Dialogue  January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3

We, the People – Government, Governance and
Social Reconstruction

Sujatha Nayak

The Need

A deep malaise inflicts our society: bad governance. As with any malaise there has to be a diagnosis and the treatment could be at two levels [i] curative and [ii] preventive. At the curative level we have the law-making and law-enforcing agencies, not to speak of our media –print, electronic, et al - which at present, confound more than they clarify. But since the malaise runs deep, the cure has to be such that the malaise not only is uprooted, it should not recur in which case one needs to also work at the preventive level. Diagnosis plays a pivotal role; right diagnosis helps identify effective remedies.

A fine shade differentiates the two terms: government and governance. Governance implies the manner of governing while government is essentially a political authority, with its regimes of checks and balances and hierarchy. Effective governance comes when all systems are rooted in the country’s values, when an entire people share a common vision, when there is decentralisation of power, when communities and/ or regions partner development right from planning to execution, from review to correction. Excellence in governance leads to a proactive people; bad to, parasites.

The Basis

Our society, our communities have traditionally been self governed. A study of Indian historical records from ancient times onwards - the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Manu Smriti, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Panini’s Astadhyayi  to name a few - indicate how social and public life were kept ethically high, vigorous and energetic. (Pandey, 2000).

The systems functioned on responsibilities - not on rights so much so that it appears that the only guaranteed right was the right to be responsible. Indeed the Rig Veda declares All should strive for the interest of all and should progress collectively’. The Atharva Veda says, ‘The yoke of the Chariot of life is placed equally on the shoulder of others.’ 1 While the King was enjoined to look after his subjects as the Earth does all living beings,2 the citizens too were legally bound to prevent offence, prevent / reduce damage to public property3. (Jois, 2010). Obviously it was clear to our ancient lawgivers that only when one discharges one’s responsibilities / duties, could one’s rights be taken care of.  Accounts of Megasthenes, Arrian, Fa-Hien testify to the effective mechanism for social organisations that Indians had developed. (Kak,  1994).

Well structured, often multi-tiered systems have been working effectively for centuries in all communities  -the hills, the plains, the cities/ the towns and the villages. Decisions were arrived at by consensus after serious discussion. Sinha  elaborates on the decision-making process of the Khasi Parliament - the Dorbar - to show  how we had been practicing genuine democracy all along not only in the plains but also in the hills.4

These systems of self governance run deep. They affect our psyche, our behavioural patterns. In these systems every person, every age group, every citizen has a defined role, a defined set of responsibilities.5 In the course of day-to-day work the community elders train the younger generation – which is what has provided it continuity. This system is cost effective on several fronts including in terms of time and money. Thus the society through this time-tested system of working becomes inclusive, becomes confident, becomes proactive, becomes the agent of change ushering in necessary development of all through shared, collective responsibility.

The Bungling

Unfortunately, after Independence we adopted the Parliamentary system of governance; we did not adapt it..we adopted it lock, stock and barrel from the British. Kashyap captures this succinctly.

                “To a very large extent, the present-day crises and problems in governance have their source in the Constitution which we, the people of India were supposed to have given to ourselves in our Constituent Assembly on 26 November, 1949. Actually the Constitution of India is not a revolutionary document..... Constitution has had an organic growth through the various stages of the nationalist demand for self governing institutions, struggle for freedom and reforms grudgingly and haltingly granted by the British. The primary concern of the British, naturally, was how to rule over India, keep the ‘natives’ weak; divided and control and govern them. Finally the Government of India Act, 1935, the Cabinet Mission Plan and the Indian Independence Act 1947, all drafted by the British to serve their interests,  contributed nearly three-fourths of the Constitution of India as it came out of the Constituent Assembly...No wonder the entire infrastructure of the Constitution remained colonial..There was little emphasis on the principles of governance or traditional values in Indian political thought.”6

