Nurturing democrats: education and democracy



I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

                         – W. H. Auden

LIKE many other democracies India’s democracy also comes with many qualifying adjectives, among others ‘patronage’, ‘electoral’, ‘illiberal’, ‘precocious’, ‘deficient’, ‘reduced’. These adjectives have changed over time but increasingly they indicate a decline in the quality of India’s democracy. Many reasons have been attributed for this, ranging from the weakening of India’s public institutions and political parties (especially the Congress), the grievances and anxieties of the majority community assiduously stoked by the ruling party, the insidious effects of social media, legal changes and shifts in bureaucratic practices, and the like.

The ease with which democratic backsliding has occurred without too much protest or resistance raises the question why Indian society has found it so much easier to accept this reversal. While there certainly have been protests, such as against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or National Register of Citizens (NRC), or the farmer protests, these have by and large been few and far between.

This essay explores another comorbidity behind the weakening of India’s democracy: education. In general education is viewed as strongly correlated with democracy. But given that Indians today are much more educated than in the past, at least formally, this seems puzzling. Even as India has become more educated, its democracy is becoming less healthy. However, India is not exceptional in this regard. Democratic backsliding is apparent worldwide even as the world has become more educated.

Empirical evidence on the democracy-education link in India is mixed. Survey data from the 2014 National Election Study (conducted by Lokniti) found little difference in voter turnout between illiterate and literate voters. However, among literate voters, turnout among the college educated was lower than among the less educated. A more recent Pew survey (conducted in late 2019-early 2020) asked respondents which would be better suited to solve the country’s problems: a ‘democratic form of government’ or a ‘leader with a strong hand.’ While 46% of respondents preferred the former, 48% preferred the latter. However, those with a college degree were more likely than those with less education to prefer a democratic form of government (51% vs. 45%).1

Why has education’s promise with regards to democratic deepening been unrealized? The hypothesis that education leads to a more democratic politics enjoys wide support. Indeed, for some the ‘correlation between education and democracy is clear.’2 Education has been viewed as a crucial determinant of ‘civic culture’ and a higher participation in a whole range of social activities, which in turn drives greater participation in democratic politics.3 This could be either because education indoctrinates the virtues of political participation or because education also produces social capital via the innumerable social interactions within classrooms and educational institutions. By improving inter-personal skills, education facilitates civic engagement and thereby greater political participation. 

That democracy needs education seems pretty intuitive, but that simply opens a can of worms about education itself: the types of education, the content of education, how it is provided, who provides it etc. The classic works linking democracy and education – such as John Dewey’s, Democracy and Education (1916) and Amy Gutmann’s, Democratic Education (1999) – were rooted in the philosophy of education and how it could be imparted in more democratic ways, rather than the effects of education on democracy. 

In pre-colonial India, education was essentially a system of rote-learning within ‘gurukuls’ and ‘pathshalas’ (and severely limited to a tiny upper caste group) and ‘madrasas’. The colonial education system was geared to providing clerks and babus to the colonial administration, further entrenching a rote system of education. Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo and Krishnamurthy, all sought to rethink education as a way to inculcate internal virtues (values) in human beings, especially empathy and service. Their thinking and experiments largely died with them. Others (such as Krishna Kumar) have also tried to move the education discourse beyond standards, accountability, and exam results to values such as habits of cooperation, critical and creative thinking and the need to be aware democratically conscious citizens. But the vice-like grip of the former remains undiminished. This is apparent in the three key arenas of education: schooling, college and professional education.

The dismal failures of ‘socialist’ India to provide the most basic public good of universal schooling in the first half century after independence is well known. Primary education was constitutionally a state subject but almost no state government (Kerala and later Himachal Pradesh were exceptions) showed a commitment to mass education. Despite the rise of lower castes to political power, these parties also failed to do much in this regard. The fact that a communist government in West Bengal, in power for more than three decades, performed so weakly on primary education – the one area that communist governments worldwide have performed well on – underscores the neglect.

Paradoxically, central governments in neo-liberal India – the NDA with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the UPA with The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act – gave much greater emphasis to universal education. But while India has made substantial progress in access to schools and higher education, learning outcomes are extremely weak. This seems unlikely to change soon. The education system in states is a ‘sorting and selection’ system rather than focused on ‘human development’ more broadly, structured to ensure schooling but not learning.

This apathy is manifest in multiple dimensions. The large number of teacher vacancies, endemic teacher recruitment scandals in states of all political stripes and high absentee rates of public school teachers (despite being much better paid than their private counterparts), are all well documented realities and a damning indictment on how well India’s politicians safeguard the interests of the country’s children. Lip service apart, no political party either understands or has a deep commitment to improving learning, let alone ‘joyful learning’. Children do not vote or protest and hence have no political voice.

