Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

Society vs. State

Pawan Kumar Gupta

Indian society as it existed even a few hundred years ago, before it started getting educated in the kind of centralized, standardized schooling system, that we are so used to today, was very different from the way it appears today. Not that education did not exist in India before that or it was only for the privileged few, but the schools (if we can call them that) that were there in those times were very different from the way they look today. They were truly community schools, managed and supported by the local community. Gandhiji in his 1931 Chatham House speech given in London in 1931 used the allegory of a "beautiful tree" to describe that education system and he charged the British for having "dug at the roots" of this beautiful tree and leaving "the roots exposed" so that in "due course of time, it (the beautiful tree) withered away". It is to be noted that Gandhiji did not charge the British for having destroyed this "beautiful tree" but for having done something else that had this impact on the tree withering away on its own. It needs to be understood what they did? And what kind of society was it that existed which nurtured this "beautiful tree".

Indian societies by and large have been self-reliant autonomous societies, managing their own affairs without depending too much on the powers that be – the state. Even if they got support from the state it was not in the form of regular grants or doles, where dependency gets created and a division is formed between the giver (of the grant), the bestower of favour and the receiver. We learn from Sri Dharampal’s researches that traditionally a system existed by which revenue from a certain number designated villages went directly in the hands of the local community and they could decide how that revenue (income) would be used through a process of mutual consultation and consensus in which different groups of the society participated. Usually the state did not have a say or interfere in this decision making. The source of revenue or income rested with the society. The ruler collected revenue and decided the percentage that was to be collected from the produce except from these designated villages. This share of revenue normally varied, fluctuating between one-sixth of the produce in normal times to one-fourth during the times of war.

This system was drastically changed by the British. They did not understand how a government could "run on fluctuating revenue"; where expenses, in terms of salaries, are fixed but the revenue being a share of the produce, which varies from year to year, is fluctuating. They found the indigenous system of revenue collection "unscientific" (sic). It is interesting to note how perception colours what one observes and how one plays with words by terming one’s own perception as "scientific". Also they were appalled by the low revenue here, varying between 16.25% and 25%, as they were used to 60-80% revenue collected by the landlords, in their country, from the tenants. Out of this huge collection, the landlords parted with a (large) percentage to the State retaining a portion for themselves. How could the British collect lower revenues from people of a country they had come to rule, than what they were collecting from their own peoples? This could not be justified and was appalling to them. But at the same time they were not sure of the consequences of suddenly raising the revenue - 3 to 4 fold. So after much deliberation it was decided to raise the revenue to 55 – 60%. And because they belonged to the "scientific" world, they surveyed the country and made an estimate of total production in different regions of the country over a period of ten years. This was averaged out, converted into money (according to the existing price levels in the market) after which a figure was arrived at, for different parts of the country. This was the expected revenue to be collected from different regions. This was the base price at which different regions were auctioned off. The zamindars got the right to collect revenue from the raiyat according to the norms that were left to be decided by them as long as they gave the British the value at which the estate was auctioned in the first place. One can imagine the devastation this one single act must have caused in the Indian society. The revenue was raised almost three to four fold and what was fluctuating, depending on the crop in a particular year, became fixed, that too in money terms. So if in a particular year the crop was bad or the prices fell the farmers sometimes ended up paying more than his entire produce would fetch him. And of course the system where the revenue from designated villages went directly into the hands of the local communities was abolished. There were severe outfalls of this policy. A non monetized economy started moving towards a monetized economy. Destution and Poverty became large scale and all community sponsored enterprises e.g. schools started ‘withering away’, as Gandhiji put it.

India society which was largely self-reliant, not just in economic terms, started getting dominated by the State. State policies started interfering with the society both directly and in insidious ways. The manners, ways of doing things, even the perception of the people started getting affected by government policies and studies. Over a period of time people started looking at themselves with alien eyes, with the perception created by the British both consciously and sometimes as an indirect consequence of their various endeavours and lost their confidence.

