The Indus Valley Civilization - Cradle of Democracy?

By Naqvi, Syed A. | UNESCO Courier, February 1993 | Go to article overview

The Indus Valley Civilization - Cradle of Democracy?


Naqvi, Syed A., UNESCO Courier


IN all the highly developed civilizations of the past--Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, Anatolia, China--the pervasive influence of an imperial authority can be felt, providing patronage for the arts and directing the evolution of society. A close examination of the archaeological discoveries made in the Indus Valley seems to belie the presence of such an imperial authority in this civilization, which flourished some 5,000 years ago and covered almost twice the area of the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley combined. Yet although it seems to have lacked an authoritarian regime, the Indus civilization had a well-disciplined way of life, civic controls and an organizational system which could only have stemmed from the kind of "rule by the people" that was exercised in some Greek city-states some 2,000 years later. Did Greece give birth to democracy, or did Greece simply follow a practice developed earlier?

The fact that the Indus Valley script has not yet been deciphered is certainly a handicap to attempts to draw any final conclusions, but there is a vast array of material evidence available to help archaeologists, social scientists and other scholars to analyse the social and administrative structure of this civilization. In spite of the absence of grandiose structures acting as centres of authority such as forts, palaces or great temples, all the discoveries made so far suggest that the rule of law extended over an area measuring roughly 1,600 kilometres from north to south and more than 800 kilometres from east to west.

The main argument in support of this thesis is the existence of well-established norms and standards which would have required the consensus of the people if they had not been imposed by an authoritarian regime. It is impossible to ignore the evidence furnished by the perfect planning of the great city of Moenjodaro and the use in its construction of standard-size burnt bricks 27.94 cm long, 13.96 cm wide and 5.71 cm thick. Most of the houses had a standard layout and size, and only special structures, possibly public buildings, were treated differently within the framework of a city plan which also provided for separate residential and commercial areas. In the two major cities of Moenjodaro and Harappa, which are about 600 kilometres apart, the gridiron pattern of street layout uncovered by archaeological excavations shows how much consideration was given to the safety and security of the residents and suggests the existence of a highly developed and well-monitored civic control system. …

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