In the sixth century B.C., we find a large number of states in northern India and many of these were not ruled by kings but formed petty republics or oligarchies. That was the age of the Buddha and therefore, the republican states of this period have been called ‘Republics of the age of the Buddha’. These were the most ancient existing states not only of India but of the world and, so India is also one of those countries which can feel proud of having experimented with the republican form of constitution in ancient times.
While the existence of republican states in India, at that time, has been accepted by all scholars, they are divided on the form of their organisation. There is no unanimity among scholars regarding the method of election and qualifications of voters. The Buddhist sources provide sufficient information regarding the then republican state of the Lichchhavis, yet the scholars are not unanimous regarding its form and constitution.
A few scholars have expressed the opinion that every adult of the population participated in the administration; some others maintain that only Kshatriyas had this right; and yet others have expressed the view that only head of a joint-family was allowed to participate in the administration. Mostly the opinions of scholars are divided on the basis of the above mentioned differences of views.
Dr Jayaswal maintains that these republics were divided into the following three categories:
a. Democracies or pure Gana, wherein the total adult-population participated in the administration;
b. Aristocracies or pure Kula, wherein only some selected families participated in the administration; and
c. Mixed aristocracies and democracies or a mixure of Kula and Gana, wherein the administration was the mixure of the two.
According to Dr Bhandarkar, the republics were basically divided into two types, viz., pure republics and Kshatriya aristocracies. Then each of them was further divided into two parts. Both the republics and the aristocracies were of two types, viz., unitary and federal. The republican states which had a unitary character were called City-republics or Nigamas, while the republics having a federal character were called State-republics or Janapadas.
Thus, opinions of scholars have differed on the basis of voting qualifications, methods of elections and areas under the administration of the republican states. However, scholars agree that the fundamental basis of all these states was republican. Thus, it can be agreed upon that all these states were republican states, though they differed from each other in matters of detail.
In certain states, only Kshatriya families were given the right to frame laws and elect the members of the executive; in certain others, the heads of joint-families were given this right; while in still others, all the male-adults of the population had this right.
Besides, in certain states, the local assemblies enjoyed wide autonomy to look after their respective local administrations and the matters concerning the entire state were decided by all the elected representatives of the local assemblies; in certain others, the powers to govern the entire state were handed over to an elected central assembly and executive.
But with all these differences among them each of them was a republican state because in each state the members of the assembly to frame laws and the executives were elected directly or indirectly by a large number of the populace. In all these states, the people who had the right to rule according to settled laws of the state used to assemble at an assembly-hall called the Santhagara, discussed all important matters concerning the state, decided on issues by a majority vote, either by open or secret ballot, if there was no unanimity of opinion and elected the members of the executive.
The members of this assembly, which was constituted of these representatives, enjoyed certain special privileges also. The members of this assembly elected the members of the executive, the Commander-in-Chief of the forces, the Treasurer, etc. They were consulted in all important matters of the state such as that of peace and war. The members of the executive were called Rajana and the head of executive was sometimes given the title of Raja (King).
In many republics the office of the Raja and also that of other executive members had become hereditary but they could be displaced by election. In certain other republics the head of the executive was not called Raja but Ganapati and he as well as other members of the executive were elected for a fixed period.
Thus, we find that these republican states differed in matters of detail but all of them followed the broad pattern of elections, permitted all respectable citizens or their groups to participate in administration and framing of laws and, thus, pursued democratic procedures as primary conditions for the governance of the state. Of course, they were not democracies in the modern sense but having them at that time was not feasible either. But whatever these states practised was sufficient to entitle them to be called Republics.
The most ancient republics in India were those of the sixth century B.C. These were as follows:
1. The Sakyas of Kapilavastu:
This was an important republican state of that time. It was situated near the border of Nepal in the Terai region of the Himalayas. Mahatma Buddha belonged to the family of the Sakyas. The republican state of the Sakyas had a federal constitution. Its head was elected and was given the title of King.
Every Sakya adult participated in its administration and all important matters were decided by the assembly of all. Attendance of a fixed number of members was necessary to complete the quorum. The Sakya republic had eighty thousand families living within its territories and had several cities as well. It was ultimately occupied by the state of Kosala near the end of the sixth century B.C.
2. The Lichchavis of Vaisali:
It was the largest and the most powerful republican state of that time. It included nine republican states of Mallas and eighteen republican states of Kasi and Kosala. Vaisali was the capital of the Lichchhavis, wherein lived nearly 42,000 families and was a beautiful and prosperous city. The head of the state was elected and was titled King.
