Village Assemblies in Ancient India
India has a long history of “governments by discussion,” in which groups of people having common interests made decisions on matters that affected their lives through debate, consultation, and voting. During Buddha’s times, though the rulers were not elected and the king’s son would succeed his father, the day-to-day decisions of governance were taken in village assemblies. Decisions of village assemblies were respected by the king.
Siddharth Gautam (later to be Buddha) was the son of the king of Kapilavastu, home to the Sakyas. Though the king was the head of the government, the affairs of the state were deliberated upon and decided at a democratic institution called the Sangh. Every Sakya youth above the age of twenty had to be initiated into the Sangh. Siddharth, too, became a member of the Sangh when he came of age and started participating in its proceedings.
When he was twenty-eight years old, there was a major clash between the Sakyas and the neighbouring Koliyas on the issue of sharing the waters of the river Rohini, which separated their two states. The Senapati of the Sakyas convened a session of the Sangh to consider the question of declaring war on the Koliyas. Siddharth, not surprisingly, opposed the war and proposed a motion to settle the dispute through peaceful means. The motion was not just spoken against; it was defeated by an overwhelming majority when it was voted on. The public voted for the alternative resolution of going to war with the Koliyas.
The Sangh followed this action up with an even more remarkable act of democratic power. The Senapati proposed a motion to proclaim an order calling to arms, for the war against the Koliyas, every Sakya between the age of 20 and 50. The motion was passed by the Sangh, with Siddharth and his supporters dissenting. Siddharth refused to accept the proclamation, which was construed by the Sangh as a breach of his oath (taken while being admitted to the Sangh), to safeguard the best interests of the Sangh with his mind, body and money. As punishment for the dereliction of his duty as a Sangh member, Siddharth was, eventually, sentenced to exile from Kapilavastu.
There may be disagreement over the logic of the Sangh’s decisions, but there can be little doubt over the strength of the democratic institutions of Kapilavastu, as exemplified in the story. The prince had little say and the collective will of the people prevailed.
Buddha's commitment to republicanism (or at least the ideal republican virtues) was a strong one, if we are to believe the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, among the oldest of Buddhist texts. This is illustrated by a story. Ajatasastru, the King of Maghada, wishes to destroy the Vajjian confederacy (the Licchavis) and sends a minister, Vassakara the Brahman, to the Buddha to ask his advice. Will his attack be a success? Rather than answer directly, the Buddha speaks to Ananda, his closest disciples:
"Have you heard, Ananda, that the Vajjians hold full and frequent public assemblies?"
"Lord, so I have heard," replied he.
"So long, Ananda," rejoined the Blessed One, "as the Vajjians hold these full and frequent public assemblies; so long may they be expected not to decline, but to prosper...”
The Buddha saw the virtues necessary for a righteous and prosperous community, whether secular or monastic, as being much the same. Foremost among those virtues was the holding of “full and frequent assemblies.”
In this, the Buddha spoke not only for himself, and not only out of his personal view of justice and virtue. He based himself on what may be called the democratic tradition in ancient Indian politics -- democratic in that it argued for a wide rather than narrow distribution of political rights, and government by discussion rather than by command and submission.
Another example, perhaps more complete in description, of sophisticated local-level democracy in Indian history, is recorded on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple of Uttiramerur, Kanchipuram district. The inscriptions document a written constitution that dealt with elections to a village assembly around 750 AD, qualifications required of contesting candidates, circumstances under which a candidate would be disqualified, mode of election, tenure of the elected candidates and the right of the public to recall the elected members when they failed to discharge their duties properly, etc.
The village assembly had administrative and judicial functions, and was empowered to impose and collect fines from both common criminals and errant village administrators. Elected members of the assembly were also effectively policed by a larger assembly comprising village residents as well as the serving elected members of the village assembly.
Records detail the regulations and acts passed by the village assembly with respect to specific public services, such as the testing of gold quality, institutes of higher learning, and village tank maintenance. Each public service was rendered effectively by delegating the tasks to committees comprising members elected from various communities, to ensure sufficient expertise and impartiality within the committee.
One of the earliest instances of civilizations with democracy was found in ancient India, even during the times of the Rigveda, probably the earliest Indo-European literature and one of the most sacred books of the Hindus. The village in India was looked upon as the basic unit of administration in earliest Vedic age. The states mentioned are mostly monarchies, but with two democratic institutions called the Sabha and the Samiti. The Sabha (Assembly in Sanskrit) is widely interpreted to be the assembly of the elect or the important chieftains of the tribe, while the Samiti seems to be the gathering of all the men of the tribe, convened only for very special occasions. The Sabha and the Samiti kept check on the powers of the king, and were given a semi-divine status in the Rigveda as the "daughters of the Hindu deity Prajapati".
The later epic Ramayana seems to mention a Samiti summoned by King Dasharatha of Ayodhya for ratification of his son Prince Ramachandra as the successor (Book II, Canto II:80). Later, there were even many republics in ancient India, which were established sometime before the 6th century BC, and prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha. These republics were known as Maha Janapadas, and among these states, Vaishali (in what is now Bihar, India) was the world's first republic.
The tiny Indian village republics continued to flourish during the Hindu, Muslim and Peshwa governments till the advent of the East India Company. They survived the wreck of dynasties and downfall of empires. ‘The independent development of local government provided like the shell of the tortoise, a haven of peace where the national culture could draw in for its own safety when political storms burst over the land.’ The Kings received only state revenues from the village commonwealths and generally did not interfere with their local government. As Sir Charles Trevellyn remarks, ‘one foreign conqueror after another has swept over India, but the village municipalities have stuck to the soil like their own kusha grass.’ In his famous minute of 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the then acting governor-general of India wrote:
"The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution….but the village community remains the same. . . This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the peoples of India, through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered. It is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence. I wish, therefore, that the village constitutions may never be disturbed and I dread everything that has a tendency to break them up."
But fate willed it otherwise. The inordinate and unscrupulous greed of the East India Company caused gradual disintegration of these gram panchayats. The centralisation of all executive and judicial powers in the hands of the British bureaucrats also deprived the village functionaries of their age-old powers and influence.
As Dr Annie Besant observed, “The officials keep the old names, but the old panchayat was elected by the householders of the village and was responsible to them. Now the officers are responsible to government officials and their interest lies in pleasing them, not in satisfying the electors, as of old.”
Unfortunately, we continued with the same system after independence, which was put in place by the British.