Prior to the colonial rule, Indian societies were largely autonomous. In their normal day to day functioning they found no interference of the state. Decisions at the local level were taken by the various societies and various caste and occupational groups according to their customary norms. At times these various groups took their own decision but sometimes various groups came together to take decisions on matter which concerned more than a single group. Again the decisions were taken according to customary norms. These were democratically taken decisions though the decision making processes were different from modern times where electoral methods and rule of the majority prevails. There is a strong belief that this process of decision making was not democratic but we need to take a few hard facts into account, put them together imagine and estimate even speculate a bit before we reach such misplaced conclusions.

l According to estimates by western economic historians, India’s share in the world’s manufacturing output (non agricultural produce only) varies between 24.5% to 33% in 1750. This huge production was obviously not done in factories but by the artisan communities (mainly sudras and ati sudra jatis) who did not work under any one but independently, being their own masters. So these groups could not have been so marginalized as they appear today. They must have been powerful groups in terms of wealth, meeting the needs of the rest of the society and in numbers. Waren Hasting’s committee to study the caste hierarchy in India while interviewing the Pariahs in south India ask them "who are you?" And the community answers "we are brave soldiers, sometimes we make saddles". Their self image is not of a downtrodden, marginalized community.

l It seems the difference between the rich and poor was not very wide in India. According to Dharampal’s researches, in Chingelpet district where the British in the late 18th century conducted a detailed study of the economic status of the people by dividing the people of the district into high income, middle income and low income groups, the difference between high income and low income groups was only of the order of 2.3 : 1 and moreover the smallest group in terms of numbers of people were not in the high income group as one would expect but in the low income group. It was a balanced society with a small gap between the rich and the poor and most had enough to meet their needs.

l We seem to have a very distorted picture of the decadent lifestyle of the Rajas and Nawabs. The decadence perhaps set in to a large degree only after the British domination of India was complete. Two examples would give a clue. The Maharaja of Udaipur was entitled to only Rs.1000/ per month from the State exchequer before the arrival of the British. This got enhanced to Rs.1000/ a day, a 30 fold increase after the British started dictating the policies. A rough glance at the erstwhile palaces in India, from North to South which have been converted into luxurious hotels, will reveal that most of them were made as late as early 20th century, well after the British had entrenched themselves in India. Before that the lives of these India rulers was perhaps not as decadent and debauched as it now appears. Perhaps they were encouraged and inspired by the British to become ‘civilized’ and indulge themselves and as they had hardly any responsibilities anymore. They learnt fast.

l If we look at the old British records from Bihar- Bengal, Madras Presidency, Punjab and Bombay Presidency and look at the educational data we are almost shocked. "There is not a single village which does not have at least one school" is often repeated in these reports. Some reports have details of the different caste groups and girls attending these schools – the figures will shock us, those having learnt about us from the modern history books.

If we put all this disparate information together and try to draw a picture of the Indian society as it existed as recently as a few hundred years ago, we feel it must have been a fairly self reliant, relaxed, comfortable, vibrant society which knew how to deal with its own needs, locally. No society can be like this unless all groups within the society have an active role to play in the decision making processes. One feels that the basic tenets of democracy are deeply ingrained in the Indian society but it has been suppressed because of long years of subjugation where we have lost confidence in ourselves and our ways of thinking and behaving and, therefore, do not even dare to draw from our innermost selves, which has been pushed deep inside, though still not dead.

Of course one can dispute the conclusions I tend to draw because history after all is ultimately a matter of interpretation and we have been "educated", rather, "colonized" for too long. While I am writing this I am in Bhutan which has never been colonized in the recent past but one can easily see how rapidly things, the mindset of people, their attitudes towards — modernity on the one hand and their traditions and culture on the other hand — are changing and losing their confidence in indigenous ways because of education, Bhutanese educated in the West and last but not the least western ‘experts’. Indian researchers would do well to study these processes to understand how Indian society may have changed a few hundred years ago. The essentials of the process of change are almost the same – all under the name of "education", "development", "catching up with the world", "becoming modern and up with the times", "having a scientific attitude" etc. They mouth "Gross National Happiness", "cultural heritage and traditions" but their actions are all contrary to that spirit just like we keep harping about peace, Mahatma Gandhi, democratic values etc.. By understanding Bhutan we would be able to perhaps extrapolate the finding of the processes to our own situation to understand how drastically people’s behavior, thinking, self image and ways of doing things can change through these processes of modernity and how soon and effectively one can lose one’s collective memory.