In principle, ‘extramural education’ – within families, cultural institutions, and mass media – can potentially  offset  the gaps (at least partially) of weak school education. But how likely is that in India in the foreseeable future? Two interventions, however, could at least potentially break rigid social boundaries and build a more egalitarian ethos among children, with longer term payoffs for democratic values. While the Mid-Day Meal programme’s (the world’s largest school feeding programme) primary aim has been to improve the nutrition of undernourished children and school attendance, it also had the potential of commensality, with children from all social groups eating together. But this will not occur if specific social groups migrate to private schools.

The RTE Act mandated the appropriate government to provide free and compulsory elementary education to all children in a neighbourhood school and requires admission of children belonging to weaker sections of at least 25 per cent of the strength of that class. A study in Delhi schools has found that having poor classmates makes rich students more prosocial and egalitarian and less likely to discriminate against poor students, and more willing to socialize with them.4 Of course this depends on enforcement of the Act, which likely has a long way to go. 

The economic benefits of higher education are well known. But reducing its benefits simply to measurable economic payoffs overlooks its wider societal benefits. Universities have been seen as not only facilitating national development and industrial competitiveness, but also promoting democratic ideals.  James Conant, president of Harvard University in the mid-20th century, argued that a strong system of higher education was crucial to the success of democracy, contributing to greater social mobility and egalitarianism. Conant asserted that the absence of an egalitarian system of education in interwar Germany made possible ‘the submissions on which authoritarian leadership has thrived.’5 

Colleges and universities are a key social space where the effects of education on political participation play out through student activism. Students everywhere resist authority in different ways and protests, peaceful and otherwise, are its most visible manifestation. However, the global evidence is more compelling that students organize to participate in collective action than the evidence of their preference for democracy per se. As with many other countries India had a rich tradition of student protests going back to the freedom struggle. However, after independence there was a marked increase in student protests accompanied by violence from the 1950s through the early 1990s.

During the 1950s large scale disturbances and student unrest and violence led to periodic shutdowns of universities in Amritsar, Banaras, Calcutta, Gwalior, Indore, Jaipur, Lucknow, Mysore, and Patna. In 1959, student protests and violence shut down three prominent universities, Lucknow, Allahabad and Mysore. The precipitating events were a professor accused of molesting a female student (Lucknow), a student going on hunger strike because he was not promoted (Allahabad) and students not getting holidays and free admission to a national student festival. The issues were local and university specific, which in most other settings would normally be resolved by university administration. Instead, as the Education Commission’s report of the mid-1960s lamented, they led to, ‘walkouts from classrooms and examination halls, ticketless travel, clashes with the police, burning of buses and cinema halls and sometimes even manhandling of teachers and university officers...’

For three decades (between 1958-1988), on average there were almost 15 student related incidents/protests every day of which more than a fifth turned violent. Between 1970-75, more than 30 per cent of all student protests were violent.6 Student protests rose from a hundred or so annually by end of the 1950s to a few thousand by the end of the 1960s to ten thousand plus by 1980. But in the new millennium they dropped by an order of magnitude.

Numerous studies sought to understand the reasons for the phenomenon. After Banaras Hindu University was forced to close in 1958, a committee appointed by the President noted that the central university’s all-India character had waned and instead the university had become a ‘hot bed of intrigue, nepotism, corruption and even crime.’ The ‘real menace to the satisfactory working of the university [lay] in the teacher-politicians and the formation of groups which dominate
in all affairs of the University.’
7 That diagnosis was even more true in the dozens of state universities. A journalist after visiting ten Indian universities in early 1960 pithily summed them as places where ‘The demoralized teach the disgruntled.’8 

The proximate causes for student agitations ranged from issues like hikes in tuition or examination fees, demands for concession on transport and cinema tickets (or refusing to pay for either), prices of textbooks, strict exam proctoring, student union elections, delay in announcing examination results, filling vacant teaching posts etc.

But there were deeper causes for the malaise as the Education Commission noted. Students increasingly came ‘from comparatively or entirely uneducated homes and are ill-prepared at the secondary level to undertake genuine university work; they have little experience of independent study; their curiosity is not quickened and learning for them is mainly a matter of mechanical memorization. There is, as a rule, little discussion of intellectual matters with their teachers or fellow students; their main duty is considered to be to attend uninteresting lectures usually given in a language which they understand inadequately. When the medium is an Indian language, there is a dearth of suitable textbooks and supplementary literature necessary to achieve competence in their subjects.’9 And to top it, there was a ‘failure to provide adequately for student welfare’ which it argued ‘constituted an integral part of education.’ Student services such as orientation for new students, health services, residential facilities, academic and job guidance and counselling, student activities, were dismal or non-existent.

