How Democracy evolved in India

  • By Venkatachala I. Sreenivas
  • June 10 2021
  • Article takes us through the journey how democracy evolved in India, arising from the need for rule of law. It tells how the principles of rule of law was extolled by our sages since antiquity.

In the remote past humans lived as food gatherers. About ten thousand years ago, they became food producers by inventing agriculture. The change from a life of food gatherers to one of food producers by agriculture was a major advance in the history of human species. Food gathering is not a very efficient means of living. The availability of food is unpredictable and requires a large area to procure the needed food. Under such circumstances only a highly nomadic life is possible and would support only a small number of individuals living together.


Since agriculture requires constant attention and labour confined to a piece of land, individuals had to give up nomadic way of life and live in one place for a prolonged period. Agriculture is more efficient and reliable as a source of food compared to food gathering. Therefore, agriculture was able to support a larger number of individuals in a group. Some of the individuals, so supported, developed specialised skills further contributing to the efficiency and development of the group.


Realisation of the benefits of the group living along with that of specialisation changed tribal living, to living in communities. The communities with time progressively evolved to the development of villages, small states and to the present-day nations. Living in ever increasing large communities with greater degrees of specialisation resulted in increasing interdependence. Individuals in a community were no longer able to do whatever they wished.


Codes of conduct had to be developed for the harmonious functioning of the community. The codes of conduct so developed became the laws of the community to be observed by one and all. A need arose for enforcing the laws and to change, modify and formulate new laws for the smooth functioning of the community. Some members of the community were entrusted with the responsibility of formulating and enforcing the laws. Eventually those entrusted with the responsibility of formulating and enforcing the laws became the governing class and the remainder the governed class. Thus governments came into existence.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.


Humanity has experimented with government by oligarchy (government by a few), monarchy (government by hereditary kingship), dictatorship (absolute power enjoyed by an individual), and theocracy (government by priests or religious authorities). The success or failure of these systems of government depended on whether the governance was based on the rule of law or rule by law.


In the beginning when the communities were small and self-sustaining, the governed and the governing class lived in close physical proximity and shared common interests. Because of the close physical proximity and shared common interests, the numerically small governing class was constrained to act in accordance with the wishes of the numerically larger governed populace. The rule of law prevailed.


The rule of law means that no one including the ruling authority (king, emperor, the officials etc.) is above the law. In other words law is supreme and sovereign and everyone is bound by law and no one is free to act or do whatever they want. Under the rule of law no one enjoys privileges over others and all are equal.


However with the passage of time as the communities’ size increased, the governments became larger in their size and scope. The distance between the governed and the governing class increased both literally and figuratively. Consequently the governing class was less restrained and became less responsive to the needs of the governed. 


In addition, the natural inborn human tendency of seeking privileges for oneself, one’s family and friends asserted itself. With all the advantages of the state at their disposal it was too tempting for the governing class not to avail of the privileges. They forgot that the rulers are for the benefit of the ruled. They replaced rule of law by rule by law for their own advantage.


Tyrants, dictators, totalitarian states followed rule by law and they are on the decline. They for the most part were replaced by democracies which are based on rule of law. The case for democracy has been greatly augmented by the demise in the 20th century of prominent non-democracies, such as the Japanese Empire, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe. The acceptance of democracy by countries of diverse histories and cultures such as Argentina, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, and Sweden indicates a pervasive desire for rule of law.


Although democracy has gained ascendency in modern times, the principles of rule of law was extolled by our sages since antiquity. Some examples include:

“Let there be for the benefit of the rulers and the ruled three Assemblies—1. Religious, 2. Legislative, 3. Educational. Let each discuss and decide subjects that concern it, and adorn all men with knowledge, culture, righteousness, independence, and wealth and thereby make them happy (Rig Veda III 38.6). 


This is a reference to division of power. If this is not followed, “He [king] would impoverish the people and oppress them… A despotic ruler does not let anyone else grow in power, robs the rich, usurps their property by unjust punishment, and accomplishes his selfish end. One man should, therefore, never be given despotic power (Shatapatha Brahmana XII.2,3,7,8). This is a warning against concentration of power and the evils of rule by law.


As mentioned in Light of Truth by Swami Dayananda Saraswati - “The law alone is the real king…The law alone is the true Governor that maintains order among the people. The law alone is their protector. The law alone is their protector. The law keeps awake while the people are asleep. When rightly administered, the law makes all men happy… The law rightly administered by the king greatly promotes the practice of virtue, acquisition of wealth and secures the attainment of heart-felt desires of his people…Great is the power and majesty of law… He alone is fit to administer the law - which is another name for justice-who is wise, pure in heart, of truthful character, associates with the good, conducts himself according to the law and is assisted by the truly good and great men in the discharge of his duties (Manu Dharma shastra VII 17.19,24,28, 30, 31). 


‘Neither a father, nor a teacher nor a friend, nor a mother, nor a wife, nor a son, nor a domestic priest must be left unpunished by the king, if they do not keep within their duty’ (Manu VIII:335). 


India developed a society where rule of law was given paramount importance. Even the king or an emperor was bound by law and was not free simply to do what he wanted. Thus the rule of law in Indian tradition did not spring from political authority; it came from a source independent of and superior to political rulers. 


Dharma shastras made it clear that the king exists for the welfare of the people and not the other way around. In other words, the ruler was not sovereign but the law was. Considering the long tradition of democratic spirit of the land it is no accident that India chose a democratic form of government when it gained independence from foreign subjugation. What values we cherish and put into practice is more important than the labels we put on ourselves.


Instances are not lacking in history where under the guise of democracy some rulers have or attempted to sabotage rule of law and replace it by rule by law to further their self-interests. Even well-established democracies are vulnerable. So, we cannot become complacent with a label and should be on our guard and ensure that the spirit of rule of law prevails.  


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 31 March 2021 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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