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The word liberal is commonly thrown around, sometimes with derogatory intentions. The meaning of the term is lost and far from being understood for what it actually means. In this piece, I’ll take you on a quick journey into the past and explore the origins of liberal thought (liberalism), its entry into India’s political arena, and the path it’s currently on. 

In the simplest of terms, liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on individual liberty, equality before the law and consent of the governed. 

The age of colonialism began somewhere around the 1500s. Countries in Europe discovered various sea routes around Africa’s southern coast and America, and by conquest and settlement, these nations expanded and colonized throughout the world. It was only about a couple of centuries later that people started questioning this and, publicly speaking about being oppressed and living under someone’s control. That’s where we began seeing liberalism as a popular ideology.

It would be incorrect to say that “Hey, this year is when liberalism started” because an ideology isn’t created at one particular point in time. Ideologies are sets of ideas that take decades and centuries to evolve and develop. However, it would be safe to say that liberalism was born in Europe during the mid-17th century. 

It was a product of the climate of opinion that emerged at the time of the Renaissance, Reformation and the industrial revolution in England and Europe. The establishment of absolute nation-states in England and Europe gave birth to a political system in which the king’s authority was absolute. The beginning of liberalism was a protest against this hierarchical and privileged authority and monarchy, which involved every aspect of life. The protest’s main slogan was freedom from every authority capable of acting arbitrarily and the individual’s liberty to develop all of his potentialities. In an attempt to achieve the liberty of the individual and challenge the state’s authority, liberalism demanded freedom in every field of life: intellectual, social, religious, cultural, political and economic. So, you can see how liberalism is closely related to the relationship between the individual and the state.

How well did it work?

Quite well at first, if you look at world history. It proliferated as a movement of people who wanted to be free from state control. However, the negative or the classical aspect of liberalism remained dominant for a very long time. It’s interesting to note how the initial aim of liberalism was more destructive than constructive; its purpose was not to elucidate the positive aims of civilization but to remove hindrances in the individual’s development path. 

Till the latter half of the 19th century, it was a progressive ideology fighting against cruelty, superstitions, intolerance and arbitrary governments. It fought for the rights of man and nations. But in the last hundred years, it has had to face the challenges brought by other ideologies and political movements such as marxism, socialism and fascism.

Let’s look at India’s experience with liberalism. Being a primarily socialist country, the challenge has been long and arduous. The entry of the British in India, first, as a trading company in 1608, followed by their expansion of power, both political and economic, exposed Indians to western intellectual thought that was largely liberal in its approach (Liberalism In India, CCS). Modern liberalism in India has its roots in the social reform movements of the mid and late nineteenth century. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Gopal Krishna Gokhle and others launched a systemic attack on anti-life social practices like sati and the ban on widow remarriage. These movements influenced a lot of people, particularly in India’s eastern and western parts.

“With the rise of demands for independence from the British, social reform liberalism gave way to the liberalism of political independence,” says Parth J Shah in his piece on Evolution of Liberalism in India.

India’s freedom movement was rooted in the idea of liberalism. Under the National Congress Party, it flourished until independence, with freedom fighters and social reformers participating in the discussions that decided India’s economic and political future post-independence. However, a majority of leaders then were attracted to the idea of socialism for a young India. These ideas seeped into our planning processes and have stayed in place, despite evidence demanding change. 

Nehru’s democratic socialism metamorphosed into Indira Gandhi’s license-permit-quota socialism. She produced the unique brand of Indian socialism. The slippery slope of planning-the logic of more and more intensive and extensive government interventions and controls -just could not be escaped (Evolution of Liberalism in India).

The idea of free trade, central to classical liberalism, also could not become popular due to the rise of the ‘swadeshi’ movement, a model of economic development that would reduce India’s dependence on other countries. By the 1870s, the opposition to free trade strengthened with the emergence of a national political economy. The actions of the East India Company had convinced Indians that free trade would only lead to monopolies and oppression. It has been hard to recover from this belief, as many Indians still are afraid of big companies exploiting small traders/businessmen.

However, there have been a few watershed moments in the evolution of liberalism in India’s history. The liberalisation of 1991 stands strong as one of the most remarkable of them. It proved just how flawed India’s protectionist economic philosophies were, and just how much society can benefit from open markets and competition.

Another moment for liberalism was Professor B R Shenoy’s famous Note of Dissent on the Second Five-Year Plan. The Planning Commission was a panel of 21 eminent economists entrusted with the task to make the 2nd Five-Year Plan in 1955. Prof Shenoy was the only one among them to disagree with the approach which looked at central planning and deficit financing as the core elements. These elements would prove to be a big challenge to ensuring economic freedom, and that’s exactly what happened. Interestingly, in 1963, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman had said about Shenoy’s dissent note: “If one reads Shenoy’s report now, it sounds like a retrospective description of what happened rather than a forecast.”

Hints of liberalism can also be seen in other fields, like Agriculture, for instance. Though a number of industries were liberalised in 1991, agriculture, till date, remains to be one of the most regulated sectors. Shetkari Sangathana, under the leadership of late Sharad Joshi, has been demanding the removal of all subsidies in exchange for the freedom to trade. 

All these sustained liberal attempts however have been inadequate given the scale of the problem. Fast forward a few decades, the people of India still haven’t achieved economic and social freedom. There are too many examples to quote. Due to heavy regulation of agriculture, with the farm laws now on hold, small and marginal farmers remain poor, and doubling incomes are nowhere in sight. 

The ‘Licence Raj’, was an elaborate system of regulating trade that made it mandatory for Indian businesses to acquire licences to set up and run businesses in the country. The system was dismantled with the liberalization policy introduced in 1991. A lot has happened since then, but the remnants of license raj remain, and a recent WTO report agrees: “India continues to rely on trade policy instruments such as the tariff, export taxes, minimum import prices, import and export restrictions, and licensing.”

So, where is India headed?

Conservative communities have only grown in influence and political power, with caste and religion at the centre of their ideologies. Growing intolerance towards minority communities (making Love Jihad a punishable offence in MP, for example) has only contributed to the decline of liberalism in Indian society. Indian society, though diverse, has often stifled individual rights in the name of collective will. 

More than that, the Indian state has continued to dominate its citizens’ economic and social life. We haven’t moved too far away from protectionist policies, and still, emphasise the importance of “we” above “I”. The individualistic outlook to development, that liberalism talks about, is not a popular notion in India.

The real challenge lies in the further liberalisation of the domestic sectors. It’s commonly believed that Indian liberalism is an elite phenomenon, marked by all forms of privilege—caste, class, geography, and so on. This however is far from the truth. Centre for Civil Society’s Indian Liberals project has often advocated for voices in India’s liberal history like Jyotiba Phule, Gopal Krishna Gokhale etc. Leaders like Sharad Joshi, for instance, were rooted in the ground, with small and marginal farmers, fighting to make their lives better, and their businesses profitable. 

Liberalism has strong intellectual roots, with well thought out perspectives on economic, political, and social spheres that rest on individual rights and liberal ideals. Sadly, it has not been easy to translate these ideas to seem attractive to a vast Indian population. Adding to the problem, the meaning of the term liberalism in popular discourse today has completely changed, with most people who identify as liberals being democratic socialists.

We’re living in an era where our citizenry (especially the young population) wants to be involved in society, question government action, and express dissent. At the core of every protest today, for instance, is liberty and freedom, for different groups of people, in varying ways. What we need is a shift in thinking of liberty in terms of both social and economic freedom. This would be the “Second Freedom Struggle” as Parth J Shah calls it.

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Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.