The Practice of Democracy in India - A Short Synopsis

The article by Rakesh Goyal on the ideas of democracy of ancient India, while useful in providing a theoretical construct, is inadequate in putting forward the practical constructs of these ideas in ancient India. This is problematic, since there is ample evidence in favor of the same. There are several examples of democratic traditions in practice in India. I shall be presenting two particular instances in India to highlight the thriving practices in ancient India. I shall also be putting out the actual practices adopted to safeguard interests and note the potential diversity of the democratic practices observed in ancient India. Also, while the systems have been noted by Mr. Goyal as evidence for democracy in India, his article also lacks an elaboration on the criticisms of the systems thereafter in various texts, which have been given only summary reference, which we shall also briefly touch upon.

AshtaJanapada System and the Republican Democracy
For those who have read Hindi literature, Acarya Chaturasena needs no introduction. A lovely Hindi author and an Ayurvedic physician par excellence, he was as a consequence of his profession also an expert in Sanskrit and Pali. In his magnum opus Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu, Acarya Chaturasena actively describes from history the makeup of the Vajji Sangha (confederacy or republic in the modern sense), which had formed after the kingdom of Videha of the Mahabharata era had broken down. This Sangha consisted of eight janapadas, comprising of the eight clans of Videha, Licchavi, Kshatrik, Vajji, Ugra, Bhoja, Ikshvaku and Kaurava. Together known as the Ashtakula, the first four were the strongest and most prominent. Videha’s centre of power was Mithila, Vaishali was the center of power for the Licchavis, while Kundapur and Kollaga performed the same functions for Kshatriks and Vajjis.  The Vajji Sangha was ruled by a Rajaparishada, or a royal council, which was elected from within the ashtakula every seven years. The elected members of the parishada would allot amongst themselves the various functions of the state. The republic’s assembly also had representatives from the various guilds of merchants, artisans and even farmers. Parallels may be seen with the ancient Greece at the same time around 6th Century B.C.; however, the difference however may be noted that unlike the much romanticized Athenian or Roman systems of democracy, it is believed that there were clear conditions laid out about the physical, mental and psychological state of the various assembly members present. Also, a king would be nominated from within the assembly, though this position was never hierarchical in nature. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, there was representation beyond just the Kshatriyas when it came to state affairs unlike the Roman or Athenian democracies, where only the warriors had a say in daily affairs of the state. Also, as Steve Muhlberger of the University of Missisauga points out, the varnas of pre-Christian-era India were not the castes of later periods, with their prohibitions on intermarriage and commensality with other groups, and that the republics involved in the political process all those who could claim, and justify the claim, to be capable of ruling and fighting.

Parakesarivarma Chola and the Kudavolai System of Constitutional Monarchy
The idea of secret ballot is not a unique one that the British have claimed to have given to the world is nothing new to India (Kalyanasundaram, 2010). In the Chola rule over large parts of India, we see the first ever identification of the process of electoral democracy using a secret ballot being utilized to determine what can be easily described in today’s modern lexicon as a local body like a municipal corporation or a grama panchayat. The earliest mention of this system of suffrage, called Kudav Olai (for those who do not understand Tamizh, kudam means pot as a ballot box, while olai refers to palm-leafs to be used a paper votes for ballot) can be found on the walls of the village temple of Utthiramerur, twenty miles from the city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. Excellently captured by the blogger R Muthuswamy, the plaque describes in detail how they conducted an election to the local assembly of the ‘Utthiramerur-caturvedi-mangalam in its own subdivision of Kaliyurkottam,’ in the presence of a returning officer. The elections were conducted in order to set up further sub-committees, particularly looking at the “Annual Committee”, “Garden Committee”, and “Tank Committee” of the village, tending to the affairs suggested by the name. Interestingly, the rules of the election to the local body clearly identified who could contest these elections through the following parameters:
In these thirty wards, those that live in each ward shall assemble and shall choose for “pot-tickets” (Kudav Olai) anyone possessing the following qualifications:
(a)    He must own more than a quarter veli of tax-paying land;
(b)    He must live in a house built on his own site;
(c)     His age must be below 70 and above 35;
(d)    He must know the Mantrabrahmana, i.e., he must know it by teaching others;
(e)    Even if one owns only one-eighth veli of land, he should have his name written on the pot-ticket to be put into the pot, in case he has learnt one Veda and one of the four bhasyas by explaining it to others.
Among those possessing the foregoing qualifications:
(f)      Only such as are well conversant with business and are virtuous shall be taken and,
(g)    One who possesses honest earnings, whose mind is pure and who has not been on any of the committees for the last three years shall also be chosen.
The scribe note, written down on the 16th day of the fourteenth year of Parantaka Chola King (mudalam parantakanin padinankavatu aandu padinaram naal) (dated to the years 919-921 A.D.), thus clearly demonstrating the active utilization of the ballot box method, which the villagers, as quoted by the scribe, vowed to use ‘till the sun and moon endure’. However, the senior officials of the court had nothing to do with this electoral democracy, which was restricted to only the smallest unit of governance. 
A Plaque From the Utthiramerur Inscription (Courtesy R Muthuswamy)

