“I loosen with my blood my servitude’s seal.
And shake from my aching neck the oppressor’s knees
Only to seat new tyrants on my back.”
– Sri Aurobindo in Savitri
The recent events in the Middle East and “revolutions” in other parts of the world indicate that people will not tolerate autocrats any more. An irresistible thirst for freedom is sweeping over oppressed people all over the world. Democracy, in some form or another has come to stay as a major and dominant political force of the future world. Sri Aurobindo, in an article written somewhere in 1917, described “the democratic conception of the right of all individuals as members of the society to full life and full development of which they are individually capable” as one of the “idea-forces” of the future.
But, Arab spring is fading into a hot oppressive summer, where the old oppressors seem to be coming back in strength and may rule again openly in front or behind the scene. Most of the democratic aspirations of people will face the same fate, in Middle East or elsewhere in the world, if certain conditions, inner and outer, are not fulfilled. Sri Aurobindo, in the passage we have quoted earlier, gives a clue to the nature of these conditions. They are outwardly, opportunities and institutions for the “full life and full development” of the individual, and inwardly a corresponding temperament or mindset in people which can make use of these opportunities.
For a successful, sustained and effective democracy, three factors or values have to be built into the communal life of people. The first is individual liberty, which means not merely the freedom to vote, but the freedom to think, express, disagree, protest, debate, initiate, create, decide, achieve, experiment, organize, make mistakes and learn. The second is equity or distributive justice, which means not merely equal opportunities but a conscious attempt towards an equitable distribution or sharing of wealth, power, knowledge, resources, culture, and the fruits of development among people. The third is self-governing community, which means full and active participation of people in a community in their own governance, especially in decision-making. These are ideals which can’t be realized in their fullness in the short-term. But, if democracy has to survive in a community or a nation, a certain minimum of opportunities, institutions and constitutional or legal safeguards have to be there to protect, express or manifest these values. The main problem in the Middle East and many countries is that these minimum requirements are not there and the leadership in these regions of the world are not willing to create them.
There is another factor which comes from history. Some nations or continents are more receptive to democracy because of their historical and civilisational roots. For example in ancient Greece, which is the cradle of Western civilization, the communal mind made more or less successful experiments in democracy. Similarly ancient Indian mind made its own experiments in democracy which is different from that of the West. Many western scholars regard ancient Greece as the source of modern democracy and view ancient Indian polity as part of “oriental despotism”. But these western pundits were not aware that in ancient India there were republics ‘ghanas’ which evolved their own unique democratic systems of governments and other popular or representative institutions like village council, metropolitan council and general assembly which were as powerful as the king. And the self-governing community is an important part of ancient Indian polity. The village panchayat, commercial guilds and religious associations are such communities in ancient India, which evolved their own systems of self-government, and the central government or the king never interfered in their affairs. Such historical experiences of democracy create what is called in ancient Indian psychology as Samskaras, which means psychological impressions of past experiences in the subconscious mind. India and many nations in the West have such favourable samskaras of democracy which augurs well for the future of democracy in these nations. But in most of the nations where we are witnessing dissent or upheaval, there is a lack of such democratic samskaras.
The main point I am trying to convey here in this article is that a mere change of government brought about by mass uprisings cannot lead to any lasting or positive change in society. Freedom and democracy can’t be built by instant revolutions. The flower of democracy cannot spring and survive if the spirit and values of democracy are not rooted in the mind and life of the nation. A lasting social and political change which brings freedom, justice, wellbeing, fulfillment and progress to people can come only through a sincere, sustained and long term commitment to these aims – and the three factors or values which we have mentioned earlier; it requires the right combination of education which inculcates these aims and values in the mind and heart of people and effective policies, institutions, systems and processes which help to express them in the outer life. Without this firm and sincere commitment to the values of freedom, mere change of government will only lead to the replacement of the old oppressors with new tyrants.