Decolonising Indian Governance: A Historical and Civilizational Journey of Purpose

SARDAR VALLABHBHAI PATEL’S vision for the Indian Civil Services in his inspirational speech on April 21, 1947 delivered to the first batch of the Indian Administrative Services needs repetition if only to underscore how farsighted he was:

Your predecessors were brought up in the traditions in which they … kept themselves aloof from the common run of the people. It will be your bounden duty to treat the common men in India as your own.
[Emphasis added]

It was a truly rousing and emotive speech. It was also a challenge to the best men of that class to see whether they could scale Mount Everest in the realm of public service.

Fortunately, a sizeable chunk in that batch took up the Sardar’s challenge and demonstrated what the Sardar’s “steel frame” was really capable of contributing towards nation-building. Until at least the mid 1970s, there were any number of IAS officers who were also scholars and culturally learned. Fast forward, a decade later, the downward transformation was swift leading to the widespread perception of the civil services as the “rotten frame of Indian democracy.” It is also old news that repeated calls for bureaucratic reform have resulted in precious little good.

The prolific and incisive writer, Nirad C Chaudhuri echoedi Sardar Patel as recently as in 1997 when he remarked that

what disappeared from India with the going away of the British had created remained, intact in all its features and above all in its spirit… The immense noisy crowds that greeted the end of British rule in India with deafening shouts of joy on August 15, 1947, did not recall the old saying: they thought nothing of British rule would survive in their country after the departure of the White men… They never perceived that British rule in India had created an impersonal structure……. a system of government for which there was no substitute. In this system, the actual work of government was carried on by a bureaucracy consisting of the highest British officials together with a hierarchy of officials whose lowest but the most numerous personnel was formed by the clerks. Actual initiation of government action was in the   hands of the men in the lowest position, viz, the clerks… the basic character of the Indian bureaucracy as it is now: ‘Theirs is a solid, egocentric, and rootless order, which by its very nature, is not only uncreative, but even unproductive. Its only purpose is to perpetuate itself by inbreeding, and ensure its prosperity. Government by such a bureaucracy can by itself be regarded as a decisive sign of decadence of a people in their political life.
[Emphasis added]

The common feature of both the Sardar and Nirad Chaudhuri’s observation is just one word: rootlessness; in other words, psychological and cultural colonization. In practical terms, if there’s any institution that needs to be urgently decolonized today, it is the Indian Administrative Services (the term is used in an all-encompassing sense to include all the Civil Services like IFS, IPS, etc.).

In fact, many learned Civil Services officers have themselves written and spoken at length about the need for reform in the Civil Services. But the word they’re looking for is not “reform” but decolonize. I would also hazard to add the following to this: the present condition of our Civil Services has reached a stage in which reform might well-nigh be impossible.

We can also regard this issue with some historical data pertaining to said colonization.

Rule by Theory

One significant consequence—indeed, a defining feature—since India became a democracy in name is something that can be called Rule-by- Theory.

Under Jawaharlal Nehru’s extended dispensation, an unseen but dangerous strain of Communism was the theory that ruled India. Following his footsteps and till she lifted the Emergency, Smt. Indira Gandhi opted for a slightly hardcore version of the same Communism. In hindsight, the less said about Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, the better.

After his demise, the country was pretty much in free fall except for some breaths of fresh air under Sri P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But what has remained common over the last sixty-odd years is the selfsame Rule-by-Theory. Or to be more specific, Rule by western political theories, which are completely at odds with the millennia-old genius of Sanatana polity, statecraft and governance. What has worsened the situation today has been the untested implementation of this rule-by-western-theories.

Nowhere is this defect more glaring than in the near-obliteration of the time-tested system of the Gram Panchayat, which had largely remained untouched even by the most oppressive Islamic tyranny during the medieval period. Today, although the Gram Panchayat system exists only in name, its original sturdiness has perhaps been irretrievably lost.

In other words, the form of democracy that India adopted after 1947 centralized political power in New Delhi to such an appalling extent that even state governments were reduced to the status of supplicants. As an example, we can consider an illuminating if not tragic accountii of the deliberations over the Panchayat Raj system in the Constituent Assembly Debates. The following is drawn from Sri Dharampal’s extraordinary work on the subject titled, Panchayat Raj And India’s Polity.

[A] I want to ask whether there is any mention of villages and any place for them in the structure of this great Constitution. No, The Constitution of a free country should be based on ‘local self-government’. We see nothing of local self-government anywhere in this Constitution. This Constitution as a whole, instead of being evolved from our life and reared from the bottom upwards is being imported from outside and built from above downwards. A Constitution which is not based on units and in the making of which they have no voice, in which there is not even a mention of thousands and lakhs of villages of India and in framing which they have had no hand—well you can give such a Constitution to the country but I very much doubt whether you would be able to keep it for long.

