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Chaupal, the earliest human experiment in democracy

Chaupal, the earliest human experiment in democracy

Author: Dr Kailash Mishra
Publication: Organiser
Date: April 11, 2004

Chaupal is a public space owned by the villagers. Nobody can claim to have an individual ownership of it. It is a place where villagers of all ranks, ages, castes, and faiths sit together and discuss serious and non-serious issues.

We have had our own localised 'civil society' and 'public space' since the distant past. Sabha was a body of village elders and it assisted the janasya gopah. The etymological meaning of janasya gopah is the protector of the people or fellowmen as well as their cattle wealth. But in practice it was used for the rajanya, i.e. rulers. Samiti was a general assembly in which all the members of the community participated. Its main function was to elect the ruler. The remarkable fact about all these assemblies was that women also participated in it. Sabha and samiti are depicted as the two daughters of Prajapati and especially samiti has been termed as narista, that means a place where intellectual discourses or discussions can be made. Sardh, vrat and gana are the three other assemblies to which there are a number of references. Mention may be made of gosthi which is similar to the modern day's chaupal where discussions regarding day-to-day socio-economic problems of village life were discussed.

Vedic seers used a fascinating term, madhyamsiriv, i.e. in case of indecision or altercation in the assembly, the elders should opt for the middle path to maintain harmony and solve problems. So the Vedic period assured a balanced and ordered civil society. Even later rulers, political thinkers and seers tried hard to honour individual as well as group liberty.

The tradition continues in the form of the chaupal. The Vedic administrators, perhaps, devised this universal system to maintain communal harmony and to ensure justice in every geographical and political area to the satisfaction of each individual, but within the limits of traditional as well as societal norms.

The chaupal is a place where all four directions are open for everybody. Nobody, essentially, can be denied admittance to this place. It is a stage where everybody has freedom irrespective of race, caste, religion, gender, etc. In Mithila, for example, chaupal (chaupari) has multiple meanings. It is used as a seminary of scholars or students and as a sacred space where deities or good spirits possess a shaman or a diviner with magical ability to solve problems or cure diseases.

I have observed a shaman in trance mediating as chief justice or dharmadhikari in a chaupal during a dispute resolution. The disputants come to him, touch the soil and as soon as the dharmadhikari comes (possessed by the deity), the disputants narrate their problems truthfully. Unlike in modern courts, they don't cook up any story. Both the involved parties have total faith in the judge-a person in trance-and in the space, i.e. chaupal. He listens to both the disputants and gives his judgement, honestly, which is acceptable to both.

Mahatma Gandhi stands out in history as one of the greatest mobilisers of the masses. His simple life, the sincerity with which he led rural Indians to social action, the idiom that he spoke, the loin cloth, etc., were genuine expressions of his leadership as an elder acceptable to all in a chaupal. His concepts of gramswaraj and hindswaraj are in fact rooted in the chaupal. His ashrams and camps, spinning and weaving centres, his prayers and meetings and dining were all held in a chaupal-like atmosphere. The untouchables and the Brahmans, all ate together in a common place and were provided a fearless atmosphere.

Politicians, planners, writers, film-makers and the government have been using chaupal as a public platform to address the public issues. Coming to the conclusion, it can be said, Habermas may be right in his assessment in the European context, but in India his theory becomes rootless, because what he saw-public space and public sphere in the late 19th century and the early 20th century in Europe-were already in existence in India during the Vedic period.

Jurgen Habermas, one of the principal exponents of the 'second generation' Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists, predicates a great deal of his thinking on the nature of human rights with robust conception of the nature of rationality in the modern post-enlightened world. His thesis, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962; trans. 1989) was that such a public sphere as well as public space emerged briefly among the bourgeoisie of 18th century Europe-in the coffee houses, salons, pizza huts, etc., of London and Paris and was informed by the emerging print media, the journals and periodicals of the day.

The 'public sphere' (offentlichkeit) refers to a social space where consensus emerges on matters of political morality. Habermas notes that in the Renaissance period there evolved a public space, embodying the idea that normative statements must be argued and justified publicly before an audience. The public sphere presupposes an "ideal speech situation" in which each individual is recognised as a potential participant. He believes that the structure is free from constraints only when for all participants there is a symmetrical distribution of chances to select and employ speech arts, when there is an effective equality of chances to assume dialogue roles. In particular, all participants must have the same chance to initiate and perpetuate discourse, to put forward, call into question, and give reasons for or against statements, explanations, interpretations and justifications.

The theory of 'public sphere' and 'public space' of Habermas does not fit into the structure of India. The villagers of India have been enjoying the liberty to share public space in the chaupal and to express their freedom of speech without any fear or compulsion from time immemorial.

(Dr Kailash Mishra is an anthropologist working with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi.)

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