How we were ruled

Authority rested largely with local communities, not in a remote king and state.

Updated: February 11, 2014 10:19 am
So strong was the perceived need to check the authority of the king that often, there were limitations on the  king’s authority to even withdraw money from the royal treasury. So strong was the perceived need to check the authority of the king that often, there were limitations on the king’s authority to even withdraw money from the royal treasury.

Authority rested largely with local communities, not in a remote king and state.

This refers to Shekhar Gupta’s National Interest (‘Arvind Chitra Katha’, IE, February 8) which talks about the vision of governance outlined in Arv­ind Kejriwal’s Swaraj. One only has to look at India’s history to understand the primary role of local communities — rather than state authorities — in decision-making for local purposes. The king’s power was severely limited. Local communities took their own decisions on issues ranging from enforcing business contracts to maintaining law and order. That, perhaps, was the reason for long-lasting social stability in India and the absence of violent social and political upheavals.

The king in India has always been a controversial figure; while recognising the need for danda in society, Indian texts, whether Sanskrit, Buddhist or Jain, were almost equally suspicious of this double-edged weapon. The Manusmriti even likens the king to floods and disease, like most of the troubles that face the common man. So strong was this perceived need to check the authority of the king that often there were limitations on the king’s authority to even withdraw money from the royal treasury. Epigraphs make a clear distinction between the public treasury and svakosa, or the raja’s personal treasury. The king was forced to spend the money needed for his own publicity out of his personal funds, or svakosa, instead of the public treasury. This theme is repeated in an ancient Buddhist text, the Asokavadana, where the ageing Ashoka wishes to give away all his riches to charity, so much so that his courtiers are forced to tell him that he could not spend public money at will.

A deep suspicion of the king and of the state has characterised Indian thinking for thousands of years. Perhaps this was one reason why so much primacy was given to local laws and customs. Whether it is the Shantiparva section of the Mahabharata or the various Smritis, they are unanimous in their view that local customs are to be respected above all, and only when a dispute could not be resolved locally would it go to the king.

Was this a recipe for anarchy? On the contrary, local society was key to decision-making and enforcing contracts and ensuring law and order. We get a glimpse from the charter of Visnusena (6th century CE), where the samant Visnusena grants recognition to the rights of the community of merchants resident in the village of Lohata. This document records among other things, the rates of taxes to be levied on carriage loads of different kinds of goods. Several tax concessions were granted to religious institutions and processions. Merchants who had come on business from a different district were not to be arrested on suspicion merely because they were not locals. The king’s officials could neither forcibly enter a household when visiting the village, nor could they force the people to provide them board and lodging. Does this sound familiar?

The modern state and its organs are here to stay and they are necessary too, but only for the right kind of functions. The pervasive desire of the state in India today to control everything has only stifled society. If the members of any city ward wish to build a community centre for themselves, or if a group of villagers wish to build a tank on their own land, they would require a list of permissions as long as one’s arm. Communities that have no civic responsibilities are doomed to frustration. No wonder, then, that we expect the state to hold our hands and come running at the first sign of things going wrong.

Today, we have the spectacle of the state pouring thousands of crores into building dams that silt up almost immediately, signing contracts with private parties for selling off public land for an ill-defined public purpose. These are the functions of the local community, not the state. It is a good time to remind ourselves that any land grant in ancient times was required to be read out to the local community before it could become legally enforceable, and this tradition has been recorded in thousands of copper plates found all over the country.

It is the task of the state in modern times — in addition to managing law and order — to regulate the private sector, whether industry, food quality, financial services, health services. Managing development, building public assets, running schools and hospitals are tasks best left to those whom they are going to serve. We will simply have to learn to trust our people.

