Sunday, April 5, 2015

15 The ‘village republics’. Decentralized governance and forests in India-II.

The promise of village resurgence: Gandhiji’s vision

The vision of panchayati raj was invoked by our national leaders and thinkers as a revival of a glorious past, in which, as per the usual story, each village had its own panchayat, or committee of five wise men (pancha), to govern itself. Each village essentially arranged its own activities, its own defence from outside forces, and its own economy, with very little interference from the centre or from other polities.

It is generally recognised that village self-governance was a basic tenet of the Gandhian framework. Since village self-governance is also a basic idea of the panchayati raj system, it is natural to think (erroneously) that all that has been done is to give effect to Gandhiji’s thought on the best form of governance for India. An important part of it was bound up with Gandhi’s economic philosophy, in which he saw an inseparable link between the modes of production and the power relationships in society: only if communities produce for their own needs, and not for external markets, will a state develop that is not based on violence and force. As stated by Ganguli (1973) in his scholarly book Gandhi’s Social Philosophy, “Federalism, decentralisation, primacy of people’s initiative and autonomy in local communities – interdependent, and not entirely self-contained – are apparently the main ideas that follow from his logic of an ideal social structure”. The relationship of a village community with other villages, and to the larger world, would be elaborated through a free federation of groups in “ever-widening, but never-ascending circles” (Ganguli, op. cit., p.164).  The relationship of villages and other levels in the polity would not be hierarchical or pyramidal, but instead could be thought of as a number of “concentric circles” forming finally an “oceanic circle”, all at the same hierarchical level. Ganguli then goes on to wonder at the practical implications of this type of structure in the modern world.

We can discern here the germ of a contradiction, since it appears that Indian society had developed traditionally on the basis of hierarchical position and caste affiliation, rather than allegiance to the local community, whereas western thinking encouraged one to view all men (and latterly, women) as equal, and democracy as a fundamental right of all people. In other words, the autonomy that today’s believers advocate is only a relative one, circumscribed by their other ideals of a just society, a completely egalitarian, even communistic set-up with everyone working together to a common ideal. We obviously do not see the existing villages as anywhere near that ideal. The autonomous village council, therefore, would not have the power to create what would amount to unequal social hierarchies, or allocate property in (to our mind) unjust ways, or discriminate against persons based on race, caste, gender or any other such criterion.

This concept of Gandhiji’s may be characterised as basically an “ordered anarchy”, with familial links to other utopian or idealist philosophers like Tolstoy or the American romantic environmentalists Thoreau and Emerson (Ganguli, op.cit., p.171). Implicit in this is a picture of a saner and kinder world order: if all people limited their wants and refrained from coveting additional power and wealth, communities also would be non-accumulating and self-regulating, and in turn states would become non-acquisitive and non-aggressive. Gandhiji, being suspicious of the effects of state power and bureaucracies on society and communities, was not apparently a votary of the modern organised welfare state; he may not even have been sure about the merits of Western models of democracy, preferring instead to entrust leadership to a set of wise people: “True democracy is not inconsistent with a few persons representing the spirit, the hope and the aspirations of those whom they claim to represent… Bulk is not the true test of democracy” (Gandhi, quoted in Ganguli, ibid.). There seems to be an underlying ambiguity, therefore, in Gandhiji’s concept of the people’s role in democracy, and perhaps this reinforced the ideal of entrusting the village community to the committee of wise persons, the panchayat, from which the system of panchayati raj gets its appellation.

However, there were also dissenting voices, however muted, that saw the emancipation of our people from poverty and the dead hand of caste and religion, only in the development of modern productive relationships and market mechanisms and institutions.  The institutional structure that has actually developed, then, looks like an uneasy compromise between these different and disparate streams of thought, and the PRIs as actually realised are a far cry from what Gandhi envisaged (without in any way implying that Gandhiji’s was the only way, or even indeed a feasible option in the real world). So one comment we may safely make about our present-day PRIs is that they are NOT a realisation of Gandhiji’s esentially anarchic polity of self-sufficient village republics in an hierarchy-free network.

It is interesting that among the prominent and important actors at that time, it was a champion of social justice and equality of opportunity like Ambedkar who had differences with this approach. Unlike the Gandhians who had a basic distrust of bureaucracy and the State, Ambedkar in fact stressed the features of the Draft Constitution that provided for such strong, independent, institutions in the triune polity of the Indian republic: an independent judiciary, a strong civil bureaucracy to service the executive, and of course the parliament of elected representatives. A strong centre was an essential counterbalance to the states in taking forward the affairs of the country:

“The Draft Constitution has sought to forge means and methods whereby India will have Federation and at the same time will have uniformity in all the basic matters which are essential to maintain the unity of the country. The means adopted by the Draft Constitution are three: (1) a single judiciary, (2) uniformity in fundamental laws, civil and criminal, and (3) a common All-India Civil Service to man important posts.” (Ambedkar, in Rodrigues’ OUP edition, 2002, p.482)


“…there can be no doubt that the standard of administration depends upon the calibre of the Civil Servants who are appointed to these strategic posts. Fortunately for us we have inherited from the past (a) system of administration which is common to the whole of the country and we know what are these strategic posts. The Constitution provides that without depriving the States of their right to form their own Civil Services there shall be an All India Service recruited on an All-India basis with common qualifications, with uniform scale of pay and the members of which alone could be appointed to these strategic posts throughout the Union.” (ibid., p.483)

Instead of trusting the ‘village republics’ to provide protection to minorities and depressed classes, it would be the State, backed by constitutional guarantees and Directive Principles, that would do so. A lot of detail was prescribed because:

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic. In these circumstances it is wiser not to trust the Legislature to prescribe forms of administration. This is the justification for incorporating them in the Constitution” (Ambedkar, op. cit., p.485)

India of the village republics: an imagined past?

As described above, a recurring motif in writings on India’s tryst with panchayati raj is a picture of India being essentially made up of innumerable little ‘village republics’, which is almost a part of the national psyche today. Ronald Inden, the eponymously named author of the book Imagining India, points out that so pervasive – and persuasive -- was the image of the self-governing Indian village, that every author had to repeat it, so much so that “It is one of the pillars of these imperial constructs of India” (Inden, 2000, p.132). A favourite formulation, which seems to have become an almost obligatory catch-phrase in our post-colonial era as well, is that India constituted a “congeries of republics”, a phrase we see used by Colonel Mark Wilks (1820, p.121), reporting on the state of south India:

“The conqueror, or usurper, directly or through his agents, addresses himself as sovereign or representative of the sovereign to the head of the township; its officers, its boundaries, and the whole frame of its interior management remain unalterably the same; and it is of importance to remember that every state in India is a congeries of these little republics.” (italics added).

According to Inden, most of these are capsule representations that can be traced back to the statement of a prestigious servant of the East India Company, Sir Charles Metcalfe (1785-1846), who became Resident at Delhi at the age of 27, and went on to act as Governor-General for two years (Mason, 1985). His description of a ‘village republic’ first appeared in a British parliamentary inquiry of 1810.

“Not surprisingly, Mill, Utilitarian advocate of political economy, began this tradition, first reproducing the passage in his discussion of revenue, the category under which most accounts of villages were classed in nineteenth-century discourse … Elphinstone included it in his would-be replacement for Mill’s History in 1841, the first part of which was updated by E.B.Cowell, H.H.Wilson’s student, early in this century... And it has appeared in varying renditions countless times since. Even Marx, relying on the writings of two on-the-spot commentators, Colonel Mark Wilks (1760?-1831), Company servant in Madras from 1782 to 1801, and Sir George Campbell (1824-92), who held high posts in India between 1842 and 1874, produced a text on the Indian village in Das Kapital.(Inden, op. cit.)

As a prominent world thinker who may have been unduly impressed by Metcalfe’s somewhat grandiloquent characterisation of the idealised Indian village, Karl Marx’s attention turned to India during the 1850s, amidst the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ and transfer of control to the British government. According to Draper (1977), Marx quoted the 1812 report of a House of Commons committee (the Metcalfe report, that is) three times in reference to the societal pattern in India, and interpolated the comment: “Every village is, and appears to always to have been, in fact a separate community or republic” (Marx, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.527). But Marx’s judgement was not really flattering: Marx (with Engels) thought that Indian society had no history at all, apart from the successive intruders “who founded their empires on the passive basis of the unresisting and unchanging society”; he declared of the Indian village community, “rotting in the teeth of time”, that “no one could think of any more solid foundation for Asiatic despotism and stagnation” (op. cit., p.527), that their very isolation has “given rise to a more or less central despotism over the communes”, that they were “contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery”, characterised by an “undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life” (ibid., p.554). And Engels declared that these ancient communes “formed the basis of the cruellest form of state, Oriental despotism, from India to Russia”, and that it was “only where these communities dissolved that the peoples made progress of themselves” (Engels, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.555). All this is just to remind ourselves that the description of our “little republics” was not always laudatory.

It is therefore quite likely that Gandhi and others also got their characterisation of the Indian village as a ‘little republic’, from a study of these same colonial and Western intellectual sources, to which we may add Sir Henry Maine, who served as legal member of council in India, and who wrote of a joint system of cultivation and the “council of elders” in the Indian villages (Maine, 1871, p.110).  Apart from their observation of the existing Indian villages themselves, the colonial administrators and writers may also have been swayed by some degree of nostalgia for an imagined ancient history of the Teutons or Germanic branches of the Aryans in ancient and medieval Western Europe, which had all but disappeared there as it became a ‘modern’ society, but which still survived in its original, Aryan form in India, which was still an ‘ancient’ society, as elaborated in Maine’s writings. Inden feels that not only was the concept attractive to the colonial writers as evoking a sense of their own ancient past, but the emphasis on India as a land of autonomous villages was a part of the efforts of the colonial intellectuals to “deconstitute” the Indian state, by constant reiteration of the village republics idea: “Just as the modern succeeded the ancient in time, so the modern would dominate the ancient in space” (Inden, op. cit., p.132).

During the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar refers to these concerns:

“Another criticism against the Draft Constitution is that no part of it represents the ancient polity of India. It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments. The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic (laughter). It is largely due to the fulsome praise bestowed upon it by Metcalfe who described them as little republics having nearly everything that they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations.” 

Ambedkar goes on to say, of these village “republics”:

“That they have survived through all vicissitudes may be a fact. But mere survival has no value. The question is on what plane they have survived. Surely on a low, on a selfish level. I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” (Ambedkar, op. cit., p.486)

Being active in the real world, of course, Gandhi and other protagonists of the village-autonomy credo could not have been so unmindful of the effect of outside forces on the village, especially the development towards private property rights and titles, whether in antiquity or in their own times. Obviously one reason for the perceived independence of our villages would have been the sheer lack of communications, which meant that each settlement would have to stock up against calamities, and each household also would have to make provision against future needs if it were to survive in the long term. Of course the intermittent passage of campaigning armies of whatever hue or persuasion, could not have left these communities unaffected or unruffled; and obviously, the closer the village to the centre of power, the more it would have been integrated into those structures through trade, barter, tribute, employment and patronage.

Thus was the picture of autarky, stagnation and misery of the Indian villages built up by the colonial writers. But there are also available more realistic accounts of the institutions of community self-governance in historical times, as gleaned from the epigraphical record, which I refer to in the next section.  


Ambedkar, B.R. 1948. Basic Features of the Indian Constitution. Pp.474-494, in V.Rodrigues (Ed.), 2002, 2004. The Essential Writings of B.R.Ambedkar. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Draper, Hal. 1977. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol.I. State and Bureaucracy. Monthly Review Press, New York, 1977. Reprinted 2011 by Aakar Books for South Asia, Delhi-110091. 
Ganguli, B.N. 1973. Gandhi’s Social Philosophy. Perspective and Relevance. Supported by the Council for Social Development. Published by Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. Delhi
Inden, Ronald B. 1990, 2000. Imagining India. First published in 1990 by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. Second impression, 2000, with a new preface, by C.Hurst & Co. Publishers, London
Maine, Sir Henry James Sumner. 1871. Village Communities in the East and West. Six Lectures delivered at Oxford. John Murray, London.
Wilks, Mark. 1820. Historical Sketches of the South of India: In an Attempt to Trace the History of Mysoor, From the Origin of the Hindoo Government of that State, to the Extinction of the Mohammedan Dynasty in 1799, first published 1820, reissued  digitally 2013 by Cambridge University Press, New York.

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