                   What ever little thought was given to governance got relegated to the non-enforceable Directive Principles part of the Constitution.7  These [Directive Principles] and other fundamental principles of good governance ordained by the Constitution are defiled, defaced and debunked openly almost daily and yet nobody can do anything. If these were given the status of enforceable fundamental rights, the story of the Constitution in the 21st Century, would have been very different and much less distressing than what it is today. 8

                      The constitution contained no machinery for ensuring good governance and for solving the basic problems of under-development, backwardness, poverty, illiteracy, hunger, housing, clothing, corruption and the like. 9

The Effect

The system of governance, administration therefore, has neither ushered in ‘sva-raj’  [one’s own rule] nor ‘sva-tantra’ [one’s own system of governance]. We elect representatives whom we are not quite sure genuinely represent our interests. Our instrument of change is massive and monolithic – we call it the ‘government machinery’. The term itself bears out that it is not quite humane. A regime of controls, of checks and balances make it top heavy and has, over a period of time, led to a parasitical dependence of the civil society on governments – central, state and at various other levels. Such dependence impoverishes – educationally, socially, intellectually, culturally, economically and spiritually.

The new officers, they sign files, they come to work for some time and go away without touching the lives or hearts of ordinary folk. These big officers and politicians, they have no knowledge of what is going on: they step in and out of big offices, cars, airplanes.  Our boys are following their example. People have stopped doing things for the common good.  Nowadays, the first thing that they want to know is what is in it for themselves.10

      Bandhs, exhibitions, processions, dharnas galore are most often to demand anything from jobs to pay hikes, power supply, water supply, better roads. Often very little purpose is served through such exercises. Had that energy been given to reflect on creative solutions to overcome challenges that we face, our society doubtless would have been much enriched.  But even to do this an inner courage is required; unfortunately the systems – mainly political and educational – which we have adopted have bred corruption and cowardice that are two sides of the same coin.  So what we see now is a systemic failure.  The danger of bad governance cannot but be underscored.

India is surrounded by unstable and radicalized nations, including those that are becoming failed states; cross border violence is being exported into India, tying up crucial economic and military resources. The Indian experience of democracy has led to a very large number of political parties, thereby fragmenting vote banks and voices in the social mosaic.  This has brought opportunism and short-sightedness, with long term policy compromises and vacillations.  One wonders if India has too much democracy – or at least, too little governance.11

Towards Reconstruction

To correct the malaise is to overhaul it, ‘root and branch reform’ as Swami Vivekananda puts it. Anything else would only be ‘band-aid’ – the wound festers inside; on the outside everything looks alright. The only alternative is to adapt traditional systems of self governance in ways that are suitable for today’s context; hence the need for Sva-raj.  In a very elementary sense, Svaraj is self-rule. It implies rule that is in keeping with the country’s ‘Sva’  - svabhava, svadharma – the nature, the consciousness, the values tested and evolved over centuries that go into forming our psyche. It operates in all facets of life and not merely at the political level.  In fact, sva-raj is the conscience of the nation, of Dharma, applied in governance. Swami Vivekananda captures this:

When the life blood is strong and pure, no disease germ can live in that body. Our Life blood is Spirituality. If it flows clear, if it flows strong and pure and vigorous, everything is right; political, social any other material defects even the poverty of the land will all be cured if that blood is pure.

In the last century, Maharishi Aurobindo,  Veer Savarkar, Mahatma Gandhi12 and other seers have built on the lines that Swami Vivekananda had charted: they wrote, spoke and worked out these ideas at length – to prove that it is not a mere hypothesis, a utopia but a very practical and practicable way out. It is not as though only Indians were aware of its implications. Will Durant,

“Therefore, though Home Rule must not come over night, neither must it be much longer delayed; for it may be as vital to England as to India. To India it will mean at last full opportunity for self-respect and growth; for self protection in industry, tariff, taxation and trade; for self reform in religion, morals, education and caste; and for the free development of a unique and irreplaceable civilization. To England it will mean a dominion saved; for an India longer forced under a hated yoke may abandon the methods of Gandhi for those of Lenin, and turn all Asia into a mad revolt against everything European or American.13

Svaraj is not ‘an’ alternative – one of many – for us; it is ‘the’ only way; we would succeed because it has been ours for centuries, we simply have to recover it. A few years down the line they might simply disappear. Delay is death. Communities might degenerate into rootless societies. A rootless society is a ruthless society.