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. A
    Aditya
    Feb 12, 2014 at 4:49 am
    Why is the Private Sector the only villain...??? Are our PSUs doyens of efficiency and effectiveness?? Secondly... social systems of Governance have and are rooted in a specific context at different times.. how and why are we forgetting this simple understanding...If MSM and all the Scholarly cles which keep berating about the RSS and Sangh parivars view of the swadeshi model / golden age of India, is'nt the thought by the author on similar lines...trying to lionize and graft what was once an acceptable (and probably effective.. though doubts remain) governance model into the current social cirstances??? The Author also conveniently forgets that the people ruled also submitted themselves, their social standing, their occupations, their interests to the "Gram Sabhas" dictats... which lead to stifling of individual freedom in interest of ensuring the wheel of society had all the cogs in place (traders, tradesmen, cobblers, farmers, people to clean out streets, defenders, priests, etc.) on the basis of birth alone giving rise to 'Jati vyvastha' (which by the way was never the manner in which it was initially envisaged)... History and bygone eras have become a favourite recluse of people who do not want to confront the current social situation and work out a future course of action... I dont think the adage " History repeats itself as a farce" can be more appropriately be applied anywhere....
    Reply
  2. A
    Aditya
    Feb 12, 2014 at 4:49 am
    Why is the Private Sector the only villain...??? Are our PSUs doyens of efficiency and effectiveness?? Secondly... social systems of Governance have and are rooted in a specific context at different times.. how and why are we forgetting this simple understanding...If MSM and all the Scholarly cles which keep berating about the RSS and Sangh parivars view of the swadeshi model / golden age of India, is'nt the thought by the author on similar lines...trying to lionize and graft what was once an acceptable (and probably effective.. though doubts remain) governance model into the current social cirstances??? The Author also conveniently forgets that the people ruled also submitted themselves, their social standing, their occupations, their interests to the "Gram Sabhas" dictats... which lead to stifling of individual freedom in interest of ensuring the wheel of society had all the cogs in place (traders, tradesmen, cobblers, farmers, people to clean out streets, defenders, priests, etc.) on the basis of birth alone giving rise to 'Jati vyvastha' (which by the way was never the manner in which it was initially envisaged)... History and bygone eras have become a favourite recluse of people who do not want to confront the current social situation and work out a future course of action... I dont think the adage " History repeats itself as a farce" can be more appropriately be applied anywhere....
    Reply
  3. B
    Brijkhanna
    Feb 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm
    I agree with Mr Rajivlochan that there is a need for decentralization of governance. Sufficient powers,finances and independence should be given to Gram Sabhas to State level governance with all checks and balances.
    Reply
  4. B
    Brijkhanna
    Feb 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm
    I agree with Mr Rajivlochan that there is a need for decentralization of governance. Sufficient powers,finances and independence should be given to Gram Sabhas to State level governance with all checks and balances.
    Reply
  5. D
    DA
    Feb 11, 2014 at 10:58 am
    We could equally argue that the caste system in India ensured absolute stability - each of us were cognizant of our roles and responsibilities in society. Deviating from them, or having aspirations to the contrary was a sin. Yes, sure, in that system of governance, and in those times, it perhaps spared us the carnage evident in other parts of the world.However, it cost us dearly. In times of external peril, we could not, or would not mobilise our forces across caste to defend ourselves. The new rulers and invaders were co-opted into our systems with varying degrees of success.The biggest issue is that this retail democracy simply does not scale. People will eventually form ghettos and self-segregate to be with other like minded people. We already have plenty of that - to put in formal processes to perpetuate that would be a crime against this nation.We also need a strong federation, as we need a sophisticated response to what the rest of the world does. To paraphrase Arvind Kerjiwal - a mohalla may need a tap, sure. But how much that tap costs can depend on if the Mohalla procures it, or we buy a 100 million taps using collective bargaining. We need our leaders to be honest brokers of aspiration and needs. We do not need the local thugs to tell us what to do with our lives - thank you.
    Reply
  6. D
    DA
    Feb 11, 2014 at 10:58 am
    We could equally argue that the caste system in India ensured absolute stability - each of us were cognizant of our roles and responsibilities in society. Deviating from them, or having aspirations to the contrary was a sin. Yes, sure, in that system of governance, and in those times, it perhaps spared us the carnage evident in other parts of the world.However, it cost us dearly. In times of external peril, we could not, or would not mobilise our forces across caste to defend ourselves. The new rulers and invaders were co-opted into our systems with varying degrees of success.The biggest issue is that this retail democracy simply does not scale. People will eventually form ghettos and self-segregate to be with other like minded people. We already have plenty of that - to put in formal processes to perpetuate that would be a crime against this nation.We also need a strong federation, as we need a sophisticated response to what the rest of the world does. To paraphrase Arvind Kerjiwal - a mohalla may need a tap, sure. But how much that tap costs can depend on if the Mohalla procures it, or we buy a 100 million taps using collective bargaining. We need our leaders to be honest brokers of aspiration and needs. We do not need the local thugs to tell us what to do with our lives - thank you.
    Reply
  7. N
    Nitin
    Feb 11, 2014 at 11:26 am
    I think that in the planning process we should involve local communities . We must ask them what they want in their mohallas on priority basis and then plan accordingly. as of now the planning, execution and monitoring is all centralized. Even local MLAs also dont have any say. It is the bureaucracy and some important cabinet ministers who decide everything. Then the funds are allocated piecemeal to all schemes and yojnas , none gets completed, the expenditure becomes wasteful and a source of corruption.For example in a posh locality where majority belongs to upper middle cl may not require a government school as priority but a garden would be their first priority. so this mismatch of need and piece meal supply is a big source of todays problems.
    Reply
  8. N
    Nitin
    Feb 11, 2014 at 11:26 am
    I think that in the planning process we should involve local communities . We must ask them what they want in their mohallas on priority basis and then plan accordingly. as of now the planning, execution and monitoring is all centralized. Even local MLAs also dont have any say. It is the bureaucracy and some important cabinet ministers who decide everything. Then the funds are allocated piecemeal to all schemes and yojnas , none gets completed, the expenditure becomes wasteful and a source of corruption.For example in a posh locality where majority belongs to upper middle cl may not require a government school as priority but a garden would be their first priority. so this mismatch of need and piece meal supply is a big source of todays problems.
    Reply
  9. Load More Comments