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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.