International Democracy Day

The idea to celebrate a day to uphold the values of democracy first came up at the meeting of United Nations General Assembly in the year 2007.

Etymology

The word democracy comes from the ancient Greek word democratia, demos meaning, “assembly of ordinary people” and kratos meaning “strength, rule”. Democracy is the rule of the land whereby the power rests solely in the hands of the people.

Mahatma Gandhi has said, “Democracy disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world”.

Janapada

In different parts of India, right from the Mahabharata period, there have been many Janapada, republics. The very word, ‘Janapada’ means “People’s Republic, democracy”. Jana meaning people and Pada is position, where people come together, to choose their leaders.

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Janapada, democratic republics of Ancient India

Spirit of Democracy

Mahatma Gandhi in a quote expresses that, “The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.”

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Mahatma Gandhi

India has survived as a democracy for many millennia, as it is the innate spirit of the land.

Panchayat System

Panchayats are democracies at the village level. Democracy has been a part of the people and the ethos of the land. The thinkers of ancient India had realized the ground reality that, kings may come and go, kingdoms may change in size and boundaries, but the prosperous land needs to be governed such that, the change of powers does not affect the basic social fabric, nor the sustainability of the land.

It is precisely to meet this challenge, that they had envisaged a local administration system called the Panchayat System, a unique system of local governance, keeping in mind the vagaries of time.

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A Panchayat in Progress – An artist’s impression

What is so singular about this system and its practice that helped tide over the vagaries of time and rule?

Panchayat – A Self Contained Model

The contribution of this Panchayat democracy system to the prosperity of the land as a whole, has been summarized by Sir Charles T. Metcalfe in his Report of Select Committee to the House of Commons in 1832.

Select Committee                         House of Commons           

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Sir Charles T. Metcalfe’s observations on Panchayats

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While there were many kingdoms ruled by different rulers, the model of governance was framed, independent of the individual ruler and the kingdom. The Panchayat administration, followed in every village, was uniform across the land, across kingdoms.

This model of local self governance was uniformly practiced, undisturbed even during times when there was no king or kingdom.

Policies and priorities framed locally by the Panchayat were not disrupted, ensuring continued and sustained prosperity.

This Panchayat democracy model, could be singled out as one of prominent administrative reasons for the continuous prosperity of India for over 5000 years.

Local Self Governance

It is the local administration of the village, by the villagers, for themselves.

This village governance system has been followed in India from time immemorial wherein, people elect and empower a local village council to handle matters of

  • Fund collection
  • Fund allocation
  • Need assessment
  • Planning
  • Deployment
  • Community Development

It was a council of five members who would decide on matters. They were called Panch Parameshwar, the 5 leaders. Hence the name Panchayat, for this model of governance.

We can see a sample of this Panchayat System of administration of the villages, in the stone inscriptions at the Srinivasa temple, in Uttiramerur, in Tamil Nadu, listing the rules for the conduct of elections.

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D K Hari pointing at the Inscriptions in Uttiramerur

Uttaramerur inscriptions

The election system has been in vogue in the land from time immemorial. Voting rights were not suddenly introduced only after independence.

One of the early inscriptions specifically relating to elections in villages is available at the Srinivasa Temple in Uttaramerur village. Uttaramerur is a small prosperous town, 100 kilometres to the south of Chennai. These inscriptions are now popularly known as Uttaramerur inscriptions.

The inscriptions throw light on the mode of election to Village Assemblies, Panchayat of those days.

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Uttaramerur Inscriptions at Srinivasa Perumal Temple

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English translation of the Uttaramerur inscriptions

Democracy idea not alien to India

Thus we see that even though India had kings and kingdoms, the Panchayat institutions, the main stay of the administrations system of the land is based on principles of democracy.

Democracy since Mahabharata times

This existed in India, since the times of Mahabharata, which means for over 5100 years.

These show that democracy existed in practice in India, atleast 3000 BCE ago, which takes the antiquity of democracy back 2500 years, before the ancient Greece practiced it.

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