By shash

6 April 2014

Hail, Prosperity! On the sixteenth day of the fourteenth year of King Parakesarivarman, who conquered Madurai, Whereas a royal letter of His Majesty, our lord, the glorious Viranarayana, the illustrious Parantakadeva, the prosperous Parakesarivarman, was received and was shown to us, We, the members of the assembly of Uttarameru-caturvedimangalam in its own sub-division in Kaliyurkottam, (with) Karanjai Kondaya-Kramavitta bhattan alias Somasiperuman of Srivanga-nagar in Purangarambai-nadu, a district of the Chola country, sitting with us and convening the committee in accordance with the royal command, Made a settlement as follows according to the terms of the royal letter for choosing once every year from this year forward, members for the "Annual Committee", "Garden Committee", and "Tank Committee"...

With the elections imminent, the way a cyclone can be imminent, now is as good a time as any to take up a project that I've intended to do for a long time. Namely, the history of democracy, both in India and elsewhere. As a first step, I want to explore the most concrete example we have in India.


The inscription I opened with - the inscription from Uttiramerur in Kanchipuram district - is an oft-quoted example of local-level administration in medieval India. Quite a few people, including Dr. Nagaswamy have held this to be a democracy at the local level in that era. But some others (including the multi-talented Vichitrachitta, Gopu) argue that it's not; there are no elections, only selection by lots, and there is no universal suffrage. But nevertheless, in my opinion, the Uttiramerur inscription is an important starting point in any discussion of democracy in India, primarily because of this controversy. It gives us an opportunity to examine what this Greek word actually means. In the rest of this post, I'll jump back in time to 401 BC and forward to our time. Geographically, we will circle the earth a few times also.

A village constitution

First though, let's take the Uttiramerur itself.

It was a Chaturvedimangalam - a settlement of Brahmins, probably extant from Pallava times, a few centuries before the record. Apparently, a need was felt during Parantaka's period to (re)codify the rules under which the village would operate. This was attempted twice. Once, in the 12th year of Parantaka's reign, and another, the one in the inscription I quoted, in the 14th year.

Three committees were formed - the Annual, Garden and Tank committees, the whole village was divided into 30 wards (I assume each ward would have had at least a few families in it), and rules for selecting the three committees from residents of these wards were documented. 1

What's important to us right now is the method of election (or rather, selection). Every eligible candidate's name was written on a palm leaf and dropped into a pot. Then, they drew lots (a young boy incapable of reading or writing was to draw the lots - he could be presumed to not cheat by picking out a particular name). This was done for each ward, so they had 30 selected candidates. There were twelve streets in the village, so twelve of these people (who'd served on one of the other two committees previously) would be selected to serve in the Annual committee. Of the remaining, twelve would serve on the Garden committee and the remaining six on the Tank committee. How a candidate would go into one or other is a little obscure (they are supposed to have been selected by "showing Karai" - whatever that's supposed to mean). However, this drawing of lots from a pot (Kudavolai - Kuda + olai) was the primary means of selecting between candidates, who, having passed the basic qualifications (owning some land, owning his house, being between 35 and 70 years old, and having mastered the Mantrabrahmanas), and not having been disqualified (several detailed conditions including having served in the last three years), were all presumed to be equally suited for the job.

This bit is what really gets controversial. On the one hand, all citizens of the village were allowed to participate in its administration, and the relatives of those who'd served were specifically disqualified from having their names put in the pot. This is definitely at least republican, and arguably democratic. But on the other, the main qualifications included land ownership and "mastery of the Matrabrahmanas". We have to come to the conclusion that only land-owning Brahmins would have qualified. Apart from that, they didn't even really hold elections - they drew lots. This doesn't sound very democratic. Are we justified in holding it to be an example of democracy?

Defining democracy

To decide whether Uthiramerur was democratic, we first have to define what democracy is. We've all heard the Lincolnian principle - "Government of the people, by the people, for the people", but this pithy quote isn't really a definition we can use for our purposes. We need to evolve a better definition of democracy.

The first society to be described as "Democratic" was Athens at around 500 BCE. Before the promulgation of this democratic constitution, Athens was ruled by Archons - elected rulers who acted as the chief executive similar to a President in today's world.

Yes, elected rulers! Yes, before democracy!

The point was not that they were elected, but who could be elected, and how they were elected. Until the formation of the democratic constitution, only members of the highest class - the Eupadriae or "sons of good fathers" were allowed to be Archon. But more importantly, there was the method of election; a single Archon was voted in by the assembly every year, and the assembly did not much else for the rest of the year. This, to the Greek philosophers, was not democratic.

