In the Hindu majoritarian atmosphere of India today, liberals have been scorned as out-of-touch, Westernised elites, alienated and disconnected from the pulse of a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. They have been branded as being inauthentically Indian, hostile towards Hinduism, and “anti-national.”
Indian liberals have long suffered from crises of identity and legitimacy. Architect of the Indian Constitution BR Ambedkar wondered aloud whether liberal democracy would be “only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”.
However, as India celebrates its 75th anniversary of independence, it is important to remember that the nation was built on a solidly liberal foundation. Liberalism constitutes modern India’s original political ideology.
Its champions were not self-serving elites: they constructed an increasingly universal and democratic vision of rights and freedoms which would bridge India’s religious, ethnic, and linguistic faultlines. These politicians nurtured liberal roots in Indian society, which are far deeper, stronger, and more pervasive than meets the eye.
To understand these roots, we must return to the 19th century, well before the generation of MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru which led India to independence. It was here that Indian leaders steered emerging politics onto a thoroughgoing liberal trajectory.
The 19th century was a moment of horror, humiliation, and hopelessness for most Indians. India’s textile manufacturing economy largely collapsed, leading to mass impoverishment. Indian political authority and agency crumbled as the British Raj consolidated its control of the subcontinent. Tens of millions died from a spate of devastating famines: the British journalist William Digby estimated that the death toll was at least 28.8 million for just the period between 1854 and 1901.
Yet India’s first modern political leaders did not throw up their hands in despair. Instead of hate, they offered hope, looking to contemporary Western politics for solutions. Reformer Rammohun Roy was the first to imbibe Western liberal ideas of rights and freedoms and put them in an Indian context. With the encouragement of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was even prepared to represent India as an MP in the British Parliament “to pave the way for his countrymen”. By the 1850s, Indians formed their first modern political associations, petitioning the British Parliament for political reform.
On paper, their demands could seem moderate, hemmed in with cloying language about the benefits of British rule. But it was clear that many of them had more ambitious goals in mind. As early as 1859, Bhau Daji Lad, a Bombay doctor and civic leader, declared at a public meeting that “the time will surely come when that first principle of free governments shall be introduced with safety into India”. India would be “a nation of free men”.
Indian liberals clamoured for representative government. Instead of marginalising certain groups or promoting majoritarianism, they sought out political systems which would reflect India’s diversity. Liberals therefore scrutinised governing models employed around the world.
In 1867, WC Bonnerjee, fresh from having qualified as a barrister from London’s Middle Temple, looked to the United States for inspiration. He suggested a bicameral Indian assembly which, per the American model, could have veto power over the executive branch – in this case, the British viceroy.
Bonnerjee, who in 1885 would become the first president of the Indian National Congress, pointed to traditional panchayats to argue that ordinary Indians possessed the capacity for self-government. “To understand the people, you must go to them direct,” he stated. “You will find that they possess a remarkable degree of intelligence.”
He rubbished the idea, propounded by many colonial officials, that India’s religious diversity – and Hindu-Muslim tensions in particular – would make representative government unworkable. Indians, Bonnerjee maintained, were united by a common nationality.
While they did not advocate anything approaching universal enfranchisement – hardly a mainstream idea in the 19th century – Indian liberals envisioned a robust, expansive future electorate for the country. They did not simply advance the interests of their fellow English-educated elites.
Allan Octavian Hume – the founder of the Congress, a Scotsman who identified as a “native” of India – designed an electoral system for Congress representatives which incorporated a wide cross-section of the Indian peasantry and accommodated minority representation. By 1887, this electorate numbered three million – more than the electoral turnout at British parliamentary elections, Hume was quick to point out.
At its 1889 session, the Congress included female delegates – a radical departure, at the time, for any political organisation worldwide – and featured a brief debate on Indian female suffrage. Despite deep-set patriarchal norms in India, many liberals expressed remarkably progressive ideas about women’s rights.
Dadabhai Naoroji argued for gender equality in India and actively campaigned for female suffrage in Britain. In 1917, two years before the United States gave women the right to vote, the Congress selected as its president Annie Besant, the fiery Anglo-Irish matriarch.
The Congress advocated a multi-pronged agenda of comprehensive reform, keeping in mind the poverty and destitution of the average Indian. Its leaders railed against corruption in the police force, worked towards empowered municipal bodies, and fought against systemic discrimination in the judicial system.
Congress politicians championed universal education, vocational and industrial training, and policies to stimulate industry and commerce. They thought in big, bold terms, suggesting the establishment in India of cutting-edge educational institutions modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics.
In contrast to India today, where the media’s independence has eroded, liberals – who cut their teeth as journalists and newspaper editors – were staunch defenders of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. They pushed back against government censorship, and some of them, like Surendranath Banerjea, editor of the Bengalee of Calcutta, went to jail for their outspokenness. It was in newspaper columns that Indians spoke truth to power, attempting to hold their colonial rulers to account.
At the same time, liberals used the press to inform Indians about the rest of the world. While intensely proud of their country, they did not possess a smug satisfaction about India’s innate civilisational superiority.
Instead, they believed that India had much to learn from other societies. Sant Nihal Singh (who, with great literary flourish, anglicised his first name to “Saint” or “St”), became India’s first roving world correspondent, translating his travels into lessons for his fellow Indians.
Surveying Meiji Japan’s achievements, he impressed upon Indians the importance of universal education and women’s rights. In the American South, he visited the Hampton Institute, the black college which counted Booker T Washington, a prominent Black leader and adviser to US presidents, among its alumni, and pleaded for a similar institution to be founded in India to promote agricultural and industrial education.
Liberals were not hostile towards India’s religions. Far from it: many were deeply religious, and several were authorities on Hinduism and Sanskrit literature. But they were, by and large, not bigots. They celebrated the glories of India’s past, but they could be quite clear-eyed and realistic about pseudo-historical fantasies, the kind of which have gained increased traction in recent years.
“We cannot afford to be dreamy and self-contained, and turn back from our present opportunities to a past which cannot be recalled,” judge and reformer Mahadev Govind Ranade, himself a noted expert on Maratha history, remarked in 1893.
Admittedly, Indian liberalism had numerous blind spots. Public enthusiasm for social reform and women’s rights did not always translate into practice in their homes. Despite strenuous efforts to broaden their base, the liberals achieved nothing like Gandhi’s success after 1919 in generating popular enthusiasm for nationalism.
Most egregiously, liberals could be quite dismissive about caste discrimination and the plight of lower castes and Dalits. In my own research, I have been struck by the sheer absence of these issues in the writings and correspondence of many liberal leaders.
That being said, liberals did accomplish one remarkable achievement: setting out a vision for India which was inclusive, democratic, and relatively open-minded. This vision was further nurtured by Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar. It survived the horrors of Partition, the many unfulfilled promises of Indian independence, and lurches towards authoritarianism like Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
On the 75th anniversary of its independence, however, it remains to be seen how much longer that original liberal vision of India will last.
Dinyar Patel is Assistant Professor, History, at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.