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Author - Anil Chawla

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It is said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Madhya Pradesh Panchayat Raj (Sanshodhan) Act, 2001 (Act No. 1 of 2001) has apparently been brought into existence by persons who have never studied history. The Statement of Objects annexed to the Act declares that it was considered necessary to establish a system of Direct Democracy by empowering village assemblies for development of villages by decentralization. The Minister for rural development of Madhya Pradesh further affirmed at the floor of Legislative Assembly that this was a move towards converting representative democracy into direct democracy.

It has been assumed by the Minister and his party (Congress) that direct democracy is better than representative democracy. Democracy was born in 508 B.C., when Cleisthenes instituted a new political organization whereby the citizens would take a more forceful and more direct role in running the city-state. He called this new political organization demokratia, or democracy - rule by the entire body of citizens. Council of Five Hundred persons convened the Assembly, which consisted of approximately 21,000 citizens. However, what began as Greek democracy under Cleisthenes around 500 B.C., became an aristocracy under Pericles by 430 B.C. The Greek historian Thucydides (c.460-c.400 B.C.) commented on the reality of democracy under Pericles when he wrote: "It was in theory, a democracy but in fact it became the rule of the first Athenian."

The experiment of direct democracy in Athens led to the collapse of Greek civilization. In fact, the progress that characterized Greek Civilization took place either in Sparta (which did not have direct democracy) or in pre-Cleisthenes Athens. One can say that almost without exceptions, direct democracy has been a failure wherever it has been attempted and has not led to any development. In recent times, there are some movements for direct democracy in Europe and America. Elements of direct democracy are present in Switzerland and some other European countries. In all such countries, the most common mechanisms of direct democracy are: the initiative, referendum, and recall. The initiative refers to the right of citizens to initiate the making of a law by common petition. Referendum means decision by citizens on matters of crucial importance. Recall is the right of citizens to call back their elected representatives.

The above three mechanisms of direct democracy are conspicuous by their absence in the proposed direct democracy system of Madhya Pradesh. Instead we have the primitive Athenian model where all village adults assemble once a month or more often to decide the critical issues. The model prescribes a quorum of one fifth of the adults of the village and gives voting rights to only those present at the assembly. The strongest criticism of direct democracy is that it is a "surrender of policy making to the activists, the self-interested, the fanatical and the superficial". In the context of social structures of Indian villages, the decision-making will shift to the bullies, the ones who command muscle power and money power and can collect the required quorum of twenty per cent at the village meetings while simultaneously dissuading the balance eighty percent from participation. After all it is very easy to de-motivate any peace-loving villager from attending the village assembly. In any case the average person does not want to actively participate in politics or governance.

In fact, one of the glories of democracy is that it allows people who just want to get on with their lives without concerning themselves with political issues, except occasionally, to do so. True political liberty includes the liberty to take no interest in politics. The great majority are neither qualified nor interested to make decisions on a snap judgment basis. Representative government is about the selection by direct vote of people who are delegated to do the work which most of us do not have the time or the patience to perform. Democracy survives because of checks and balances which are imposed on the elected representatives. Argument, research and debate, not snap judgment at public meetings are the foundations that have helped democracy survive in the modern world.

Without creating any institutional structure to promote debate, argument and research at village meetings, the Gram Sabhas will soon degenerate into arenas of open fights where might is right. The Gram Sabhas will then cease to represent the will of the village but will instead represent just those handful of bullies, who will have no accountability to anyone. It is with such a case in mind that Professor Laurence Berns of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., writes that direct democracy, by "bypassing the cumbersome, compromising, deliberative and negotiating processes of representative government," are in truth moving us toward "that degenerate form of democracy called variously plebiscitary democracy, totalitarian democracy, or more simply, demagogic despotism."

The system that will come into existence with the proposed Gram Sabhas can be summed as ochlocracy or mob-rule. In ancient Athens, it produced pretty bad results and Socrates learnt it at the cost of his life. In Madhya Pradesh, the failure of Panchayat Raj experiment provided an opportunity to learn the basics of democracy, as differentiated from rule by crowds. Panchayat Raj in Madhya Pradesh has divided villages along party lines with the caste boundaries becoming more rigid. Panchayats have in fact transported all the ills of present Indian polity like criminalisation and corruption to the village level. Gram Sabhas can only add to the malaise.

In the midst of the slogan-mongering, a point that seems to have been conveniently forgotten is the constitutional validity of making a change in the basic structure of the system of governance from representative democracy to direct democracy. Article 243-A of the Constitution provides that the legislature of a state may grant powers that may be exercised by Gram Sabha. Yet, it is a misuse of the constitutional provision to stretch it to make a change in the basic structure.

Such constitutional niceties sound ridiculous to the political leaders who have no understanding of either constitution or democracy or history. So, we really cannot blame them for being condemned to repeating history of primitive Athens.


3rd February, 2001


Politicians in India rely more on well-coined slogans rather than well-planned schemes. Nothing illustrates this better than The Madhya Pradesh Gram Nyayalaya Adhiniyam, 1996 passed recently by MP Legislature and implemented from the Republic day. The fathers of the legislation have created a system of courts which is unique due to its inherent contradictions and which goes against the basic nature of judiciary.

Historically, judicial systems evolved in most parts of the world from Church and other religious organizations. The key elements of trust and faith in the Courts were provided initially by religion and in modern times by the educational background of the judges. A court manned by semi-literate judges with no religious sanction will lack the essentials of a court. Gram Nyayalayas will have judges who are just about eighth standard pass (or even less qualified in case of persons belonging to scheduled caste or scheduled tribe). Such courts will inspire no confidence or trust or faith in the minds of litigants. When the fundamentals of a court are absent, rule of law is likely to be replaced by the law of jungle and systematic procedures will be replaced by the logic of muscle power.

The act is silent on the procedures that such village courts will adopt. Section 21 of the Act authorizes State Government to make rules in this regard. In other words, State Government will keep issuing a continuous stream of notifications that will provide fodder for the printers of law books. However, one fails to understand the mechanism by which semi-literate judges will keep track of such notifications. It would have helped if the drafters of the law had applied their mind to the issue of procedures rather than leaving it open.

The subject of procedures involves a more fundamental issue of written versus oral word. Indian judicial systems are based on written words and all evidence must be recorded in writing. One of the reasons for inordinate delays in courts is the time taken to put everything down in writing. Seven semi-literate judges including one person who knows law (but need not be a law graduate) will face their biggest difficulty in fathoming the written word. The change from written to oral word is one revolutionary change that could have been heralded by Madhya Pradesh Gram Nyayalaya Adhiniyam, but the Act is silent on the subject.

Silence on crucial issues is combined with confusion. The act, which was in the pipeline for years, seems to be hastily drafted. For example, section 18 of the Act prescribes two conditions for cognizance of offences. The two conditions should have been connected by either the word "and" or the word "or". In the absence of the key connecting word, there is confusion whether only one of the conditions needs to be satisfied or both need to be satisfied. Such confusion will lead to long battles in higher courts thereby undermining the very purpose of the Gram Nyayalayas.

But the final blow to the Gram Nyayalayas is caused by the absence of any financial arrangements for the courts. The Act is not accompanied by any financial memorandum. Without the necessary financial provisions, the Gram Nyayalayas will become paper-tigers or well-coined empty slogans. May be that is what is intended!


2nd February, 2001

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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