Democracy for the illiterate
‘Reading is basic to democracy’, ran the title of an article on the opinion page of The Hindu. My antenna rose up. My brain virtually folded up its sleeves to combat anything that the article might assert. Reading shouldn’t be basic to a democracy where there are people who cannot read. So I read on.
As it turned out, I had flexed my intellectual muscles in vain. The article was talking about literacy and how to teach it. It was about how teaching literacy should encompass among other things, instilling the urge to read in children and the ability to engage and respond to the written word- something sorely lacking in the literacy initiatives that are pursued by our main stream education systems. The author makes the case for carefully chosen texts that are socially relevant and that would be conducive for this kind of literacy. Now, I have no quarrels with these observations.
However, what I do have a problem with is the suggestion that we need to be able to read and write so that we can participate in democracy. “The practice of democracy assumes both the habit and the capacity in all citizens to engage with matters which transcend personal or immediate reality…It compels every member — without exception — to share a collective anguish and to respond to it in one way or another.” The assumption that one has to be literate to be able to ‘engage with matters which transcend the personal or immediate reality….’ is flawed. If this is, in fact, true, then one wonders what kind of democracy this is. A democracy, if ‘for the people’ will not have literacy as a pre-requisite in a nation with a majority of illiterate people. Democracy cannot demand of its people; its people will demand of democracy. It almost suggests that those who read and write are better suited for democracy than those who aren’t? Should we then reconsider our democracy and redefine it to be more inclusive of the illiterate population which is by the authors own admission ‘embarrassingly large’. This is almost as exclusive a system as before the coming of the universal adult franchise.
There is, however, a saving grace line to the author’s suggestion that people who don’t read and write ‘cannot’ participate in a democracy. He says, “…engagement with this expanded universe cannot be sustained without the tools of literacy, in addition to — and not as a substitute of — the oral means of interaction.” Even so, it is offensive. Responding to and sharing collective anguish does not necessarily need the offices of literacy.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant against reading. By all means, I believe literacy should be actively pursued for all peoples. One, because it is a tool for democratic empowerment as Paulo Freire has demonstrated. And two, and at a very personal level, I would like people to derive the immense pleasure that I receive from reading. Yes, it opens up windows and doors to completely new worlds. And yes once people learn to read and write they have one ‘other’ way of participating in a democracy. But until then our democracy had better cater to the large population that is as yet illiterate because they deserve a democracy that they can work.