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. These three core values define democracy for him. But what is really interesting is that he also points out repeatedly that just equality and liberty are not enough, and what sustains equality and liberty, and thus any idea of democracy, is fraternity. He notes: ‘If in democracy liberty does not destroy equality and equality does not destroy liberty, it is because at the basis of both there is fraternity.’ There is an individual drive for liberty and there is a social push for some notion of equality, and Ambedkar rightly recognizes the tension between the two. This tension between equality and liberty has played out in so many ways in questions of so-called merit versus reservations and so on. The only way these two cannot destroy each other is if there is a sense of fraternity to bind people together. And therefore, for Ambedkar, fraternity is at the root of democracy. This is what in the larger sense he calls maitree.

This way of looking at democracy is different from looking at it in terms of elections, governments and political parties. So, the description seems clear: without fraternity within a society there is no possibility of democracy. But what is it to have fraternity in a society? What are the conceptual and pragmatic obstacles to the realizations of this project? If what Ambedkar points out is so true, then why is it not being taken seriously and operationalized in day-to-day life? Even if democracy is a particular kind of political action, what kind of thinking and action are required to mould democracy to this vision? In other words, how should we look at democracy not just as some idea of political representation but as fraternity in society? This is largely the goal of what I am trying to do here. To do that, I want to begin with certain fundamental concepts with which we make sense of what democracy is.

The central point that I make in the book is the only way democracy can function is if it becomes part of our daily lives and not remain confined to acts of politics. I want to begin with the fact that democracy is a very ambiguous as a concept. If one analyses critically what constitutes the concept, the first thing one recognizes is that it has multiple meanings. We also know there are many types of democracies. Just to give you a sample, when we talk of democracy today, they include people’s democracy, direct democracy, presidential democracy, parliamentary democracy, representative democracy, liberal democracy, participatory democracy, social democracy, grassroots democracy and so on. In each of them, there is a suggestion of democracy functioning but its manifestation is so diverse that sometimes it seems contradictory to the very definition of democracy. The word democracy has also become part of our everyday life. It has become part of the way we talk about institutions—institutions are undemocratic if they don’t have certain kinds of practices. I hear children tell their parents ‘you are so undemocratic’ if they don’t give them ice cream. Democracy is a term which is flexible and can be internalized in many different ways. While this is the conceptual power of democracy, it is also what leads to its ambiguity. More worryingly, the concept of democracy today has been challenged as Professor Thapar pointed out. There are now different types of democratic systems—people talk routinely of Asian democracy, Indian democracy, Chinese democracy and so on. So, there is a universality to the use of the word democracy in all these systems but there is also a specificity in each of them. We need to figure out what these specificities mean. I will look very briefly at both Indian democracy and Chinese democracy to show what kind of contestations are possible.

The first conceptual challenge to any idea of democracy is the term at the root of all these definitions of democracy— ‘the people’. I discuss this in my book under the section called ‘The Myth of the People’. Many writers have been worrying about this conceptual term called ‘the people’ which seems to give a certain value to the term democracy but also negates its value repeatedly. ‘We the people’: How do you define who the people are? Who is this ‘the people’? Are they the elite in society? Are they the ones eligible to vote? Are they the educated? Do people from all sections including the marginalized, women and children have an equal belonging to this idea of ‘the people’? What is the narrative, the conceptual grounding of ‘the people’ as used in a democracy?

Political democracy has very distinct ways of characterizing ‘the people’. But you could have other very different kinds of formations of what ‘the people’ are. And this is a fundamental question of the word ‘social’, which is at the bedrock of everything you call the social sciences. This idea that all of us belong to a particular society already suggests that there is a ‘we’-ness, a togetherness. This idea of the ‘we’ can be grounded in different ways—legally in terms of citizenship and socially through a sense of collective social participation. It can also be grounded through membership in groups. A lot of caste groups function through a kind of membership or belongingness to a particular group. Every time I invoke ‘we’, it is a statement that I belong to that group, that I am sharing a common social experience with the other members of the group. There are other ways of experiencing the sense of ‘we’ too. This ‘we’ can be produced through recognition of cultural similarities, religious beliefs, secular principles and other such mechanisms. In the context of democracy, we need to recognize the nature of the ‘we’ in it.