The process of colonization is so subtle that the victim becomes an accomplice in the very process of exploitation. One can see and understand this if we study Bhutan. Look at the new age spiritual books coming out in droves and hitting the best seller charts; one can see our educated Indians learning the Advaita philosophy from westerners, Yoga from westerners. Now it is happening here. Buddhism is becoming popular in the West as it is considered "scientific religion". It won’t be too long, perhaps soon after the present Dalai Lama is no more, when Bhutanese and Asians would start learning Buddhism from the West. The current spiritual masters from the Tibetan and Bhutanese communities are lapping up the attention they get from their western disciples – all clean and respectful and with bags full of money. But alas most of these (innocent) spiritual masters do not understand the larger politics behind all this.

We can see the impact of this colonized mind on our democratic institutions and systems – they have almost become ineffectual, serving the interests of only those who are aggressive and know how to manipulate the system to serve their own ends. Mahamta Gandhi had deconstructed all modern systems and institutions so vividly (e.g. in "Hind Swaraj") yet we do not take any notice of it. People harp about the vibrant democracy in India, we compare ourselves with Pakistan and other "young" democracies of the world and thump our chests. But we never ask what is so young about democracy or how democratic is the democratic world we live in. Democracy in some form has always existed in most traditional society, though the processes of decision making may be different from the modern ways.

Techniques and methods are not that important, the "how" is not that important. It is the "what" which is important. But we have started giving more importance to the "techniques", the "methods", the "how" as we have been "trained" that way through the modern education systems. So electoral methods become the only indicator of democratic process and then we draw the obvious but erroneous conclusions about Indian and other traditional societies that they were not democratic.

Our ordinary people still look at things differently and it is to be understood instead of ignoring their understanding and wisdom and educating them. I would like to draw from an incident which happened during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. I was driving somewhere in the mountains and the wife of a poojari from a small temple in that area wanted a lift to go to the nearest village to cast her vote. We got talking and I asked her out of curiosity, who she would vote for. And her answer was most revealing. She said, "I will see which party or candidates booth has maximum number of people to gauge who is going to win and cast my vote in favour of the winning candidate". Why? was my obvious next question as it seemed ridiculous to an "educated" person like me; what a waste. She shocked me with her answer. "I am giving mat daan (I am making a donation of my vote – mat), my daan should not go waste. If I give it to a losing candidate, it will go waste". I was speechless with this response. But fortunately my response was not ‘oh how uneducated this woman is. We need to educate her’. If we have respect for our people, their ways of looking at things and the wisdom behind such attitudes, we will not laugh at them but learn from them and change our ways instead of educating them in our ways. The very word matdaan evokes something so very different from casting a vote with connotations of ‘right’. The candidate selected by the people has been given a daan and therefore he or she must feel obliged. This manner of thinking is inclusive. But the moment a person is ‘elected’ he feels no obligation as he gets all the rights. The right of the voter gets transferred to right of the representative to do as he/she pleases. This is exclusive. We are a society who thinks and processes things in different manners. Our categories of perceiving the thinking have been inclusive, integrated and thus very different from the modern ways. In spite of all modern education one can still see the spirit of collectivism instead of individualism in our villages. But we will have to make the effort to see because perception is a strange thing, it can deceive us, even if something is staring at us we can be completely blind to it.

