A NATION OF SELF– GOVERNING SOCIETIES
Governance remains the most critical issue in the life and history of nations from the earliest days. While it remained a crucial problem in most of the other parts of the world, Indians handled it very effectively through locally developed mechanisms since the ancient periods. One of the most important aspects of
that attracted the attention of the observers, travelers and thinkers from the other parts of the world was the functioning of the Indian society and its peaceful nature. They were surprised to see that the local communities carried on with their activities managing the affairs of their localities, even when the country was engaged in wars. Indian traditions established home grown systems that enabled the citizens to move on even during the times of alien rulers. As a result the economic and other activities went on without interruption helping the nation to produce and create as much as possible. Hence the state of prosperity continued despite disturbances over hundreds of years. India
This was in stark contrast to the other civilizations where even when they had wealth and achievements to their credit, the social governance systems were poor. While a small minority enjoyed unrestricted access freedom, major sections of the society had to suffer for there were no proper governance systems. Most of the other civilizations needed slaves to sustain their lifestyles, in spite of an exalted status they enjoyed. So the majority population of their societies had to sustain their lives without even the basic freedom, when their masters were building monuments and the elite sections engaged in higher pursuits.
Experts who studied the Indus - Saraswathi civilization in
Harappa and Mohanjadaro note that the society at that time must have been very peaceful; they also point out to the absence of visible signs of the rulers. There were even periods when there were ‘kingless states’ in . It is important to understand that the local societies were vibrant and as such they were duly recognized by all concerned in those days. History shows that there were Sabhas (assembly of chieftains of groups) and Samitis (assembly of all men in a locality or of a group) which helped the state to govern the local societies effectively. Sometimes these assemblies played a direct role at the larger level. It is said that when the king Dasaratha anointed Sri Rama as his successor, the king summoned the Samiti for ratification of his decision. India
It is learnt that during the Buddhist’s period the day to day decisions for governance were taken in village assemblies, though the rulers were the heirs of the royal families and as such they were not elected by the citizens. There was an interesting incident with regard to the village assemblies during the period of the Buddha, which shows as to how the views of the majority worked. Siddharth was the son of king of kapilavatsu, which was the place of Sakyas. In those days the affairs of the state were discussed and decided by the general assembly called Sangh. Every Sankya youth above twenty years of age was initiated into the Sangh. At one point in time, there arose a dispute between the Sakyas and the neighbouring Koliyas over the issue of sharing waters of the river that separated the two states.
The Senapati of the Sakyas convened a meeting to discuss the issue of going on war with the Koliyas. Siddharth opposed the war which was supported by a few. The majority voted for declaring war. Hence the Senapati proposed a motion proclaiming an order calling the Sakya men to take up arms. Siddharth refused to accept it, which was construed by the Sangh as a breach of oath taken up during admission to protect the interests of his people. As a punishment for dereliction of duty as a member, the Sangh sentenced the young prince to exile from kapilavastu. This incident shows the dominant role played by the assemblies in deciding the matters related to them.
The villages used to function on their own without depending on the state. As a result they functioned as ‘republics’ with their own systems of governance. Historians connected with the visit of Alexander mention the existence of a large number of republics during those times. The inscriptions in the
, in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu dated around 920 CE demonstrate the existence of a written constitution prescribing the mode of elections to the village assemblies. Found on the walls of the village assembly and written during the reign of Parantaka Chola, these inscriptions show a highest form of the functioning democratic systems at the basic levels about 1100 years ago. The inscriptions describe the method of elections, qualifications and disqualifications of members and other relevant details. It also explains the different committees that were needed for the maintenance of tanks, roads etc and the method of selecting people to manage them. It is significant to understand that the kings themselves nurtured the local self governments and as a result a true democratic set up flourished. village of Uttiramerur
The village republics continued to flourish in spite of invasions and disturbances to the polity and structure of
, till they had to lose their status during the British domination. Sir Charles Metcalfe, the then acting governor-general of India underlined the significance of village communities in Indian life through the following words in 1830: "The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution….but the village community remains the same. . . This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the peoples of India , through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered. It is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence." India
The system of panchayat wherein the elderly and wise men of the locality deliberate and decide on issues of local importance is legendary. It is an ancient system unique to our country. Countless number of issues gets solved amicably without much difficulties and time delay at the local levels through the native governing systems such as panchayats. The native systems were largely destroyed during the British domination. The governments that came to power after independence failed to nurture such systems in the true spirit. But in spite of this, it may be interesting to note, different types of native governing arrangements exist even today in different parts of the country.
For example, studies conducted among the fishermen community of pattinavars living along the coastal parts of the eastern Tamil Nadu revealed that their villages function as little republics with a transparent system of governance by people elected for the purpose by the villagers. Major decisions affecting the village and financial matters are discussed and decided in the assembly convened on a fixed day every month. There are established systems for electing representatives, collecting revenues, using funds and managing the affairs of the village. Though the European method of governance has replaced the native methods to a very large extent, one could still notice the self governing spirit of Indians, especially in the rural and distant parts of the country.
The self governing systems of
have enabled the societies to lead a peaceful life, and concentrate their energies on productive activities. As a result the economy progressed and achievements in different fields became possible. Hence we have to understand that the self governing spirit and systems of India have helped the country to move forward even while enabling citizens to lead a happy and secured life. India
(Published in Yuva Bharati, Vivekananda Kendra, Chennai, November 2010 issue)