It is instructive here to look at the concept of the ‘we’ in the formation of the American democracy because it tells how differently ‘the people’ is understood within different political systems. The inception of the United States is intertwined with the production of a document—the covenant which defines ‘We, the people’. This covenant is grounded in religious thought and invokes ‘a higher moral basis’ to enforce ‘certain types of behaviour’. It was a moral document which was about how immigrants from very diverse communities will come together as one entity (country/society) called the United States. The possibility of a community is based on such a covenant since it supplies the ‘principles and guidelines’ to form the rules of a moral society, and the Constitution which follows the covenant is the ‘written operational form of the covenant’. The famous phrase ‘by the people, of the people, for the people’ comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in the context of American democracy, a phrase which has come to define democracy. So, the idea of the people is central to it. The covenant is very interesting because it is created (and the Constitution follows it) to establish a particular kind of moral society. What is that moral society based upon? The American Declaration of Independence expressing the covenant was seen by Abraham Lincoln as a document which would create a national identity for the country based on the principles of living together. But it is also important to know the need for such a covenant—why did they need it? It’s not just about diverse people coming together. There was something else which grounded this moment in the moral democratic idea of the US. The covenant was based on a particular understanding of the nature of human beings. This was the defining character of the covenant. What is that view? According to this founding principle, human beings are all caught at a dilemma between being selfish and working to benefit others. Democracy arises from the suspicion that individuals are selfish and everyone will not join together under unless it is of benefit to them. In other words, democracy needs to find a way to bring everyone together for a collective goal. If a society is dependent on the belief that unless all of us work together for another person’s benefit you cannot have a sustainable society, you produce a constitution that embodies this principle— this suspicion of the human being and this limited definition of the human being. So, right from the beginning, the American vision of democracy was built upon the institutionalization of the principle of the covenant and addressing the assumed, innate selfishness of humans.

If we are exploring the conceptual basis of what democracy is, it stems from the idea of ‘the people’ and the coming together of people. These are based on very simple ideas of how each culture understands what it is to be a human being. Do all the cultures of the world begin with the assumption of the innate selfishness of human beings, that everybody is working against the other and that you need a government and an institution and a system to make us work together? This is speculative—I am just opening up this space because as I said, my target is to be able to talk to people who disagree with me. One of the things I have so often heard when we talk about democracy is: ‘I think the British were better rulers in India, call the British back.’ I’ve heard people telling me, ‘Look at how well China is doing, so maybe China should come rule India!’ How am I going to convince them that such declarations have various hidden assumptions behind them? How do I establish this conversation with them? The least I can do is to make them think through what they say.

First of all, democracy in India has been reduced to political rituals of elections and voting, and more worryingly, none of the political parties allow for democratic practices in their own internal governance. The lack of democratic practices among the agents of democracy is troubling especially because it is spreading through all levels of society. Democracy within educational and research institutions is not seen as a prerequisite for political democracy. The fruits of democracy do not reach the poorest in India. For example, Professor Suri, a political scientist points out a very important lens through which Indian democracy has been understood:

What is surprising is that by and large, the global debates and theorizations of democracy go on as if Indian democracy does not matter. Even though (it is) the world’s most populous democracy, more than one third of the populations living in democracies is in India, in the standard textbooks and reference books or themes of democracy, India and Indian thinkers hardly figure.

Meera Chandok and Kumar present a comprehensive piece on Indian democracy and point out that one of its important influences has been the institutionalization of political equality. The impact that democratic politics has had on social structure is central to the analysis of Indian democracy unlike elsewhere, which largely emphasizes individual freedom. In evaluations of Indian democracy, the first and foremost point stressed by scholars has been the impact democratic politics has on social structure, such as the loosening of the rigid caste structures of traditional societies, giving a sense of agency to the economic and social non-elite as well as the most visible aspect of politics, defined through identity formation based on caste and religion rather than community interests alone. What has also been commented on often is the fact that it is the poor and the poorer classes that have participated in voting. So, there’s been very interesting analysis of who is voting and who the politicians are actually reaching out to. We know that participation of the middle class in elections has been insignificant compared to the participation of the poorer and marginalized classes. It has changed the way we look at the nature of voting and what it actually means to vote. The important point here, central to our analysis of Indian democracy, is that social movement of equality is reflected in the large-scale political participation of the marginalized and the poor. In other words, if democracy in the western (to use a loose term) world is about individual freedom and choice, democracy’s primary function in the Indian context has been social justice.

