Team Anna’s campaign against corruption may have caught the imagination of the nation, but what is perhaps little known is that though ancient India had a well-evolved democratic system that went down to the grassroots, its elected leaders had to adhere to well-defined laws that prescribed stiff penalties for those who swindled public money or indulged in improprieties.
Aligarh Muslim University historian S Chandni Bi, who has specialised in epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, says around 1,000 years ago there was zero tolerance towards financial bungling. According to him, inscriptions in the southern state of Tamil Nadu clearly indicate how intolerant civil society was against corrupt practices and the violators of ethical framework.
Chandni told IANS in an interview: “A well-evolved democratic system was functional, starting at the Saba level, between the eighth and the 16th century in South India, irrespective of the ruling dynasties: the Cheras, Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas and Vijaynagar.
“The members of a Saba were elected by the whole community of the village by a system peculiarly known as ‘Kuda Olai’ system (Kudam-Pot and Olai-Palm leaf). The village was divided into wards called ‘Kudumbus’, and every ward had to write the eligible person’s names on the palm leaves. The bundle of palm leaves was emptied in a pot. The member was chosen by draw of lots.”
The most important point to note here was the issuance of strict guidelines by the rulers, inscriptions give fair indication of the clarity of thought and zero tolerance towards financial bungling.
“Among the inscriptions three are very important which belong to the 10th century AD Two inscriptions are found in Vaykundanatha Perumal temple at Uttramerur, Kanchipuram district and another one is from Pallipakkam village of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu state belonging to the rule of Parantaka Chola Ist,” Chandni explains.
“The crimes committed by the members of the Saba are divided into three categories. The swindling of funds or public property and those who failed to submit their accounts have been considered as crime number two. Such members were not eligible to contest the Saba election for life long. Not only they but their relatives too could not contest elections, like children, in-laws, brothers and their children, grand -parents, grand- children, relations through wife etc, nearly for three generations. They were called as ‘Grama Dhurogis’.
“While murder of even Brahmins was considered pardonable, crimes like cheating or swindling public funds were unpardonable even by gods. Political crime was not pardonable but other crimes could be punished with penalties or performance of penance and charitable deeds, to become eligible for elections again.”
There were established codes of conduct laid down for the Saba members as found in an inscription from Mannur village of Tirunelveli district. Among them, the most interesting one relates to obstructing the political processes or functioning of the Saba deliberately. In such cases a penalty of five Kasu (Rupees) was imposed for every such act of mis-conduct, on such members. Yet they were permitted to stay and participate in the proceedings of the Saba. Generally, the Kings’ orders were executed by passing in the Saba.
To prevent political power getting concentrated in one family leading to dynastic tendencies, rules were framed. “According to this rule, the present members of the Saba cannot contest the election for next 2 to 10 years. In the same way none of their relatives should have contested for the past five years if one wanted to contest for membership of Saba. There is also a sub-rule to provide equal opportunity for everybody stipulating induction of two new members without any previous experience as members of the Saba.”
The Sabas had to be dissolved before the election of the new one and the elections were generally conducted by the village accountant and a judge called ‘Madyasthan’. In the public services there were no holidays and therefore no one in authority could neglect public duty. “It was categorically mentioned that the elected members should provide their service for 360 days. The elected members’ term of office was only one year and automatically should resign after completion of the term.”
They also actively practised the right to recall. “In those days if an elected member of the Saba committed a crime or violated law, he was immediately sacked. Such has been our rich and exemplary past. Let us bring it back instead of looking to the west for solutions,” said Chandni who teaches South Indian History in AMU.
~ Brij Khandelwal