The Ukraine crisis has fractured the world into separate blocs. On the one hand, we have autocrats who run their countries with total control over the state, the economy and the media. On the other side, we have democratic nations that guarantee liberty and liberty to their people. During the Ukrainian conflict, India struck a balance between these two blocs to protect its national interests. However, make no mistake: Indian democracy has deep civilizational roots. We have developed our own unique dharmic democracy. We cherish our freedoms and will always oppose autocracy.
Democratic systems emerged after thousands of years of experimentation with different governance arrangements around the world. Well-functioning democratic systems reflect four fundamental principles: a wide variety of inalienable human rights; rule of law, including equality of all before the law; the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary creating a system of checks and balances; and accountability to the public. Each of these principles is of vital importance, but it is the interlocking nature of these principles that ensures justice, liberty, equality and brotherhood.
India’s democratic system is not based on Western Enlightenment thought, but on our own ancient beliefs. As Bhishma tells Yudhishthira in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, which was repeated by Chanakya in the Arthashastra: “The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It’s not what the leader likes that counts, only what the people like. This thought is further developed in Ram Rajya’s concept, as articulated by Mahatma Gandhi: “Ram Rajya’s ancient ideal is undoubtedly that of a genuine democracy in which the most wicked citizen could be safe rapid justice without an elaborate and costly procedure”. Moreover, BR Ambedkar said: “Let no one, however, say that I borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I do not have. My philosophy has its roots in religion, not political science. I took them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.
The first democratic principle of inalienable human rights derives directly from the most important moral virtue of Indian civilization: Ahimsa or strict non-violence. Respect for living beings inevitably leads to human rights because by practicing ahimsa we give everyone the freedom to live and worship as they see fit. Thus ahimsa is directly related to the fundamental western concept of freedom. Following ahimsa gives everyone freedom since we cannot coerce anyone. Taking away someone’s freedom is a violent act and therefore contrary to the ahimsa principle. Interestingly, in the original copy of the Constitution, Part III, which deals with fundamental rights, opens with an illustration of Lord Ram with Sita and Lakshman – a clear allusion to Ram Rajya’s ideal of true democracy.
Moreover, among world civilizations, Indian civilization is unique because it is fundamentally based on freedom of thought and belief systems. One of the most famous lines in the Rig Veda says: ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti – there is one truth, the sages call it by many names. Each individual is free to pursue eternal truth in their own way – in fact, these choices shape their karma and lead to their moksha; each person must seek his own salvation or liberation. The Bhagavad Gita illustrates how individuals should question their rights and duties, exercise their free will, and then decide their conduct. Accordingly, we have always celebrated pluralism and abhorred fanaticism.
Likewise, our Dharmic traditions, particularly our commitment to Raj Dharma, have defined our unwavering commitment to the second democratic principle of the rule of law. It doesn’t matter whether we are rich or poor, weak or powerful, we are all enjoined to follow Dharma. The Arthashastra states: “It is power and power alone which, only when exercised by the king impartially and in proportion to guilt either to his son or to his enemy, maintains both this world and the following. The just and victorious king administers justice in accordance with dharma (established law), sanstha (customary law), nyaya (pronounced law) and vyavahara (evidence, conduct). Our constitution, various laws and regulations, and consistent case law define the Raj Dharma.
Indian society has always believed in the separation of powers, the third democratic principle. While ancient Indian states were generally kingdoms ruled by monarchs, these rulers relied on assemblies of nobles to validate and approve their decisions. Historical research suggests that most of northern India had republican states throughout the Buddhist period. Priests have also had a significant influence on the conduct and decisions of monarchs throughout Indian history. Thus, feudal power was circumscribed not only by Raj Dharma, but also by checks and balances introduced by assemblies and priestly power. Judicial systems were also well established in Indian society, both during the ancient period as well as during the medieval and modern periods. Chanakya devotes Books 3 and 4 of the Arthashastra to the judicial system, detailing how civil and criminal law should be maintained by magistrates and judges.
Finally, transparency and accountability are hallmarks of democratic systems. In our constitutional system, this is enforced by legislatures, periodic elections and media surveillance. Our ancient wisdom, as enshrined in the Mundaka Upanishad, has always stressed the importance of speaking the truth: “Satyameva Jayate – only truth triumphs. Those who hold executive power must tell the truth about their actions. They must truly serve the needs of the people and not use misinformation to perpetuate their rule. Dharma demands truth, not propaganda.
India has always followed the eternal values of ahimsa and dharma. The two are also linked by the phrase from the Bhagavad Gita: ahimsa paramo dharma. Thus our civilizational heritage guides us inexorably towards a humanitarian ethos and a dharmic democracy. As the world is torn into opposing blocs, ahimsa and dharma inspire India to be a beacon of pluralism and democracy.
This column first appeared in the print edition of May 7, 2022, under the title “We are a dharmic democracy”. Jayant Sinha is the Chairman of Parliament’s Finance Standing Committee and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Views are personal