In our times Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and Dr Y S Rajan’s India 2020 – A Vision for the New Millenium is one such comprehensive document. And in doing so they stipulate,

A crucial task before us is to cover this defeatist mentality that has crept into our intelligentia and the powers that be; the fatalistic belief that Indians cannot do anything new in India.

It is good to read, hear and see what others have done. However, the conclusion  regarding what is good for our country are to be shaped by our own people. 14 [emphasis added]

The Potential:  Pointers from the Northeast

Our own experience in the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture [VKIC], the Guwahati-based Northeast-focussed research and documentation project of the Vivekananda Kendra Kanyakumari, is that traditional systems of governance continue to function in relevant terms even now in most communities in the Northeast.  It includes the entire range of subjects that are required for a civic society. Amongst the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh, murder is tried out, not by the village Kebang, but by the Kebang of the clans, tried out normally on the riverside a little away from the village, where the disputants camp if need be for several days before arriving at a decision. Once it is proved, the entire clan shares the responsibility of paying compensation to the aggrieved. Similarly, until a few decades ago, if an individual was found to be a regular offender, the village Kebang would give him various punishments. When found that he persisted, the male members of his family – including the maternal uncle- would quietly tie up the offender, close him in a basket laden with heavy stones and throw him into the river! Crimes – petty to heinous - would thus not be repeated for years. Perhaps in our times such a dispensation would be considered a ‘human rights’ issue. Not for the farsighted Adi –rights could never include the right to regular crime; and human rights have to include the rightful right of the society to life, to property and justice. Moreover, the family, the clan took responsibility for character formation too. Indeed ancient oral and written/ documented  scriptures/ literature specify the duties attributes of  varna, jati15 which ensured quality conduct in daily life. Roy and Rizvi observe in their Epilogue,

A society develops only when its members are accorded a congenial social and physical environment and a prime factor which determines the social environs of community is its means of social control, whereby it weeds out the undesired actions or behaviour and encourages the behaviour pattern sanctioned by the society.16

Hence institutions of self governance have the potential to be adapted for continuity. Says Kak,  ‘No matter where the impulses for change may originate, the flowering of each civilization is, ultimately, an indigenous affair.’17 Should we do this successfully – it will usher in resurgence, vibrancy and a sense of purposefulness. Northeast India could rightfully be the beacon light to the rest of India. At present thanks to Governmental interference at even the village level, traditional self governance systems have been badly politicised. But there is a silver lining: several community-based socio-cultural, spiritual organisations are successfully spearheading grass-root level movements to revitalise the mind and the spirit of its people thus leading to resurgence. Finally for any effective governance the prerequisite is the quality, the character of the people. Such organisations train people.

This also does not mean that governments are required; minimum necessary and that to that reflect the native genius and aspirations of the people it seeks to govern. Similarly it does not mean that should self governing institutions are re-instated tomorrow corruption will end, harmony will prevail. So badly battered are these institutions that a great effort has to be necessarily given to re-instate confidence in ourselves, our systems, all such institutions and the role that we as a people have to play in the comity of nations. Prof. Lokesh Chandra underlines the need,

Self-image is one’s own idea or picture of oneself, especially in relation to others.  It is asmita or the fact that I exist, act and live my full throttle life. It is the antidote to ‘surviving’ that seeks to find arguments sans end, month after month, year after year, to do nothing, to choose delay as pleasant inaction... A self image is a creative, action-intensive, socio-politically committed identity that harmonises the past, present and future in an ordered system of development. Self image is a strong sense of internal balance, that becomes an inspiration to act, to dream and to attain perfection in all discoveries and achievements.18 

Who will do it?

