Ancient Indians were not known to have a great sense of history. Historians have had to rely a lot on accounts by foreign travellers and foreign sources to reconstruct our history. And all such sources, including Megasethenes, Fa-hsien and many medieval Arab travellers, have uniformly found that Indians were remarkably law abiding and that crime was very rare.
Most historians including A.L. Basham and recent writers like Abraham Eraly have treated such rosy accounts with suspicion merely because prescriptions in legal literature, largely comprising of the Smritis, reflected a more insecure and harsher society. This could either show that these foreign travellers were all fanciful in their writings on ancient India or that these ‘sacred’ texts played a very minimal role in governing the Hindu way of life. Apart from the absurdity of the suggestion that a traveller would lie in praise of a foreign land, the later scenario appears more probable because of another very interesting facet of ancient Hindu society- minimal State interference in the daily life of a citizen.
Therefore there was no overarching government administering a code of laws or enforcing punishments to maintain law and order and prevent crimes. The codes of Manu, Katyayana or Narada were largely irrelevant to the common Hindu. There appears to have been a latent realisation that the State and its laws are inherently incapable of creating a crime-free society and the onus for this has to rest more locally; perhaps even on the individual. And it is this realisation that has to dawn in today’s India. The realisation that ’12000 plus police stations in some 7 lakh towns and villages cannot regulate over 110 crore people’.
Prof. Werner Menski, in his seminal work on Hindu Law (Hindu Law: Beyond Tradition and Modernity, Oxford University Press, 2003), explains the Hindu view of dealing with crimes most accurately. He writes that despite the recognition of fall in human values from the golden...
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