From Republics to Republic


C K Sharma | January 27, 2010

Wonder that was India: Ashok Pillar of Vaishali
Wonder that was India: Ashok Pillar of Vaishali

The release of this inaugural issue of Governance Now, on the completion of sixty years of the Republic of India, naturally raises the obvious question as to what have been the achievements, or failures, of our republic in these sixty years. This logically leads to the still deeper question that comes to the mind, viz, did India become a republic only on the adoption of the constitution which declared it formally as a Sovereign Democratic Republic, or did the people of our country have the spirit of republic in their psyche since antiquity.

The idea of a republic indicates a political state or entity in which supreme power is held by the people through their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch. With this definition of the republic, the answer to the second question above lies in the affirmative. Autonomous clans with a non-monarchical (republican or oligarchical) form of government formed a distinctive feature in Indian politics as early as the sixth century B.C., for the Buddhist texts reveal the existence of many such clans at the time of Gautama Buddha. Some of the most well known of these were the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Lichchhavis of Vaisali, the Mallas of Pava and Kusinagara, the Videhas of Mithila, the Koliyas of Ramagama, the Bulis of Allakappa, the Moriyas of Pipphalivana and the Bhaggas with their capital on the Sumsumara Hill. Panini too,in his famous grammar mentions several republics, to which he applies the term 'Samgha' or 'Gana', which co-existed along with the 'janapadas' (kingdoms).Most of these republics continued to flourish upto the time of Alexander's invasion, which they valiantly resisted. Megasthenes and Kautilya also expressly refer to these republics in their writings. Many of them occur in epigraphic records of as late as the fourth century A.D. These republics had a constitution which provided for a central popular assembly as its supreme governing body. Elderly as well as young were its members who took part in discussions of affairs of the state.

Megasthenes has very significantly stated that monarchies were “dissolved and democratic governments were set up in the cities.” King's misrule, suppression or tyranny must have been one of the causes of these liberal developments, proving that the people of ancient India had the natural desire to rule themselves, and that neither the development of royal power nor the theory of divine right of kings could affect or demoralise the will of the popular element. Heterodox religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism grew among these autonomous republican states illustrating the great principle that political freedom is the nursery for freedom of thought.

It is this inherent conscious strength, free will and desire for self rule in the Indian psyche that has culminated in the setting up of the Indian Republic in 1950, and not the mere fact of adoption of the republican form of government through a written constitution based on the provisions of a handful of foreign constitutions, as is generally given to be believed. Our Republic is certainly not inspired merely by the constitutions of foreign countries. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had pointed out during the discussions in the Constituent Assembly that Indian democracy was as old as its ancient village republics, and that India had political assemblies with elaborate parliamentary rules of procedure at a time when most of the rest of the world suffered under despotism or anarchy.

We have travelled far in the polity of this great ancient civilisation ----- from the ancient village republics to the modern nation- republic. In between this democratic system was somewhat lost in the historical maze of foreign invasions and empires, but only to be re-asserted in the aftermath of our freedom movement with Tilak declaring that “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birth right” and Mahatma Gandhi arousing the political will of the people by taking the freedom movement to the masses.

Now emerges the relevance of the first question, what have been the achievements or failures of our Republic, the seeds of which existed almost since the beginning of our civilisation.

The Indian Republic has certainly achieved a lot during the sixty years of its existence. Its foremost accomplishment has been that India has survived as a democracy, and this single-most achievement assumes the greatest of significance given the fact that many of the countries that became independent around the same time soon degenerated into military dictatorships. The parliamentary form of government has taken firm roots in India; the democratic institutions have been strengthened; elections at national, state, and panchayat level are held regularly; the independence of the judiciary has been maintained; the federal structure continues to be on a strong foundation; the centre-state relations have survived challenges; the system of checks and balances between the legislature, the judiciary , and the executive has worked well; and most importantly the army has confined itself to the barracks.

Yet there have been areas of deep despair. The constitution, in the famous words of the noted jurist N.A. Palkhivala, has been 'defaced and defiled'. It has been amended much more frequently, and much more unabashedly, than its framers would have ever dreaded in their wildest dreams. The consequences of the extensivity and intensivity of its amendments have played havoc with its basic structure. The electoral system allows political parties to win by a majority on the basis of polling only a minority share of the total votes polled. Elections are claimed to be fair and free, but are marred by widespread violence, booth-capturing, kidnapping and killing of candidates, and distribution of alcohol and money referred to ironically as 'Gandhiji' (the rupees five hundred note bearing Gandhiji's picture on it). Many of those who are elected do not attend the legislature, or at best they sleep through the proceedings, unless they are busy throwing mikes at each other. The creation of new states one after another on linguistic and ethnic grounds, with demand for about six more pending, is weakening the nation politically and economically and is against the spirit of our federal structure.