This is an oft-repeated question. Indeed all of us have to; because we are the stakeholders of this great society. All of us - wherever we are positioned - have a role to play. If we are teachers, we could shape these ideals amongst students; if we are writers, we could inspire people through our writings. If we are organizers then we need to organize people to reflect on the need for this revitalization.  The onus is on the educated to study these systems, validate it and adapt it for continuity. Says Maharishi Aurobindo,

The lifeless attempt of the last generation to imitate and reproduce with a servile fidelity the ideals and forms of the West has been no true indication of the political mind and genius of the Indian people.  But again amid all the mist of confusion there is still the possibility of a new twilight, not of an evening but a morning yuga-sandhya.  India of the ages is not dead nor has she spoken her last creative word; she lives and has still something to do for herself and the human peoples.  And that which must seek now to awake is not an anglicised, oriental people, docile pupil of the West and doomed to repeat the cycle of the occident’s success and failure, but still the ancient immemorable Shakti recovering her deepest self, lifting her head higher towards the supreme source of light and strength and turning to discover the complete meaning and a vaster form of her Dharma.19

Our society – has traditionally emphasised – Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Our present education system, governance et al focus only on artha  and kama, on survival, on consumerism. The foundation, the framework of personal, civic, inter-personal, inter-regional, inter-community, inter-religious behaviour is provided by Dharma. Moksha then becomes not merely individual liberation, but applied to the social order, it results in the evolutionary elevation of a society towards that freedom. By Svaraj  is meant that ultimate freedom for us and equally, for all other countries.

Notes and References:

    1  Rama Jois, Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd.,Delhi, 2010 p. xii
     2  Ibid p.xiv
     3  Ibid p.88
     4  Karunamay Sinha: ‘Resistance to an Expanding Empire – British Colonial Designs and the Northeast’ in Prof BB Kumar ed. Quest, Vol. IV, No.2 (Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, Guwahati, 2011), p.78.
         When an impatient David Scott, waiting for the Syiems [Khasi Chiefs] to expedite and swing a decision in his favour, sends crates of intoxicating drinks, it is politely returned. Writes Captain Fisher, “I was amazed at the order, decorum and propriety with which the debate was conducted.” This one incident itself indicates that addiction was not allowed while on duty; that issues affecting the collective had to be studied in depth before decisions could be taken. Decisions could not be bought. Additionally, people believed in completing the task at hand first. Relaxation, merrymaking  et al were meaningful only after hard work.
     5  Ibid pp. 89-102
     6 Subhash C Kashyap, ‘Governance and the Constitution Defined ’, Indian Constitution – Conflicts and Controversies , (Vitasta, New Delhi, 2010),  p. 7
     7  Ibid, p.7
     8  Ibid, p.8
     9  Ibid, p.9
   10  Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast (New Delhi, Penguin India, 1994) p.xiv
   11  Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan, Breaking India – Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, (Amaryllis, New Delhi, 2011),  p.3
   12  MK Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, First Edition, 1938; Ninth Reprint, 1994
   13  Will Durant, The Case for India, (Strand Book Stall, Mumbai, 2007) p. 146
   14 APJ Abdul Kalam and YS Rajan,  India 2020 – A Vision for the New Millenium, (Penguin Books India, 1998) p. 28 
   15  BB Kumar, Caste and Continuism (Yash Publications, New Delhi, 2009) p.29
   16  Shibani Roy and SHM Rizvi, Tribal Customary Laws of North-east India (BR Publishing Corporation, New Delhi: ) p. 145,
   17  Subhash Kak, India at Century’s End – Essays on History and Politics (Voice of India, New Delhi: 1994), p.30
   18  Lokesh Chandra, ‘Self-Image and Counter-Image’ in Prof BB Kumar ed. Quest, Vol. IV, No.2, (Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, Guwahati, 2011). pp. 6-7
   19  Aurobindo, ‘Indian Polity- 4’, The Foundations of Indian Culture and the Renaissance in India, (Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library - Vol.14, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972) pp.380-81

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati