How functional is our parliamentary system? A former Speaker of our Lok Sabha, someone who was recognised for his work asked this very question, on the suitability of our present system to India. So much has been written, thought and done in the name of reform, and so much is still being done, but few voices have asked, so clearly – if we need to question, as in a truly Original sense – Everything.
Is our form of governance even compatible with our ethos? What could be a more appropriate form of governance? What form did democracy take in ancient India, in Greece? What principles were they founded upon? How did these evolve over time? And finally, how can we apply these learnings to our present environment? Kittu Reddy- a teacher, author, friend & advisor to our previous Chief of Army Staff undertakes a study in this multi-part series which ideally, imho, should have been a part of our formal education and enquiry. Oh well! – it is never too late…
Indian Democracy – Part I
By Kittu Reddy
In the following articles, we are presenting Sri Aurobindo’s views on some aspects of the Indian political system; it is not an exhaustive presentation, but in the present churning that is taking place in India, it will be useful to comprehend the deeper vision of Sri Aurobindo in politics. This view might help us to steer the national political mind in a new direction.
Soon after attaining independence, India gave herself a constitution and became a democratic Republic on 26 January 1950 and has since been governed by this Constitution. This was indeed a commendable achievement, more particularly when one looks at some of the countries in our neighbourhood and even around the world. For it established a system of governance, a sound legal system and a fairly sound basis for a democratic socialistic society where elections were held regularly and the popular mandate was respected.
We may thus say that the democratic system has been established and accepted as an indispensable part of Indian political life; yet we have to recognise that in practice, there have been serious shortcomings and these will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.
As a matter of fact, right from the beginning there were voices which raised doubts about the efficacy of this system and its suitability to the Indian nation. These voices increased with time and have now reached a crescendo in the last few months. Here is an extract from a speech 1 made by a former Speaker of our Lok Sabha (2004-2009), Somnath Chatterjee in August 2012:
After more than six decades of our Independence, we have come to a stage, when questions are being asked about the workability of our democratic set up based on the Parliamentary system and about the utility and relevance of our vital democratic institutions.
The question that arises is: how much of the fault lies in the system itself and how much in the misapplication that arises due to human frailty? If the fault lies in the system, we should take a close look at it and suggest changes more suited to the Indian temperament. Regarding the aspect of human weakness which is undoubtedly an important factor we shall not discuss it in this article for it will demand a deeper psychological approach. In this article, I shall try to present Sri Aurobindo’s views on Democracy and more particularly Parliamentary Democracy. We shall follow it up by making some suggestions for evolving a better democratic system more in tune with the Indian genius and temperament.
Sri Aurobindo was in active politics during the years 1906-1910. During that period in a comment he wrote:
Socialistic democracy is the only true democracy, for without it we cannot get the equalised and harmonised distribution of functions, each part of the community existing for the good of all and not struggling for its own separate interests, which will give humanity as a whole the necessary conditions in which it can turn its best energies to its higher development. To realise those conditions is also the aim of Hindu civilisation and the original intention of caste. The fulfilment of Hinduism is the fulfilment of the highest tendencies of human civilisation and it must include in its sweep the most vital impulses of modern life. It will include democracy and Socialism also, purifying them, raising them above the excessive stress on the economic adjustments which are the means, and teaching them to fix their eyes more constantly and clearly on the moral, intellectual and spiritual perfection of mankind which is the end. 2
Sri Aurobindo withdrew from active politics in 1910; but he continued taking active interest in politics and even wrote extensively on political thought in the Arya, a philosophical journal in Pondicherry.
In 1911, Sri Aurobindo wrote a letter on Parliamentary Democracy. We are quoting a portion of that letter:
Be very careful to follow my instructions in avoiding the old kind of politics. Spirituality is India’s only politics, the fulfilment of the Sanatana Dharma its only Swaraj. I have no doubt we shall have to go through our Parliamentary period in order to get rid of the notion of Western democracy by seeing in practice how helpless it is to make nations blessed. India is passing really through the first stages of a sort of national Yoga. It was mastered in the inception by the inrush of divine force which came in 1905 and aroused it from its state of complete tamasic ajñanam [ignorance]. But, as happens also with individuals, all that was evil, all the wrong samskaras and wrong emotions and mental and moral habits rose with it and misused the divine force….. It is only when this foolishness is done with that truth will have a chance, the sattwic mind in India emerge and a really strong spiritual movement begin as a prelude to India’s regeneration. No doubt, there will be plenty of trouble and error still to face, but we shall have a chance of putting our feet on the right path. In all I believe God to be guiding us, giving the necessary experiences, preparing the necessary conditions. 3
In another context, Sri Aurobindo remarked 4
It is the European idea that makes you think that the parliamentary form or constitution is the best.
