October 12, 2008ArthashastraconstitutionalismculturehistorymoralityPublic Policyrule of lawstatecraft

Reading the Arthashastra: The rule of law

The science of punishment and the science of government

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The concept of dandaniti, variously translated as the science of punishment, the science of chastisement, and in Dr Shamasastry’s translation, even as the science of government may be better understood to be the imposition of the rule of law. Dandaniti is central to Rajdharma—the morality of governance—and is discussed at length in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya suggests why and how the rule of law ought to be applied.

That sceptre on which the well-being and progress of the sciences of Anvikshaki, the triple Vedas, and Varta depend is known as Danda (punishment). That which treats of Danda is the law of punishment or science of government (dandaniti).

It is a means to make acquisitions, to keep them secure, to improve them, and to distribute among the deserved the profits of improvement. It is on this science of government that the course of the progress of the world depends.

Hence,” says my teacher, whoever is desirous of the progress of the world shall ever hold the sceptre raised (udyatadanda). Never can there be a better instrument than the sceptre to bring people under control.”

No,” says Kautilya; for whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment (danda) when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders.

But when the law of punishment is kept in abeyance, it gives rise to such disorder as is implied in the proverb of fishes (matsyanyayamudbhavayati); for in the absence of a magistrate (dandadharabhave), the strong will swallow the weak; but under his protection, the weak resist the strong. [Arthashastra I:4]In other words, Kautilya eschews a harsh imposition of punishments in favour of their measured but efficient use.

Now it is not known whether Ravikiran Rao referred to fourth chapter of Book I of the Arthashastra but his article on counter-terrorism policy in this month’s Pragati but some of his arguments reflect the Kautilyan view—especially the need to have a co-operative citizenry.

Beyond terrorism, there is abundant evidence that the modern Indian state is failing in its practice of dandaniti. In this week’s Economic & Political Weekly, Andre Béteille has an excellent essay on constitutional morality in India, where he says that the people of India are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without discarding the one or the other”. When even the chiefs of India’s famously disciplined armed forces brazenly disobey orders issued by constitutional authority, and internal security is almost entirely cast in the framework of competitive communalism, you know that the pendulum is well into the populism phase. A swing back towards constitutionalism is way overdue.

Even if Prof Béteille is right and endless oscillations are destiny, the modern day dandaniti should aim to keep their amplitudes small.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.



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