Therefore, Indian democracy should be seen as a social process rather than a political one. Of course, the social scientist may say that the distinction between the social and political is a difficult one to make. Democratic politics in India also produces identities. Identity politics is difficult to understand conceptually because it extends the idea of the right of individuals to the right of groups. What does it mean to say that groups have rights? Does it mean that every person in the group has rights or does it mean something else? What I am suggesting is that much of our confusion about identity politics is as much a difficulty of understanding what it means to say groups have rights just as individuals have rights. So, for example, discussions about the ‘creamy layer’ are about this question: Should everybody belonging to the so called ‘creamy layer’ within say the Dalit community, also have the rights to reservation as everybody else in that group? The real difficulty in this debate lies in conceptualizing what it means to talk about a group. This goes back to the foundational problem in the social sciences: How do you define the social, how do you define that collection? I am going to end this point by asking: What is the idea of democracy in a society in which the individual herself is a deeply social being? How do we understand this link between democracy and the individual in that context? What does the notion of freedom mean for a person who has a dominant group identity? I mention this because very often people talk about communities and religious groups voting together in Indian politics as if there is a problem in doing that, a problem that is related to not asserting one’s autonomy as an individual.

There are special challenges with which Indian democracy has not been able to grapple. For example, Gopal Guru points out in his critical analysis of liberal democracy that ‘The promise of liberal democracy in India has not really fortified for the Dalits.’ He notes that, ‘Dalit audit of liberal democracy of the past 60 years suggests that liberal democracy has proffered a skewed response to the Dalit question, one hinging on everyday forms of humiliation, degradation and repulsion.’ An important point he further makes is that a very large segment of the Dalits has remained invisible in this democracy and thus Dalits ‘from different segments have sought to critique liberal democracy for its failure to ensure substantive change with a sense of self-esteem and self-respect.’ This is an evaluation of Indian democracy, but as you see in most literature on it, it is still not moving closer to the Ambedkarite vision of not situating democracy within institutional and government practices but in terms of individual forms of social life. Before I try to give an argument on how to put some of these things together, I want to look very briefly at another model of democracy which is actually very interesting.

In December 2021, The China State Council Information office released a white paper which is titled ‘China: Democracy that Works’. In the document, China says that it is the most populous democracy, not India. I think this document is fascinating and it is worth a look for you to see how China makes an argument that it is a democracy. In doing so, you will see there are two or three conceptual difficulties but you will get an idea of how different people are posing this question of different democracies. The document begins by pointing out that the Party has led the people in realizing people’s democracy in China for the last hundred years; they have also popularized and emphasized this idea of people’s democracy and have an interesting definition of it.

They define people’s democracy as follows: ‘Whole-process people's democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people's democracy with the will of the state.’ They have a very powerful argument on why they have a democracy and what they mean by democracy. They make one or two very interesting points and we need to see if they make sense to us and how we would respond to it. The Chinese argument is very simple: a state which works keeping in mind the primacy of the people is a democratic one. ‘The people’ is very important—it is a central conceptual term for the document. So, everything they’re doing is for ‘the people’. Therefore, they are a democracy—this democracy is not just about voting and how many political parties there are. If democracy is about the wellbeing of the people and everything that the state does is for the wellbeing of the people and more and more people are benefitting from that, then that is the kind of democracy that we really want. So, their argument for the primacy of ‘the people’ is expressed as follows: ‘Whether a country is democratic depends on whether its people are truly the masters of the country; whether the people have the right to vote, and more importantly,’ they immediately add there, ‘the right to participate extensively’. Voting is not as important as participation or whether they are being given various verbal promises during elections but what is important is how many of these promises are fulfilled.

