When I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi mention that Indian democratic traditions predate the Magna Carta, referring to the Chozha era constitution of the village assembly of Uttaramerur, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new parliament, as a Tamilian, I was irritated.
The project is a part of the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista Project. What is it that could have earned his admiration for a village assembly that functioned more than a thousand years ago and long since buried under the weighty tomes of history? To my exasperation, the prime minister did not dwell too much on the topic. He seems to have just jogged the nation’s memory to the fact that several centuries back institutions of democracy thrived in India and representatives could be disqualified by the electorate right at the selection stage.
If the prime minister had dragged in the name of Uttaramerur to buttress his expectation that the new parliament building will be a ‘rich testament to India’s rich cultural heritage’ that cursory mention of Uttaramerur seemed inadequate, not to say even inappropriate. No other parallels were drawn between the democratic system that existed in this village – which, by the way, still goes about its mundane existence in Kancheepuram district near Chennai – and the present day system which goes by the name of parliamentary representative democracy.
True, India is the mother of democracy to the world, but democracy is not just about periodic elections. The celebrated Uttaramerur, for instance, had 30 wards in the year 922 CE and many sub-committees called variyams, comprising of elected representatives fulfilling some basic requirements.
The representative character of the Uttaramerur assembly
In a big departure from today’s electoral system, the elected representatives then performed honorary work, and were working people, giving a part of their spare time to administration. The right to sit on the council was limited by a ‘property qualification of a house and a small plot of land’.
Men in the age group of 35 and 70 years could contest, but those who had served for one year on the council had to step away for the next three years. Overzealous collection of taxes by the committees was abhorred, and expenditures beyond the stipulated limit had to be sanctioned by the mahasabha.
Each sabha had its own constitution delineating the process of selection, election and recall or rejection of candidates, though the uneven pace with which they were developed across villages made them appear simple and piecemeal. The resolutions of these sabhas had the sanctity of a king’s order, while the king’s government itself interfered in the internal affairs of the sabha only in rare instances, till the late Chozha period.
Interestingly, there was a gold committee assisted by a gold assay committee in the village administration, perhaps to assess and take care of donations in gold, of which there were many, to the nearby temple.
Where mercantile interests overshadowed those of the rural landowners, the nagaram – the elected body of the town – became the more dominant assembly, but in most cases, they co-existed with the sabhas peacefully. In effect, many historians have averred, that these councils are a permanent memorial to the best side of early Indian politics, till date, notwithstanding the limited suffrage and class strife.
Will a sprawling new building for parliament revive the rich spirit and values of our ancient democracy? Very doubtful. Today’s representative democracy is an emaciated form of what existed in Uttaramerur. The only progressive aspect of today’s electoral system is that it is universal, unlike the limited franchise that existed until the first elections in free India in 1951-52.
But, for all the talk about representation, today’s elected representatives are people’s representatives only in name. In reality, it is the political party that gives them the ticket that they are beholden to. It is the party whip that gets them to vote for this or that legislation.
The recent enactment of farm bills, pushed without any consultation with the stakeholders, is an excellent case in point to show how ‘unrepresentative’ today’s ‘representative democracy’ is. Voters cannot even dream of recalling their elected representatives, if they failed to perform like they could do in Uttaramerur, 1100 years back. The excuse is that this would need an election-like mobilisation in the particular constituencies or state or even at the national level, a possibility which has been proved practical in many other countries, time and again.
Political parties getting bankrolled by big business houses, who in turn double or triple their investment once their favourite betting horse wins, would have been unthinkable on the part of the wealthy chettis, the tycoons of those bygone days.
Dodgy election promises, expediency and corruption were certainly abhorred by the sabha members, if one were to believe the stone inscriptions of those days. So would have been violence, the inescapable daily reality in the everyday life of Indians, perpetrated by those who believe that their position confers them immunity from punishment.
Far from people being the masters of their elected representatives, the tables have been turned around today, with the latter treating the voters with the lordly air that brooks any questioning of their accountability in the system.
Local authorities were given the power to collect taxes and maintain local resources, like rivers, ponds and canals at that time. In comparison, today’s panchayats are empty shells, the ‘third tier of government’ only in name.
The Chozha empire encouraged horse trading, but not the variety we see today. The argument here is not to say that the system of those days can be replicated today ditto. It has to be certainly rendered modern and suitable for the 21st century. But sadly, from all accounts, our democracy has become anachronistic. It has regressed further to primitive days.
Dear Prime Minister, thank you for reminding us that once upon a time we had democracy!
Raghavan Srinivasan is a political activist, author and development professional.