The hierarchical nature of university administration, its inability to communicate and listen to student’s concerns, and the lack of jobs commensurate with aspirations for those with run-of-the-mill college degrees, inevitably led to intense frustration, which would often erupt in violence.

Fundamentally, higher education had expanded much too rapidly. As the Janata government’s Minister of Education admitted in Parliament in 1977, most students entered college ‘because they have no opportunities on entering on a career after finishing their High School course.’ As a result, there simply were not enough resources – financial or human (in the form of good teachers, researchers and admin-istrative staff). The ‘too-rapid expansion of higher education led to collegiate slums, custodial institutions, and high levels of wastage.’10 That has continued. For its level of income, India’s Gross Enrollment Ration is substantially higher than what other countries had at similar income levels.

If universities were regarded as sites of creating a broad cosmopolitan outlook, their growing parochialism severely undermined that promise. In the early years after independence most universities were state universities, and many had strong faculty representation from outside the state. Gradually, however, the faculty (and students) were overwhelmingly drawn from within the states. Central universities were not exempt either.

The Report of the Committee to Inquire into the Working of the Central Universities in 1982 found that in Banaras Hindu University, 83% of students were from UP and more than 9% from Bihar; in the case of Aligarh Muslim University, 80% of students were from UP (again from a few districts) and another 11% from Bihar; 92% of students in the University of Hyderabad were from Andhra Pradesh; in Viswa Bharati, 82% of the students were from West Bengal; and all the students in North Eastern Hill University were from the region. Only JNU was more broadly representative. The faculty composition was similarly parochial, and the vast majority were appointed from within, which [the Report noted], ‘reinforce our findings on increasing localization and inbreeding in the University about which the committee is greatly concerned.’ Not much has changed in the four decades since.

In recent years the central government has been replicating the few examples of successful professional public higher education institutions. These include engineering (IITs), medicine (AIIMS) and law (NLSs). As every state demands – and gets – one of each, the risk that these too become increasingly parochial will also grow.

As universities became increasingly parochial, they began to be increasingly drawn into the vortex of intensifying social and political competition and student politics became an extension of competition among political parties. India’s social divides, especially caste and language, that drove politics also factionalized student politics. The latter was often particularly violent with agitations in Assam, led by AASU, an especially egregious example. And for many student leaders the protests were less about the interests of students per se than a mechanism to bolster their political prospects after leaving college.

There were certainly broadbased student movements that bolstered democracy, with the Navnirman Andolan in 1974 in Gujarat and the concurrent Chhatra Sangharah Samiti in Bihar, exemplars. There was another outburst in 1989-90 in the aftermath of the adoption of the Mandal Commission’s report by the V.P. Singh government, but this was largely by upper caste students protesting against reservations for OBC students. Student engagement with political and social issues began reflecting the wider cleavages in Indian society and politics.

In recent years, a growing Dalit student community has become more assertive in challenging upper caste prejudice. Protests such as those by students demanding the scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), highlighted the divisions among students, with one group (mainly in the capital) protesting its exclusionary provisions (against Muslims) while another group (in India’s North East) protesting that it was too inclusionary (by giving citizenship to non-tribal migrants). And since the 2010s, a distinctive type of student violence emanated from student groups linked to the ruling party. These challenged the most basic idea of a university – academic freedom – by attacking any dissent challenging the government, negating the very idea of a university.

Much of India’s middle class and almost all of its political class is a product of deeply flawed higher education institutions over more than half century. While aggregate levels of protest and violence in those attending the tens of thousands of new private colleges is substantially less – perhaps because students are spending serious money – their academic quality does not inspire much confidence in their emerging as new sites of deliberation and dialogue that can be a harbinger of democratic engagement.11  

For most Indians, the promise of higher education lies in becoming an engineer or doctor, accountant or architect, or even a nurse or teacher. The obsession with professional education has, however, failed to build a deep ethical commitment to professional norms. That in turn undermined public distrust of expertise, making it much easier for ‘fake news’ to become rampant and taken seriously by the lay public. Moreover, the professions are a key component of civil society and failures in higher education and the governance and standards of the professions in India weakened civil society’s role in bolstering democracy.

The links between higher education and the professions has a critical impact in shaping the attitudes and sensibilities of India’s middle class, of which the professions are its vanguard. Since liberalization, higher education in India has expanded ten-fold and, in principle, should have shaped the attitudes and values of the large middle class it has generated. However, a professional who has paid a premium price for his credentials while receiving a poor quality education will not only cut corners to recover that investment but will also have little regard for professional norms and ethics since his education did little to impart him with any professional values to begin with.

