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Dharmaśāstra-s: Theory and Practice — Local Self-Government, and Elections in Ancient India

The subject of local self-government in ancient India is of both historical and practical — if not political — interest. Village communities of ancient India were centers of administration and custodians of social harmony. In the face of ruinous political usurpations of cataclysmic proportions, it was the complex and intricate system of local government that safeguarded the integrity and independence of Hindu society. In the words of Sir Charles Metcalfe,

“The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything that they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Pathan, Moghul, Mahratta, Sikh, English are all masters in turn, but the village communities remain the same. In times of trouble, they arm and fortify themselves: a hostile army passes through the country: the village communities collect their cattle within their walls and let the enemy pass unprovoked. If plunder and devastation are directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but when the storm has passed over, they return and resume their occupations. If a country remains for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers nevertheless return whenever the power of peaceable possession revives. A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the places of their fathers; the same site for the village, the same positions for the houses, the same lands, will be reoccupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when the village was depopulated; and it is not a trifling matter that will drive them out, for they will often maintain their post through times of disturbance and convulsion, and acquire strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression wit h success”. (Mookerji 1958:2)

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