[B] We cannot have a strong Centre without strong limbs. If we can build the whole structure on the village panchayats, on the willing cooperation of the people, then I feel the Centre would automatically become strong.

[C] Dr Ambedkar boldly admitted, and the members of the Drafting Committee do concede that in this Constitution there is no provision for establishing Panchayat ..When there is no such provision, it can never be the Constitution of India… If the village is to be discarded, someone can also boldly demand that this Constitution be discarded.

Some inescapable conclusions arise out of this.

At no other time in the millennia-old civilizational history of India—even under the vast and sweeping monarchies of the Mauryas, the Guptas and the Vijayangara Empire—was political power concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority in a single city: New Delhi. Such concentration of political power is not only alien to the Sanatana spirit, it is a gross violation of this spirit. Indeed, this centralization and concentration of power is the chief reason for the growth of regional and caste-based parties in just about thirty years after we attained freedom. For example, from the “Dravidian” parties up to say the Telugu Desam Party until recently, it was common to hear their leaders drop grand public utterances about “taking our fight to Delhi” as if Delhi was the capital of a foreign nation.

Rajyashastra is Subservient to Dharmashastra

In the Sanatana tradition, what is known as Rajyasastra or politics and statecraft was always subservient to Dharmasastra or the code of ethics and justice. In the Indian conception, Rajyasastra was a mere subset of the Dharmasastra and could not be divorced or separated from it. In other words, the entire Indian system was an organic whole.

Politics, economics, etc., were worldly subjects to be regarded as mere tools and implements that facilitate a human being’s continuous quest to attain spiritual liberation. This is why politics like other worldly pursuits, was constrained by the tenets of Dharma, and it is Dharma which guarantees spiritual freedom to the individual and ensures social and national harmony. Thus, it follows that all other freedoms are meaningless without spiritual freedom. In the Sanatana conception, this spiritual freedom of the individual received primacy because the collective actions and remembered traditions guided by this spiritual freedom is what gave us civilizational continuity.

Consider these wordsiii by the iconic political philosopher, public intellectual, politician and prolific writer D.V. Gundappa (D.V.G) from Karnataka (1887-1975):

no matter how far India progresses in the achievement of…material wealth, there will always be numerous other countries as competition… our desire…to be equal to England, Germany, America, and Russia in material acquisitions…is itself an adventure. It’s our duty to attempt such things so let’s do it.

But the one field which doesn’t present any such competition is culture: specifically, the spiritual culture of India. This spiritual culture is the best and the finest of India’s wealth. If we don’t account for or neglect this spiritual culture, there’s no other area which India can take pride in. Forget pride, there is indeed no area where India can become useful to the world.
[Emphasis added]

But when we think about what these Western political theories, democracy etc., have become today in the lands of their origin, this is the picture we get: they have become instruments to manipulate the public mind in a mad race for accumulating political power and engorging the already-bloated culture of materialism. Indeed, even the notion of the term, “public conscience” has all but vanished in the public discourse of the West.

The contrast between this western condition and the lived traditions of India cannot be greater.

From the Vedic period up to the 18th century, there was an intimate and a kind of personal relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Indian polity represented perhaps the greatest lived example of what is today known as “last mile delivery of governance” and such other fashionable verbiage. The level of decentralization in governance was truly unparalleled in this India of the eons. Every village, the last unit of administration was self-contained. Villagers really didn’t have a reason to step out of their confines for any matter concerning their daily needs.

Genius of Decentralisation

Indeed, the same history shows us that the genius of Indian polity can best be observed in our village setups. In a manner of speaking, the village was the physical manifestation of the proverb that “you can create your own world wherever you are.”

Broadly speaking, what do institutions like Gram Panchayat, Sabha, Samiti, Mahanadu, Oor, Parishad etc., really mean? For a fairly detailed treatment of this topic, refer to my essay on the Mackenzie Manuscripts. In any case, these institutions were later refinements of the original administrative and governance systems that existed in the Vedic period: Arajaka, Bhaujya, Vairajya, Samrajya, Maharajya, Swaarajya, etc. Roughly speaking, these refinements were brought into practice during the Mauryan rule and continued in a largely unbroken fashion until Ala-ud- din Khalji shattered them by introducing the Islamic administrative system which thrived on maximum exploitation of the people to enrich his sultanate. Thus, until his time, in Northern India, we had well- functioning administrative units such as Rashtra, Ahara, Janapada, Desha, Vishaya, and Bhukti. Their equivalents in Southern India were Rajya, Pithika, Ventte, Vishaya, Seeme, Naadu, Hobli, Valanad, Mandalam, Naad, Aimbadin, Melagaram, Agaram, Chaturvedi, Mangalam, Kuttam, and Palayapattu.