Historically, the professions have played an important role in raising the social prestige of their members, largely by acquiring a substantial degree of self-regulation on formal admission and performance standards. It has long been recognized (going back to Durkheim’s classic work, (‘Professional Ethics and Civic Morals’) that the state simply cannot perform the regulatory function of professions. While professional associations derive some of their regulatory power from the state, they are usually (at least in democracies), not part of the state. The source of the legitimacy and social power of the professions lies in their ‘public morality’ which requires them to practice (and enforce) strong codes of professional ethics. As Durkheim put it, ‘professional ethics will be the more developed, and the more advanced in their operation, the greater the stability and the better the organization of the professional groups themselves.’

India’s professional bodies – be it the governing bodies of accountants, architects, lawyers, doctors, engineers or teachers – have fundamentally failed to achieve the goals they were set up for. Many of the heads of the regulatory bodies governing the professions have been indicted for corruption. The Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India (replaced by the National Medical Commission in 2020) representing two key professions, are exemplars of the failure to curb professional misconduct.

The teaching profession is another example. It has undermined itself in part because of the pitiable state of teacher training institutes, in turn the result of the workings of the National Council of Teachers’ Education (NCTE). This body grants recognition to self-financing private BEd colleges but has manifestly failed to maintain the required standards of teacher education. The NCTE is a statutory body that came into being in 1995 ‘with a view to achieving planned and coordinated development of the teacher education system throughout the country, the regulation and proper maintenance of norms and standards in the teacher education system and for matters connected therewith.’

A study conducted in Haryana found that in 2000 the state had 22 BEd degree granting colleges, of which four were so-called self-financed colleges with a total of 1700 seats. By 2016, the number of colleges had increased to 524 (of which 508 were self-financed colleges) and seats to 60,672 (46% of these seats remained vacant).12 Many of them do not have regular faculty or infrastructure for classroom teaching and degrees were granted without attending classes, since they existed largely on paper. One Chairman of NCTE was charged with corruption and it has had to ask all its employees to furnish details of their income and assets including property. When the teachers are trained in such circumstances, what are society’s expectations of what they will be able to teach – and what type of students will emerge with such teachers?

Professional associations were seen as distinctive among intermediary associations in civil society. Analysis of India’s democracy generally give shrift to the vital role of civil society in the institutional architecture of a democracy. The British theorist John Keane has argued that civil society is a ‘realm of freedom’ and hence has ‘a basic value as a condition of democracy.’ The quality of democracy depends not just on characteristics of the polity, state or regime, but also of certain structures in civil society, such as professional associations (as well as social movements or more amorphous civic cultures). Civil society and associations are an important bulwark that provide individuals protection from the state.

The problems of governance and institutional malaise in the governance of the professions in India are an important reason not just for the weaknesses of the professions themselves, but in their larger failure to hold the state to account – a failure that is all too manifest today.

Two pathologies of education in India have been remarkably consistent: the absence of autonomy and the obsession with exams. Just after independence, the Report of the University Education Commission (1949) emphasized that: ‘Freedom of individual development is the basis of democracy. Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies…We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices. Intellectual progress demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry…Professional integrity re-quires that teachers should be as free to speak on controversial issues as any other citizens of a free country. An atmosphere of freedom is essential for developing this ‘morality of the mind.’

While pointing to the ‘many grievous shortcomings in our universities as they exist today and many reforms that must be made,’ it emphasized, ‘we do not believe that more control from outside is the way to achieve reform. On the contrary a great many of the present evils arise from the fact that most of our universities have no real autonomy whatever and have proved incapable of resisting pressure from outside. Universities should…never let themselves be bullied or bribed into, actions that they know to be educationally unsound or worse still, motivated by nepotism, faction and corruption. The right public: policy is to give a university the best possible constitution, securing among other things of the inclusion, of wisely chosen external members of its governing body and then to leave it free from interference.’

