Democracy in India, a gift and a warning

The advent of democracy may be popularly placed in ancient Greece, but India has as much claim to the ‘mother of democracy’ tag

Published - August 15, 2023 12:15 am IST

Pali scripture. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Pali scripture. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

In the 76th year of our Independence, the Prime Minister’s statement welcoming G-20 delegates to “the mother of democracy” is plastered on billboards across the nation’s capital. Is this claim a boast without substance? Haven’t we all learned at school that Greece is where democracy originated?

With all due respect to the Greeks, both countries may have a point. Contrary to the linear narrative that democracy was invented in ancient Athens before being rediscovered and spreading around the globe in modern times, we must accept that democratic government was more common in the ancient world than many believe, even if the proportion of the population participating in Athenian democracy may have been more extensive than other places.

India’s claims are shrouded in antiquity. Some see allusions to democratic forms of government in the Rig Veda, for that most ancient of sacred texts does mention something very similar to popular government (with references to equitable resource distribution, amicable discussion, and resolution of disputes). The Rig Veda has mentioned Gramini, the village head employed by the king for civil and military purposes; while the Atharva Veda refers to the institutions of sabha, samiti, babhapati and a sabkasad (primarily performing judicial functions). Nonetheless, there is really no corroborating material evidence to authenticate a claim of “democracy”. On the other hand, Dr. Ambedkar’s arguments in favour of such practices flourishing in the Buddhist era, a period contemporary to the Greek city-states and their republics, stand up rather better.

Whereas some saw Ambedkar, with his three-piece suit and formal English, as a Westernised exponent of Occidental constitutional systems, he was inspired far more by the democratic practices of ancient India, in particular the Buddhist sanghas. As chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar argued that the constitutional roots of Indian republicanism ran deep. He remarked that some ancient Indian states were republics, notably those of the Lichhavis who ruled northern Bihar and lower Nepal in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE (around the Buddha’s time), the Mallas, centred in the city of Kusinagara, and the Vajji (or Vriji) confederation, based in the city of Vaishali. Early Indian republicanism can be traced back to the independent gana sanghas, which appear to have existed between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.

Ambedkar referred to the Vinay–pitaka, a Theravada Buddhist scripture, as evidence of existing democratic procedures in India. The scripture regulated meetings of the Bhikkhus (monks) and included rules for debates, motions, and voting through a secret ballot system in their sanghas.

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, describing India at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 326 BCE (though he was writing two centuries later), recorded that independent and democratic republics existed in India. They seemed, however, to include a monarch or a raja, and a deliberative assembly that met regularly and discussed all major state decisions. The gana sanghas had full financial, administrative, and judicial authority and elected the raja, who therefore was not a hereditary monarch. The raja reported to the assembly and in some states, was assisted by a council of other nobles.

The Buddhist scriptures in Pali provide a vivid depiction of the city-state of Vaishali during the fifth century BCE and describe the different groups that managed their own affairs. Some of these groups were probably warrior formations; others were groups with avowed economic aims; some were religious fraternities. These organisations, of whatever type, were usually designated as gana or sangha, while less important political structures were known by such terms as sreni (guilds).

The terms gana and sangha initially meant “multitude”, but by the sixth century BCE, these words came to mean a self-governing multitude. In this system, all decisions were taken by the sangha members themselves, and the governing style was stabilised by conventions applicable to such groups. The strongest of these groups functioned as sovereign governments, very similar to republics.

While hailing all this, Ambedkar was somewhat more sceptical of the Gandhian ideal of the self-governing village republic. He saw villages as ‘cesspools’ of caste oppression and social and economic backwardness, considering, from a Dalit point of view, the Indian village to be ‘a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’. It is true that a sort of democracy prevailed in ancient Indian villages: Kautilya’s Arthashastra gives a comprehensive account of the system of village administration prevailing in antiquity, and evidence of the village panchayats is also discerned in the Mauryan and Chola dynasties and during the golden era of the Gupta period.

But Ambedkar was right to point to a major flaw in ancient India’s democratic practice, the omission of an entire class of people. As he explained it: ‘Indian villages represent a kind of colonialism of the Hindus designed to exploit the Untouchables. The Untouchables have no rights. They are there only to wait, serve and submit. They are there to do or to die. They have no rights because they are outside the village republic and because they are outside the so-called republic, they are outside the Hindu fold.’

However, such omissions also existed in Greece, where people classified as slaves and barbarians exercised no rights; and till well into the 20th century, an even larger community of people was excluded from all forms of democratic practice everywhere – women. Within the restricted category of male citizens, therefore, the ancient Indian village republics were just as democratic as the city-states of ancient Greece.

American political scientist David Stasavage has persuasively argued that efforts to create institutions that limited the power of any one actor in the political system are to be found in many parts of the world in the remote and the recent past; no single society can claim credit for it. As a corollary to Stasavage’s argument, Indian democracy is as ancient as Greek democracy and both evolved independently, as did other states with assemblies throughout the rest of the world. Instead of conceiving of democracy as something that was invented, it is better to think of it as one of the elemental forms of government common to all of humanity. Democracy is our gift to ourselves – though of course, we must protect it, since like all gifts, it can also be snatched away.

Ambedkar constantly expressed fear that the democracy he had helped create in the Constitution could be undemocratically transformed: ‘It is quite possible for this new-born democracy to retain its form, but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there was a landslide of popular support, the danger of that possibility becoming an actuality is much greater.’ Amid all the self-congratulation, it is fair to say that we have been warned.

Shashi Tharoor is third-term MP (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram and the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author of 24 books, including ‘The Battle of Belonging: Patriotism, Nationalism and What It Means to Be Indian’ and most recently, ‘Ambedkar: A Life’

(Armaan Mathur assisted in the preparation of this article.)

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