Kerala is witnessing a new surge of free thinking and rationalism, thanks to vibrant social media platforms such as Clubhouse. Panicked at this new surge, fundamentalist elements declared war on rationalism. Some Muslim outfits seem especially anxious to contain the spread of rationalism among the Muslim youth.

The Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, the major clerical body of Sunni Muslims in the state, has decided to kickstart a campaign against liberalism, communism and Wahhabism.

But by targeting liberalism, the outfit is barking up the wrong tree. Minorities are the major beneficiaries of India’s liberal Constitution. Constitutionalism – the soul of the Constitution – is a strong arm of liberalism. By maligning liberalism, the Muslim fundamentalist groups are cutting the very bough they are sitting on.

They are making liberalism an easy target for criticism without realising the nuances and danger of such an act. The crux of liberalism is a commitment to the individual and the desire to build a society in which the individual can pursue their interests and achieve its fulfilment.

Liberals believe that human beings are primarily individuals endowed with reason. It implies that each individual should enjoy the maximum possible freedom consistent with the freedom of all; that although individuals are entitled to equal rights in political and legal domains, they should be rewarded in line with their talents and work in the economic domain. A liberal state is organised on the basis of constitutionalism designed to protect the citizens from tyranny.

The Constitution of India. Credit: Geospatial World, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, religious fundamentalists want to pigeonhole the individual into a religious identity, erasing individual identity and interest. Liberalism marked a break from medieval feudalism. In a feudal system, an individual could not hold their own interests and unique identity; an individual was merely a member of a social group that defined their interests and identity.

With the end of the feudal era, a new intellectual climate emerged, under which rationality and science displaced traditional religious theories.

Freedom is the supreme individualistic value for a liberal, who stands for a sense of personal development and human progress. The liberal theory of freedom is starkly different from the fascist view, which exhorts individuals to submit to the will of the leader and be absorbed into the national community.

Religious fundamentalists see freedom as a cog in the holistic submission to god. As far as individual freedom is concerned, feudalism, fascism and religious fundamentalism are on the same page.

Liberalism was born out of enlightenment. Rationalism that appreciates human reason to understand and explain the world and to find solutions to human problems is at the root of liberalism.

Liberalism stands for meritocracy, tolerance, secularism, and free market of goods and ideas. Constitutionalism is another species of political liberalism. By tarnishing liberalism by clubbing it with Wahhabism, the Samastha Kerala Jammiyathul Ulama is unwittingly renouncing the blessings of liberalism.

Contours of Indian liberalism

According to Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, ideologies are closed systems of thought that claim the monopoly of truth. But liberalism is an open system of thought that undergoes an everlasting process of evolution of ideas. The three ‘Ds’ form the gist of liberalism – discussion, debate, and dissent. India has a rich liberal tradition.

Amartya Sen, in his Argumentative Indian, underlined the glorious past of public debate and the intellectual pluralism of India. The Indian renaissance, ignited by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj, was inspired by classical liberalism.

The pioneers of the Indian National Movement, such as Pherozeshah Mehta, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji, were also liberals. The transmutation from colonial India to constitutional India marked a watershed moment in Indian liberalism. The Constitution was drafted during the conflict of two ideological giants – socialism and liberalism.

The architects of the Indian Constitution assimilated the principles of both ideologies. Dr BR Ambedkar opined that the assertion by the individual of their own opinion and beliefs, their own independence and interest – over and against group standards – is the beginning of reform. This individualist zeal of Ambedkar is reflected in the Preamble itself.

The ideological profile of the Constitution may be marked as a hybrid of liberalism and socialism, inclined practically towards the former. The fundamental rights are inspired by liberalism whereas the directive principles were melted in the crucible of socialism. Jawaharlal Nehru, who led the republic in its formative years, was a pragmatist.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Indian Constitution in New Delhi on January 24, 1950. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Jawaharlal Nehru was a liberal in his entire being, although he did reject the liberal economy, fearing the ravages of capitalism on the poor,” says Sagarika Ghose in Why I am a Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom.

But in our time, the Indian state and society are mutating into illiberal ones. Each Indian has their own Emmanuel Goldstein to solemnise his Two Minutes Hate based on his religious and caste identity.

The country – and a major portion of the world – is heading towards an Orwellian dystopia in which social paranoia is the easy tool of politicians. Dissent is confused with disloyalty and an age of unreason is unleashed by the powers that be. Against this backdrop, how can one stand against liberalism?

Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in Twilight Falls on Liberalism, opines that attempts to build societies on premises that are different from those of liberalism have produced results that can only be responded to by that cry of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “The horror, The horror.”

Liberalism, the soul of our Constitution, has no alternative so far. “Liberal doesn’t have to be a term of abuse. It can be a badge of honour, a mantra of the optimist and the proud marker of a believer in India’s Constitution,” says Sagarika Ghose. Hence, it’s time for the People of the Constitution to invigorate liberalism and not to slur it.

Faisal CK is an independent researcher who specialises in constitutional law and political philosophy.