That self-evidently, did not occur. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, politicians acquired a vested interest in the affairs of universities, seeing them as possible sites for not just political recruitment, but expanding patronage resulting in state universities effectively becoming appendages of government offices. But to a considerable degree universities themselves abdicated their core functions in protecting their autonomy and professionalism. As Kapur and Mehta argued, ‘the enemy of the academy has not been an evil state, but the opportunism and supine attitude of boards of trustees and university administrators. But this is an outcome of the state sponsored selection system.’13 

Just as India’s democracy has virtually become reduced to elections, India’s education has long been obsessed with exams. The aforementioned  Report of the University Education Commission emphasized both the chronic nature and the magnitude of the baneful effects of exams on Indian higher education:

‘For nearly half a century, examinations, as they have been functioning, have been recognized as one of the worst features of Indian education… The obvious deficiencies and harmful consequences of this most pervasive evil in Indian education have been analysed and set out clearly by successive Universities Commissions since 1902…while the magnitude of the problem has been growing at an alarming rate nothing constructive in the way of reform has happened. ...In our visits to the universities we heard from teachers and students alike, the endless tale of how examinations have become the aim and end of education, how all instruction is subordinated to them, how they kill all initiative in the teacher and the student, how capricious, invalid, unreliable and inadequate they are, and how they tend to corrupt the Moral standards of university life… We are convinced that if we are to suggest one single reform in university education it should be that of the examinations.’

Six decades later, as one analysis pointed out, ‘there is little incentive to take education at the college degree level seriously because these degrees are no more than purely formal requirements – they do not signal quality… greater attention and resources are devoted to those arenas which now de facto perform signaling functions, such as entrance exams and competitive tests. This leads to the creation of an almost parallel system of education. Since the formal institutions are disconnected from these signaling mechanisms, informal institutions such as coaching classes dominate the intellectual space.14

The tens of millions of who joined the lower middle class in the last two decades now have much greater aspirations for their children. But constricted job opportunities, means that competition to get into the limited number of institutions that signal quality, has become more intense. In 2018, a NSS study found that nearly 20% of students attending pre-primary and above level were taking private coaching in India. At the secondary level the number was 30%.15 A majority of families opting for private tuition were from lesser privileged classes.

Parental anxieties have resulted in an obsession with exams and then the tuitions purportedly necessary to succeed in them. Education has become an unhealthy competition, pitting children against each other. Values such as habits of cooperation, connection, and critical and creative thinking, that are so important for an engaged citizenry that make for a healthy democracy, get short changed.

The structure and characteristic of India’s education system have also contributed to the failings of the professions. The discourse on addressing their weaknesses has focused more on how to ensure greater accountability but less about how to cultivate a greater ethic of responsibility. The former relies on extrinsic motivation and the latter more on intrinsic motivation. Of course, both matter, but the better the systems of education in the different professions, the less the need for putting in systems of accountability which in India are unlikely to be enforced in any case. 

The very success of India’s electoral democracy led to what Jaffrelot and Kumar (2012) called the ‘Rise of the Plebeians’ (who first captured power in the states and then at the Centre), whose educational and ideological backgrounds gave them little understanding of the liberal idea of a university – and education in general. More fundamentally, no political party really cares about learning and knowledge – what it means and how it is nurtured. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that for many in India, WhatsApp appears to have emerged as the principal source of knowledge, sown over many decades in India. In not nurturing a democratic sensibility in yesterday’s students in schools and colleges, India’s democracy is now reaping the whirlwind sown over many decades from today’s voters and politicians.


1. Pew, ‘Nationalism and Politics’ in Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, 2021.

2. Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo A.M. Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer, ‘Why Does Democracy Need Education?’, J Econ Growth 12(77), 2007, p. 99. DOI 10.1007/s10887-007-9015-1

3. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. (1st ed. 1963.) Sage Publications, London, 1989, p. 315.

4. Gautam Rao, ‘Familiarity Does Not Breed Contempt: Diversity, Discrimination and Generosity in Delhi Schools’, American Economic Review 109(3), 2019, pp. 774-809.

5. James B. Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. Knopf, New York, NY, 1993, p. 403.

6. Third Report of National Police Commission, 1980, Appendix VI.

7. Report of the Banaras Hindu University Enquiry Committee, 1958. 

8. Cited in Subas Chandra Hazary, ‘Protest Politics of Student Youth in India’, The Indian Journal
of Political Science
49(1), 1988, pp. 105-120.

9. Report of the Education Commission, 1964-66, Vol 3: Higher Education, para 11.

10. Lloyd I. and Susanne Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 298.

11. More than three-fourths of India’s colleges are privately managed accounting for two-thirds of total enrolment.

12. Anita Deswal, ‘Business of Teacher Education in Haryana’, Economic & Political Weekly 52(11), 18 March 2017.

13. Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘Mortgaging the Future? Indian Higher Educa-tion’, India Policy Forum, 2007-08, pp. 101-157.

14. Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘Mortgaging the Future? Indian Higher Educa-tion’, India Policy Forum, 2007-08, pp. 101-157.

15. NSS Report No 585, ‘Household Social Consumption on Education in India’, 2020.