Criticisms from Within – the Challenges of Democracies Identified by Indian Literature
That there were republican systems present in ancient India is an accepted fact and presented as a case for presenting India as a modern democracy. However, the same evidences show us that most people subsequent to this period of flirtation with democracy, particularly the republican period, strongly thought otherwise. In his online essay Muhlberger notes how texts – Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and even literary – left no opportunity wasted in making fun of the democratic system. As Muhlberger wrote,
The Lalitavistara, in an obvious satirical jab, depicts Vesali as being full of Licchavi rajans , each one thinking, "I am king, I am king," ….The Santi Parva section of the Mahabharata shows the participation of too many people in the affairs of state as being a great flaw in the republican polity….A Jaina work again criticizes ganas for being disorderly: the monks and nuns who frequent them will find themselves bullied, beaten, robbed, or accused of being spies.
This seems to be as Muhlberger points out a later period insertion, one also shared by K.P. Jayaswal in his book Hindu Polity – a Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times. Interestingly, the last mention of republics takes place around the time of the Guptas, who themselves rose with the help of the Licchavis but end the idea of the republic altogether by somehow defeating the increasing strength of the tri-mitra republics - Pushpamitra-Padhumitra-Padmamitras. Also, one must note that in both cases the forms of democracy continue to remain limited in nature – while only nominated members could assume power in the janapada, the potential nominees for the Cholan system also restrict the choice of candidates strongly, determined by land ownership among other factors.  
While one reason why a more stable power centre may have been readily accepted by society was attributed to the solidification of caste and hierarchies by the time of the Gupta empire, trade and commerce may have had a much bigger role to play. Wealth does not flow into a poor state. While Vajji was noted for their wealth and prosperity in ancient India, the unstable political climate due to constant threats and the concentration of political interests amongst the various guilds may have possibly resulted in cronyism, a practice seen too often in today’s democracies.
Thus, we see that the ideas of limited democracies were thriving in ancient India, all the way up to the 9th century A.D., when the Cholas were active. Indian democracy has also seen experimentation with both the republican as well as the constitutional monarchical forms of democracy as are seen even today in the world. However, the ideas of democracy in India were not free of criticism, and eventually the system is seen to die out. This has various signs for the sagacious to portend; however, it is a discussion for another day.

*I have tried to summarize a few key points in this blog. Any errors are regretted, and any help on the same shall be deeply appreciated. 

Swamy S., and Kalyansundaram, S. (ed.) Electronic Voting Machins - Unconstitutional and Tamperable, Vision Books 2010 ISBN 978-81-7094-798-1
Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu, Acarya Chatursena, Rajpal and Sons, 2006 edition (Hindi)
Muhlberger, S., Democracy in Ancient India, 2016, World History of Democracy
Jayaswal, K.P., Hindu Polity - a Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times, The Bangalore Printing & Publishing Co., Ltd., 1943
R. Muthuswamy, Know Your Heritage, Uthiramerur Inscriptions on Chola Kodavolai Election System, July 20, 2014
Uthiramerur Inscription, From V. Venkayya, in Annual Report on Epigraphy, 1904.


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