Indian Democracy, A Historical Perspective – Then And Now

G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana

indian-flag-1079103_1920“Democracy stands for a society which is courageous, which is compassionate, which is solvent, which is dignified and which is human. We will not be truly democratic if on every occasion, we resort to violence.” Dr. S. Radhakrishnan

The Indian civilization is one of the oldest in the world. Democracy as a form of government is not, as is popularly believed, a notion foreign to India nor should it be considered merely as a legacy of the British. A glance at the ancient history of India reveals that democratic republics existed in India prior to the 6th century BC. In fact Vaishali (now in the Indian state of Bihar) has been acknowledged by some historians as the world’s first republic.

One of the earliest instances of civilizations with democracy was found in ancient India, even during the times of the Rig-Veda, probably the earliest Indo-European literature and one of the most sacred books of the Hindus. The states mentioned are mostly monarchies, but with two democratic institutions called the Sabha and the Samiti. The Sabha (literally ‘assembly’ in Sanskrit) is widely interpreted to be the assembly of the elect or the important chieftains of the tribe, while the Samiti seems to be the gathering of all the men of the tribe, convened only for very special occasions. The Sabha and the Samiti kept check on the powers of the king, and were given a semi-divine status in the Rigveda as the “daughters of the Hindu deity Prajapati”[1]. The later epic Ramayana seems to mention a Samiti summoned by King Dasharatha of Ayodhya for ratification of his son Prince Ramachandra as the successor[2]. Many more republics were established in ancient India, prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha in 6th century. These republics were known as Maha Janapadas, and among these states, Vaishali (in what is now Bihar, India) was the world’s first republic. The democratic Sangha, Gana and Panchayat systems were used in some of these republics; the Panchayat system is still used today in Indian villages. Later during the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the Greeks wrote about the Sabarcae and Sambastai states in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose “form of government was democratic and not regal” according to Greek scholars of that time[3]. Another example was Gopala’s rise to power by democratic election in Bengal, which was documented by the Tibetan historian Taranath[4].

Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, eminent philosopher, educationist and the illustrious second President of India, reiterated this point in the Constituent Assembly on January 20th 1947 when he said[5],

“We cannot say that the republican tradition is foreign to the genius of this country. We have had it from the beginning of our history. When a few merchants from the north went down to the south, one of the Princes of the Deccan asked the question, ‘Who is your king?.’ The answer was, ‘Some of us are governed by assemblies, some of us by kings.’ -‘Kecid deso ganadhina kecid rajadhina’ Panini, Megasthenes and Kautilya refer to the Republics of ancient India. The Great Buddha belonged to the Republic of Kapilavastu.”

India’s ancient religious texts, The Vedas, teach us the principles of regard for human dignity, love for all living beings, respect for all religions, and justice to all. A galaxy of saints like Baba Sheikh Farid, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Guru Nanak, Kabir and Baba Bulle Shah, Thiruvalluvar also laid down a tradition of humanity and emphasized the unity of all humans irrespective of caste, creed and religious belief. They achieved with their message of brotherhood, tolerance and universal love, what mighty generals could not achieve with the sword and gun. Our scriptures like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have imbibed in us the principle of righteousness and instructed us to fight against evil.  Love for our Country and patriotism is also inherent in our ethos.

India has faced several onslaughts from foreign invaders – from Mohammad Ghauri to Mohammad Ghaznavi, and from the Mughals down to the British. The Indian kings defended their kingdoms against these attacks with valour, and sacrificed their lives, but were largely unsuccessful as they could not stand in the face of the superior might of gunpowder and deceit. Most of the Islamic invaders tried to force their religion upon the Indian people. The earlier Mughals propagated Islam as the religion of the State. It was Akbar, whose real name was Jalaluddin Mohammad, the great third Mughal emperor, who having realized that the only way to consolidate his rule over India was to embrace tolerance and liberalism, took firm steps towards establishing a more secular state. He evolved a syncretic religion called Din-e-Ilahi which drew from Hinduism, Islam and Sufism and incorporated in it, the principle of secularism. He even married a Hindu princess, Jodha Bai of Rajasthan, who was installed as the chief queen and was given due respect and reverence.

Akbar’s son, Jehangir is said to have installed a bell at his palace and anybody, irrespective of religion, creed or status in society, could at any time ring the bell by the chain and have their grievances redressed. This tradition of tolerance and secularism continued more or less undisturbed until the ascent of Aurangzeb to the throne. A despotic and tyrannical ruler, Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic who vigorously propagated Islam and adopted a policy of forceful conversions. Aurangzeb was the last prominent Mughal ruler, and after him, the dynasty went into decline. Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal king, who was deposed by the British, and exiled in Burma, took to poetry in his final days.