So, the whole idea of the Chinese model of democracy is not about whether you are elected, re-elected or what promises you have made but what has happened to the people on the ground after the process of democracy has happened. It is not a surprise that you discover in this document the claim that democracy is not a universal term that can be judged by other countries. The document goes: ‘Whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders.’ The reasons of course are many. The very definition of democracy depends on the understanding you have of ‘individuals’. Different cultures have different ways of understanding and conceptualizing such terms. They argue that a democracy is rooted in history, culture and tradition. The Chinese model combines the idea of democracy and dictatorship. They describe the ideas of democracy and dictatorship as symbiotic elements of Chinese democracy. To quote the document:

The Constitution describes China as a socialist country governed by a people's democratic dictatorship that is led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants. The fundamental nature of the state is defined by the people's democratic dictatorship.’ Not the state dictatorship—there is a subtle difference between calling it a State dictatorship and a People’s dictatorship. It’s very important for them to hold on to the idea of this benign form of dictatorship as essential to the idea of democracy. ‘Democracy and dictatorship appear to be a contradiction in terms, but together they ensure the people's status as masters of the country. A tiny minority is sanctioned in the interests of the great majority and dictatorship serves democracy.’

One could say ‘sanctioned’ is a ‘red flag’ but in our attempt to define what a democracy would be in the context of people, there are all these fundamental issues. I think it raises an important challenge: how do we want to formalize the ideation of the Indian democracy? Does the strength of the Indian democracy lie in the fact that each of its people can vote, or does it lie in the fact that thirty percent of the people who are in dire poverty are somehow pulled out of that poverty and brought into some notion of equality with the others? If that is the aim of democracy, what has democracy got to do with voting? That is the central concern.

I am not as invested in this argument in my book as much as in going back to Ambedkar’s argument, or reifying an Ambedkarite position on the social life of democracy and how to live democratically. That’s really the question that engages me. So, from there I included domains of democracy and begin with a simple argument: How do you expect the society to be democratic if at every level of our society there are undemocratic people? Let’s begin with the family: In what sense is a family democratic? How can you imagine a family to be democratic? The family is the most crucial element in Indian politics. What I mean by that is, the idea of the family creates the conceptual model for how institutions are run. My women colleagues often say—and we have all heard this—that patriarchy extends within institutions. How many times have you heard leaders of institutions state they function as a ‘father-figure’ to the institution? So, how do we understand families first and foremost? How do we understand what it is to be democratic in the family?

Then we come to the next important institution in society: the schools. In what sense are schools democratic? What principles of democracy are our children going to learn if they are not learning them in their classroom practices? I am not saying that we should abolish schools—they are the most important constituents in the country but I am saying there are genuine problems with democratic practices in the classroom, within a faculty, curriculum, and so on. So how do we engage with that question and what do we learn about the nature of democracy through the school? Remember that it is from families and schools that we tend to learn the most undemocratic practices which then shape our politicians. Our politicians are emerging out of the same system which has taught them the impossibility of democracy. Then how can we expect them to be democratic? Look at the Indian institutions—not just educational institutions but even the private sector in general. Private organizations are fundamentally undemocratic because there’s something else they are working towards—profit.

What is this idea of democracy you are expecting from politics when the whole society is undemocratic? That to me is the Ambedkarite challenge. Rather than just saying all this, I want to leave you making sense of the everyday social life of democracy.

I would argue that it is reasonable to suggest that the first condition for the production and sustenance of democracy in a society, in the vision of Ambedkar and Gandhi, is the production of a ‘democratic self’. If we want to talk about Indian democracies at all, there is something special about this idea of a ‘democratic self’ that is worth holding on to. What does the idea of the ‘democratic self’ mean? It will be possible to follow democratic practices in each domain of social action—from families to schools to other institutions, only if the individual self, acting in each of these domains, is democratic. This is what I mean by being the ‘democratic self’.

Now, this is a problem. The first problem is that you are reducing democracy to individuals. This is a problem always with the social sciences—we want to move away from the individual, we still are suspicious of the human individual. But I want to call it out. The shift to the democratic self is the foundation of a democratic society and government. A democratic self is produced only when we first begin by exploring how we can be democratic in one’s relations with parents, children, family, strangers and so on. Think of the enormous effort put into making individuals reasoning selves—that’s what education is all about. Modernity in general is characterized by individuals taking on the burden of reasoning for themselves. It’s not easy for us to become reasoning selves—you need a whole army of teachers to do that. Societies have to produce ideas of reason and enforces it in education right from school. The teaching of disciplines like mathematics and science for all children is one way of enforcing specific ways of reasoning. The question is therefore not whether it is meaningful to produce democratic selves but how this can be done.

