How I First Learned About Democracy-My Memory of a Hindi Language Class

by Mayumi Yamamoto 

Chiranjibi Paudyal asserted that the word ‘caste’ came with colonisation. Most Japanese people don’t know this. Furthermore, when I say that India is a democratic country, they often come back with, “How is it possible to be democratic with the caste system?” The author ended his article by saying that only India can make a Dalit or a minority Muslim president, and elect a low-caste tea seller as prime minister. I’d like to add that only India keeps using many different scripts of languages. And this is the democracy I was taught.

I learned about democracy from a Hindi language class under a professor who used a textbook handmade himself. He used poor-quality paper and it looked very unremarkable but contained many meaningful sentences.

The first sentence was, “I am a lawyer.”

In those days, English textbooks designated for Japanese junior high schools started with the sentence of, “This is a pen.” So, one student asked the professor why the word ‘lawyer’ should be taught at the very beginning. Then, the professor answered that it’s because in India, lawyers were more important than in Japan, and it was the lawyers who had played very crucial roles in the independent movements. This sentence was immediately followed by another that I cannot remember exactly in Hindi, but its meaning was too profound to forget.

It was something like this: Democracy is to protect minority’s rights.

After its defeat in the Second World War, Japan was ‘reborn’ as a democratic country with a new constitution drafted by the US. However (therefore?), we didn’t understand what democracy was.

In 1970, I was in my first year of junior high school. One afternoon, we gathered sitting in a big room to discuss some controversial issues concerning us pupils. A boy acting as a chairman declared after a hasty discussion, and rather prematurely, that we should cast our vote. Since the issue was controversial, the difference between the majority and the minority was small. Several pupils were unsatisfied with the result as well as with the process to reach the conclusion. But, the boy claimed that once the issue got settled through a vote, then there’s no room for discussion anymore.

“This is democracy,” he said, triumphantly. “We are the majority.”

I remember his smirk. He belonged to the majority. I was a minority. I kept quiet, unlike some boys who objected to him. And because of this, I, as a preadolescent girl, gained the impression that under a democracy, the minority has to follow the majority. And there’s no more chance to say anything further. Out teachers were there, but not a single one of them said anything; they only observed our activity. That discouraged me, too.

My professor told us that India was the largest democratic country in the world, from the perspective of its population, diversity, and constitution. I didn’t know that until I majored in South Asian Studies as a university student in the late 1970’s.

Those days in Japan, India was known as the developing Hindu country with the deep-rooted infamous ‘caste system,’ as well as being mysterious and religious that it attracted Western hippies. In reality, India has been pursuing secularism since its independence, a fact that most Japanese didn’t know.

The misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about India was within the academic circle as well as among ordinary people. When the European Union adopted the three language policy among its member countries, my colleagues appreciated how progressive it was to promote languages other than English. I told them that India was as vast as Europe in area and integrated many diverse peoples into a single sovereign country of many different languages and scripts, and religions as well—and they shall be protected constitutionally for decades. I reminded them that they simply didn’t know about India. The concept of three language policy was not new to India. However, my colleagues were only concerned about Europe and America. These were the world for them for a long time.

It is only during the last 20 years or so that Japan has shown a significantly greater interest in India since the latter has stood out as one of the powerful leading countries in Global South.

Here in Japan, some modern thinkers of the late 19th to early 20th centuries attempted but failed to abolish the complex Japanese writing system that’s comprised of two Japanese phonetic characters blended with Chinese ideogram. Under the Westernization process of Japanese society, some modernizers advocated the exclusive use of the Roman alphabet instead. Thanks to their failure, we can now read our classic literature and access our rich cultural references.

I appreciate that the Indian government prints texts on their currency, the Indian rupee note, using their own scripts. The title of Bindiya Bedi Charan Noronha’s article, “The Right to be Different and the Right to be Treated Fairly,” summarized the basic concept I learned in a Hindi language class almost half a century ago when India was regarded as a developing country by the world. Now, the world has caught up with India.


Chiranjibi Paudyal, “Danger of Class or Caste Culture,” January 15, 2023, Indian Periodical

Bindiya Bedi Charan Noronha, “The Right to be Different and the Right to be Treated Fairly,” August 21, 2022, Indian Periodical

About the Author:

Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her latest works are “Water, my dear South Indian friend” “Why India, and not America?” in Literary Yard, and “English and Imperialism, Japan’s Experience” in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in Japanese language.

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