Although it is widely if not universally endorsed and admired, democracy as a political system is still on trial in many parts of the world. This is true not only of the ex-colonial countries of Asia and Africa, but also of the transitional societies that emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet system in eastern and central Europe.
Today many people say that the success of democracy as a political system depends on the strength and vitality of the civil society on which it rests. However, the idea of civil society is both ambiguous and elastic. Political leaders, social activists, public intellectuals and even heads of international agencies call for the strengthening of civil society in the interest of democracy and development, but they have different agendas and different ideas about what they would like to strengthen.
Some put their stress on social movements which, they believe, will give direction to both democracy and development through increasingly wider participation in voluntary action and voluntary associations. Others point to stable and durable public institutions as essential requirements for the operation of a democratic society based on the rule of law. The ideas of civil society as social movement and as public institutions are not contradictory, but their emphases are different.
Both Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, and B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Constitution of India, were strong advocates of public institutions as the foundations of a democratic social order. The institutions that contribute most to the creation and strengthening of civil society are open and secular institutions. A large number of such institutions of a public or semi-public nature began to emerge in India from the middle of the 19th century onwards, and the viability of civil society has much to do with the health and wellbeing of those institutions.
Among the many institutions that contribute to the effective operation of civil society, I would like to pick out the university. The modern university is important in its own right and as an example of a new type of social arrangement based on a distinct set of ideas and values. The point I wish to make was nicely put by Nehru in his convocation address at the University of Allahabad delivered just after India's independence. He said, 'If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people,' and warned against the temple of learning being made 'a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives'. Nehru was speaking of the university not just as a centre of knowledge and learning but also as the setting for a new kind of social existence.
A distinctive feature of the modern university as an institution is its socially inclusive nature. There were many institutions of learning in the past, but until the 19th century, they excluded individuals on the basis of race, caste, creed and gender. Although universities had existed in Europe continuously since the 12th century, they began to become socially inclusive only in the second half of the 19th.
The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which were founded in the 12th and 13th centuries, admitted only men and only Christians, and that too of the established church alone, until late in the 19th century. Our universities, which were founded in the second half of the 19th century, were socially inclusive from almost the very beginning. Sir Henry Maine, one of the early vice-chancellors of the University of Calcutta, observed in a convocation address in 1866, 'The fact is, that the founders of the University of Calcutta thought to create an aristocratic institution; and in spite of themselves, they created a popular institution.' Whereas it took Oxford and Cambridge six or seven hundred years to admit women to their degrees, the University of Calcutta was awarding degrees to women within a few decades of its foundation. By the end of the 19th century, the days of the university as an 'aristocratic' or socially exclusive institution were coming to an end. Many modern institutions of different kinds have followed broadly the same course, though with varying degrees of success, in India and elsewhere throughout the 20th century.
I would like to stress that the idea of the university as an open and secular institution, or a socially inclusive one, is a modern rather than a Western idea. For the better part of their historical existence, Western universities were highly exclusive. It was only with the coming of modern times that first Western and then most universities began to be inclusive in their social outlook.
While the modern university must be socially inclusive, it has to be academically discriminating. The proper discharge of its academic as well as social responsibilities requires it to discriminate among both students and teachers, fairly and impartially, according to ability and performance. Such discrimination is vital to the proper functioning not only of the university but of any modern institution, whether a public hospital or a public corporation. Social movements that seek to do away with all considerations of ability and performance in public institutions do not enhance but diminish the vitality of civil society.
It is easy enough to distinguish in principle between discrimination on social grounds, that is, on the basis of race, caste, gender and so on, and discrimination on functional grounds, that is, on the basis of ability and performance. But it is often difficult to do so in practice, and sometimes the consequences of the second or desirable kind of discrimination appear to be much the same as those of the first or undesirable kind. Again, this may be illustrated by taking the example of the modern university.
In India, the modern university has to operate in a social environment that is permeated by vast disparities between regions, among castes and communities, and between men and women. If we apply the same high academic standards rigidly and inflexibly, large sections of the population will remain excluded, or virtually excluded, from the benefits of higher education. There is no reason why all universities in a large and very diverse country should have exactly the same academic standards for evaluating the performance of either their students or their teachers. A good university should look a little like the society in which it exists; hence, if academic standards have to be relaxed to some extent in the interest of social diversity, that in itself should not jeopardize its contribution to civil society. The same would hold true by and large for any public institution.
However, the claim of diversity, or any other claim made on behalf of the larger society, cannot set at nought the specific requirements of the university as an academic institution. Academic standards may be relaxed in the larger social interest up to a point, but they cannot be stretched indefinitely or arbitrarily without depriving the university of its focus and undermining its legitimacy. Public institutions have particular functions to perform, and they must perform those functions well, or at least adequately, if they are to contribute to the well-being of civil society. Democracy as a political system cannot work properly if the institutions of civil society are in continuous disarray and lose all their credibility.