A moment for Indian liberalism

Liberalism is probably more challenged in India today than in any other democracy in the world. Why?

  • First, conservative communities appear to have gained untrammelled power in recent times. Self-proclaimed custodians of caste and religion are perpetually breathing down the necks of young men and women, dictating who they must meet, converse with, befriend and marry, what they should eat, wear, watch or read, whether or not they can use mobile phones, and even where they can go and when. By encroaching on the most intimate relationships of love and friendship, interfering in matters of pleasure or habit, they suffocate personal freedoms and violate the very basic norms of individual choice.
  • Second, people find it increasingly difficult to express themselves freely. A public culture of hurt sentiment, violated collective honour, offence and alleged humiliation and the social and political license to react to it in whatever brutal manner possible have created such a climate of fear that creative artists, intellectuals and even ordinary persons in public conversations hesitate to say what comes to their mind and look over their shoulder to see if big daddy is watching. The threat of social intimidation and legal harassment makes public expression so expensive that people would rather stay silent or remain aloof from public life.
  • Third, large corporations and the government have access to virtually every detail about us, making us vulnerable and insecure. Methods of surveillance become more opaque, even as they attempt to make us transparent against our will. The minutest details of one’s private and intimate life are available today to large, powerful organisations at the press of a button. Is it not frightening that to call or visit friends and family, we must undergo CCTV cameras, finger printing and face recognition?
  • Fourth, confidence in the rule of law is badly shaken. Is there any assurance that law will be enforced evenhandedly, indeed, that it will be enforced at all? On the contrary, we often fear excesses by official agents at every level of government, worry that power will be abused, that some person in charge of law and order will behave lawlessly, even brutally.

Freedom to say ‘no’

What do the power of the state, the community, individual choice and expression have to do with liberalism?


The term ‘liberalism’ has come to mean different things to different people and is associated with:

  • (a) demands for greater overall equality,
  • (b) defence of individual reason and autonomy,
  • (c) a tool against moral conservatism,
  • (d) cosmopolitanism and humanism, and (e) free markets. Overused, it suffers from what happens routinely to words with wide currency: it generates less light, more heat, and even greater cacophony. Yet, a moment’s reflection shows that one value has always lain at its heart: the freedom of an individual to say no; to say that enough is enough and that something ominously coming towards me up close, stalking me, is no longer bearable and must be stopped; that there is a little world of my own, my private universe, that no one may enter if I do not give permission, and a place exists in public for me too that must not be impeded as long as others are not harmed. In my largely private but also partly public world, I must live without fear or favour.

One such bulwark against habitual and pervasive acts of cruel interference is the dismantling of private armies commanded by powerful custodians of communities and the creation instead of an impartial public power (the state) governed minimally by the rule of law — a law that protects my mini-kingdom, where I am sovereign — and that liberates me from fear itself. But then the same rule of law must also shield me from arbitrary, unexpected and unnecessary acts of state coercion. Whatever else liberalism might come to have mean, it stands for personal freedoms in the face of intrusion by every form of organised power. Indeed, classical liberalism in western societies emerged precisely in response to persistent attempts to throttle the then bourgeoning assertions of individual freedom by oppressive communities, a meddlesome church, and abusive state power.

  • In this minimal sense, the term ‘liberal’ no longer has a restricted spatial or temporal application.
  • It has a much wider usage and has resonated in India with acts of renunciatory Brahmins, with movements led by the Buddha and Mahavira, by the early Lingayats, by those inspired by Nanak, Kabir, Akka Mahadevi and Mira as well as Phule and Ambedkar. This ‘thin’ liberalism has nothing uniquely western about it. Indeed, there are modern liberalisms and ancient ones, and just as there have been liberalisms in the past, there will be liberalisms in future.
  • The message in all these is common, clear and simple: don’t force anything down anyone’s throat, stop the deliberate infliction of physical or emotional pain on individuals, especially upon a weaker person, no matter how valuable you believe your cause to be.

An inevitable revolt

If the current climate of oppression or violent threats continues, a revolt against the current set-up will invariably arise. Young, self-reflective men and especially women facing continual restrictions, Dalits, lower Other Backward Classes, poor Muslims, people from smaller towns and rural areas will seize the moment, demanding greater opportunity to exercise individual choice and freedom of expression. Is a new liberalism, different from the one articulated by traditional, metropolitan English-speaking elites, shaped profoundly by Indian cultural conditions, just round the corner?


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