On Democracy: Perspectives

From left to right: Daniel Bekele, Kurian Thomas, Rajmohan Gandhi and Dhanashri Shinde

On Democracy: Perspectives

Thursday, 25. June 2020


In early February, Initiatives of Change India hosted an international conference titled ‘Towards a humane world’ which focused on four critical themes: democracy, sustainability, inclusion and trust. Each theme had a dedicated day of discussion, workshops and community fellowship.

Every morning of the conference, a keynote panel featuring wide-ranging perspectives presented on the theme of the day, to stimulate the minds of participants. In addition to Rajmohan Gandhi, who opened the panel on democracy, three other contributors gave voice to their assessments.

Dhanashri Shinde

Dhanashri Shinde, Head of Shindewadi village near Panchgani

The first woman to be elected head of her village tells of learning to enlist men and women in developing the village. They won the award for the cleanest village in the region.

I am the first woman to become head of my village. Indian law states that village heads must be female at least one year in three, and I was elected.

It was difficult to persuade the men and women to work for development, but we have made progress on the spring from which we receive our water, and on covering the water channels to keep the water clean. I persuaded the women to join the council meetings. We won the award for the cleanest village.

Grampari introduced us to the idea of taking time in quiet, and this has also helped me with my family. When my mother-in-law criticised me, I saw where I was wrong, apologised to her and harmony was restored.

If more women take leadership, our country will go forward.

Daniel Bekele

Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner, Human Rights Commission, Ethiopia 

Spent two and a half years in prison, 2005-7, because of his struggle for democracy and rule of law in Ethiopia. Now under a new reformist Prime Minister, he is heading the struggle for human rights in the country.

How do we make democracy real in the face of increasing polarisation? In Ethiopia we had an authoritarian, abusive government. In the struggle for democracy and rule of law, many were imprisoned, many suffered, many died. I myself spent two and a half years in prison. And the solidarity of the international community was key in sustaining the struggle for democracy and human rights. Now under the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is on the path of transforming to a democratic form of government. All political prisoners are released, the government invited the exiled opposition leaders back to Ethiopia, it made peace with Eritrea, and scrapped repressive laws, paving the way for a democratic reform. Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions for peace in the region as well as democratic reforms in Ethiopia.

But this exciting experiment with democracy is being threatened by elites and politicians who exploit ethnic interests, inciting one group against another. At the heart of this polarisation is fear, mistrust, suspicion. This is not just in Ethiopia. Even in established democracies we see the ‘us and them’ divide manipulated by politicians and blaming the “other group.”

One of our biggest challenge is winning the hearts and minds of people to overcome mistrust and build bridges. The work of IofC is critical to meeting this challenge. Democratic transition is possible if we keep on with our struggle for a fair world.

Kurian Thomas

Kurian Thomas, Vice-President, Fetzer Institute, USA

The mission of the Fetzer Institute is to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world.

We are in a deep spiritual crisis. People are dissatisfied with democracy because it seems unable to respond adequately to crises such as climate change. We might come to a place where democracy is in a death spiral, and there is no going back. Many understand the crisis, and think tanks are spending billions of dollars to fix democracy. How do we fix it?

It is not just a moral issue. Virtues such as empathy and caring have limits. We need a spiritual response because there is no limit to the spiritual, no boundaries. A bridging force need to be build from love not fear. Fear wants the other side to lose. Love says you only win if everyone wins. We say ‘I love America’, but we can’t say that genuinely unless we say I love all Americans, not excluding anyone. That is the response we need to fix our democracy.