The independence of the judiciary, to whatever extent it may be, is no solace to those who wait endlessly for justice owing to the procedural and legal intricacies of the judicial system, huge back-log of pending cases, and lack of access to legal aid. The criminal justice is blind to the fate of those unfortunate millions who are languishing in jails pending completion of trial, many a times suffering incarceration for periods much longer than the legally prescribed length of punishment, even if proved guilty and sentenced.

The greatest ever blow to our democratic republic was inflicted with the infamous declaration of the emergency by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in June 1975 in the aftermath of her election being declared null and void by the Allahabad High Court. In the wake of the emergency constitutional amendments and draconian laws were passed that crushed the spirit of the constitution , deprived the common man of his rights and liberty , created a deep fear psychosis in the mind of the citizen , and trampled the popular political will of the people. However , the innate  sub-conscious  spirit of  the great Indian people for self-rule , democracy , and liberty  is so deep seatedly strong that the perpetrator of the emergency herself had to set aside the emergency and declare elections , for which ofcourse due credit has to be given to her , especially as she very gracefully accepted defeat and handed over power after the 1977 general elections.

Despite all pitfalls , the Republic has witnessed remarkable achievement and progress in scientific, technological, economic, educational, social and developmental fields. India has successfully reached the moon, and made great strides in atomic and nuclear sectors. Telecommunication connectivity is far reaching, enabling the commonest of person in the farthest corners of the country to communicate not only anywhere in the country but even globally. In information technology the country beats the best of nations any day. The telecommunication and the information technology revolutions have together changed the lifestyle of both the urban as well as the rural people beyond imagination. In the rural sector the Green Revolution and the White Revolution have brought in its wake far-reaching productivity as well as prosperity. Our country's engineers and doctors are comparable to the best in the world. India is respected globally for its economic strength, with World Bank recognising it as an economic power to be reckoned with. Surely, professionalism has grown in both public as well as corporate sector resulting in growth of economy and employment generation. In the field of medicine India has the best of the hospitals and is witnessing what is termed as “medical tourism”, with foreigners pouring in for safe and economical treatment including most complicated of the operations. A remarkable and hitherto unthinkable development is that professionals in all walks of life are leaving the foreign shores and the so called 'land of opportunity' or 'the golden land' for home country. The “brain drain” is definitely flowing in the reverse direction now.

In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. To safeguard our Republic, so that it does not get lost for the second time, as it got lost once in the maze of history, we have to be vigilant against some of the deepest and basic cancerous maladies with which our Republic suffers despite all its achievements. Corruption has seeped into our system like poison in the blood veins. The 'unholy trinity' of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and business-men has wrecked havoc, a clear proof of which lies in the innumerable scams that have bled the country. There have been scams after scams, on almost any subject on the earth ranging from fodder to housing to coffin, and involving every part of our society, be it politician, bureaucrat, businessman, members of legal fraternity, doctor, engineer, army officers, or even the lower level functionaries. Criminalisation of political system has made the matter worse, easing the elimination of witnesses , whistleblowers and political opponents. People's apathy towards the political system, reflected by their abstinence from voting , and by their lack of faith in the efficacy of democratic system to deliver goods, is indeed an alarming phenomena. Economic growth has not translated into equitable distribution of wealth, ever widening the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots. Social justice has increasingly become elusive. The caste system refuses to melt even a little bit, and infact is increasingly becoming the bedrock of our socio-economic, religious and political edifice. Most unfortunately, despite economic growth, democracy, and education the human mind has gravitated less towards liberal and emancipated thought process culminating in unity consciousness, and more towards narrow dogmatic thinking leading ultimately to the most pernicious elements of    religious fundamentalism and terrorism. “Son of the soil” theories and policies and demolition of Babri Masjid will never solve any issue. Separative and secessionist tendencies have gained ground, which bodes ill for our republic. Political sagacity lies in constructive policies to remove the genuine problems of the diverse people of our country. The happiness , satisfaction and fulfilment of the aspirations of the commonest of man is of prime importance for our nation to flourish as a “ Sovereign , Socialist , Secular, Democratic Republic”.

Globally the thinking is that the East, especially the Asian countries like India and China are going to be the super-powers of the future. Are we as a nation ready, or atleast preparing ourselves, to play the role expected of us. Can we reach out in future to a time where we were in the past, our glorious past, when we were enjoying economic well being, religious effervescence, and spiritual emancipation under the political umbrella of democratic republics , at a time when people in many parts of the world were living on trees. The famous historian A.L. Basham has referred to that great period of our civilisation as “The Wonder That Was India”,  the title of his universally well known book Let us rise as a nation in our collective consciousness and effort to reach out to a glorious future which we can term as “The Wonder That Will Be India”.



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