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.

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First Published on: February 11, 2014 12:56 am
  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
    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
      1. 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
        1. 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
          1. 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
            1. 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
              1. 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
                1. 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
                  1. D
                    Durgasharan Krishnamurthy
                    Feb 11, 2014 at 7:44 am
                    Protect the rights of the individualThis article as well as Mr. Kejriwal's formulations diagnose modern India's problems but suggest solutions which strike at the root of the individual's liberty. What is required is a lessening of state in all forms; whether in the present form or in form of local groups such as gram or mohalla sabhas. There should be lesser and lesser encroachment of the individual's space. We need lesser and lesser money flowing into the state. We need lesser and lesser of the welfare state be it in any form. Mr Kejriwal's solution would only lead to a dictatorship of some form as it envisages minimal rights for the individual and as it is based on charity. Charity on a permanent basis leads to dictatorship. Individuals require justice and nothing else and that implies protection of their political rights. There is no such thing as economic rights.
                    Reply
                    1. D
                      Durgasharan Krishnamurthy
                      Feb 11, 2014 at 7:44 am
                      Protect the rights of the individualThis article as well as Mr. Kejriwal's formulations diagnose modern India's problems but suggest solutions which strike at the root of the individual's liberty. What is required is a lessening of state in all forms; whether in the present form or in form of local groups such as gram or mohalla sabhas. There should be lesser and lesser encroachment of the individual's space. We need lesser and lesser money flowing into the state. We need lesser and lesser of the welfare state be it in any form. Mr Kejriwal's solution would only lead to a dictatorship of some form as it envisages minimal rights for the individual and as it is based on charity. Charity on a permanent basis leads to dictatorship. Individuals require justice and nothing else and that implies protection of their political rights. There is no such thing as economic rights.
                      Reply
                      1. P
                        PK
                        Feb 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm
                        There is little doubt that Shekhar Gupta's attempts to belittle AAP and Arvind Khejriwal are clearly motivated and biased. At the same time, romanticizing village governance also looks to be beyond the expertise of this columnist. When did the Rajas ever act out of the rule-book. Such romanticism will not take us anywhere. Local governance has a serious role to play if we are ever to seriously tackle the umpteen socio-economic and political challenges that we are faced with. However, the principles of such local governance are not to be found in the mythical village republicans -- Ambedkar (instead of hi) was spot on in his description of village society. Let us put our heads together to carefully design modern local governance arrangements that ensure accountability while facilitating locally appropriate development.
                        Reply
                        1. P
                          PK
                          Feb 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm
                          There is little doubt that Shekhar Gupta's attempts to belittle AAP and Arvind Khejriwal are clearly motivated and biased. At the same time, romanticizing village governance also looks to be beyond the expertise of this columnist. When did the Rajas ever act out of the rule-book. Such romanticism will not take us anywhere. Local governance has a serious role to play if we are ever to seriously tackle the umpteen socio-economic and political challenges that we are faced with. However, the principles of such local governance are not to be found in the mythical village republicans -- Ambedkar (instead of hi) was spot on in his description of village society. Let us put our heads together to carefully design modern local governance arrangements that ensure accountability while facilitating locally appropriate development.
                          Reply
                          1. M
                            MANISH KUMAR
                            Feb 11, 2014 at 5:13 am
                            People who are sitting in the corridor of power actually do not want to share the decision making power with local insutions because they fear that if citizens got empowered then their illegal wealth making technique will not continue further.
                            Reply
                            1. M
                              MANISH KUMAR
                              Feb 11, 2014 at 5:13 am
                              People who are sitting in the corridor of power actually do not want to share the decision making power with local insutions because they fear that if citizens got empowered then their illegal wealth making technique will not continue further.
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                Mukesh Sharma
                                Feb 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm
                                This aspect of may have provided social stability but was highly deterimental in preventing the building of the Nation state. Our thinking became limited as a society
                                Reply
                                1. C
                                  C
                                  Feb 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm
                                  How nice! So property issues were dealt with locally. Because the texts say so. Are women still included in property? Should the Indian state not protect Jat women from the khaps?
                                  Reply
                                  1. P
                                    Pramod
                                    Feb 11, 2014 at 1:46 am
                                    The author is a professor of history. He should know that the book he has quoted, i.e. Asokavadana is a Buddhist version of the life of King Ashoka the great. Please refer to a very famous book, "The Legend of King Asoka: A study and Translation of Asokavadana" by John S.Strong. It is clearly mentioned therein that legends stated in Asokavadana are exaggerations and are not historically accurate. The historical King Ashoka as he emerges from the famous inscriptions (written in Brahmi script deciphered by James Princep in 1837) is far different from what appears from legends and concocted exaggerations appearing in Asokavadana, a sanskrit text. The moral of the story is that there is no need to romanticize our past to justify actions of AAP government. This reflects very poorly on the intellectual integrity of the author.