After the age of the Mughals, came the era of the British East India Company and eventually, India became the ‘crown jewel’ British Empire.

To fight for one’s freedom is a natural instinct in man, and to revolt against tyranny, courage, righteous anger and sacrifice are the main ingredients. A few of our great freedom fighters resisted the rule of the British empire by force, and tried thus to obtain freedom. The most prominent amongst them was Subhash Chandra Bose. Firebrand revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’, Sukhdev and Chandrashekhar Azad too showed their valour along with thousands of other unnamed youth, and sacrificed their lives for the Country. However, the mass movement to obtain freedom was led by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed in the principles of non-violence, satyagraha and civil disobedience. Lokmanya Tilak, who was known as the father of Indian unrest, made the people aware of their rights, and imparted in them the moral courage to exert themselves to secure their rights. His demand for Swaraj as his birthright was ultimately adopted by a resolution of the Indian National Congress at its Lahore session, under the presidency of  Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru in 1929. It would not be wrong to say that Tilak laid the foundations on which Mahatma Gandhi built the edifice of the independence movement. Prominent leaders from all regions, irrespective of their religion, caste, creed, and from all walks of life, followed Gandhiji’s footsteps in the struggle for freedom. In the process, they suffered endless hardships, even facing the privations of stinking prison cells, and made sacrifices which can move the heart of the most obstinate tyrants and despots. Our nation is indebted, would remain indebted and rather should remain indebted to them. The courage, will and conviction with which they fought should be the inspiring ideals for us and we should keep in mind these principles set forth by them for our governance.

The freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi was not merely one for independence from foreign rule, but was a relentless crusade against colonial subjugation and all forms of exploitation all over the world. The Indian nationalists inspired many nationalist movements in Asia and Africa and forged a strong bond with the peoples of other countries who were struggling for their self rule. A number of states achieved freedom shortly after India became Independent and the pre-independence links have since flourished into enduring relationships[6].

India ultimately achieved independence, but was fractured by the horror of partition on religious grounds.

The Muslim league led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who earlier was the member of the Indian National Congress, with the ulterior motive to have a separate nation for Muslims, adopted an obstructionist attitude and did not participate in the meetings of the Constituent Assembly which was elected to frame the Constitution of free India. The demand for Pakistan was based and advocated on the theory that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations. Jinnah is famously supposed to have said[7] “The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religions, philosophies, social customs and literature… To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state”.

Ultimately, the heart of India was divided. New borders, where none existed before, were drawn on the basis of religion by the proponents and instigators of partition, with ulterior motives, surely not only to benefit Muslims. Should a nation and its oneness be finished on the basis of religion? Was it sagacious on the part of the Muslim League to invent a two-nation theory based on religion? Whether they had a right to do so, and the recognition and acceptance of that right is still a question mark. This nation belonged and belongs to Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Christians – to all religions, creeds and castes. All were Indians. The irrational and drastic desire to have a separate state of Pakistan on the basis of religion, overpowered even poets like Allama Iqbal who once wrote “Saare jahaan se accha, Hindostan hamara, hum bulbulein hain iski, yeh Gulistan hamara” – “Our India is the greatest nation in the world, we are the bulbul birds in the garden of this nation”, but later became an avowed advocate of a separate state of Pakistan.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a great leader and human being, and initially conceived Pakistan as based on the cherished principle of secularism. Later on however, Pakistan became an Islamic state.

The spirit of democracy thus, has always existed in India through the ages. Our present form of Parliamentary democracy however, is partly an inheritance from the British, and partly the result of the genius and foresight of the founding fathers of our Constitution. The growing national consciousness of the people of India, and administrative expediency caused the British government to first introduce a democratic and representative form of government in modern India through a series of ‘Government of India Acts’. These Acts initially created the post of Governor General in India and subsequently, provided for legislative councils in the provinces, which evolved into democratic and representative bodies.  Our Constitution has adopted quite a few of the salient features from the Government of India Act of 1935, and the system of government set up by the British, no doubt provided the basis for the system we now have in place. Even so, while democracy in India has survived and even flourished since independence, neighbouring nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh, who were co-inheritors of the same legacy from the British, have not fared as well. This historical fact emphasises the belief that Democracy, as a way of life, is inherent to our ethos and culture.