In the Athenian system, there were two principles that applied to democracy:

1. Isonomia - the equal right of all citizens to participate in the political process. That is, every citizen had the right to stand for office, participate in selecting the office bearers, or in passing laws.
2. Isegoria - the right of any citizen to speak in the Assembly. This meant that every citizen could stand up in the Assembly and raise any issue of concern to them.

A constitution that did not provide both Isonomia and Isegoria was not democratic. An important point to them was, among the men (and of course, they were only men - I'll come to that) who were willing and qualified to stand for election, all of them had to have an equal chance of winning, under the principle of Isonomia. In fact, a single person should not have a chance to be the only one elected to a post, because that person would then have an unequal amount of power in the polity. So, by the reforms of 525 BCE, the Athenian constitution provided for ten Archons to be selected by lots from the pool of qualified candidates.

Elections were held to be a sign of oligarchy, not democracy, because in an election, the candidate with the most amount of money can afford to skew the election towards himself by means of advertising, or by directly buying votes. Aristotle, while examining whether Sparta is a monarchy, an oligarchy or a democracy, says seems correspondent to the nature of a democracy, that the magistrates should be chosen by lot, but an aristocracy by vote..." (Aristotle, Politics, Chapter IX Book 4 (4.1294b)

Another example can be found in Herodotus's Histories where he says through his character Otanes,

The rule of the many, on the other hand, has, in the first place, the fairest of names, to wit, equality before the law; and further it is free from all those outrages which a king is wont to commit. There, places are given by lot, the magistrate is answerable for what he does, and measures rest with the commonalty. Herodotus Histories, 3.80 (emphasis mine)

This is Isonomia again. In this passage, Herodotus was examining the Persian state, through the mouths of different characters, but really also proposing his own philosophy.

To us in the modern age, democracy is synonymous with elections, but after examining the ancient world, I find that elections are only one manifestation of a democratic polity3.

I believe that the principle of Isonomia is a good measure of a democracy. All citizens should have an equal right of participation in the democratic process.

This definition allows lot-based election systems4 to be considered democratic, because they follow the principle of Isonomia. Hence, Uthiramerur's system based on the Kudavolai can be considered democratic, insofar as the citizens of that village were concerned.

This leads us to another problem; who were these citizens of the village? Unfortunately, the Uthiramerur inscriptions only talk about who was eligible to stand for election, not what the demographics of the village were. We have to rely on inference to let us decide.

The name of the place is one clue - Uthiramerur Chaturvedimangalam indicates a settlement of Brahmins. Indeed, in other inscriptions from the place, the principle actors have titles such as "Brahmapriyan", and "Bhattan", which are indicative of Brahmins. It appears to us that only the Brahmins would have been included as citizens. The Tandantottam copper plates of Nandivarman III give us another clue - it establishes a settlement at Tandantottam, to be populated by Brahmins whose names were listed in the plates. Assuming that Uthiramerur was established in the same way, we have to conclude that the citizens enjoying the rights described in the Uthiramerur inscription were indeed only Brahmins.

In Athens, though we accord it a place of pride among democracies, only those who could "afford to arm themselves with military equipment" were considered citizens. Paupers, therefore, were not considered citizens, nor were women allowed to participate (I promised I'd come to it). Moreover, they had a system of slavery, and the slaves (being paupers, and probably foreigners to boot) couldn't participate either. In the later constitution of Athens (the one they used after 525 BCE), there were further property divisions; society was divided into four, based on levels of income, and only those of the highest level could become Archons. The rationale given for this is very interesting:

"These officers were required to hold to bail the Prytanes, the Strategi, and the Hipparchi of the preceding year until their accounts had been audited, taking four securities of the same class as that to which the Strategi and the Hipparchi belonged." Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution Part 4

(The Prytanes, Strategi and Hipparchi were three different types of magistracies in Athens, the Prytanes being another name for the Archons)

In other words, the officers of the current year (in Athens, as in Uthiramerur, they held elections every year) were to hold the property of the previous batch as security until the accounts could be audited for their term in office. If any discrepancy were to be found, the amount would be made up from the property of the official who had a short-fall.5 Obviously, this could not work if the official didn't have enough property to be able to make up the discrepancy, and so each office was restricted to the men who could be made to pay up. The Athenians apparently felt that this was a necessary caveat to democracy.

