Don’t worry if you did too, for that is what we have been taught! Even today we are taught that the British did great उपकार on us by civilising the people of the Indian subcontinent. All of us are taught that they gave us science and technology, educated us, civilised us and so on. We have all believed this as we were taught nothing else. And yet we do hear that our country was rich once upon a time. जहंा डाल डाल पर सोने की चिड़िया करती है बसेरा! वोह भारत देष है मेरा!’ We do enjoy listening to this song and feel proud, but the thought definitely crosses our minds – is this really true? What about what we are taught in schools and colleges? “Old was gold!” OR “West is best!”? Did we really have a glorious history or is it just an illusion of dreamers and fanatics?
Before answering any of these questions, we should keep one thing in mind and that is to look at all this history very scientifically. And by that I mean that we should base our discussions on verifiable facts obtained from modern research into ancient Indian literature*.
First and foremost, the role of the king in the Indian political system was limited. He was duty bound to protect the people, even by waging war if necessary to establish peace. He also had the duty of regulating the society – of ensuring that everyone had enough food, education and a house. Most importantly, a king was always considered responsible for the security and welfare of his people, and if he was unable to ensure this, people had the right to overthrow the king! Some texts even say that such a king should be publicly executed. And to one’s surprise there are more than a few examples of this in Indian history, where people actually used their right and replaced the king with one who could really ensure their wellbeing.
If this was the role of the king, then how was the administration of the society done? Who all were involved in it and to what capacity?
This aspect is both startling and should give us, as Indians, a great sense of pride. Nearly for a period of 3500 years, which ended after the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by the British colonialists, the chief mode in which Indian society operated was direct democracy at the village level! This was a very efficient system. The greatest proof of this is that before the there were no famines in the Indian subcontinent! During the period of their rule the British ruined our agriculture, resulting in frequents famines in which lakhs and even crores of people died and countless were devastated. The famines that occur even today are one of the cruellest legacies of British rule. The Indian subcontinent depends on the 3-4 months of monsoons for rain. That is why preservation and storage of water during monsoon was and is important. Before the British rule, there used to be an extensive and intricate network of canals and irrigation systems. Water for drinking and irrigation was available throughout the year. Thus our ancestors were able to grow crops even if the monsoon failed. These irrigation facilities were owned by the whole society and thus all the kings had an obligation to look after and maintain them. The British, on the contrary, paid no attention to the maintenance of this wonderful irrigation system. They had their own reasons for doing so, but what we have to ask is – why even after 67 years of Independence, do most of the farmers still have to depend on rain for their survival?
The kings’ laws were limited to his court and high officers, to his forts and his capital. The village communities had the right to make their own laws and practice their own religion, irrespective of the religion of the king. Religion was considered to be a very personal matter. The villages had people’s committees that passed the judgement and also decided the appropriate punishment on disputes and criminal cases. Betraying the people, looting public money, harming or looting public property was considered as the gravest crime one could commit. This was applicable to everyone irrespective of what post he handled. Even kings or members of the ruling assemblies were not given any concession in this aspect.
Moreover, if a king or any member of the village committee was found guilty on any such account, not just him, but his entire family up to the next two generations was banned from taking any part in political activities. There were rules made to avoid domination of one family or a group of people on committees. Very strict monitoring was done so that posts didn’t just transfer from father to son and so on. If a person was to hold a post for a given tenure, then he and his entire family were not allowed to contest for the next tenure. Provisions were made to ensure equal representation of all people.
This is just a glimpse into our very own glorious history, and by no means are these fantasies. We will keep discussing these things in detail. We are not saying everything was perfect in our history and that we need to go back. There was caste based oppression as well as the oppression of women, and of course these must be ended. But there are definitely lessons that we need to learn from our past as they are relevant today.
But for now as food for thought, just try to see and compare the current Indian situation. What kind of democracy do we actually have? Do we really have a say in how the country is run? What rights do we really have in practice? Is the state ensuring the wellbeing of everyone?
* We have used facts from the Buddhist Pali Canon (Scriptures), Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Jain Canons (Scriptures) and also from contemporary Greek and Roman accounts of the Indian subcontinent.
In the next issue we will give some fascinating observations that foreigners visiting our country before British rule made about what they saw here.