It had another 7,707 Rajans who were, probably, the chief officers of their territories. It was such a powerful state that Ajatasatru, the ruler of the powerful state of Magadha, had to make military and diplomatic preparations for years before he could succeed in annexing it and that, too, could be achieved when his diplomacy succeeded in dividing the Lichchhavis.
3. The Mallas of Pava:
It was a republican state of the Kshatriyas, the capital of which was Pava.
4. The Mallas of Kushinara:
This was another branch of the Mallas.
5. The Koliya of Ramagrama:
This state was in the east of the state of the Sakyas and its capital was Ramagrama. The Koliyas and the Sakyas constantly fought against each other on the use of the water of the river Rohini. However, permanent peace was arranged between the two states by mediation of Mahatma Buddha.
6. The Bhagya of Sunsamagiri:
This state belonged to Aitreya Brahmanas. It was near the territories of modern Mirzapur district and its capital was Sunsamagiri.
7. The Mauryas of Piphalivana.
This state was in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. Probably, emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya of Magadha belonged to this family.
8. The Kalama of Suputa:
Its capital was Suputa.
9. The Videhas of Mithila:
It was situated near the boundary of Nepal state and its capital was Mithila.
10. The Ghvatrikas of Kollanga:
This state was also situated in the Terai-region of the Himalayas near the boundary of Nepal and its capital was Kollanga.
These were the important republican states in India at that time. Each of them drew their name from the name of its ruling family. These included both great and small states. A few of them were aristocracies, a few others were pure republicans while a few had federal-republican constitutions and were called Janapadas.
Most of them brought about their ruin because of their mutual conflicts and the rest of it was completed by the rising power of Magadha which was able to annex them all.
After the sixth century B.C. we find the existence of republican states in the north-west of India. The Greek king Alexander had to fight against them during his campaign in India.
The republican states, which fought against Alexander, were the Asmakas, the Malavas, the Kshudrakas, the Arjunayanas, the Mushikas, etc. Most of them gave serious resistance to the invader and their role in defending their country remained more creditable than their contemporary monarchical states.
After the return of Alexander, Chandra Gupta Maurya conquered all these republican states. Both he and his minister, the famous Chanakya, favoured the policy of imperialism in order to bring about political unity to India and therefore, adopted a systematic policy to annex these republican states.
But, again, after the downfall of the Maurya empire, we find the existence of republican states in Western India. Among them the kingdoms of the Malavas, the Arjunayanas, the Yaudheys and the Madrakas were quite important. Each of them played an important role in defending the country against foreign invaders. Probably, in each case the head of the state was elected and was called Maharaja or Mahasenapati.
They were defeated by the Sakas but they fought successfully against the Kushanas. The Arjunayanas were settled in the territory near modern Jaipur, the Malavas in the territory of eastern Rajputana, the Yaudheys near Bahawalpur state while the Madrakas occupied the territory between the rivers Ravi and Chinab.
Besides, the Sivis established their kingdom near Chittor; the republican state of Kuluta was in the Kullu valley; the state of Audutnbar was situated in the Kangra-valley and the districts of Gurudasapur ana Hoshiyarpur in the Panjab; the Bhadrakas had their kingdom at Sialkot; the Abhiras had their kingdom in Central India; the Sanakonikas were established near Bhilra; the Prarjunas inhabited part of Madhya Pradesh; the Kokas had their state near Sanchi; and the republican state of Kharaparikas was near district Damoh in Madhya Pradesh.
All these republican states were destroyed by the imperial Guptas who pursued the policy of extension of the empire and that of annexing the neighbouring states. A few of them were destroyed by Chandra Gupta I, most of them by Samudra Gupta and the rest of them by Chandra Gupta II.
We find no existene of republican states in India afterwards. Sometimes, the mighty Guptas have been held responsible for this tragedy. But this view is not justified. Of course, the expansionist policy of the Guptas was primarily responsible for their destruction but their internal weaknesses and mutual conflicts were also, certainly, responsible for their extinction.
Besides, the republican states had not only failed to provide political unity to India or north India but even a part of it. In contrast to them, the monarchical states had been more successful in this attempt. And, at that time or, rather at every time, India needed unity and political solidarity more than the attempts of fulfilling the ideal of republicanism.
Therefore, the ideal of an extensive and strong empire pursued by the Guptas was advantageous for India and, thus, the extinction of the republican states should not be accepted at all as a regrettable event in Indian history and no blame should be assigned to the Guptas. The extinction of the republican state was natural and advantageous to the country and it should be accepted as such.