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Democracy as a way of life

“The primal principle of Democracy is the worth and dignity of the individual” - Edward Bellamy

Every human being is an embodiment of an ideal, and has a mission to perform in life. As long as he keeps to that ideal, that person prospers spiritually, socially and economically.

Wishful thinking – the longing to change the present world's political system into a different and better future – is often ridiculed, but it is a regular feature of the human condition. Pursuing ideals is a natural human endevour down the ages.

Vaishali, the fountain of democracy in India.

About 2,600 years ago the Greeks laid claim to an invention, that now ranks among the most important inventions of mankind. Born of resistance to tyranny, the invention was a potent form of wishful thinking that still appeals to the people all over the world. The Greeks called it demokratia (Democracy).

A similar idea flourished in the Eastern part of the world in Bihar, India. Bihar's past provides the background to the history of ancient India.

Vaishali is one of the prominent places connected with India's past. This place which is in Bihar was the capital of the Lichhavi and Vajji Republic, and a well-known centre of republican or democratic activities.

Administration

There was a time when no king ruled this part of the country and more than 7,000 representatives of the people carried on the work of administration.

The administration of justice here was so good that the Buddha himself paid it a handsome tribute.

Vaishali was without doubt the fountain – head of democracy at the time. Democratic ideas were evaluated and practised by Westerners and Easterners, a long time ago. The idea of democracy is not new to the non-western world.

One finds nowadays scepticism about the applicability of democracy to modern conditions. Some consider it too outdated, and hence unfit, for the Space Age.

Their doubt is based on the fact that democratic ideas and institutions were created in – and presumably for – a world radically different from today.

It is questioned whether a political system evolved by pre-industrial people, earth bound and primitive in their technology, can have much meaning for an urban centered high energy society so scientifically advanced that it is capable of instant global communication and interplanetary travel.

Commitment

The idea of democracy to which the people a long time ago made a historic commitment, as an ideal to be attained and as a system to be instituted, faces hard challenges in the modern world.

Scepticism about the future of democracy in the modern world is understandable.

It can be explained at least on two grounds. In the first place, we are dealing here with a political system that is comparatively new in the history of mankind.

Even though democracy was practised in Greece 2,600 years ago, and in a few scattered communities thereafter, it has achieved wide recognition only in our own times.

The word ‘democracy’ acquired universal currency only in the 20th century. Until recently, the people of the world, with a few rare exceptions, had not been exposed to democratic practices, appeals, or possibilities.

It leads us to the second reason for doubt about democracy and for its current failure in much of the developing countries. However much simple democracy may appear on the surface, it is actually a system of extreme intricacy, intellectually and practically.

Experience

To the young and untrained nations, the experience of trying out democracy can be devastating. For, in its totality the democratic system – requiring patience, and being based upon persuasion and law rather than brute force – presents a picture of bewildering intricacy that only the most mature try to manage, but those who understand it know that it is one of the noble political inventions of mankind.

There is no substitute for it if one wants to avoid cruelty and instability, and its very difficulties offer a challenge worthy of civilised man.

The modern form of democracy took shape in the 16th century.

It is necessary to begin with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This was beyond doubt the first great revolution in the Western world. Like all genuine revolutions in the Western world, it had a continuing and ever-widening impact.

It did more than merely attack the centralised authority and defy the dogmatism of the Church of Rome in religious affairs. It affected all affairs.

The Reformation broke the mould of ancient certitudes and, where it succeeded (as in England, Scotland, and Northern Europe), it unleashed human energies for challenge and inquiry in all fields, including the political.

In this sense, the Reformation must be regarded as a gigantic step towards freedom.

Especially, the greatest of all freedoms, that of the mind, one of the indispensable ingredients of democracy.

Development

In regard to the development of democracy, the influence of protestantism was political and psychological, or one might say psycho political, in that it created an atmosphere for the questioning of long-held verities and assertion of individual judgement in all matters.

For the essence of the reformation idea was the rejection of absolute authority, first in church and then in State.

Repudiation of this absolutism, which in monarchical Europe was frequently a combined one, was the first move on the road to self-government and ultimately democracy.

Democracy, is a system over which the citizens exercise control and wish they can use for themselves. It is their government, as de Tocqueville stressed.

The political institutions of democracy call for public participation, uncoerced voting, periodic elections of the law makers and most important officers, and regular terms of office fixed by law.

All of this adds up to a mechanism that, in the final sense, means that the people govern, or feel that they govern.

Structurally, these elements give democracy a steely strength. Psychologically, the mechanism of democracy has the effect of reducing actual or potential discontent to a reasonably safe minimum.

In non-democratic societies, where the people have no legal outlet for their grievances and frustrations, they sooner or later resort to violence.

They have no other alternative. Democracy requires patience, prudence, compassion and goodwill. John B. Buchan, in his ‘The pilgrim's Way’ quotes “Democracy ... is primarily a spiritual testament, from which certain political and economic orders naturally follow ... It has two main characteristics.

The first is that the ordinary man believes in himself and in his ability, along with his fellows, to govern his country... The second is the belief of the worth of every human soul – the worth, not the quality.”

And that sums up the essence of democracy.

 

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