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Democracy As Idea & Practice

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By Ritty Lukose

From the Fall 2016 Gallatin Today

Many years ago, I conducted anthropological research on youth culture and student politics in southern India. One day, a teacher sat idle (the college was shut down again), watching yet another student demonstration. As they marched by shouting, “Inquilab Zindabad! (Long Live the Revolution!),” she said, “That is not democracy, it’s demo-crazy.”

Her comment is a window into the complex and variegated terrain of a term like “democracy.” It is an idea with a universalizing horizon that has galvanized action across borders and boundaries; contestations over its meaning are at the heart of what we might call the democratic struggle. How should we understand the intellectual and conceptual resources for the emergence of this idea, and how do we account for its circulations? It is also a practice, like the daily demonstrations I saw, deeply embedded in forms of sociality and conflict. How do we understand the relationship between the practice of democracy and the idea of democracy around the world?

These are some of the questions that guide my teaching. For example, in my course “Imagining India: From the Colonial to the Global,” we take up the notion that India is the world’s largest democracy. What is the relationship between India’s colonial past and its postcolonial democratic experience? Did democracy as an idea come to India from the West? What contributions to democratic thinking and practice did important political thinkers such as MK Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and BR Ambedkar make? How did these thinkers engage cross-cutting intellectual traditions to account for India’s specific cultural, historical, and political traditions while appealing to a universalizing democratic ethos?

In another one of my classes, “Thinking Sex/Gender Globally,” a central focus is democracy and citizenship for gender and sexual minorities
across borders and boundaries. Do feminism and struggles for sexual minorities’ rights emerge in the West and spread to other parts of the world? Or do such political projects have their own traditions, and how do we link those traditions with the circulations of ideas and practices of gender equality and democracy?

“Democracy” is a potent idea, freighted with ideological meaning, backed by powerful armies. It is also taken up by the relatively powerless in their struggles for justice and freedom. Moving between democracy as idea and practice, in classes that examine the history, culture, and politics of the non-West, necessarily entails an invitation to think about how alternative democratic traditions have been forged, shaped by unequal histories of power and inequality. It is also an invitation for students to explore how cultural and historical contexts shape the practice of democracy, however “crazy” it might be.