Similarly, in Rome, there were six socio-economic classes, with only the top rank - the Senatorial rank - being admitted to the highest offices of the state. However, in Rome, even the lowest rank, the proletarii (those with little or no property) were allowed to participate in the city assemblies (Roman voting methods being what they were, the higher classes voted first, and an issue could be decided long before the Proletarii voted, but they could vote).

It appears that at least the property qualifications, if not the caste exclusion, were common to several ancient political systems that have been described as democracies.

As to the caste exclusion, I think it can be explained without reference to casteism per se. It appears that villages in medieval Tamil Nadu were constituted by (or for, if it was a grant) the members of a particular caste, and not a mixed-caste society as we would see today. Looking at other Chola-era inscriptions, it appears that similar bodies existed in other villages (called "Urar").6 The fact that some villages7 had both an Urar assembly and a Sabha assembly, it would appear that these assemblies operated independently, administering the affairs of their own respective communities. Thus, an argument might be made that in Uthiramerur too, a separate assembly (or assemblies) might have coexisted with the Brahmin Sabha. In this case, if the assemblies were similarly inclusive within their own community, we might consider them relatively democratic.

But coming down to the modern age, even in states that we would describe as democratic, we can witness the exclusion of those subject to the state from exercising their Isonomian rights. For example, in the United States until 1868, a provision in the Constitution read

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." (US constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Para 3 - emphasis added)

The "all other persons" of whom three fifths were to be counted for apportioning representatives and direct taxes were the slaves held (primarily) in the South. Even after this clause was repealed by the 14th amendment, various legal manuveurs such as the poll tax and segregation laws were used to prevent the emancipated slaves and their descendents from exercising their full democratic rights. Until 1920 in the US and 1928 in Britain, women did not have franchise, and could not vote in any election. Indeed, in the case of one US state (Utah) which had enfranchised women at the state level, an act was passed by Congress at the Federal level that (among other things) disenfranchised them again. Are we to conclude that the US and Britain were not democracies until after World War I? Or France until the end of World War II?

The final word

I think we should concede this point. A full democracy should have no qualifications beyond the ability to make an independent decision. As such, Uthiramerur, given that it excluded the poor (landless), the non-Brahmin and the women, should not be considered fully democratic. In the same way, we must consider Athens and Rome, the UK and the United States, and pretty much all other democratic states before the 20th century likewise, must be considered flawed democracies. This is the only fair way of deciding this.

Aristotle, in his treatise on government called "Politics", describes how states may combine the features of different kinds of government; a state may be partly democratic and partly oligarchic, or may have features of both monarchy and democracy. The modern system that many democratic states including India use, based on the British and American systems has features of monarchy (the Presidency - an elected monarch), a democracy (a representative assembly) and an oligarchy (the judiciary, in which one must have certain educational qualifications to serve). This is not to say that these states are monarchies or oligarchies, but that they combine certain features of these governments.

So, to me, the final word on the Constitution of Uthiramerur is that it was a local Republic that had several democratic features in its constitution. And given that in large tracts of the world, feudalism and tyranny were (and still is) the norm, this is something valuable.

I wonder how the village republic would have evolved; what challenges it would have faced through the years, and how the people overcame them. I wonder if, over time, it became more, or less, democratic. And how it would have evolved in later times, had it been undisturbed.

Sadly, apart from a few inscriptions from a later period that merely mention the Sabha of Uthiramerur, the historical record is silent. All we have is a very short snapshot - two points in a period of two years.

PS: It's important to note that Uttiramerur wasn't the only village assembly. Nor is it the first. We have evidence of them going back a few centuries before Uttiramerur. What it is, is the most complete village constitution we have on hand. Presumably, other villages had constitutions, probably similar in most respects. We have at least some other examples, but which don't go into such detail.

As I was writing this article, I found that Pradeep Chakravarthy had written an article on Uthiramerur (as well as Manur in Tirunelveli - one of the other examples from Dr. Nagaswamy's article) in The Hindu. I started writing this piece a while before I ran across his article though.



I won't go into details - go read Dr. RN's article if you want them...



I've only quoted a couple of examples for brevity, but there are several Greek and Roman sources on these issues. It's also worth looking at the Buddhist ideas of the Sangha (though I haven't yet done so).



These are technically called "Sortition" systems.



A certain group of anti-corruption activists in mdoern India would particularly love this condition, I think.



Chapter 10 of South India under the Cholas by Y. Subbarayulu



SII Vol 13, No. 182, also mentioned in Subbarayulu (pp128)

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