Sortition in tribal democracy

Alpa Shah writes in the Hindustan Times:

The electoral process is said to be the cornerstone of the world’s biggest democracy. But it has also often been about maintaining or gaining power, status, and money as a means to exert elite control over the political process. Perhaps, it is not surprising then that across India, one finds that those involved in electoral politics are also seen by ordinary people as doing “rajneeti”, an impure and immoral world of corruption, illicit activity and ruthlessness.

As a long-term researcher of Jharkhand, I find that discussions about democracy in India have been reduced to mere elections. But there is an alternative form of democracy that was central to some of Jharkhand’s tribal communities. And it may contain the seeds of a transformative global process of democracy that allows ordinary people the power to rule the world. It is democracy by sortition — the use of random selection to choose those who govern us.

I first saw it in December 2000, less than a month after Jharkhand became a separate state, in the Munda tribe village, where I was staying as a social anthropologist. They were selecting their new pahan and paenbharra, who presided over secular and sacred village matters, for three years.

A man with a “light shadow” was blindfolded. He carried a winnowing basket on the edge of a pole, and was possessed by the village spirit, Sarna-mai. Shaking while he walked, as if he was being led by the spirit, he wandered from house to house, before eventually settling at one. He stopped shaking, an indication that Sarna-mai has chosen that house as the next pahan. The process was repeated for the paenbharra.

A few years later, I stumbled across another selection in the neighbouring village. There, instead of wandering across the village, a man with a “light shadow” stood blindfolded in the middle of a large circle of stones. Each stone represented a household. Once possessed, the man went around round the circle until Sarna-mai settled at one of the stones: It was the house that will send the next pahan or paenbharra. A random choice, these villages seemed to be practising a form of ancient Athenian democracy — with a tribal twist.

The roles did carry real responsibilities. Apart from propitiating the deities to ensure the village’s safety from droughts, disease and other calamities, the pahan and paenbharra coordinated the villagers to settle their disputes. They had to feed the entire village at least three times a year, and always maintain extra supplies as a social security net for the poor. For that purpose, they were assigned special lands and seven helpers to cultivate it for the duration of their role. In the colonial land settlement records, I found that the Adivasi rebellions had forced the British to recognise the values of these local democratic traditions. Across the 114 villages of that block I stayed in, their records show the method of selecting the local leaders and the lands reserved for the roles.

I can’t help wondering whether we’ve got democracy all wrong, and that its future lies in the revolutionary ideals of real democracy — through sortition, as is hidden in the undulating forests of eastern India.

4 Responses

  1. I’ve never been much of a fan of the random selection of individual officeholders. It’s democratic in a nihilistic kind of way – but it seems to me that the challenge is a dual one – of democratic fairness and the merit of that democratic decision.

    Without some vision of the need for choices to be made on their merits, I don’t think sortition will get far. After all, in addition to our belief that sortition is fair, participants on this site think that sortition makes better decisions. Choosing an officeholder at random doesn’t even try to choose the best person.


  2. Among the many ways to address this is – at least in a large society – to have the pool from which selections are made be composed of “qualified” people, where the qualifications have been settled on by an expert-advised randomly selected citizen assembly. Anyone who qualifies according to those criteria can apply or be proposed and thus entered in the pool from which an appointee (or even a group of candidates) is randomly selected. To the extent the intent of sortition in a particular case is primarily to undermine the ability of the process to be manipulated, such an approach serves that purpose while maintaining the “qualifications” of the resulting officeholder. In any case, in virtually all possible approaches (most notably our current processes for selection), there is no “best” person; there are only (at most) qualified or unqualified people.


  3. The first comment is by me for the record. For some reason it says ‘anonymous’. Obviously I somehow wasn’t properly signed in.

    Nicholas Gruen


  4. […] SHAH – Sortition in tribal democracy (2020) […]


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