There has been a raging debate on the origins of Indian democracy on Twitter ever since I tweeted about Christophe Jaffrelot’s latest Foreign Policy Review Essay, comparing democracy in India and in Pakistan. I strongly recommend that you read Jaffrelot’s article and Nitin Pai’s superb fisking of the essay at The Acorn, before moving on with this blogpost.
The one problem I see with Jaffrelot’s approach to India and its democracy is that he tends to view everything Indian democracy stands for from a western perspective. I am saying this after studying not just his articles and essays, but after having studied under him during my two-year masters at Sciences Po, of which CERI, his parent organization, is a part. First, he believes that all democratic tradition in India is a legacy of the British Raj, without which India would still have been a nation of barbarians who do not know how to rule themselves. He completely discounts the influence of native cultures and traditions, which may be called democratic in the vaguest possible sense. Second, he attributes the success of democracy in India, during his lectures as well as through his writing, to the en masse politicization of the Indian population by the Indian National Congress and the independence movement. The role of other political movements however marginal, tend to be completely ignored, not just by Jaffrelot himself but by most western indologists, including Philip Oldenburg whose book he reviews in Foreign Policy. To them, democracy in India is a western legacy that its people have unquestioningly accepted to the extent that we are today, the world’s largest democracy.
This standpoint is often accepted by many Indians themselves and this acceptance triggered a raging debate about whether democracy was actually Indian in nature. This is where I feel compelled to clarify certain popular misconceptions, prevalent even among the well-read, intellectual elite. My claim is not that democracy as it is practiced today is entirely Indian in nature and we had it all before the British came along and conquered us. My contention is merely that democracy survived and prospered in post-independence India the way it never could in Pakistan because the Indian traditions of pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism are derived mainly from certain traditions that may be considered democratic in nature. At this point, it is impossible to ignore the obvious differences between the Indian and the Pakistani State: pluralism vs. monism, federalist union vs. unitary state, non-interference in religion vs. Islamist governance. Viewing the two countries through the politically-correct prism of secularism is neither sensible, nor desirable.
It becomes important, at this juncture to clearly define those democratic traditions, so as to dispel the perception that I claim democracy to be purely Indian in origin. The example of democracy in India that I am personally most familiar with is the “kuda-olai” system of electing village administrative officers. K.A. Nilakanta Shastri explores this system in detail in his two volumes on the Cholas. The books are now out of print and can only be found in colleges and public libraries. This information, unearthed from stone inscriptions in Uttiramerur near Chennai, date back to the 12th Century A.D, especially during Rajaraja’s reign between 985 and 1014 A.D. To put things in perspective, the Chola administrative system pre-dated the famed Magna Carta signed in 1215 A.D. With the signing of the Magna Carta, the western world finally accepted the limitations on the right of the king, whereas in southern India, the system of electing representatives who were governed by rules already existed two hundred years previously.
If we go further back in history, we have archaeological and documentary evidence of tiny clans and even some bigger ones like the Lichchavis of modern-day Nepal, who practised a primitive form of democracy in choosing the leader of their tribe. They are often called “republics” by scholars like Steve Muhlberger to whose work I have linked earlier.
That said, these primitive systems can, by no means, considered a precursor to modern-day democracy because voting was largely restricted to men aged between 18 and 60 years, who in addition, must be land-owners. This constituted approximately 20 percent of the total population, excluding large groups like artisans, laborers, and most importantly, women. However, by that definition, no system predating the universal suffrage movement of the 20th century can be called democratic. Looking for a replica of democracy as we know it today in the Arthashastra or the Manu-Smriti is an entirely pointless exercise because much of what we hold dear today, including human rights, civil liberties, individual freedom and universal suffrage have evolved over the last two hundred years. Not even the famed democratic nation-state of Athens would qualify for that title. The Magna Carta, often considered the precursor to the British writ of haebeas corpus, and to modern democracy was actually devolution of power from the monarch to the feudal lords and not to the “people” as we qualify them today.
Finally, no country can adapt a completely foreign system if it goes against its political ethos, unless founded on complete destruction of earlier cultures and imposition of a new religious, social and political order as in the case of some South American countries. If democracy has succeeded in India, it is because our basic political ethos is not fundamentally different from the one imposed by western-style democracy. While British rule accelerated India’s acceptance of multi-party democracy as the only possible system of governance, it would not have survived the various threats posed, first by the bloody massacres of partition and subsequently by the state of Emergency imposed by Mrs. Gandhi, had that democratic tradition not existed in the first place. It is only intellectually honest to accept that a native discourse in democracy-studies is not an entirely-flawed approach, unlike indologists like Jaffrelot and Oldenburg who seemed determined to negate that influence.