                                    Reply
                                    1. P
                                      Pramod
                                      Feb 11, 2014 at 1:46 am
                                      The author is a professor of history. He should know that the book he has quoted, i.e. Asokavadana is a Buddhist version of the life of King Ashoka the great. Please refer to a very famous book, "The Legend of King Asoka: A study and Translation of Asokavadana" by John S.Strong. It is clearly mentioned therein that legends stated in Asokavadana are exaggerations and are not historically accurate. The historical King Ashoka as he emerges from the famous inscriptions (written in Brahmi script deciphered by James Princep in 1837) is far different from what appears from legends and concocted exaggerations appearing in Asokavadana, a sanskrit text. The moral of the story is that there is no need to romanticize our past to justify actions of AAP government. This reflects very poorly on the intellectual integrity of the author.
                                      Reply
                                      1. R
                                        RD
                                        Feb 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm
                                        I believe the article is well meaning. There are 2 problems though. First - Kejriwal and his gang's belief - I suspect - is that all power should devolve to the gram sabhas and make all other executive enies irrelevant. Including the right to secede (as in the Kashmir comments of Bhushan) and the power to break consutional rights of citizens (as in the Khirkhee incident and the support to the infamous Khaaps).Second - there already are state insutions in the consutional framework that allows for such a devolution - the Panchayati Raj which is Gram Sabhas by another name and the Munilities in cities.)Unfortunately they do not function well. The problem is not in the consutional framework or the absence of power. It is in the execution within powers that are set. That execution which largely includes the delivery of services to citizens is not imperiled by existing constraints as time and again a few good men and women have shown. It is there that Kejriwal is a problem. He has no understanding or appreciation of governance. More importantly he has no willingness to govern. His objective is to spread anarchy.
                                        Reply
                                        1. R
                                          RD
                                          Feb 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm
                                          I believe the article is well meaning. There are 2 problems though. First - Kejriwal and his gang's belief - I suspect - is that all power should devolve to the gram sabhas and make all other executive enies irrelevant. Including the right to secede (as in the Kashmir comments of Bhushan) and the power to break consutional rights of citizens (as in the Khirkhee incident and the support to the infamous Khaaps).Second - there already are state insutions in the consutional framework that allows for such a devolution - the Panchayati Raj which is Gram Sabhas by another name and the Munilities in cities.)Unfortunately they do not function well. The problem is not in the consutional framework or the absence of power. It is in the execution within powers that are set. That execution which largely includes the delivery of services to citizens is not imperiled by existing constraints as time and again a few good men and women have shown. It is there that Kejriwal is a problem. He has no understanding or appreciation of governance. More importantly he has no willingness to govern. His objective is to spread anarchy.
                                          Reply
                                          1. r
                                            rau791
                                            Feb 11, 2014 at 8:35 pm
                                            AAP Party's arrogant atude especially Arvind Kejariwal and his team using unparliamentary language on all opposition political leaders specifically on congress leaders as chor ,beimaan, jokepal and what not, He never address any leader with respect. He was very comfortable as long as Media gave him a lot of positive coverage. After coming to power he is blaming media that they are making negative publicity on him. He should ask his conscious how a false propaa he was portraying on Congress and the nasty poster on senior leaders of congress. He never maintained a decency in his speech and always think that he is the only sole person and party that is sincere. I am all the more surprised that people also switch their loyalties to his party betraying the old party whom they were voting and made so many developments to the state and believed Aam Aadmi Nara/slogan.He did not even had the courtesy that Mrs Dixit is a senior leader that too she is of his mother's age. But he address her as beimaan, dalal.HIS AIM is TO COME TO POWER and TARGET SOME OF THE TALL LEADERS are SENT TO JAIL.Kejariwal does not know how to run a govt and he makes sensational /emotional speech like BJP.He is fit only for dharna type role and wants always media coverage. He cannot sit in the ofice and attend day today work and he is restless without media coverage and comes out of office to the street where the medias are ready with camera. He does not even have respect for Republic day and questioning what for republic shd be celebrated and he thinks his dharna is more important than RDay.If he is really a patriotic person he could have shifted to jantar mantar or Ramleela ground instead of Railway Bhavan and allow the celebration of Republic Day peacefully by Govt. Arvind has prooved that he is good for nothing except doing press conference give the list of the persons who should be sent to jail what a nautanki he is doing and fool the people.I am afraid the people should not waste their vote on AAp on national election. AAP party is trying to create a instability in the centre which is very danger for our country..
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