Village Swaraj

Chapter-12: Panchayat Raj

Panchayats in Pre-independence Days
Panchayat has an ancient flavour; it is a good word. It literally means an assembly of five elected by villagers. It represents the system, by which the innumerable village republics of India were governed. But the British Government, by its ruthlessly thorough method of revenue collection, almost destroyed these ancient republics, which could not stand the shock of this revenue collection. Congressmen are now making a crude attempt to revive the system by giving village elders civil and criminal jurisdiction. The attempt was first made in 1921. It failed. It is being made again, and it will fail if it is not systematically and decently, I will not say, scientifically, tried.
It was reported to me in Nainital, that in certain places in the L.P., even criminal cases like rape were tried by the so-called Panchayats. I heard of some fantastic judgments pronounced by ignorant or interested Panchayats. This is all bad if it is true. Irregular Panchayats are bound to fall to pieces under their own unsupportable weight, I suggest, therefore, the following rules for the guidance of village workers:

  1. No Panchayat should be set up without the written sanction of a Provincial Congress Committee;
  2. A Panchayat should in the first instance be elected by a public meeting called for the purpose by beat of drums;
  3. It should be recommended by the Tahsil Committee;
  4. Such Panchayat should have no criminal jurisdiction;
  5. It may try civil suits if the parties to them refer their disputes to the Panchayat; 6. No one should be compelled to refer any matter to the Panchayat;
  6. No Panchayat should have any authority to impose fines, the only sanction behind its civil decrees being its moral authority, strict impartiality and the willing obedience of the parties concerned;
  7. There should be no social or other boycott for the time being;
  8. Every Panchayat will be expected to attend to:
    • a. The education of boys and girls in its village;
    • b. Its sanitation;
    • c. Its medical needs;
    • d. The upkeep and cleanliness of village wells or ponds;
    • e. The uplift of and the daily wants of the so-called untouchables.

A Panchayat that fails without just cause to attend to the requirements mentioned in clause 9 within six months of its election, or fails otherwise to retain the goodwill of the villagers, or stands self-condemned for any other cause, appearing sufficient to the Provincial Congress Committee, may be disbanded and another elected in its place.
The disability to impose fines or social boycott is a necessity of the case in the initial stages; social boycott in villages has been found to be a dangerous weapon in the hands of ignorant or unscrupulous men. Imposition of fines too may lead to mischief and defeat the very end in view. Where a Panchayat is really popular and increases its popularity by the constructive work of the kind suggested in clause 9, it will find its judgments and authority respected by reason of its moral prestige. And that surely is the greatest sanction anyone can possess and of which one cannot be deprived.

Y.I., 28-5-’31, p.123

Panchayats in Independent India
Independence must mean that of the people of India, not of those who are today ruling over them. The rulers should depend on the will of those who are under their heels. Thus, they have to be servants of the people, ready to do their will.
Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or Panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without. Thus, ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world. It will be free and voluntary play of mutual forces. Such a society is necessarily highly cultured in which every man and woman knows what he or she wants and, what is more, knows that no one should want anything that others cannot have with equal labour.
This society must naturally be based on truth and non-violence which, in my opinion, are not possible without a living belief in God meaning a Self-existent, All-knowing Living Force which inheres every other force known to the world and which depends on none and which will live when all other forces may conceivably perish or cease to act. I am unable to account for my life without belief in this All-embracing Living Force.
In this structure composed of innumerable villages there will be ever-widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units. Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but give strength to all within and derive its own from the centre. I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and therefore not worth a single thought. If Euclid's point, though incapable of being drawn by human agency, has an imperishable value, my picture has its own for mankind to live. Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want before we can have something approaching it. If there ever is to be a republic of every village in India, then I claim verity for my picture in which the last is equal to the first, or in other words, none is to be the first and none the last.
In this picture every religion has its full and equal place. We are all leaves of a majestic tree whose trunk cannot be shaken off its roots which are deep down in the bowels of the earth. The mightiest of winds cannot move it.
In this there is no room for machines that would displace human labour and that would concentrate power in a few hands. Labour has its unique place in a cultural human family. Every machine that helps every individual has a place. But I must confess that I have never sat down to think out what that machine can be. I have thought of Singer's sewing machine. But even that is perfunctory. I do not need it to fill in my picture.

H., 28-7-’46, p.236

What should we do then? If we would see our dream of Panchayat Raj, i.e. true democracy realized, we would regard the humblest and lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land. This presupposes that all are pure or will become pure if they are not. And purity must go hand-in-hand with wisdom. No one would then harbour any distinction between community and community, caste and out-caste. Everybody would regard all as equal with oneself and hold them together in the silken net of love. No one would regard another as untouchable. We would hold as equal the toiling labourer and the rich capitalist. Everybody would know how to earn an honest living by the sweat of one's brow and make no distinction between intellectual and physical labour. To hasten this consummation, we would voluntarily turn ourselves into scavengers. No one who has wisdom will ever touch opium, liquor or any intoxicants. Everybody would observe Swadeshi as the rule of life and regard every woman, not being his wife, as his mother, sister or daughter according to her age, never lust after her in his heart. He would be ready to lay down his life when occasion demands it, never want to take another's life. If he is a Sikh in terms of the commandment of the Gurus he would have the heroic courage to stand single- handed and alone, without yielding an inch of ground against the "one lakh and a quarter" enjoined by them. Needless to say, such a son of India will not want to be told what his duty in the present hour is.

H., 18-1-’48, p.517

Duties of the Panchayat
Distinguished travellers from the world came to India in the days of yore from China and other countries. They came in quest of knowledge and put up with great hardships in travelling. They had reported that in India there was no theft, people were honest and industrious. They needed no locks for their doors. In those days there was no multiplicity of castes as at present. It is the function of Panchayats to revive honesty and industry. It is the function of the Panchayats to teach the villagers to avoid disputes, if they have to settle them. That would ensure speedy justice without any expenditure. They would need neither the police nor the military.
Then the Panchayat should see to cattle improvement. They should show steady increase in the milk yield. Our cattle have become a burden on the land for want of care. It is gross ignorance to blame the Muslims for cow slaughter. It is the Hindus who kill the cattle by inches through ill-treatment. Slow death by torture is far worse than outright killing. The Panchayat should also see to an increase in the quantity of foodstuff grown in their village. That is to be accomplished by properly manuring the soil. The Compost Conference recently held in Delhi under the inspiration of Shrimati Mirabehn has told them how the excreta of animals and human beings mixed with rubbish can be turned into valuable manure. This manure increases the fertility of the soil. Then they must see to the cleanliness of their village and its inhabitants. They must be clean and healthy in body and mind.
There should be no cinema house. People say that the cinema can be a potent means of education. That might come true some day, but at the moment I see how much harm the cinema is doing. They have their indigenous games. They should banish intoxicating drinks and drugs from their midst. They should eradicate untouchability if there is any trace of it still left in their village. The Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians should all live as brothers and sisters. If they achieve all I have mentioned, they would demonstrate real independence and people from all over India would come to see their model village and take inspiration from it.

H., 4-1-’48, p.499-500