FACT CHECK: Is India The World’s Oldest Democracy?
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris claimed that “India is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, democracy in the world.”
Experts believe that North India was once home to a number of local and regional tribes that practiced a republican form of government, but on a national scale, India did not hold a democratic election until 1951. The country was under British crown rule from 1858 until it achieved independence in 1947.
Harris was discussing her new book, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” when her interviewer, Washington Post journalist Jonathan Capehart, asked her, “How has being half Indian-American shaped your identity and political views?”
Harris’ mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, emigrated from India in the 1960s.
“I was born who I am, and I would say that the influence – the Indian influence on my life is really, a lot of it is based on what I described in terms of the experiences that I had in India,” Harris explained. “The family that I come from was very active. And I know that about – you know, India is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, democracy in the world, and so the idea of debating and discussing what it means to be a democracy.”
India is neither one of the oldest nor the oldest democracy in the world.
In 1947, India became free of British crown rule. In 1949, the country adopted a constitution that created a democratic republic. The first democratic general elections in India were held in 1951-1952.
Academics believe there were clans in ancient India – particularly in the North – that governed themselves as republics. “In the period before CE 400, ancient India was home to a variety of self-governing politics using quasi-democratic institutions comparable with those of the Greek city-states of the same era,” historian Steven Muhlberger writes in the “Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy.”
However, these were local tribes and regional confederacies, and democracy would not come about on a national scale until far later.
The republics of ancient India, like those of ancient Greece, were not what most would call democracy in the modern sense. “It has often been claimed in justifying democracy in India that India has had a long tradition of some kind of self-government at the rural level through such institutions as the panchayat – literally an assembly of five people (men and from the powerful castes),” Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago told The Daily Caller.
A privileged group of people were eligible to participate in assemblies and councils, but concepts of universal suffrage were absent.
“It can be at once conceded that the gana states of the Yaudheyas and the Sakyas, the Malavas and the Lichchavis were not democracies or republics in the sense in which we understand these words today,” wrote historian Anant Sadashiv Altekar in the book “State and Government in Ancient India.” “Supreme and ultimate power did not lie vested in the whole body of adult citizens, as is the case with most of the well developed modern democracies.”
By the time India instituted a national democracy, around two dozen other countries had already formed democratic governments. Nearly six in 10 governments are now democracies, according to Pew Research Center.
Several countries compete for the title of the world’s oldest democracy. The U.S. became a constitutional republic in the 1780s. The Isle of Man claims to be home to the oldest continuous parliament in the world. San Marino dates its republic back to A.D. 301.
India is, in fact, the world’s largest democracy, with a population of 1.3 billion. India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2024.
“If by democracy, one means a political system where elections are the way leaders are selected, then India is the world largest (in the terms of population) but not the oldest democracy,” Chakrabarty told TheDC.