Sunday, March 18, 2007

Democracy in Ancient India - Myth or Reality?

I had my first class with Christophe Jaffrelot, the ultra-famous India specialist of Sciences Po on Thursday. The first thing that struck me in the class was the utter lack of participation. Indeed, it is not Jaffrelot's fault that the students did not ask him any questions. What drew my attention was the fact that throughout the 2 hour-long class, students listened with rapt attention to every word he uttered, not daring to iterrupt once, not daring to question his evidently extensive knowledge on the Indian freedom struggle. I, for one, was not exactly the most impressed. While his knowledge of the freedom struggle is certainly extensive, it does not exceed that of a masters student in Indian history. I do not know how many people I must be scandalising by saying what I am, but I do know that studying India requires much more than just knowledge of its history.

This brings me to the topic of the day. Why was India alone is choosing democracy as the form of government when the tens of other newly-independent countries wavered between democracy and autocracy throughout their independent history? Is it the will of the INC? What is it that makes democracy tick in India? The answers provided by Jaffrelot were unsatisfactory, to put it mildly. He claimed that there was an internalisation of democracy in the psyche of the people that led to the successful establishment of a democratic regime in post-colonial India. I do not object to the theory per se, but the western attitude that assumes that democracy is an import from the west and a colonial legacy does disturb me quite a bit.

Jaffrelot, for all his expert knowledge on India, seems to ridicule Indian claims that democracy was indeed practised for centuries before the coming of the Turks. He claims it is an attempt to make something inherently foreign more acceptable to the people of the land. Whether India has any semblance of democracy or not in the pre-colonial era is open to question. I do not claim to be an expert in Indian history, but there is archeological evidence of the ballot in many parts of the Chola kingdom of the 10th and 11th centuries AD. In addition, the concept of non-monarchical, republican governments existed in ancient India well before the advent of modern democracy in Europe. For evidence, go to

This paper by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University, is revealing and unbiased. He is not Indian and has no personal interest in claiming that India did indeed have republics before the Europeans discovered it. While I admit that the republics are not really democracies in the modern sense of the word, it does by no means, diminish the importance of its existence in Ancient India. If only Kshatriya men were allowed to participate in the village councils in India, only the landed and rich feudal lords were allowed to vote in elections in all of Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, a cursory glance at the history of France, supposedly the mother of democracy, will reveal the blatant and violent repression of the rights of the landless labour class until the French Revolution of 1789. Even after the Revolution, France underwent periods of violent and brutal regime changes until the establishment of the fifth republic at the end of the Second World War. This history is, by no means, a shameful one. It merely shows that every country needs time to grow and mature into a full-fledged democracy based on the respect of human rights and on universal adult franchise.

Faulting India for having a system that resembled democracy only remotely by modern standards is not only unjust, but also reflects the double standards of the occidentals. I am perhaps scathing in my criticism of western attitudes but I find it appalling that anything that does not conform to the Europe-centred conception of a Westphalian nation-state is automatically rejected as worthless. While studying the political institutions of a country, one must take into account its cultural heritage and local traditions before passing a value judgement on its history. I do not deny that the caste system is a bad thing. But, to say that Indian Republics were not democracies because they allowed only male members of the Kshatriya caste to participate is unfair. It would do good for western analysts to remember that India is one of the few countries that chose to become a democracy without even stopping to consider other forms of government. It would also do to remember that the most liberal western democracies have never had women heads of state. The United States is a case in point. Nor have these democracies ever had a member of a minority assume positions of power and importance, the Afro-Americans in the US and Arab immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, India has elected both women and minorities to responsible positions in government.

To conclude, I think the western world would do a lot better if they just stopped being so judgemental about another's culture and heritage. After all, all that belongs to the west is not necessarily good, just as all that is third-world is not necessarily bad.

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