The elections for the city council were in progress.
Gamblers were having a field day. Eating houses on Mahapatham were doing a roaring business, with almost every prominent citizen gathered outside the council halls waiting to hear the results first.
‘Sire… Of the seventy two Nigamas, most have elected their Adhyakshas unopposed. Only the guilds of Vaddhankas, Rathakaras, Odayantrikas and Karmaras (Carpentry, Car-making, Hydraulics and Ironworks) are seeing contests and even those results will be out by this evening,’ Danda Nayaka, the Commissioner of Police, reported the latest news. He was at the office of the president adjacent to the Grand Council Hall.
‘But whoever wins the guilds, it will have no bearing on the final outcome,’ Kusala Dutta was offhand, ‘our Goshti will be reelected without opposition,’ he smiled, ‘and … with me as president, your office for the next six years is safe.’
It was almost at the tip of his tongue, he was about to blurt out the disturbing information brought to him by Singana but controlled himself, and took leave from Kusala Dutta, who will be his boss for the next term also, for sure.
Now is not the time, he thought. There isn’t any proof that his son, Master Salmala, is mixed up in whatever that foreigner Milind had done. Even Milind’s part in the disappearance of a man and woman that night is purely circumstantial. If the investigation becomes public, it could lead to unnecessary rumors and speculations and may have an effect on the elections. I must warn Singana, to go slow, and not to rake up this issue before elections.
But … Where is he?
Singana was not in town and no one knew where he’s gone, he sighed.
The moment he entered the chamber that served as his office, he was surprised, rather stunned. Milind was there waiting for him.
With the election of Kusala Dutta a foregone conclusion, none of the bookies were accepting any bets on his win.
Milind’s was the only betting house offering odds, two on ten, and the townsmen were now lining up at his betting shops. Every banker thought he’s a fool. To satisfy the bankers’ guild, he had to pledge every property he had. Five Million panas, the limit was set by his bankers. Milind would lose a million if Kusala Dutta wins a second term.
But if Kusala Dutta fails to win … Milind knew he would make a fortune.
Opportunity came to him a month ago…
That was the first day of the month, the month of outdoors called Krittika. It was meant to be a quiet get-together of youngsters at an orchard not far from the city. But like with every other such gathering… celebration of a successful hunt in the neighboring woods, and the arrival of a new troupe of singers; assisted by amphorae of wine; it soon turned into a blast.
When Salmala arrived at the event driving his new car, presented by the guild of Rathakaras, a two wheeled racer made of tensile steel and spoked wheels, drawn by a pair of identical Arabian thoroughbreds; he had instantly become the heart of the festivities. It was only in the hour after midnight, Salmala staggered back to his chariot, too drunk to realize that he was in no state to drive.
Hadn’t he tried to dissuade that fool? Milind wondered presently, and that had only made him more belligerent. That night, he was lucky; he had finally decided to follow on his own horse, until Salmala reached the safety of the town.
At the edge of the town, the widest street in the empire, Mahapatham, presented itself. The street, busy during the day when the banks, guilds and council offices are open, wore a deserted look by night. It was too tempting not to race. Salmala whipped his horses to lightning speed. He had followed, urging his tired animal failing to catch up, until the chariot ahead stopped abruptly after running over a young couple loitering at that late hour.
Salmala was incoherent, still harnessed to the chariot pole, ‘help me, help me, these idiots, they came out of nowhere, are they dead, Oh lord, what a mess, please get me out of this, I’ll give whatteveryouwant, pleeeeease,’ he was gabbling interrupted by profuse sobbing.
The law is clear, eye for an eye.
His friend will be facing maximum punishment … but only if caught, fortunately there were no witnesses. It was then he thought of saving him and to have the richest man in the province in his perpetual debt.
‘Calm down my friend,’ he had said shaking him to sobriety. ‘Go home and act as if nothing has happened, I shall clear up this mess for you.’ And, he sent him home.
He made them disappear, didn’t he? He thought jubilantly, but only after getting the young couple treated for minor wounds, and enough silver and passage on a boat to live happily ever after, and of course to keep their mouths shut.
His friend is naïve to believe that he had actually killed that couple. He’ll also be weak enough to confess to the crime if confronted. He had to protect him from that very weakness, until the time is right, by assuring him that all evidence had disappeared. As a payback Salmala had promised to fund his project, floating taverns, bah, was just a cover. But he was stupid enough to fall for it.
