A course is meant to provide a theoretical understanding and analysis of an issue of concern. School for Democracy conducts courses on issues/themes of democratic importance and relevance. Depending on the nature of issue and needs of the learner group, the duration of the course may vary from a few days to a maximum of 30 days. The courses are often tailored to address targeted needs of the learners and are interspersed with practical sessions and field visits. The attendees come from a broad cross-section of rural and urban India.

The specialized courses conducted by the School for Democracy includes:

  • Indian Constitution
  • Public Policy
  • Social Activism
  • Caste and Discrimination
  • Law and Poverty
  1. Understanding the Constitution

The “rights-based” paradigm of the last two decades, which has given rise to meaningful legislation like the Right to Information, MGNREGA and the Forest Rights Act, has its theoretical underpinning in the Indian Constitution. However, most citizens have a poor understanding of the founding document of the Indian republic. Hence, “Understanding the Constitution” is an important learning at School for Democracy. 

The School for Democracy has held many constitution training workshops. The attendees come from a broad cross-section of rural Rajasthan, since the School is committed to fostering democratic dissemination at the grassroots. 

Workshops typically involve small groups of 15 to 20 people who start with understanding the Preamble. Fudamental rights and directive principles of state policy, structure of the state, panchayati raj and Constitutional Bodies are some of the topics covered. Apart from this an understanding of the Law and on political parties and ideology is done to supplement the Constitutional knowledge.

Events of current interest find their way into the discussions. For instance, a discussion on legislative items like the Whistleblowers Bill or the Right to Hearing is organised. Tailoring the content to suit local interests makes the attendees more participative. Panchayati raj is eagerly debated since it affects everyone in the village. How to draft an FIR at a police station, a practical understanding of the law, land issues etc. are hotly discussed issues. The idea is not “them” and “us”, the trainers and the trainees. Instead, it is to foster a collegiate style discussion where the “trainers” learn as much as the “trainees”.

  1. Social activism

The “Activist Initiation Course” is developed to nurture and equip young and aspiring activists. It is structured in a way that takes the activists’ existing knowledge and enhances it to give them a more rounded understanding of democratic concepts. The training included a history of social movements, structure of legislative, executive and judiciary, politics and ideology and much more. In addition, the activists were taught how to make puppets, how to play the dholak etc.   The learners are also taught skills that will come in handy in working with marginalized communities: puppet making, playing the dhol, writing letters to government officials etc. Apart from regular trainers from MKSS and Loktantrashala, external resource persons with various expertise are invited to came and handle sessions on topics such as social audits, development, the law, etc.

Loktantrashala conducted the first of its month-long learning programme for activists in November 2013. Around 10 activists working with NGO’s around Rajasthan and 10 aspiring young people participated in the programme to enhance their theoretical and practical understanding to make them more effective in their work.

The course began on the November 11, 2013 with a round of introductions and each of the trainees told a story from his/her life and why they were interested in working with poor and marginalized communities. Several of the trainee’s themselves were from similar backgrounds and were inspired to work for the uplift of their communities. The modules of the first week of the training were about issues of local importance: Panchayati raj; structure of local government; meaning of NGOs, movements and sangathans etc. As a first step, the learners were told about non-government organizations, sangathans, campaigns and movements: their structures, similarities and differences and aims. They were asked to classify the organizations they worked for. A brief history of the MKSS was also included as an example of a jansangathan that worked with rural poor. The next part of the learning enhanced their understanding of local issues, i.e. panchayats, with a day-long session on local self government. This session covered the structure and working of panchayats, officials, functions and a socio-economic analysis. Complementing this was a session on discrimination – caste, class, gender – inequality and the specific provisions in the Constitution that seek to end it.

The idea is not to have a one-way process of dissemination of information. Two hours every morning is devoted to questions from the participants. This is intended to test what they have grasped from previous day’s sessions and to answer any doubts they may have.

Week One was rounded off with sessions on “Local Problems in the Village” and “Structure of Administration”. The former module got the participants to share their experiences of what they felt was lacking or going right in their villages. The latter module demystified the structure of government (police, bureaucracy and legal) from the village to the district level, because these are the officials that they would be dealing with as activists.

Week Two was devoted entirely to understanding “Development” and rights-based legislations. Bharat Dogra, a senior journalist who has written extensively on development conducted sessions for 3 days on: deconstructing the term “development”; development for whom?; state-led development Vs. free market development, genetically modified food and agriculture; developmental planning; the right to food law, and more. Friends from the RTI Mance who joined us as external resource persons spent 3 days giving a detailed description about rights based legislation: Right to Information, NREGA, Right to Hearing, Forest Rights Act and Right to Education. This was followed by visits to NREGA work sites. Learners were also trained through practical sessions on maintaining accounts, office keeping, basics in computers, etc.

Lest it all be all work and no play, the participants played a game of football every evening in the ground adjoining Loktantrashala. This was an equal-opportunity game, involving girls and boys. The night sessions are alternated by reading or a movie screening, with the book or movie in question being socially relevant, the learners are encouraged to engage in open debates. Lunch and dinner were communal affairs, with everyone pitching in to prepare and serve meals.

The third week saw a broadening of the scope of the learning. Beginning with a history of India’s freedom movement, the participants were introduced to the structure of the state: executive, judiciary and legislature. Apart from these they learnt about political parties and ideology, the electoral process and the importance of transparency in democracy. Daulatji, a lawyer associated with the MKSS, was the resource person who educated the participants about the law and judiciary. He talked the participants through a basic understanding of the law, structure of the judiciary, writing FIR’s and legal petitions etc. 

Apart from the main themes, there were session on nationalism, society, collective vs. individual struggles, media, ethics in public life, social justice and patriarchy etc.

  1. Public Policy

Masdoor Kisan Shakti Sangatan (MKSS) and School for Democracy (SFD) together hosted a one month course for the students from National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. Forty three students pursuing their ‘Masters in Public Policy’ attended this course.

The objective of the course was to break the compartments of ideologies and perceptions the students are trapped with, and bring in the real issues, breaking inside the exclusive contours of public policy as it is commonly understood today. The orientation sought to contextualize their experience and to anchor their perception in the existing policy framework within which the under-privileged worker and small and marginal farmers are empowered to access their rights. It seeks to establish that relevant policy and implementation lie in participatory processes of policy making with people. It not only ensures better policy, but much better implementation as people know what the laws and policies contain.

The structure of the course was designed choosing a balanced approach of using both academic and practical methods of learning to understand social contexts and issues. The course was divided into theoretical sessions, field visits, individual and group work on themes and reflections on the whole exercise.

  1. Law and Poverty

The course is conceived as an exercise to investigate and understand the nature of law and the nature of justice, in the context of what we broadly characterize as poverty. It attempts to find out ‘is the law an equalizer, or does it deepen inequalities or can do it both at different times?’ The investigation on laws could be located around anti-beggary, manual scavenging, land acquisition, criminal processes such as `camp courts’ and plea bargaining, torture, death penalty, industrial disasters and compensation, laws in fifth schedule areas (or tribal areas), de-notified tribes, and any other that is drawn from the experience of the participants.

The course also attempted to address the following questions as part of the deliberations.

  • What does it mean to have ownership of a law? (eg. PESA, NFSA, NREGA)
  • Do the poor really have no use for privacy? What could it mean for them?
  • What do the ideas of principle, pragmatism, and prejudice do to what the law does?
  • How does power, control, authority affect the lives of those in various states of impoverishment?
  • How do legality, legitimacy, and notions such as illegality and encroachment affect the understanding that justice has of those in poverty?