How we produce a democratic or reasoning self depends on various cultural processes. Let me give you an example. The idea that you can produce an individual as a unique and privileged concept is only possible by other rules such as the postulation of the mind as distinct from the body. A simple conceptual shift that the mind is different from the body, of course, produces the kind of education where students are sitting in the class all day and are working with their minds and not their bodies. The important point we should look at today is that in this particular model, the mind is not just separated from the body but also from society. This point has come to be of great interest in cognitive science, philosophy and so on, which has deep implications for how we understand the social. The artificial exclusion of the body as well as the social from the individual mind reaches its crescendo in modernity, but it is a point that has been challenged extensively. Group thinking and intelligence in many species, for instance, show how we need to rethink our concept of the mind today. It has far-reaching implications for what we teach and evaluate in schools. There are very many reasons for believing that the primacy of the social self is central to producing this.

I will end with two examples of the idea of self from the Indian context to show you how much material is present for us to conceptualize and imagine what democracy in India would mean. There are two very important ideas on self in the Indian context. The first is the idea of self-rule or Swaraj—an idea important to Gandhi. The other counterpoised notion is Ambedkar’s view of self-respect. Both notions are explicit, specific formulations of the self and it is my contention that both are expressions of the democratic self which is primarily social in character. They can both lead to the possibility of social life of democracy.

Gandhi’s notions of self are fundamentally related to swaraj—notions of self-governance but also their dimensions of self. For example, Gandhi famously argued that there are four meanings of Swaraj: self and self-independence, national independence, political freedom of the individual, and freedom from poverty and the individual’s capacity for selfhood. All these different expressions are already present in the idea of swaraj.

The other important contribution to the argument of a democratic self can be found in Ambedkar’s concept of self-respect. Ambedkar takes a very strong position on this. He notes, ‘It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self-respect. Self-respect is the most important factor in life. Without it, man is just animal.’ He also says, ‘Nothing is more disgraceful than for a brave man to live life devoid of self-respect.’ I am sure many of you would know about D. R. Nagaraj’s seminal book, The Flaming Feet where he places Gandhi and Ambedkar in contrary positions; Gandhi 's views on self-purification and Ambedkar's concept of self-respect are counterpoised. However, a lot is left for analysis. My argument is that just as there are many aspects of self-rule, there are many different aspects of self-respect. The final point is that both self-governance and self-respect are fundamentally related to labour and one of the most interesting questions in writing this book for me was to recognize democracy’s fundamental relationship with labour. I think, more than anything else, it is the question of labour which becomes so central to our definition of democracy. What we actually see when we explore this conceptual terrain of democracy, starting with the myth of ‘the people’, is that it moves down to other different concepts which we need to clarify first before talking about what is democracy.

What is important to democracy is its ethical dimension. But what exactly are the ethical issues in democracy? In the book, I illustrate a sample of these issues in the context of voting. What do we vote for, what do we do when we vote? My argument is that voting is not just about choice but about various other things like sharing public wealth, having a sense of trusteeship and of recognising particular notions of the public. Most often democratic principles are justified using the greater good argument, which is a standard argument in ethics. However, the central argument in the context of Indian democracy has been what fetches greater help to the elite and the middle class and not so much to all ‘the people’. So, the idea of ‘the people’ has never been inclusive of the many who have been kept out of the people. So, I formulate the ethical principle of democracy as follows: if the term ‘the people’ has to have any ethical meaning—people not defined just as a social term or a quantitative term—it can only be defined from the perspective of the worst off in society, rather than the majority and the elite. ‘The people’ cannot give the same ‘value’ to every individual but the value should be based on the social position of the individual with the highest value being allotted to those who are the worst-off in a society.

Thus, the only meaningful evaluation of democracy has to be concerning governance for the well-being of the worst off in society—it is not for the well-being of all of us. This is an ethical stance central to democracy and it does not depend on the greatest good argument unless the worst off is in the majority of society.

