Photograph of VT Joshi

Photograph of Anil Chawla

Authors - VT Joshi & Anil Chawla

The article analyses the relationship between universities and functioning of democracy in developing countries.

BAILHONGAL is a small dusty town in South India. Its turbaned, turbulent landed gentry is as quick-tempered as it is prosperous. Money and muscle power blend well. The incidence of murders is very high. They practice democracy with a vengeance, as it were. The story is told of a meeting of the local municipality when the issue debated was: how many inches make a foot. "Eight or Twelve?" After an animated discussion it was put to vote. The majority verdict went in favour of "8 inches". This is a classic example, may be apocryphal, of how democracy can degenerate into an absurd game of numbers.

The basic conflicts under the type of democracy that India has witnessed for the past five decades are between wealth and wisdom, brain and brawn, knowledge and ignorance, indeed more often than not between sense and nonsense. Ask any person what he would prefer between wealth and wisdom. Pat comes the reply, though in a subdued voice, that he could give up anything in exchange for wealth. However at election time, for a politician a vote is more important than either wealth or wisdom. After the elections it is business as usual.

India prides itself on being the largest democracy in the world. Democracy has often been equated with elections. Surely elections are not the be-all and end-all of democracy. A large majority of dictators in the world have been duly elected. The dividing line between democracy, the rule of the people and mob-rule is very thin. It does not take much for democracy to metamorphose into demo-crazy or even worse into demon-cracy. In India, the use of muscle power, money power, caste power and the intrigues that are a part of internal group struggles of any Indian political party point towards a direction that is not reassuring. Not only the means employed to win elections, the behaviour of the elected representatives in the house and the way all internal dissent is crushed within political parties - indicate that possibly, India may be moving away from democracy to a state of democratic chaos.

There exists democracy for name-sake in Pakistan and Bangladesh too. But it is unlikely that anyone will really call it democracy in the true sense of the word. The picture is no different in most other developing countries where democracy is either yet to strike roots or is dead or ,even worse, a farce is enacted in the name of democracy.

It is interesting to look at the history of democracy before we shed any tears on the plight of democracy in developing countries. Preamble of India's Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens JUSTICE, LIBERTY, EQUALITY & FRATERNITY - the values of the French Revolution, a revolution that failed to secure for its people the values that it propounded. The leadership that the revolution produced was devastating to say the least. Napoleon Bonaparte, a typical product of the French revolution played havoc in the whole of Europe.

At the time when Germany lay in ruins amidst the Napoleonic depredations, out of the ruins rose yet another revolution. Its progenitor was Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the first university of modern world, University of Berlin. His thesis about the limitations of democracy formed the basis of further development of democracy. Humboldt was of the opinion that the powers of the elected representatives must be restrained by the intellectual pool at the University. This thesis looked at the University teachers as guiding and controlling force for the political leaders rather than as servants to the politicians in power. University of Berlin and Humboldt defined and established the relationships between the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the University. This was a revolutionary step that led to the revival of democracy and established a model that has been adopted by almost the entire western world. The well-known legendary prestige of Oxford and Cambridge in England stems from their role in the development of democracy in England. To this date, the think tanks at universities like Harvard, Berkley and Stanford across the United States of America have an important role in the policy formulation process in USA. The high social status enjoyed by a Professor in Britain, Europe or USA is unimaginable in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India and most of the third world countries, emerging from colonial dominance, adopted the values of the French Revolution but have not understood the Humboldt revolution in democracy. It is no coincidence that the type of leadership that is emerging in India today is almost identical to the post-revolution leadership of France. Rustic leaders like Lalloo and Phoolan are typical products of a system that makes the ruling politicians omnipotent without any checks and balances. It can be said without any exaggeration that India and other developing countries have adopted a model of democracy that had failed in Europe.

A large number of universities were set up in India after independence and to some degree these universities are the reason for the relative success of democracy in India compared to neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet, the political leadership of India has not given the prestige and importance that universities truly deserve. It almost seems ludicrous to talk of university's role in judicial appointments, policy formulation, bureaucratic appointments, checks and balances on executive and judicial officers etc. Indian universities have been projected as shops that hawk education where the role of the teacher is like that of a low-caste servant. Knowledge and Development are the basis of all development in modern society and there can be no fields of human endeavour that can do without knowledge. Instead of looking at universities as conservators and developers of knowledge, the developing countries have treated the university teacher as a coolie who carries the knowledge in a passive mechanical manner. This has, of course, done tremendous harm to the universities but it has harmed the democratic structure much more.

During Independence struggle, scholars like Dr. Radhakrishnan were actively involved in politics. After independence, it is due to the efforts of such learned men that the concept of autonomy of the universities was partly accepted in India. Yet, these illustrious men could not really bring the Humboldt revolution to Indian shores. In the last fifty years, the breed of intellectual politicians has become almost extinct in Indian sub-continent and has been replaced by ruffians who are on a perpetual ego trip, who accept no norms, no laws and no ethics. Concepts like autonomy of universities are a big joke for them. No institution is too big or too sacred for these blue-blooded men and women who can never see beyond their petty interests.

Universities provide an essential forum for objective discussion on any issue. The damage done to national interests by weakening of such forums has far-reaching effects. Universities as conservators and developers of knowledge provide the essential infrastructure in stimulating and strengthening the thought processes of a country. Demolishing this essential infrastructure or lowering its prestige leads to cynicism. For a cynic nothing is really right and nothing is really wrong. This leads to a crisis of faith for the populace. It is not possible for petty political leaders to understand the ramifications of a crisis of faith. Yet, it is a fact that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and almost all developing countries are facing a severe crisis of faith.

Where power triumphs over knowledge and wisdom, where a teacher salutes a ruffian, where the counting of heads is the ultimate test of truth - in such a society democracy cannot survive. The essential pre-requisite for democracy is a civil society which respects knowledge and truth. In the next few weeks India goes to polls. At such a time, if some questions can be posed to the Indian political leaders and parties by individuals who are concerned about democracy, it is likely that the slippage of the world's largest democracy to becoming the world's largest mob-cracy may be arrested.


Year 1999

Please write to us your comments about the above article.

VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

Website developed and managed by

MF-104, Ajay Towers, E5/1 (Commercial), Arera Colony,
Bhopal - 462016 INDIA

Subscribe to Samarth Bharat mailing list
Powered by

All Rights Free