This is another brilliant facet among countless such others showcasing the indivisibility and unity of India.

But in the realm of practical life, these were intimate institutions that kept our extraordinary civilization alive and unimpaired in the daily life, customs, festivals, and consciousness of Indians for hundreds of generations. For example, only in the rarest of rare cases was harsh punishment actually enforced at the level of the village because there was an unspoken and interiorized understanding among our people that even a minor disruption in these time-honoured systems would bring down the whole edifice. The fabled inscription at Uttaramerur (near Kanchipuram) is one of the extant records that testify to this near- perfect administrative decentralization.

Maharaja, Samrat and Chakravartin

The Sanatana conception of a Maharaja, Samrat or Chakravartin also offers another brilliant ray of illumination. The Taittiriya Samhita, for example, lists what is known as the Dasharatni (Ten Gems). These were ten top administrative officials (Purohita, Rajanya, Senani, Suta, Gramani, Kshatriya, Sangruhitr, Bhagadhugh, Akshaavapa, and Parivrukti), whose permission was mandatory in order to ratify the King’s coronation. Only after the King took the following vow (Vrata): “I will protect Dharma,” was he pronounced as being officially coronated. But there was an even more practical and profound side to this. In the words of the titanic scholar, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri:

Because there is the Law of the Jungle in this world, the [institution] of King was created in order to uphold and maintain peace. The King who enforces the power of punishment using Dharma as his guide is compared to Mahavishnu who preserves order in the world. However, it is completely in violation of the spirit of the Dharmashastra to regard the King as having the Divine Right to rule. [Emphasis added]

Therefore, at once, the King was the combined embodiment of the following: he was the leader of the society, the commander-in-chief during wartime, the Chief Justice who would dispense justice after free, frank, and open consultation with wise men, and not people who had

risen to high rank owing to mere technical or subject-wise competence. In the Sanatana conception, dispensing justice was to be done with an attitude of Soumanasya (Pleasantness of mind) as a verse of the Atharvaveda (30: 5-6) says beautifully. When we regard this from another perspective, the genius of Bharatavarsha becomes evident: this is an attitude, outlook, and temperament towards life juxtaposed on the complex tapestry of statecraft and polity. This is also why for the major part in its long history, Bharatavarsha had extremely rare instances of dictators and tyrants. However, every Sultan or Nawab was a despot and tyrant almost without exception.

One can cite examples of numerous such Samrats but I have randomly considered Harshavardhana as a representative. Harshavardhana divided the income derived from his personal landowning into four parts. He gave one part each to:

1. Take care of Government expenses
2. Fund the salaries of high-ranking Government officials
3. Patronise scholars, Vidwans, Pandits, poets, artists
4. Charitable activities

More than a thousand years later, the warrior-queen and Raja-Rishika, Ahalyabai Holkar followed the same tradition of Harshavardhana.
Indeed, all such enlightened Hindu monarchs followed the warning in the renowned aphorism, Rajaa Kaalasya Kaaranam, which simply means this: that political system is despicable which loots people without first solving their economic problems.


More fundamentally, we can recall how we address a long and distinguished line of our luminaries – Manu, Brihaspati, Ushanas, Parashara, Bharadwaja, Vishalaksha, Vatavyadhi, Baahudantiiputra, Katyayana, and Chanakya – who first laid down the philosophy of Sanatana statecraft: as Rishis, and not as mere political philosophers.

The decolonization of our current polity, governance and administration must begin by recovering this humane, intimate, grand, exemplary and embracive system of Dharma in its truest sense in the political realm.

That beginning might be made by setting up new institutions wholly dedicated to study all these aspects both in theory and practice. It is generational work that must be pursued in a purposeful fashion imbued with the attitude of stalwarts like say Jadunath Sarkar, P.V. Kane, Sri Dharampal, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, Sri Shyama Prasad Mukherji, et al.


  • Nirad C Chaudhuri: Three Horsemen Of The New Apocalypse. Emphasis
  • Dharampal: Panchayat Raj And India’s Polity
  • D V Gundappa: Jnapaka Chitrashale: Vaidikadharma Sampradaayastharu: DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 8: Nenapina Chitragalu – 2: (Govt of Karnataka, 2013). Emphasis added.
  • S. Srikanta Sastri: Bharatiya Samskruti. P. 203. Emphasis added
    (The writer is a “Author and writer. Founder and Chief Editor, The Dharma Dispatch. Contributing Editor: Prekshaa Journal.” The views expressed are his own)