Our freedom, achieved as it was by non-violent struggle, is a unique marvel of modern history. The independence movement was not only a struggle for independence, but was also a movement for the social and economic liberation of our countrymen. The social, political and economic challenges which faced our national leaders during the freedom struggle, made their task even more difficult and significant. It is our collective good fortune, that we had national leaders of great calibre and integrity, eminent scholars, statesmen and visionaries having profound understanding of India, who could chart the course of our nation towards a glorious future. They bequeathed to us, a Constitution which enshrines the ethos and essence of democracy, liberty and brotherhood, and is a veritable beacon to illumine our path and guide our steps.

The electoral mechanism established by our Constitution has ensured that India has a true and vibrant democracy through free and fair elections, which guarantee a smooth transfer of power from one government to another. The multi party system which we have today, is partly a result of our political system, and partly a result of a process of continuous evolution since independence, and is indicative of the vibrancy of our democracy.

Our democracy has stood the test of time in the first sixty years of our independence. Over the years, we have witnessed its evolution from a time when a single party, the Indian National Congress dominated at both the centre and the states, to a multi-party democracy. Today, along with the Indian National Congress at the centre, national parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Parties jostle for space with several regional and state-level parties. The articulation of regional aspirations has resulted in the emergence of several regional parties in the states like the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, The DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam and many others. With a growing number of representatives from these parties in Parliament, their clout at the Centre has increased by leaps and bounds and this is evident from the fact that most governments since the early nineties have been coalitions wherein the support of the regional parties has been an absolute sine qua non. Two points of view have emerged regarding this phenomenon; while some say that the regional parties represent the aspirations of the people of those regions, others are of the opinion that proliferation of political parties based on considerations like regionalism, caste and religion have fragmented and divided the electorate, resulting in a hung parliament after every election and necessitating coalition governments at the centre, which cause political instability.

The rise of political parties based on religious and caste-related grounds has also been a noteworthy feature of our democracy in the past few decades. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ideologically based on the concept of Hindutva, has grown from an insignificant two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, to become the single largest party in the lower house in the general elections held in 1996, 1998 and 1999 and in which the BJP, along with numerous coalition partners staked its claim to form the government each time under the leadership of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The government formed in 1999 led by the BJP and its allies, constituting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), successfully completed its full term. However, the NDA lost the 2004 general elections with the BJP ceding its position of single largest party to the Indian National Congress. The INC eventually went on to form the government with its allies, under the United Progressive Alliance, in 2004 with Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. The UPA with some exclusions and inclusions has again formed the government at centre after winning the general elections in 2009.

The Bahujan Samajwadi Party and the Republican Party of India, founded on the plank of caste, have also registered phenomenal growth, and are represented in significant numbers in the House of the People. Parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), while not openly casteist, actually depend significantly on the caste factor for their success in the elections.

Thus, a gradual shift has apparently occurred in the nature of our democracy wherein issues based on ideals like regionalism, linguism, religion and caste, as against broad nationalism have become significant factors. The challenge before us today, is to maintain the balance between the aspirations of the people concerning these issues, and the unity, integrity and the spirit of our nation and its democracy.

Our democracy has faced other challenges as well, whether it be in the form of war with our neighbours Pakistan and China, or situations like the National emergency declared between 1975 and 1977, but the will of the people manifesting the spirit of our democracy has always triumphed.

Most of the leaders leading the regional parties at one time or the other used to be members of the Indian National Congress. Their decision to break-away may have been partly ideological but was more likely for achieving power. They were one and they again broke away even from those parties. We have a federal structure but with a strong centre and the states felt ignored due to inadequate sharing of the central support, aspirations and expectations of different states were, in their perception, not fulfilled by the centre, so, they came up with different flags, irrespective of some basic and fundamental principles. For instance, the BSP which is a Dalit party, in the recent UP elections, has given a large proportion of its tickets to Brahmin candidates. It is not only those who believe in a particular religion, who may be called fundamentalists or fanatics, but the people of a particular caste may be more fanatical than believers of a particular religion. After they win the election, on the basis of the majority of a particular caste, they become the benefactors of only that caste, even ignoring their supporters who may belong to different castes. They mostly turn a blind eye to the section of people whom they presume has not voted for them, and this leads to frustration in the people and fosters in their mind, a lack of confidence and esteem in the politicians.