Democracy has rarely been ‘by the people’. Therefore, it is no surprise that the rich are becoming richer while the percentage of the poor has not drastically decreased. The ethical stance in democracy lies in always acting on behalf of the worst off, the marginalized, the voiceless and the powerless in society. It is only through this definition of democracy that the latter becomes a part of daily life and begins to form a social order rather than a political one. Only through these practices can one truly build a democratic society. Thank you.

Question and Answer Session

Suchitra Vijayan: Thanks for that. Earlier today, Professor Thapar talked about a moment where for a vast majority of human history you had subject, which then becomes a rights-bearing citizen. My question is two-part: Do you believe we are in that moment where from the subject to a citizen, now there is an erosion of the citizenship, of the rights that make citizenship and we are going back to subjecthood, as we are surveilled subjects who are also consumers?

Second, you speak about ‘we the people’. My question is about the idea of citizenship. Many have already started making the argument that we are at an age of the end of citizenship. Do you believe that is indeed the case? If that is a view you take, what happens then to your own conception of what you think as democracy, as one that has to serve those farthest away from it?

Sundar Sarukkai: There are two streams. One is the formal, institutional mechanism of democracy, which is very important. Most of the political science discourse on democracy is focused on strengthening these institutions of democracy, which is absolutely necessary but not sufficient. I think, an extension of the Ambedkarite vision is the argument that these are very necessary but how should we strengthen them because we are seeing repeatedly the breakdown of democratic practices globally. This will not be possible until the shift into the social life of democracy has happened. The problem is that citizenship still remains within the institutional structures and definitions of democracy. One of the problems that I have found in engaging with people is that citizenship, for many, is reduced to certain kinds of documents which they can get for whatever reason. You could be an aspiring middle-class person waiting for a passport to study, or awaiting an Aadhar for gas connection. So, citizenship is not defined or articulated in terms of belongingness, whatever the notions of belongingness could be including legal notions of belongingness. It becomes a utilitarian or pragmatic step of getting certain goods which are afforded due to that notion of citizenship. If you are looking at ways of sustaining democracy in everyday practices, the question of citizenship does not seem to arise at least as significantly as it could. Again, that’s why I go back to this question: Where is our engagement with the people on the discourse of democracy? Elections are one particular way in which certain things are articulated but as I said, if there is no continuation of the process of democracy in social life, including the way people get treated in various sectors of society, then what does democracy and the citizenship mean for them? So, where is this public discourse?

I know, after having written this book, that what I really want to do is redo this as Democracy for Children. Because I think, my question about democracy for children is not to tell them what is democracy, who said what about democracy, not even Gandhi or Ambedkar. The point is: How do you live democratically and what does it actually mean? That is the kind of discourse with the larger public I am talking about.

Citizenship is institutionally and structurally very important but in terms of its everyday social life, I don’t see its impact. Does this mean a shift away from democracy and the nation state as Professor Thapar pointed out today? I do not believe so. Thus, since that idea of democracy is essential, how do we then view and project ourselves as democratic citizens? I am trying to qualify it very carefully. It is true at a certain level that there is a complete shift away from notions of citizenship and national citizenship to group identities—I can see this in the fissures and the ghettoization of Muslims throughout, including in places like Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. It is happening with caste communities all over too—in Bangalore, now you have these gated communities which are advertized and sold for caste groups. It is no longer about pretensions of hiding behind ‘anybody can buy it’ adverts while secretly knowing that ‘if you’re not from that caste I am not giving it you’. Now it is openly advertized as properties for certain castes, and brokers are told this very clearly. What kind of notion of identity formation or social formation is that? This is actually a failure of our understanding of citizenship.

Audience member 2: A couple of questions come to mind. When you speak about how we seem to be a democracy that is populated by rather undemocratic institutions, would you have any thoughts on what might personal praxis look like for a democratic educator? The second question is, when you speak about Descartes and the mind–body schism and healing that schism as a movement towards democracy and eventually democracy serving the society and not the individual, that sounds almost like democracy is a spiritual practice. I am wondering if that’s how you are referring to it as well.

