Liberalism in India

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This article gives an overview of liberalism in India.

A history of Liberalism in India[edit]

1757–1947: The effect of British liberal ideas[edit]

The strengthening of British influence in Bengal with the Battle of Plassey in 1757 coincided with significant developments of thought in England (John Locke in the 1680s, Adam Smith with his monumental book in 1776, and Edmund Burke) and in the United States (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, among others). The English language came to India in 1603 in Akbar's time but there was then no pressing economic reason for Indian people to learn English. It was only after the consolidation of Bengal by Robert Clive and the extension of the East India Company into the Indian political landscape, that the demand for learning English began to grow. By 1835, Indians were paying serious money to be taught English, as it gave them job openings in the Company. As Thomas Babington Macaulay noted in his famous Minute: “the natives” had become “desirous to be taught English” and were no longer “desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic”. Further, those who wished to, seemed to picked up English very well: "it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos." (see the Minute at [1]).

Those who learnt English quickly became aware of its literature, including the rapid evolution of Western political thought. This greater awareness of the advances in freedom laid the seeds for the demand for self-rule.

While people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) were beginning to articulate elements of these political arguments, no one was in a position to explore and articulate new insights. However they did catch up with key liberal ideas and began implementing some of these advances thought through their new demands for greater freedom in India. While the West was firmly embedding its new political institutions, or contesting the growing forces of socialism (which had overpowered parts of the feudal and aristocratic West), the Indian intelligentsia was grappling with the challenge of the first major task ahead of it, namely independence.

As well as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, other contributors to political thought on freedom in 19th century India included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915) and Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915). Theory led to an independence movement in India. Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated through a humane, non-violent, and dignified protest, that all humans were equal and should be treated equally, including their being given the opportunity to govern themselves. This was a major advance in the theory and practice of freedom and can be argued to have had a major effect in ending the age of imperialism and the age of racial discrimination.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was very well-educated and fully aware of the history of liberalism, seems to have had surprisingly little faith in an individual’s ability to think and take responsibility for himself or herself. Nehru did not emphasize the importance of each individual undertaking self-reflection and choosing among ethical alternatives. Possibly, in his view, making these ethical choices was too difficult for the common man. He definitely believed that these choices were best directed through state level dictates laid down by governing elites. Through planning. In any event, he veered toward collectivist and socialist thinking where decision making power is concentrated in the State. Decentralization, where power and freedom vests with people at the lowest levels, was anathema to Nehru. He stated in his Autobiography, "socialism is ... for me not merely an economic doctrine which I favour; it is a vital creed which I hold with all my head and heart.' Indian industrialists (with their Bombay Plan) also sided with Nehru on a socialist pattern based on the Soviet Five-Year Plan model.

Despite the environment in which socialist thought was flourishing, India was fortunate to enjoy at least a few liberties even before independence. The advances made in political institutions in England as a result of liberalism were imported and embedded into India over the decades by British rulers. Things like the right of assembly and protest under reasonable circumstances, the right to property, and freedom of expression - with a relatively free press, became a part and parcel of Indian political landscape before independence.

Post-independence liberalism[edit]

The 1949 Constitution gave to Indians some of the liberal rights that the British and Americans had come to expect by then. In addition, India extended franchise to everyone: all adults had the right to vote in the republic. That was earlier than even most developed countries had provided to their citizens at that time. But on most political issues, India adopted Nehru’s socialist model, that included a significant dilution in property rights, among others. The government entered businesses as its primary activity, to help it achieve the ‘commanding heights of the economy.’ Government factories sprung up quickly and began churning out shirts, watches, fridges, scooters, bicycles, milk, bread, and cheese.

Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, the second Governor-General of India and a Bharat Ratna, and Minoo Masani, and economists like B.R. Shenoy advocated greater freedom. However, they were unable to over-ride the Indian fascination with socialism. Rajagopalachari (informally called Rajaji) was a close colleague of Nehru during the independence movement. But soon after independence he quickly began to see the risks to India of letting Nehru’s fervour with socialism go unchallenged. Despite having fought for independence by Nehru’s side, and without regard for his own advanced age (Rajaji was 80 by then), Rajaji decided to act to block Nehru’s onslaught on freedom. He formed the Swatantra Party, to oppose Nehru's policies. For the next 14 years till his death in 1972 he waged a battle with Nehru’s Indian National Congress party to advance freedom. But as Nehru was extremely popular at that time, and also had the resources of the government at his command, Rajaji’s was inevitably a losing battle.

The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.

The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property and carry on their professions freely and through binding mutual agreements among themselves and that the State should assist and encourage in every possible way the individual in this freedom, but not seek to replace him.

— Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari writing about his party in 1960

Rajaji’s opposition arguably helped India minimize the excesses of socialism. His party held 44 seats in Parliament in the 4th Lok Sabha (1967–71). Swatantra was also part of the opposition to the Nath Pai Bill that advocated primacy for the Directive Principles of State Policy over Fundamental Rights. There were many other occasions when Swatantra acted as the voice of reason in a very unreasonable time. Making use of the free press and democracy, Swatantra pressed on for freedom, regardless of the difficulties it faced, but ran out of steam in 1973. Since then, many new thinkers such as S. Raju, Sharad Joshi, Barun Mitra, Parth Shah, Gurcharan Das, Sauvik Chakraverti, and many others have emerged on the Indian liberal scene, contributing to the debate on freedom in India, and advancing classical liberalism.

Liberalism in Indian politics[edit]

Almost the entire leadership of the Indian National Congress till the mid-1920s was liberal in its stance. Sometime in the 1920s, the Congress leadership was taken over by statists like Jawaharlal Nehru (socialist) and Subhas Chandra Bose (Democratic Socialist, Anti-Imperialist), forcing liberals to move into a separate platform. Mahatma Gandhi however retained liberal leanings while supporting socialism and Nehru. He was opposed to government taking over ownership of property. He wanted to bring responsible business (trusteeship) and local self-government.

After Independence, Swatantra Party was founded as India's liberal party in 1959. It was founded by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. After Rajagopalachari's death in 1972, it declined rapidly, and eventually merged with Bharatiya Kranti Dal led by Charan Singh in 1974. It has been India's only genuinely liberal political party till date, with a large number of seats in Parliament.

The Hindustani Andolan (HA) had been formed by Madhu Mehta, the Hon. Secretary of the Swatantra Party. After the failure of the merged Swatantra party in the elections, the HA formed a "Committee for Creation of a National Alternative (CCNA)" with Naozer Aga as the Hon. Gen. Secretary, who also later became Hon. Gen. Secretary of the Indian Liberal Group (ILG), separately founded by Minoo Masani. Both CCNA and ILG had the same objective — of trying to form a new political party based on the ideals and objectives of the Swatantra. However, a meeting convened to consider a new party deferred the question to later, given poor participation.

In January 2004, Indian liberals, brought together by Sanjeev Sabhlok of India Policy Institute attempted to revive the spirit of the Swatantra Party by converting the Swantantra Bharat Party (SBP), formed in the 1990s, into a national party. SBP got one seat in Rajya Sabha in 2004, namely of its President, Sharad Joshi. A minor but distinctly liberal effort, the Liberal Party of India (LPI), based on economic and political liberalism, was floated on 12 April 2005, independent to the Swatantra Bharat Party. However, LPI wound up within a few months given few active members. The Lok Satta Party launched in 2006 is broadly rooted in liberalism. The Jago Party launched in 2008 is broadly based on principles of liberalism and supports a free market economy for India. It contested on 17 seats in Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and got around 0.5% votes. In 2014, Navbharat Party — broadly liberal — also contested.

In the meanwhile, Indians are able to take advantage of elements of economic liberalism now on offer from a number of 'mainstream' parties, which, however, are not grounded in philosophical liberalism.

Liberalism in Indian Economy[edit]

After Independence, India adopted the Socialist model of development. This led to creation of Licence Raj, the elaborate licences, regulations and the accompanying red tape that were required to set up business in India.

The economic liberalisation of 1991, initiated by then Indian prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao in response to a balance-of-payments crisis, did away with the Licence Raj and ended many public monopolies, allowing automatic approval of foreign direct investment in many sectors.

Since 1990, India has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world; during this period, the economy has grown constantly with only a few major setbacks. This has been accompanied by increases in life expectancy, literacy rates and food security. However, India had also shown fast growth in the 1980s while its rating in the Economic Freedom of Nations (EFN) had actually fallen. Agriculture which still employs 60% people had shown faster growth in the 1980s than the 1990s. In fact, post-liberalization, the productivity growth in agriculture has fallen behind the growth in population.

List of liberal organisations in India[edit]

Political parties[edit]

This is a list of both past and present political parties with liberal views.

Other liberal organisations[edit]

Prominent Indian liberals[edit]


Swatantra Party

Post-Swatantra Party

Contemporary Indian Liberals

Liberal youth

Documents and Articles[edit]

  • Liberalism in India - The life of liberal ideas in India, from the nineteenth century down to today.
  • 21 Principles of the Swatantra Party. The 21 Principles Word document. From The Swatantra Party – Victory in Defeat. Rajaji Foundation, 2002.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]