One remembers Mahatma Gandhi in such times. On his travels in South India during the Harijan Yatra he asks a farmer on his way to meet the Maharaja of Travancore, "who is your king"? And Mahatma Gandhi is overjoyed with the response. The farmer points his finger towards the sky above and says, "I don’t know but who cares, the real king is one up there". An educated person would normally think how uneducated or uninformed the farmer is and would harp on the need to educate this farmer. But the Mahatma’s processing is different. He understands the deep understanding the farmer has in the mortality of human beings and how ordinary mortals, be it the King, are powerless in front of higher forces. Gandhiji taps into it this innate understanding of our people to make them fearless of all authority – be it the system of governance, the King or the British - who are under that One authority, who alone is to be feared – if we do wrong. And right and wrong to be determined by the vidhaan, the eternal or sanaatan principles, not man-made laws, the samvidhaan. Gandhiji never allowed himself to be blinded and deceived by (western) categories, he had the ability to see their limitations which unfortunately have almost lost through modern education.

The electoral form of democracy does not gel with the deep understanding - which remains ingrained though suppressed - of our people, who become imbalanced with quickness and with immediate decision making processes. They believe in discussion, deliberations, consultations, taking their time to weigh the pros and cons from different angles. Indian society has never been in a hurry until recently. And this slowness, rhythmic manner of doing things, is to be respected and not condemned. Unnatural increase in speed creates illusion and Indians certainly cannot manage quick changes. We believe in slowness. Haali Kaa kaam shaitaan kaa as the saying goes in many Indian languages. Speed is associated with maya, illusion. Electoral systems are quick processes, believing in quickly electing a representative (there is hardly any other choice) and once a person gets elected the people become powerless, mute observers and sufferers to the decisions taken by ‘their’ representative - a system full of holes and totally opposed to our nature, the swabhava of our people. We have seen where it has led us in the recent arrogant speeches made by our parliamentarians during last year’s debate on the Jan Lokpal bill in both houses of Parliament. This should make us think deeply about how undemocratic our systems have become and how unsuitable they are, rather than making us shocked at the behavior of our representatives. Their behaviour is the consequence of the way our systems have made us.

Deep down in our psyche we believe in co-existence, co-operation in collective decisions after due deliberations with all section of the society and we value living with what is available, frugally. That is not to say we do not have greed or jealousy but the societal norms always put a check on such tendencies. Society dominated the powers that be. There was an understanding between the state and society and each kept away from the other in day to day affairs, leaving the decision about the affairs of the people to them. The modern systems of governance including modern democracy is intrusive, interferes too much and creates an illusion – giving the impression that it is for the people, of the people etc.. But it is designed only to use them. There is no real consultation with them on decisions affecting their lives. The society does not have a powerful say in matters affecting the lives of people. The land of the adivasis can be given over to an outsider by people sitting in remote places, without consulting the genuine owners of the land. This is just one example. There could be several. The powers that be can do as they please, all in the name of people and democracy. It is the biggest farce of modern times. When state power starts dominating society this is the result. If power rests with society then the State power remains under check and a balance is struck between the state and society. That is how Indian society has functioned in the past. The current form of democracy, if at all it gives any power, it is to the individual not to communities and societies, which in fact it divides. This power to the individual is also often illusionary or mayavi, like most modern systems. Modernity and most things coming out of it - the systems, institutions and technology – create an impression or their appearance is different from what they actually are. They appear democratic but they actually may not be, they appear to be for the convenience of people but actually they bind them, they appear to give freedom while making them more dependent.

The system as it exists today is a web which is not easy to dissect. Power has become remote and invisible. People do not know who to turn to in times of crises. It is often too late before they realize what has happened, the impact of policies and decision taken by people sitting in remote places and who can always shirk responsibility because of the complexity of the entire decision making process. The system harps about accountability but in reality no one is accountable. The scams in the last 15-20 years are examples staring us in the face.

Indian society has deep roots in democratic values but we need to understand the Indian swabhava and build our institutions and systems accordingly. Perhaps it is still not too late to start thinking along that direction even if it is a herculean task. It is important because we have reached a cul de sac in every area following the path of "development" that we have taken in the last century. Ultimately it is a choice between Society keeping a check on the State or the State dominating the Society.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati