Village Self-Government. The Shukra Nitisara
There is an old book of the tenth century which gives us some idea of Indian polity as it was conceived prior to the Turkish and Afghan invasions. This is the Nitisara, the Science of Polity,by Shukracharya. It deals with the organization of the central government as well as of town and village life; of the king’s council of state and various departments of government. The village panchayat or elected council has large powers, both executive and judicial, and its members were treated with the greatest respect by the king’s officers. Land was distributed by this panchayat, which also collected taxes out of the produce and paid the government’s share on behalf of the village. Over a number of these village councils there was a larger panchayat or council to supervise and interfere if necessary.
Some old inscriptions further tell us how the members of the village councils were elected and what their qualifications and disqualifications were. Various committees were formed, elected annually, and women could serve on them. In case of misbehaviour,a member could be removed. A member could be disqualified if he failed to render accounts of public funds. An interesting rule to prevent nepotism is mentioned: near relatives of members were not to be appointed to public office.
These village councils were very jealous of their liberties and it was laid down that no soldier could enter the village unless he had a royal permit. If the people complained of an official,the Nitisara says that the king ‘should take the side, not of his officers, but of his subjects.’ If many complained then the official was to be dismissed, ‘for who does not get intoxicated by drinking of the vanity of office.’ The king was to act in accordance with the opinion of the majority of the people. ‘Public opinion is more powerful than the king as the rope made of many fibres is strong enough to drag a lion.’ ‘In making official appointments work, character and merit are to be regarded neither caste nor family,’ and ‘neither through colour nor through ancestors can the spirit worthy of a Brahmin be generated.
In the larger towns there were many artisans and merchants,and craft guilds, mercantile associations, and banking corporations were formed. Each of these controlled its own domestic affairs.
All this information is very fragmentary but it does appear from this and many other sources that there was a widespread system of self-government in towns and villages and the central government seldom interfered, so long as its quota of taxes was paid. Customary law was strong and the political or military power seldom interfered with rights based on custom. Originally the agrarian system was based on a co-operative or collective village. Individuals and families had certain rights as well ascertain obligations, both of which were determined and protected by customary law.
There was no theocratic monarchy in India. In Indian polity if the king is unjust or tyrannical, the right to rebel against him is admitted. What the Chinese philosopher, Mencius, said 2,000 years ago might apply to India: ‘When a ruler treats his subjects like grass and dirt, then subjects should treat him as a bandit and an enemy.’ The whole conception of monarchical power differed from that of European feudalism, where the king had authority over all persons and things in his domain. This authority he delegated to lords and barons who vowed allegiance to him.Thus a hierarchy of authority was built up. Both the land and the people connected with it belonged to the feudal lord and,through him, to the king. This was the development of the Roman conception of dominium. In India there was nothing of this kind. The king had the right to collect certain taxes from the land and this revenue-collecting power was all he could delegate to others. The peasant in India was not the lord’s serf.There was plenty of land available and there was no advantage in dispossessing the peasant. Thus in India there was no landlord system, as known in the west, nor was the individual peasant the full owner of his patch of land. Both these concepts were introduced much later by the British with disastrous results.
Foreign conquests brought war and destruction, revolts and their ruthless suppression, and new ruling classes relying chiefly on armed force. This ruling class could often ignore the numerous constitutional restraints which had always been part of the customary law of the country. Important consequences followed and the power of the self-governing village communities decreased and later various changes were introduced in the land-revenue system. Nevertheless the Afghan and Mughal rulers took special care not to interfere with old customs and conventions and no fundamental changes were introduced, and the economic and social structure of Indian life continued as before. Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlak issued definite instructions to his officials to preserve customary law and to keep the affairs of the state apart from religion, which was a personal matter of individual preference. But changing times and conflicts, as well as the increasing centralization of government, slowly but progressively lessened the respect given to customary law. The village self-governing community, however, continued. Its break-up began only under British rule.
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