And. Now is the time to sacrifice his friend, like a pawn in his grand game…
And, now presently, he was about to execute his next step. He threw himself at the feet of the commissioner, ‘pardon me sire for not telling you the truth earlier, now I want to turn myself in as approver.’
The grand council was in full attendance.
Election was a day away. And, it was unusual for the president to summon them at such short notice. What could be the reason for this emergency? The members waited with bated breaths. When the president entered, they searched his face for clues, but it was as composed as ever and gave nothing away. He was followed by the Danda Nayak and the foreigner with his hands tied behind.
Kusala Dutta came straight to the point. ‘It was brought to my notice by the commissioner that a crime was committed on Mahapatham on the first day of the last month. A young couple was killed by a reckless charioteer who drove under the influence of wine. We have an eye witness and an accomplice who came to us with unimpeachable evidence. So I request you members to select a jury and appoint a panel of judges from amongst the eminent jurists present here. Since the crime entails capital punishment, the council may request the court of the emperor to appoint a presiding judge,’ he paused, suddenly overcome by emotion.
He cleared his throat and began speaking again, ‘Now, to the most important point,’ he called the Danda Nayak to his side, ‘our commissioner here tells me that the crime was committed by none other than my son, Salmala Dutta. With a member of my family accused of capital crime, it is improper on my part to continue in any position of power. And so I step down from the office of the president with immediate effect … and request the council to elect an interim … and of course it is needless to say, that I will not be running for office …’ Pandemonium broke out drowning his words.
Milind was ecstatic. Salmala may rave and rant but he will confess to the crime ultimately, because he believes so. He had created an illusion like a master conjurer. To become an approver was a brilliant stroke still, buying him immunity.
The council now has to elect someone else as president, he exulted. Now he is safe and rich, richer by five million silvers, beyond his wildest imaginations.
The house was thrown into a flux. The reality of Kusala Dutta’s resignation refused to sink in. Voices were raised asking him to rescind, it was unimaginable for a change of guard at such short notice. He had been a guiding light to the city for many years and they were sure he would be there for another term. Many rushed up to the raised podium pleading him to reconsider.
But he refused saying, ‘Law is Ultimate. It protects us if we protect law.’
Law, Milind was laughing in his mind, how gullible they are, done in by law for no fault of theirs. And these fools, his eyes surveyed the members of the council running hither and thither like headless chicken. Law is a thing to be used by master manipulators like I, he swelled with pride.
A loud drumbeat at the entrance announced his entry. Who’s he?
Sudden hush fell, and all heads turned towards him.
Singana, the Pativedak, who was away from the town for the past few days, walked in with the couple, who were supposedly dead.
And behind him was the healer who had treated their wounds before they went missing.
Milind’s face turned chalk white seeing them. He gasped breathless… feeling run over by the wheel of law.
Democracy is not new to India. Contrary to the views of early western scholars, the ancient Indian rulers were hardly despotic. Literary sources are abounding with names and images of democratic institutions that flourished at various levels of civic life. Inscriptional evidence at Amaravati corroborates the presence of an advanced system of city administration with a supreme council at the top called variously as Vandanāma Ghōṣṭi or Siṃha Ghōṣṭi. This supreme Ghōṣṭi was elected by an electoral college consisting of Nigamas, in turn elected by Śrēṇis, guilds looking after various functions of civic life.
All economic and mercantile activities were monitored and promoted by professional guilds which looked after stakeholder interests and collection of taxes, and strict controls were imposed on malpractices in trade and standards of produce. An advanced banking system sustained the enterprise with dependable mechanisms in place, for finance, insurance and trade guarantees.
Civic officials were appointed by these Ghōṣṭis and Nigama Sabhas under the supervision of Nagala Vyavahārika an equivalent of Mayor. A Sheriff or Commissioner of Police called variously as Danḍa Nāyaka or Mahātalavara looked after Law and Order. Crime investigation teams under Pativēdakas assisted him. Sunkapālas assisted by Karaṇams looked after collection of taxes. There were names for Inspectors of factories, weights and measures, markets and warehouses; the list seems endless.
The civil disputes were usually dealt with by the guilds and the sides have the right of appeal to higher courts appointed by the Nigama Sabhas and Ghōṣṭis. There are instances of unresolved disputes taken to the provincial courts and ultimately to the emperor himself. Likewise serious criminal offences were dealt with by trial courts appointed by the councils. A jury of common citizens and a body of jurists constituted these trial courts. In case of capital punishments the approval of the king was sought and obtained. In certain critical cases these courts were presided over by judges appointed by the king.