Democracy in old India

N. Ganesan naga_ganesan at HOTMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 19 12:22:12 UTC 2000

Contrary to the view that democracy in pre-19th century India
were not there, there are detailed inscriptions about ballot casting
from the Chola period. Below is the beginning sections of an article
by the art historian, Dr. R. Nagaswamy who sent this to me a while ago.

N. Ganesan

Elections in Chola times

Sir.S.Radhakrishnan, the former scholar President of India once said that "
it is from history we learn that mankind has learnt nothing from history".
It is very true and is best illustrated in the context of elections in
India. One frequently hears now a days of  "Democratic traditions" and
"Democratic values" but when specific instances are cited , it is invariably
the Western system or the Western experience that is sought to be cited as
illustration. It would be interesting to look into some of the experiences
gained by the Indian society itself thousand years ago in addressing itself
to elections to Assemblies. The Chola rule in Tamilnad provides the best
illustration, as it emphasized written tradition in public affairs. There
exists a written constitution, dated 1020A.D., in the reign of Parantaka
Chola prescribing qualifications and disqualification of candidates standing
for elections and also the rules governing the mode of elections to Village
or Municipal assemblies. The Governance was in the hands of members elected
to the village assemblies. This paved the way for all round prosperity in
production, trade, arts and culture, learning and literature. The monumental
architecture spread through out the country and thousands of inscriptions
stand witness to the effective  functioning of this system of native
democracy. The most vital questions addressed included the place of
corruption, criminalisation, perpetrating dynastic or family rule and
nativity. The rules enunciated were not  only refreshingly modern  but are
of eternal value. If democratic traditions or values are to be cited, the
Chola example points to the best that the Indian Society experienced.

A record dated in 1020 A.D in the reign of Parantaka Chola found engraved on
the walls of the Vaikunta perumal temple of Uttaramerur (50 KM from Madras)
is the written constitution (Lekhya pramaana) for holding election to the
village Assemblies. Volumes can be written on this record but only the parts
relevant to modern context are highlighted and analyzed here.

Foremost importance was given during Chola times to the elimination of
corruption in public life. Among the various clauses mentioned for
disqualifying candidates  "Corruption" tops the list. Corruption mentioned
as " Kaiyuuttu" was considered the worst enemy of public life so much so the
corrupt were disqualified through out their life from standing for election.
Not only the corrupt but also all his near relatives like his father,
brother, uncle, wife's brother and others were barred. Virtually the corrupt
both in his own line and his wife's line were debarred for ever. From this
clause it is clear that the chola society foresaw that the crooked and
corrupt would install his wife or near relatives and run benami transactions
and saw such men are not given any opportunity to meddle with public life.
It may be compared with the vociferous statements of some of the modern
politicians that corruption is not an issue in election, thereby directly
patronizing corruption. On the contrary the ancient democratic system found
corruption as the root cause of all evils in public life.

The second clause of importance found in the chola record relates to
accountability mentioned as "epper patta kanakkum kaattaate iruntaan".
Accountability is not confined to rendering accounts but all aspect of
public functions. The elected men are accountable to the public for their
public functions failing which they were to be removed from the membership
forthwith. In modern parlance it amounts to recall of elected members. The
chola records emphasize also efficient executions "kaaryatthil nipunan" Some
scholars interpret that failure to show far-sightedness in dealing with
public affairs will bring them under "totally inefficient " who should not
be entrusted with the membership. For example they argue that the in the
recently dissolved parliament  the opposition did exercise their right to
vote out the ruling combine which strengthens the fabric of democracy. At
the same time that they did not have an alternative plan and failed
miserably to give an alternative government Instead thrusted on the people
the heavy burden of expenditure of election which  otherwise could have been
put to developmental investments. As they did not efficiently plan the
alternative before pulling down the existing government their accountability
and efficiency have fallen to the lowest ebb. Lack of efficiency and
accountability were considered serious disqualification in Chola times.

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