The parliamentary form would be hardly suitable for our people. Of course, it is not necessary that you should have today the same old forms [as in ancient India]. But you can take the line of evolution and follow the bent of the genius of the race.
All these statements were made long before India attained its independence; yet we see how prophetic they are.
In the following article, we shall first see that Democracy is not a modern phenomenon; it was practised with some measure of success in ancient Athens and in ancient India; also they laid down some of the fundamental principles of a democratic society which will be very relevant to us even in modern times. While we will not go a detailed study of these systems, we will point out some striking features that show how well they grasped the true meaning of Democracy. Some of those features are worth understanding and taking into consideration if we are to devise a new political system for India.
Prof. Kittu Reddy
Other articles in this series
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
Conversation with Sri Aurobindo
The above remark of Sri Aurobindo’s on parliamentary democracy is an excerpt of a conversation he had with his disciples in 1926, and appears in A.B.Puranii’s book Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo. For interested readers, we are excerpting here a larger portion of this conversation below. At the very onset of this book, Purani-ji inserted this note below which is worthwhile reproducing here as a conversation is being quoted.
The reader is requested to note that Sri Aurobindo is not responsible for these records as he had no opportunity to see them. So, it is not as if Sri Aurobindo said exactly these things but that I remember him to have said them. All I can say is that I have tried to be as faithful in recording them as I was humanly capable. That does not minimize my personal responsibility which I fully accept.
Sri Aurobindo: I do not mean that the Indian States must adopt parliamentary institutions, or even that India must copy them from Europe. You think that the opposition between the State and the popular party must always be there. That is the European idea. It is not necessary to have that kind of opposition at all.
Disciple: Was there no such thing in ancient India?
Sri Aurobindo: There was; you need not have the same thing to-day. In India the communal freedom was very great. The communities had great powers and the State had no autocratic authority. The State was a kind of general supervising agency of all the communities. What these modern princes can do is to create great centres of life amongst their subjects, so that they may be the seats of real power and life of the nation. The princes need not take part as leaders; but they can help the growth of the nation.
Disciple: In olden times, had the villages also such great powers?
Sri Aurobindo: Yes, they had; it is the European idea that makes you think that the parliamentary form or constitution is the best. We had great communal liberty and the communities were the centres of power and of national life. The king could not infringe the right of the commune.
Disciple: The communities must be strong and living enough not to allow their rights to be snatched away.
Sri Aurobindo: It was so; the king had a continuity of policy from father to son and he could not infringe the rights of the communes; and if these rights were interfered with the people at once made themselves felt. That was the form which the genius of the race had evolved. You think that this parliamentary government is the best form of government. In fact, that form has been a success nowhere except in England. In France, it is worse, in America, in spite of their being an Anglo-Saxon race, it has not succeeded.
Disciple: In Japan, is it the European form?
Sri Aurobindo: I don’t think so; in Italy and in South Europe the parliamentary form is there but they all copied the German constitution and there is no reality behind the form.
I don’t understand why everything should be centralised as in the parliamentary constitution. We must have different, numerous centres of culture and power, full of national life, spread all over the country and they must have political freedom to develop themselves.
Disciple: Village organisation can also help in the creation of such centres.
Sri Aurobindo: Yes. But it is not by lectures and sermonising to the village people, as we are trying to do now.
Disciple: I have letters from a friend informing me that the organisation of co-operative societies has succeeded in Gujarat.
Sri Aurobindo: If you want to work in the village, you must take to a natural profession, go and settle down among the village people and be one of them. When they see that you are a practical man they will begin to trust you. If you go there and work hard for ten or fifteen years you will gain your status and you will be able to do something because they will be prepared to listen to you.
The parliamentary form would be hardly suitable for our people. Of course, it is not necessary that you should have today the same old forms. But you can take the line of evolution and follow the bent of the genius of the race.
Notes and References
- Chatterjee’s remark while addressing a seminar on August 13, 2012. See original piece on Yahoo news – Credibility of parliamentary system getting questioned – Somnath ↩
- Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, 21st Sep 1907, Caste & Democracy ↩
- Extract from a letter of Sri Aurobindo to Parthasarathi Aiyangar, 13 July 1911 ↩
- From the conversation on 7-4-1926, as recorded by A.B.Purani in his book Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo ↩