SS: No, to the second part of it. I am not seeing it as a spiritual practice, but only as a form of social action and what it means to belong to the social. My last book with Gopal Guru was on the idea of the social, so we’ve been looking at caste and the social and I am still thinking through those points. That is the context. The first point is a very difficult question. I think I have tried to live democratically in my practices but the people who have been at the receiving end should tell you whether I have been successful or not! But at least I was conscious of trying to think, ‘Is this democratic?’ And it’s very difficult you know. When I set up the Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, I had to hire people—students and faculty, and the only guiding principle for me was, what does it mean to be democratic in this situation? It’s obviously very difficult in school systems, and that’s something I have been thinking about. Let me give you examples of why I find it frustrating to think of democracy in classroom practice. For example, this young student came up to me and told me, ‘I don’t have a choice in what I study. I don’t want to study Mathematics, there should be a choice for that.’ Today it’s Mathematics, tomorrow it could be ‘I don’t like the history that you’re teaching’ or ‘I don’t want to learn poetry’.

The question is, where then do I position the child’s capacity to decide what they want to say? I am saying this because there are some educational practices where the child will decide the curriculum and so on. I was trying to make sense of it. It’s not a judgement on whether it’s right or wrong but I wanted to see what the difficulties in doing that are and whether those are really democratic or not. For example, I think certain kinds of rigour and practice may be necessary. You, as a teacher, may think that your student should do these exercises every day for them to learn something. Now, is it a democratic choice for a child to say ‘No, I don’t want to do it’? It is this balance between a social contract as a teacher and a student, to individual practice which is within the domain of the family, or relationships, wherein lies the great challenge. Why I feel that is so important is because some of the young kids I know and have been talking to—even when I was writing this book—may be confused about these questions of democracy but this practice and talking about it to elders has made them far more sensitive. I don’t believe intrinsically that there is a power to practices of democracy and they all may be difficult and frustrating but I think their impact on students’ learning is very high. Part of it is also about more empathetic learning, less competitive learning, more social learning all of which become a part of it. I must also add a caveat to this. Many of these examples I have seen come from very elite schools or children who come from very well-off families and they have the larger support to be able to be democratic. That’s a very different problem because when I look at other schools where this is not the case, where children want to be told what to do in some sense—particularly in some of the rural schools where I’ve done some workshops. So that’s why I am rethinking what does it all mean. In general, I believe that democratic practices between teachers and students are a great help. I think it changes their learning patterns completely.

Audience member 3: I was wondering, why does China feel compelled to present itself as a democracy when liberal democracy in the world over has come under crisis? So, their argument could very well be that democracy has failed and that the authoritarian state model is the future model and democracy is obsolete. Why does China feel compelled to participate in that discourse?

SS: I think it’s geopolitics. Many documents come out of China as a rhetorical tool but it is definitely a response to the value given to democracy in geopolitics, whether it’s from the United Nations and its charters or the underlying ideological framework of ‘dominant’ nations in the West who attribute importance to democratic values. It is also a culmination of many years of trying to negotiate around this question while maintaining a communist regime. Besides, there is an internal struggle within the Communist party in favour of a free market and liberalization. There has been a major shift in China with the market economy being completely different from economic models of previous regimes—so it is just an appropriation of the term ‘democracy’.

I also think it is a dig at other countries. If you look at the detailed document, it says in one part, ‘Ninety percent of our people vote. How many people vote in your countries?’ And I was wondering who do they vote for because they only have one Communist Party? But actually, China has eight parties under that the Communist party and people can vote and choose between different people who have been nominated. So, there is a notion of ‘choice’—that’s why they are defined as a people’s democracy, and they are actually making a very important point about what ‘the people’ means. My biggest problem with this document is that it strongly believes in a legal notion of democracy—everything is about law, except they also play up on the term ‘the people’ without saying anywhere in the document what happens if there is a group of ‘the people’ who disagree with your policy. The problem with ‘the people’ is that once you have homogenized this thing called ‘the people’ for whom democracy is working, then within ‘the people’ there are other smaller peoples who are disagreeing with what ‘the people’ want. In this Chinese document, there is absolutely no mention of how you would engage, even legally, with somebody saying ‘I disagree with a person’ or I disagree with a law’. What do you do? So, there is a challenge but all this is a way for us to recognize that we cannot allow democratic governments to continue to appropriate, misuse and rhetorically play around with the idea of ‘the people’. This is such an important part of Indian politics as well. Rather the conceptual terminologies of democracy must be rephrased so it makes them more accountable to our everyday social life.


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.


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