On Republic Day, quiz yourself. What do the words ‘republic’, ‘sovereign’, and ‘democracy’ mean? If you find yourself fumbling and come up with answers that would do Munnabhai proud, ask yourself why.
“I just can’t recollect their meanings. Please don’t quote me on this,” says a 24-year-old advertising professional who goes on to quickly blame his civics teacher for his ignorance. “While the same teacher enjoyed teaching us history, civics was always meant for self-study. Maybe she was uncertain about the complicated structure of government herself,” he says, describing how his civics textbooks were always poorly produced, flimsy and repetitive in content.
The unimaginative way in which civics-the study of the relationship between citizens and the state-is taught in schools has long been an object of censure. Many children struggle with abstract concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘secularism’, and teachers are often unable to cut through the confusion building up in young minds. With learning by rote often being the only way out, a proper grounding in the principles of the modern state are rarely laid in the classroom. One solution is to have extra-curricular visual props in the form of, say, Amar Chitra Kathas, the comic book series which has transformed history from boring to exciting.
Alex George, author of the book, Children’s Perception of Sarkar: A Critique of Civics Textbooks studied textbooks that were used from the late 1970s to 2001. He says, “Texts were based on the assumption that teaching the powers, functions, and the nature of political institutions would lead to the making of empowered citizens. But my study proved the reality was contrary.”
One reason for this disconnect, George says, is that textbooks scrupulously keep mainstream politics and political parties out of any literature on political institutions. “For instance, textbooks talk about elections but don’t mention political parties, they talk of law-making without stating how the law can affect you or which section in the society may claim or oppose the law.”
After the terror attacks, Mumbai’s elite and youth, whose collective expressions of outrage soon dissipated, were criticised for being politically apathetic and disconnected. Dr Sudha Mohan, associate professor in the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai thinks there is a general lack of political ethos among citizens today. “Contentious terms like ‘civil society’ are being used without any thought. Nomenclature is being misused blatantly, with people using words based on strange associated ideas they have of them,” Mohan says, citing the example of the word ‘civic’ being used for ‘garbage collection’.
All kinds of patriotic emails and SMSes were mass-forwarded to friends and family, many of them stamped with a laughable ignorance of how the political process worked. One such email declared, “A person can go to the polling booth, get his finger marked and convey to the presiding election officer that he doesn’t want to vote for anyone.” It said, confidently, that if the number of voters who opted to invoke Article 49 were more than the number of votes cast for any of the candidates, there would be a re-poll. In reality, Article 49 of the constitution deals with the protection of historical monuments, but few were any the wiser.
However, several other groups decided to go beyond slacktivism (activism limited to SMS and Facebook groups). One group, Fight-Back, which wants to inculcate values of nationalism among the youth, has co-ordinated with 368 schools to get the students to read out their Fundamental Duties on Republic Day. For many others, January 26 is just like any other holiday.
Dr Suhas Palshikar, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Pune, says the grand parade in New Delhi is a ceremonial function that bears no symbolism to India being a republic. “Citizens aren’t emotionally connected to R-Day celebrations. It should be a day to showcase people’s power, making it easier for them to connect to the word and its meaning,” he says.
And for those still thrashing around for the definition of the word Republic, here it is: a political order whose head of state is not a monarch. On January 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution came into force, officially making India a Republic.