Gandhiji was a strong votary of gram swaraj. He believed that village republics should be the foundation of the political system of free India. However, many of his contemporaries thought it to be Gandhi’s romanticism of the ancient Indian village or an image of a utopia that Gandhi had crafted to guide Indians to a higher moral life.
Looking at India’s history, it turns out that self-governing villages were real. Their political organisation was rather unique and though democratic in nature, the modalities were rather different. Given the paucity of historical records, it is hard to assess with any degree of confidence how prevalent this democratic system of village governance was in India. One could surmise that the system must have been known to most people on the continent. India produced commodities that showed a high degree of specialization and had deep trading networks within as well as with the outside world. These communication channels would have transmitted information also about governance systems. In any case, the existence of these village republics shows that it wasn’t just Gandhi’s romanticism or utopia.
Several temples in the town of Uttaramerur in today’s Tamil Nadu have inscriptions that describe the workings of the governance system in the villages. This was under the Chola dynasty from 900 CE onwards. It is the Kudavolai system of governance. Most historians refer to it as an election system but it was much more than a particular method of election, though that is probably the most novel aspect of the system.
Each village was divided into 30 kudumbu or wards and the representatives elected from each ward were then divided across various governance committees like the Annual Committee, Garden Committee, Tank Committee and some also had Gold Committee. The qualifications to run for the election were minutely described: above the age of 35 but below 70, must own one veli (6.17 acre) of land and also own a house built on the land, those who killed women, children, brahmins or cows were disqualified, so were close relatives of defaulters, thieves, drunkards and who had been given other punishments.
Those who qualified and had an interest in being a representative put their names on a palm leaf and then dropped that ‘ticket’ in an earthen pot. A young boy would draw a ticket out of the pot and the name will be read out by all the temple priests present. The representative elected by draw would serve for one year and would not be able to run again for three years. There was a list of violations that would disqualify representatives during their term in office.
This Kudavolai system is not described in Rig Veda or other ancient texts. It means that the system evolved over time and there must have been many different experiments that would have happened, if only we had some records of them.
The random selection of representatives seems rather superior in many ways to our current competition-based election system where political parties or candidates compete for votes. The list of woes with our current system is long: funding of political parties, limits imposed on election expenditures, vote bank politics leading to widespread abuse of caste, religious, class identities and communal and hate speech, general apathy of the public since their role is once in a few years, the rise of professional politicians and impossibility of ordinary citizens to hold any public office. There is one solution to all these evils: Kudavolai system!
Gandhiji had strongly urged that the Congress party must be dissolved after independence. Most assumed that he did not want one party to dominate the politics of free India and was suggesting the formation of new competing political parties. Actually, he was championing politics without any political party. He was pointing to something like the Kudavolai system. The democratic ideal of government by the people, for the people, and of the people is represented by Kudavolai system far more truthfully than our political-party dominated democracy.
Gandhi’s village republics—or more pertinently governments closest to the people—and politics without political parties are the future of democracy.
Read more: India’s Drone Policies and the Way Ahead
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.