Though the regional parties propound different ideologies, mostly beating the drum for a particular caste or religion or interest group, their ultimate aim is to achieve power by all means, and in the process, some fair principles of democracy and politics are compromised. Ideological struggle need not necessarily be a source of tension, quarrel or conflict. It is just as capable of encouraging new views, attitudes and solutions. It all depends on whether two sides opt for reason, or fanaticism. A search for mutually acceptable solutions or confrontation for survival, a search for reasonable compromise or the imposition of views by force leading to organised demonstrations, bandhs and fomenting violence cannot resolve the situations. Sometimes fair remonstrations, sagacity and will to reconcile and compromise can hold good. In effect, ideology is a long term strategy for society’s life. We are in the 21st century, and it is more than six decades since we obtained independence, and in the era of the free world, it is bound to preserve some elements of faith. It cannot just be religion or caste any more – our views, aspirations, ambitions must correspond to national and also international realities, draw on scientific methods for analysis and identification of targets and suggest rational and moral ways of achieving them. There is nothing inherently unacceptable in this understanding of ideology and its role in politics or life in general or for either side. It does not require that the various political parties give up their ideologies or sacrifice any universal human or specific values. The only thing that must be done is to adopt civilised means to settle ideological disputes and differences which by the way have been long the rule in most democratic nations both in the West and the East. We can, and we should strike a balance between conflicting ideologies, so that the ultimate goal of progress of our country and the welfare of each and every citizen may be achieved.

The situation in India today is very disturbing. Political parties, when distributing tickets for elections either in the state, or for parliament, do not seem to care about the criminal antecedents of the candidate. Rather, tickets are given to those people who have the backing of a particular caste or religion which dominates in that respective constituency, without taking into consideration whether the candidate is an honest person of prominence, a social worker or a human being who will care for his constituents after being elected. They rather distribute tickets, for the sake of winning elections, even to known criminals with criminal cases registered against them. This is a pathetic situation and no one is able to understand where we are leading ourselves. The main objective these days is to win elections brushing aside all the principles which are inherent in a parliamentary democracy. The growing influence of lobbyists in Indian politics too is a disturbing feature. Powerful corporate and commercial interests like the industrial lobby, the sugar lobby, the banking lobby, amongst others exert profound influence on matters of policy and government, and the government many a times succumbs to the pressure brought upon it and takes decisions which satisfy these interest groups, but are not in the best interests of the citizens and the nation. The steep escalation in prices of food grains in 2009-2010 is one of the latest such instances. It is inexplicable how with the silos brimming with food grains stocks, the market overflowing with food grains, their prices defying all economics kept on skyrocketing for an excruciatingly long period.

Configuration and cluster – a cocktail of different parties leading to multiplicity, is bound to ultimately adversely affect the working of our democracy. There are parties which are termed as ‘national parties’ but their main bases are actuality, confined to particular states. There are parties which have changed their names umpteen times; these are mostly breakaway groups, leading to mushrooming of splinter political bodies in the country, and creating a state of confusion in the minds of the electorate. We have more than 40 parties in the States and in Parliament. So far the system has to a certain extent withstood this proliferation of political parties but ultimately, it is bound to affect the basic edifice.

The possibility of hung parliaments and hung assemblies create logical difficulties for the President and the Governors, as also the respective speakers and chairmen of the Houses. It also makes it difficult for the leader who is the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister to govern as also to simultaneously keep the flock together, most of whom, as it has been seen while sitting in the same boat, pulling the oars in different directions. This situation needs to change, if we are to have a truly strong and stable democratic edifice.

Photo Source: PixaBay

The content is copyrighted to the Author. He can be contacted for republication of his work at


[1]  ‘Bahudha: The Alternative Way of Living’, Dr. Kailash Kumar Mishra –  (from ‘History of Democracy’ on

[2] The Ramayana (Valmiki), Book II, Canto II:80, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith, digitized version on  (from ‘History of Democracy’ on

[3]Democracy in Ancient India’, Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University, ( – (from ‘History of Democracy’ on

[4]History of Buddhism in India’, Translation: A. Shiefner; also ‘The Age of Imperial Kanauj, History and Culture of Indian People’, Dr R. C. Majumdar, Dr A. D. Pusalkar (1964) p 45 – (from ‘History of Democracy’ on

[5] Constituent Assembly Debates  –  Official Reports, Vol. II, p 272, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 2nd Reprint 1989

[6] Welcome Address,  Shivraj Patil,   ‘The 89th Parliamentary Conference – a Report’, April 1993 Lok Sabha Secretariat, p.30

[7] Quoted in ‘Jinnah’s Theory of Nationhood’,  Dr Ahmad Faruqui,