India: The society then and now

India prides itself with a several thousand years civilization that nurtured high spirituality, deep insights about environmental issues, sensitive planning systems such a vastu shastra, creative art forms, and a scientific temper. We credit ourselves with the invention of the zero and numerals 1 to 10 that replaced the clumsy Roman numerals in the West.

Since ages, India nurtured a self-reliant egalitarian society. Such a value enriched societal structure emerged because of India’s democratic ethos symbolized in Ram Rajya, the just rule of the epic monarch, Ram. According to Indian scriptures, every village coordinated by the district should be a self-sustaining tiny republic. The village parliament consisting of all adult men and women, controls all village resources and decision making such as administration of justice, police, education, healthcare, land, water systems and forests. Women were thus franchised in India for four thousand years whereas they got enfranchised in the West only in this century. It elected a council for day to day work, usually for a year, and could remove a councillor any time for misconduct.

The state could demand only one-sixth of local revenues for higher level functions and coordination, but could not interfere in local matters. If a king demanded more, it was the duty (dharma) of every citizen to remove him, if necessary, by force. Thus, the village parliament drew authority from the dharmashastras, not from the ruler. Ram nurtured an empire of such true democracy from Kashmir to Sri Lanka through love, using force against a truant ruler, only if it became necessary.

Over India’s long civilization, some aberrations crept in its social structures. Castes originally based on profession, similar to the Smiths and Carpenters of the West, got converted into those based on birth, and one got demeaned as untouchable. Some exploitative customs also crept in. The Muslim rule brought in some social conflicts but did not dislodge India’s tiny republics, though it somewhat increased the tax on Hindus. The East India Company too did not dislodge them. One of its Governor Generals, Sir Charles Metcalfe, observed in his minute of 1932 that he dreaded everything that had a tendency to destroy them.

British imperialism brought all village common property such as land, water systems and forests under state control through the district collector thereby depriving local communities of all their authority. On attaining independence, due to paucity of resources, the Indian leadership adopted a Constitution that borrowed heavily from exploitative imperial practices. This has led to all round social, environmental, economic and political degeneration.

Today our society is structured on an exploitative political system — centralized, non-transparent, bureaucratized. On top of it, we adopted the fundamentally faulty Westminster system. Gandhi and his true democracy in which power flows upward from the people, were dumped.

We cannot go back to old systems. That will be both impossible and undesirable. Culture, economy and politics are dynamic. They keep changing and evolving, more often than not, for the better. Just as a tree sheds its leaves and flowers every year. But what must not be disturbed is the root of this tree called India. For the westerno-modern aspirations of the new bourgeois, under the clamour of the fundamentalists and the in tumult of fascists, the mumble of the simple small town Indian must not drown.