Was India ahead of the West in practicing democratic values?

The word ‘democracy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘demokratia’ meaning rule by the people. Democracy took birth in the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece, around 460 BC, Cleisthenes being considered the father of democracy. This form of government existed along with others such as, monarchy, oligarchy and tyranny. In contemporary India, the democratic form of government or more specifically, republics were already in existence for few centuries. In India, the advent of Aryans occurred around 1500 B.C, marking the beginning of the Vedic Age. Soon, they began settled agriculture and kingdoms called tribal republics called ‘Janapadas’ rose to prominence. The King or ‘Rajan’ was controlled to a large extent by ‘Sabha’ and ‘Samiti’, the former being an assembly of village noblemen and the latter, an assembly of all the people in the Janapada including women. (In Athens, only men could vote) By the time ‘modern democracy’ took birth, the Aryans had experienced nearly a century of popular government and were transitioning into monarchical kingdoms.

The Magna Carta, widely considered as the first legal document centered around rights of feudal chiefs, as checks on the power of the monarch, was formulated in England in 1215. The French Revolution (1789-1799) was an uprising of the masses in France and its colonies against the despotic and inept royalty, demanding civil rights and popular government. In the subsequent century, majority of the European states adopted different extents of democratic governments and civil liberties.

This period coincided with the firm establishment of imperialism and the subjugation of most non-European peoples under the yoke colonialism. While the Europeans, strongly believed and fought for civil liberties and popular government, they did not think it apt to extend it the colonial masses, who were exploited economically and emasculated socially and culturally. The cause of both the World Wars fought between the European powers, was for the control of colonies, despite propaganda that it was an ideological fight between democracy and dictatorship. If the goal was indeed the triumph of ideology, why were imperial empires not dismantled and right of self-determination given to the African and Asian peoples? Not only did the heads of these nations participate in this hypocrisy, the people were also showed complicity. A popular British newspaper, The Morning Post, raised a huge sum, in support of General Reginald Dyer, who gave orders to carryout the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. One of its contributors was the famous English poet, Rudyard Kipling.

In fact, the origin of the demand for human rights in Europe can be attributed to the rise of capitalism in the 17th century. Capitalists needed to control factors of production which included land, labour and capital. To secure land both in Europe and its colonies abroad, the Right to Property shot to prominence as an appropriate tool for the capitalists; this seeded revolutions across Europe for the establishment of democracy and human rights.

Post the Later-Vedic age, India remained largely, a feudalistic society without conceptions of nationhood, civil rights, capitalism or modern technology for centuries. Nationalistic awareness and a worldly view of the state of India’s society took birth among a section of elite, newly educated Indians. Deeply concerned about the oppression of the Indian people, the leaders of the Indian national movement mainstreamed the demand for rights and liberties into the freedom struggle. They vehemently claimed that the realization of civil liberties was non-negotiable for the upliftment of the Indian masses.

Not only did the Indian leaders agitate for the rights of Indian people, they also supported the decolonization of African countries. The Afro-Asian Conference took place in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 which sought to cultivate solidarity between the two Asian and African peoples, who had borne the ravages of colonialism. In the United Nations, India voted without fail, for decolonization and for the sovereignty of newly decolonized nations, as well as for the cause of human rights.

The most powerful of the Allies, the bastions of democracy, The United Nations under President Roosevelt, in the 1940s, still practiced segregation in a third of its territory. In the same decade, the Indian Constitution was taking shape through rich debates and contributions of the Indian national leaders. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the basis of caste, religion, sex or place of birth. Laws criminalizing practice of untouchability were introduced by the Indian Parliament. Affirmative action, to give the backward classes a leg-up, was taken in the form of reservations in education and employment. While women and non-whites across Europe had to fight for voting rights, universal suffrage was one of the fundamental rights to be granted, under the Nehru report, which was the first attempt at creating a Constitution in India, much before most European countries conceded it.

India stood out as a pluralistic, socialist democracy, which attempted to practice democratic values and human rights in letter and spirit, intolerant of inequality both domestically and abroad, during a time when racism, inequality and ethnic conflict was rife across globe. To stand out today, when majoritarian and hyper-nationalistic tendencies are on the rise, constant awareness and effort by the citizens is needed, as public participation is the most important bulwark against it.





Author: Mahima Prasad

Doctor, dog enthusiast, UPSC aspirant

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