Monday, April 13, 2015

16 Village bodies in the historical record. Decentralized governance and forests in India-III.

As a counter-balance to the pessimistic or nostalgic accounts of the Indian village in, respectively, the colonial or nationalistic writings, what is probably a more realistic picture of the Indian polity of those times is given in Radhakumud Mookerji’s scholarly study, Local Government in Ancient India (revised edition, 1920). The overall purport of the author is that there has been an essential unity in the institutional culture from north to south in India, along with a great deal of “spontaneity and significance of specific variations”, as seen from the literary and epigraphic evidence, law-books and inscriptions, from the 1st century onwards (Mookerji, op. cit., p.xii-xiii).  

The nature and activity of the vaunted village “republics” emerge from the epigraphic record with a sense of immediate reality in Mookerji’s study. Firstly, their number: for instance, the Tanjore records under Rajaraja I Chola (985-1013) testify to the existence of no less than 190 village assemblies, where the entire inhabitants assembled to conduct affairs: “The system must have been in operation in thousands of other villages whose names and exact number await discovery…” (Mookerji, op. cit., p.306). The Uttaramallur inscriptions closely corroborate Megasthenes’ description of six boards of five members each, looking after subjects like tanks and irrigation, gardens, public works, treasury, justice, general supervision, and so on, and showing the essential uniformity of the North and the South of the sub-continent (it is noteworthy that modern Panchayats also provide for a similar number of sub-committees).

Next, their variety: it is clear from the records “that they are not uniformly composed and constituted, but present a variety of types”. Just as there were diverse types of state tried in India (not just one theocratic or autocratic type), “…similarly, even in the smaller sphere of local government, there has been a considerable diversity of political growth” (Mookerji, ibid., p.308). He cites different types of institutions available to the community, for instance those based on caste, those based on special interest, or those based on the locality or jurisdiction. One can discern the existence, and vigorous activity, of diverse organisations or associations for the traders, the guilds, the religious orders and schools, and so on. Some of the names mentioned are the sabha (the governing body of Brahmins of a village), the mahasabha; the sangha already referred to by Panini (first century BC?), used “in a generic sense to indicate all deliberate local associations other than the central government”, of various types depending on the community of Dharma or ends (Mookerji, p.314); the kula, the “closest corporation”, based on kinship; the sreni (craft or merchant guild), the vrata, (based on martial pursuits); the matha or religious order; the territory-based puga, a federation of all sectional or communal assemblies or association of men in a common pursuit. At a yet higher level was the gana, or “political government of the popular type”. Each of these bodies “is invested with executive and judicial functions and other powers of government within the limits of its prescribed jurisdiction”. Many of these terms were used commonly in the north and the south, pointing to the cultural unity of the sub-continent as a whole (for meaning of terms, see Mookerji, p.32/3, 314).

Further, there is a distinct impression of the active combination of these ground-level structures into higher level arrangements: “The individual village is not a world unto itself, but is viewed as part of a larger whole. There is thus a widening of the sphere of interests and public service.” The Mahasabha, for example, was “a development on some lines out of the Sabha”; similarly, the general assembly of the Urar is “carried to the next stages of development in the Nattar or District Assembly and the yet larger assembly of Nadu or Division”. We even have references to even larger and higher assemblies, such as “the great assembly of twelve Nadus… nay, of seventy-nine Nadus covering an area as vast as a province” (Mookerji, op.cit., p.311).

Thus the actual nature of the ancient Indian polity was not exactly one of isolated villages mouldering under a neglectful sovereign, but on the contrary a picture presents itself of a bustling, vigorous civilisation with many levels of organisation and a rich tapestry of activities and pursuits, within the region and across the seas as well, such as is portrayed in a recent study (Pollock, 2006) on the wider world (the cosmopolis) of Sanskrit culture in South and Southeast Asia that shows that it was, by the standards of any times, a sophisticated, urbane, cosmopolitan affair. Mookerji argues that this “luxuriant growth” of local variations gives the lie to those who state that there was no political institution between the village and the central government, or that there could not be a federation of different communities and castes. “On the other hand, …it is the very growth of these numerous, multi-form, intermediate assemblies between the state and the individual which can most effectively help on the evolution of Indian political life”. Again, “This pluralism of the group, as an intermediate body between the state and the individual units, has been the most characteristic feature of Indian polity” (Mookerji, p.317); and quoting M.P.Follet, “…politics cannot be founded on representative or electoral methods but must rest on vital modes of association” (what we could call civil society in today’s parlance).

According to Mookerji (op. cit., p.xxiii),

“Briefly stated, the Indian theory favours neither anarchy nor the unqualified pluralism of discrete and isolated groups without reference to any nexus or solidarity as provided by the State, by Dharma, or otherwise… Nor, again, are the local bodies of ancient India the products of decentralization operating in the sphere of a central unitary State…The Indian polity … was, therefore, in its final development, neither pluralistic nor monistic in its trend and type, but a balanced synthesis of three distinct and co-existing elements, the State with its jurisdiction as represented by the Danda, the individual on the Road to Freedom (Mukti), and the various intermediary groups, functional, local or voluntary, connecting these two poles by means of their own dharma, their special Codes, and Customaries.”

In the light of the historical record, therefore, it appears that the flat, centre-less model is not validated by appealing to the hoary past, whatever else may be its justifications. Neither the centre, nor the peripheral village, can be considered as dispensable, nor can either be the final arbiter. The present-day panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), therefore, correspond neither to Gandhi’s vision of a hierarchy-free, anarchic, structure, nor do they hearken back to the bustling and multi-hued complex of interest-based, caste-based, and locality-based organisations that would justify the characterisation of the Indian polity as a ‘congeries of village republics’.

In the next section, another issue in the PRIs will be discussed: the validity and role of sub-PRI bodies or the so-called community based organizations (CBOs).


Mookerji, Radhakumud. 1918, 1920. Local Government in Ancient India. Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged, 1920. Reprinted 1989, Low Price Publications, Delhi-110052.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Sanskrit, Culture, and  Power in Premodern India. University of California Press, Berkeley. Published in India 2007 by Permanent Black, first paperback printing 2009.

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