My friend claims that India had democracy before the British colonized it. I am skeptical and have failed to find any references to democracy in India within the last thousand years. I found one weak reference to democracy in 600 BC but that hardly counts as pre-British. Was democracy present in India when British colonization began?
Was democracy present in India when British colonization began?
Democracy, in some fashion, has appeared in India throughout its history. However, just prior to the British arrival in India; representative democracy was not being practiced in regards to government. Though the following is largely a depiction of South Asia the text and links represent the governments either within or surrounding India during the time period just before the British East India Company entered the picture.
The Vijayanagara Empire did display tiers of administration within their Government, however, still being ruled by a king and failing to provide representation their government is not representative of a democracy.
The Ahom Kingdom did form councils but it does not seem to be representative of the people but rather current royalty.
The Sikh Empire probably came closest in terms of me finding some sort of democracy. A British observers decried the situation as a "dangerous military democracy". British representatives and visitors in the Punjab described the regiments as preserving "puritanical" order internally, but also as being in a perpetual state of mutiny or rebellion against the central Durbar. The reason this was not mentioned above is that it obviously includes a touch of British (1839) influence and though a "democracy" is mentioned this was at the same time a rapid sucsession of kings were in power.
In all three notable cases, I came to the conclusion that the system of government in place was not representative of "the people". It has been noted that, throughout history, not all democracies have truly represented "the people". In regards to India and South Asia the tiers/councils/military at the time were simply representative of too few people, or rather a very select group of people (Royalty or military). This along with the implementation of sole rulers made it difficult to justify saying democracy was in affect prior to British colonization.
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First of all, reading history depends strongly on what glasses you put on when you do so. The level of satisfaction regarding the answer to your question will therefore depend very strongly on what you think of when you say "democracy". This is true when you look at a polity in the past as well as the present: in order to compare before with after, you need to ask yourself whether there is any proper democracy today in India or elsewhere in the world, because it is what your question implies. Some may be satisfied with the self-appellation of a state, say The Democratic Republic of Congo, to conclude that state is a democracy. (n.b. I am not making any critical judgment of Congo here, I'm just using the name as an example.) So you need to consider what criteria will define a conclusive democracy: is it an election process, is it representativity, is it freedom and civil rights?
Second, Indian history is a real headache to South Asian students like myself, because the further you go back in time, especially before the Sultanates (app. 1200 AD) there is too little documentation to allow one to say much about what really happened. Some chunks of Indian history (e.g. the Kushanas) are reconstructed from displaced mints and which, if you don't take it at face value (notice the pun), are utter speculations.
Some of the earliest evidences of civilisation in South Asia (here I take the word "India" to its broader sense) is what we call the Indus civilisation, about which there is little to say regarding the political system, because there is really no literature to comment what happened then. Another old source are the Vedās, which are more a liturgy than anything and give very little insight on the social and political structure of the society from which it emerged. But if you consider the varṇās (basic castes) described in these texts, then you can already reduce the chances of there being democracy, because the varṇa-system is inherently a hierarchical and claiming the inequality among individuals, based on their respective birth. The Vedās however, are not representative of South Asia (they really just represent themselves). Yet we can find the following:
At a later stage (let's say 600 BC, again there is a lot of debate regarding early history of India and dating), we find societies which are again coined "republics":
The Mahajanapadas were subsumed into the Magadhan empire and later the Mauryan empire. The imperialistic nature of these societies also is subject to debates: to what extent did the emperors really subdued the (vague) area they supposedly control? Perhaps control over the major trade routes and the acquiescence of subordinate polities would have been enough to allow such empires to exist. This does not say much about the internal structure of subordinate states, in which some form of democracy could have existed (mere speculation).
An eminent source of information about politics and statecraft in early Indian history is the Arthashāstra, attributed to Kauṭaliya, which may have worked at the court of Chandragupta Mauriya (founder of the Mauriya empire). I remember (pardon my chaos and short term memory, but I can't find quotes exactly to corroborate what I am saying here) this source mentioning the existence of republics, but the document mostly reflect kingship and aristocracy, more than anything really. Kulke and Rothermund warn though:
After that, really, it is hard to find the word republic or democracy in any source on history of India. It does not mean that voting did not exist: see answers provided by others. And the same is true regarding civil liberties. Under the Mughal rule for instance, especially during the reign of Akbar, who had a reputation for being liberal, we find that the various people under his rule had a many freedoms (but again that depends which source you read, that's the crux of politics). One example is the parallel existence of several codes of law, which reflected the normative differences of the population marked by its religious diversity. This said however, are those criteria sufficient to for you to be convinced those were democratic processes? Suppose there is an election system in which women cannot express their vote, can you really talk about representativity and democracy? Again, that depends on what you expect a democracy to look like.
There is a lot of unknown in Indian history. If you ask me, the chance to find a democratic structure among smaller polities such as tribes, is greater, because of direct overview on political processes and peer pressure. But,as with everything, size doesn't matter and small tribes are not necessarily democratic as many democratic studies would show. There are no ethnographic studies before the British intervention in India, so then we're caught in a loop and we are left with only speculations to answer your question.
I'm going to repeat myself, but the most important part, for me, is what one expects to find when looking for "democracy". If the speculation that a small tribe may have engaged representatively with its members during its political processes, then you may be happily concluding that democracies may have existed in India before the British Raj. If however, you are looking at a proper Western-styled democracy with elections and assemblies, you might find it harder to come to this conclusion.
During the period of Raja Raja Chola 1110 AD at south india, People used to select the village leaders by voting. Chola Government
Megasthenes (ca. 350 – 290 BC) in his "Indica" mentions democracy several times.
It is believed that by name Dionysus he means Shiva or Indra.
It is believed that he calls Krishna by the name Herakles.
I definitely remembered there were several
Kambojas was originated from a ksatryia tribe, and it's interesting that many of the ancient republics in Indian history were usually ksatriya in origin.
Also interesting to note is that the republican tradition of the Kambojas people continue even under the Mauryan empire.