India, unlike many other nations, adopted universal adult franchise immediately after it gained independence. Under British rule, franchise was subject to certain qualifications like property ownership. Indian political leaders resisted this and made universal adult franchise a key political demand right from the late 1920s. So when the British left, a majority of the Constituent Assembly members voted in favour of the adoption of universal adult franchise. Not all members though, were happy with this decision.
On 22 November 1949, the Constituent Assembly was winding up its drafting of the Indian Constitution. These last few Assembly sessions were an opportunity for members to voice their impression of how the Constitution turned out.
H.N. Kunzru, veteran freedom fighter and parliamentarian, appeared to be quite uncomfortable with the Constitution’s adoption of universal adult franchise. He agreed that property was ‘not a satisfactory basis of franchise. If a man does not pay a tax or does not live in [a] house of a particular value, he does not thereby cease to be a citizen’.
But he was unsure if ‘sudden expansion of the franchise that will be brought about by adult franchise will be helpful to the development of democratic ideas and that sense of discrimination and restraint on which the successful exercise of democracy depends’.
He preferred a more gradual expansion of the franchise. He felt that this would have given enough time for ‘political parties and individual candidates to meet the electors and educate them’. With full adoption of universal franchise in one go, he feared that ‘the education of the electorates will be a needlessly difficult task’.
He hoped that political parties -
‘will take all possible measures to enable the electorate to understand the duties that it will be called upon to perform and to provide the conditions that will make it possible for the elector to become a self-respecting citizen capable of thinking out, at any rate, the ordinary issues for himself.’
The fact that most Indians were poor and lacked property was not an impediment to democratic participation. But the lack of education was – and this had to be addressed.
Kunzru was not talking about education in the abstract. He emphasized a specific type of education, i.e. political education: this allowed citizens to actively participate in a democracy. Interestingly, Kunzru identified political parties as one of the critical facilitators of political education for the masses. He felt that parties had to create a certain political culture and ambience that allowed citizens to become democratic.
Kunzru’s speech pushes us to think in a certain way about education and its role in a democracy. Seen through his eyes, the basis on which the recently introduced National Education Policy 2020 should be judged is not its capacity to produce employable adults. Instead, Kunzru would ask: Does the NEP do enough to create empowered citizens who can sustain and protect India’s constitutional democracy?
Blog: Democratic Citizenship:
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