Liberalism is distinguished by its focus on the primacy of the individual in all spheres of human life—political, economic, and social. A culture as old as India’s would obviously have a strand of thought that is labeled today as liberalism or libertarianism. India’s liberalism has evolved through stages that first emphasized earthly life and materialism, then social reforms and political independence, and now economic and social freedom. However, despite the general recognition of the role of liberalisation in improving the standard of living for millions in India, many feel that these ideas and policies were unnecessary, alien to Indian thinking, and imposed by the west.
The Indian liberal space with its long history, old defenders and emerging advocates is as diverse and wide ranging as the liberal political spectrum. Some of the names that come to mind immediately are Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833, religious, social, and educational reformer, and humanitarian, known as the “Maker of Modern India”), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915, pioneering social and political leader during the Indian Independence movement, and mentor for later leaders such as Gandhi & Jinnah), B R Ambedkar (1891-1956, campaigned against social discrimination, and was Independent India’s first law minister and principal architect of the Constitution of India), C Rajagopalachari (1878-1972, independence activist and politician, was the last Governor-General of India, and founded the Swatantra Party), Minoo Masani (1905-1998, leading figure in the Swatantra party, and founding member of the Indian Liberal Group), Nani Palkhivala (1920-2002, jurist and economist, defender of constitutional liberties and champion of human rights), B R Shenoy (1905-1978, classical liberal economist, was president of the Indian Economic Association and a member of the Mont Pelerin Society), A D Shroff (1899-1965, eminent industrialist, banker and economist, co-founded the Forum of Free Enterprise in India), D R Pendse (1930-, economist, former advisor to Tata, India’s leading industrial company) and others.
Then there are also organisations like Swatantra Party (founded-1959, defunct Indian conservative political party, created in reaction to increasing socialist and statist tendencies of Indian politics), The Indian Libertarian (founded Pre-independence, defunct Indian magazine featuring commentary from leading liberals of the day), Freedom First (founded-1952, Liberal Monthly magazine now in its 60th year of publication), Indian Liberal Group (founded-1965, think tank promoting the liberal point of view on issues of the day and educating the public on the concept of liberalism), and others that took a more liberal approach to their world view.
While the space includes thinkers and scholars with the conscious liberal tag, there are countless others whose writings could find resonance with some or all the core liberal values. Bankimchandra Chattapadhyay (1838-1884, Bengali writer and journalist) on equality, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941, Bengali polymath and India’s first Nobel Laureate) on nationalism and freedom of expression, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948: preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India) on the minimal state and Swaraj (self governance), Osho (1931-1990: spiritual guru and mystic) on virtues of capitalism, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902: spiritual leader) on wealth creation, and others; their writings and ideas spanned the history of Indian liberalism, its components-economic and social policy and liberal politics. All of them offered a potentially different lens to look at age-old questions on the role of the state, society, and markets in India. However, the writings of these individuals and organisations are currently dispersed and gathering dust, and run the risk of getting lost with the passage of time.
Yet all these sustained liberal attempts were inadequate given the scale of the problem. Nonetheless, India did begin on the path of liberalisation in 1991 when faced with a severe foreign-exchange crisis by opening up international trade and abolishing the license-permit raj. The real challenge now lies in further liberalisation of the domestic sector—the agenda set out by Professor Shenoy decades ago. The little progress on this second phase of reforms is clear indication of the lack of understanding on the part of the political and intellectual leadership of the broader framework of policies and institutions that are required to harmonize personal interest with public interest.
New liberal organisations have come up in the 1990s to bolster the efforts of the earlier ones. The Association of Youth for a Better India in Mumbai (AYBI), Loksatta in Hyderabad, Liberty Institute in New Delhi, Indian Liberal Group in Mumbai (ILG), Students for Liberty Chapters across the country, and Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi (CCS). Despite multi-pronged strategies in advancing liberty among various stakeholders that range from policy and opinion makers, media and development leaders to the highly indoctrinated youth the common notion, despite our long history with liberalism still remains that it’s an idea generated from the west.
It is therefore crucial to preserve India’s history with liberalism; to ensure that every Indian, today and tomorrow, are familiar with our own national champions of liberty; that their ideas are more widely known and accepted so that India can avoid repeating her mistakes and forge a more successful path going forward. Our Indian Liberals project is an effort to achieve this objective.
IndianLiberals.in is a digital archive of Indian Liberal works in English and regional languages. The following will serve as guidelines on what will qualify for inclusion as part of the archives—