Jharkhand offers a slice of unique tribal democracy. It has worked for locals | Opinion
The Jharkhand assembly election highlights a few crucial questions that the state and the nation faces. Will the Bharatiya Janata Party win the polls outright? Or will it be a neck-and-neck fight with the alliance of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress? What are the issues that will swing voters? As multinational and national corporations with their big business, mines and power plants hover over the state, how much will the promise to protect the Adivasi’s access to their jal (water), jangal (forest) and jamin (land) matter? To what extent will the events in faraway places, such as in Kashmir and Ayodhya, influence voters? Or will more immediate issues resonate: Quality education, employment, and a corruption-free regime?
It is fair to say that most of the time, political parties disregard the promises they make to the people. Politicians often switch allegiances to opposing parties at the last minute. Parties with diverging ideologies form coalitions. And no matter what they promise, once in power, the old adage that power corrupts rings true.
Certain things have indeed changed in Jharkhand. Once, Adivasis would hide in the forest at the mere sight of a State authority. Maoists would issue diktats to boycott elections, which were implemented with ease across the forested hills. Local leaders and their goons stole voting booths to tamper the count. But elections today are much about the power to mobilise maximum resources. Who manages to get the most number of grassroots workers to drive voters to the booth? Who can realise the promise of murga (chicken) and daru (alcohol), Indira Awas , and contracts for building roads, health care centres and schools?
The electoral process is said to be the cornerstone of the world’s biggest democracy. But it has also often been about maintaining or gaining power, status, and money as a means to exert elite control over the political process. Perhaps, it is not surprising then that across India, one finds that those involved in electoral politics are also seen by ordinary people as doing “rajneeti”, an impure and immoral world of corruption, illicit activity and ruthlessness.
As a long-term researcher of Jharkhand, I find that discussions about democracy in India have been reduced to mere elections. But there is an alternative form of democracy that was central to some of Jharkhand’s tribal communities. And it may contain the seeds of a transformative global process of democracy that allows ordinary people the power to rule the world. It is democracy by sortition — the use of random selection to choose those who govern us.
I first saw it in December 2000, less than a month after Jharkhand became a separate state, in the Munda tribe village, where I was staying as a social anthropologist. They were selecting their new pahan and paenbharra, who presided over secular and sacred village matters, for three years.
A man with a “light shadow” was blindfolded. He carried a winnowing basket on the edge of a pole, and was possessed by the village spirit, Sarna-mai. Shaking while he walked, as if he was being led by the spirit, he wandered from house to house, before eventually settling at one. He stopped shaking, an indication that Sarna-mai has chosen that house as the next pahan. The process was repeated for the paenbharra.
A few years later, I stumbled across another selection in the neighbouring village. There, instead of wandering across the village, a man with a “light shadow” stood blindfolded in the middle of a large circle of stones. Each stone represented a household. Once possessed, the man went around round the circle until Sarna-mai settled at one of the stones: It was the house that will send the next pahan or paenbharra. A random choice, these villages seemed to be practising a form of ancient Athenian democracy — with a tribal twist.
I tried tracing the local history of the pahans and paenbharras. Although many complained that the process has become corrupt in some villages, and that women did not seem to serve the roles, I could find no other pattern to who was chosen in these two villages. Instead, I found instances of selected households passing on the responsibility to others if they felt they could not fulfil it.
The roles did carry real responsibilities. Apart from propitiating the deities to ensure the village’s safety from droughts, disease and other calamities, the pahan and paenbharra coordinated the villagers to settle their disputes. They had to feed the entire village at least three times a year, and always maintain extra supplies as a social security net for the poor. For that purpose, they were assigned special lands and seven helpers to cultivate it for the duration of their role. In the colonial land settlement records, I found that the Adivasi rebellions had forced the British to recognise the values of these local democratic traditions. Across the 114 villages of that block I stayed in, their records show the method of selecting the local leaders and the lands reserved for the roles.
Plato and Aristotle are said to have thought of sortition as more democratic than elections. For hundreds of years, until the French and American revolutions, sortition was considered a fundamental aspect of democracy. Today, numerous books document how sortition might be the most straightforward way to empower ordinary people to participate in and run their polity. They say it is a fair system, because it is inherently egalitarian as it allows everyone an equal chance to lead. As the Jharkhand election is underway, I can’t help wondering whether we’ve got democracy all wrong, and that its future lies in the revolutionary ideals of real democracy — through sortition, as is hidden in the undulating forests of eastern India.