What does it mean to be an Indian liberal? There is precious little to draw on. Few Indian political leaders – today or throughout history – could accurately be labelled as such.

India is a largely conservative society that has never emphasised personal autonomy. When social progress is discussed, it is usually defined in terms of the group: caste, region, or religion. The individual has always been an afterthought.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mohandas Gandhi’s mentor, was one of the few to spend his political career striving to uphold personal dignity while pushing for social progress. He is the rare Indian liberal powerhouse, albeit of a time distant from our own. There is a great deal to learn from him.

Gokhale was a long-time member of several various law-making bodies in British India, and eventually rose to become president of the Indian National Congress, mentored by Mahadev Govind Ranade, a judge and social reformer who was involved in the Congress’s founding. Ranade’s liberal principles and dedication to social reform and rationalism deeply affected Gokhale, who called himself Ranade’s “humble pupil”.

In 1896, the two men founded the Deccan Sabha, an organisation intended to “represent Liberalism and Moderates”. For them, liberalism meant “a freedom from race and creed prejudices and a steady devotion to all that seeks to do justice between man and men”, plus a commitment to respect a ruler’s authority while demanding equality under the law. Moderation, in turn, meant “never vainly aspiring after the impossible”, but instead “striving each day to take the next step”.

Gokhale was clearly a believer in incremental rather than revolutionary change, and this, perhaps, lays bare his assumptions. His idealised ruler is a benevolent one, using the power of the state to ensure the equality of its citizens, obtaining the loyalty of the governed in fair exchange.

His faith in the good intentions of the government, and in the willingness and ability of the colonial state to reform, may seem naïve today. Even at the time, he was strongly criticised by more radical nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who saw him as being too cosy with the British establishment to effect any real change.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Credit: Paper Jewels, CC BY 4.0, and Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But writing off Gokhale as a colonial enabler would be inaccurate and uncharitable, and it would obscure his unique and tangible contribution to Indian political thought.

Western liberalism, in its original conception, was largely rooted in the principles of individual liberty, usually defined in opposition to an over-controlling state. Indian liberalism, that moribund, loosely defined, and largely ephemeral school of thought, has always been more complex than that. Gokhale was one of the most prominent. He and his fellow liberals, as Indians in British India, existed in a society that was fundamentally at odds with liberalism’s conception of the individual and individual rights.

The Indian state at the time was deeply authoritarian, operating on a coercive political model that suppressed fundamental rights and excluded Indians from vast swathes of public life. Politics was not free and representative. But Gokhale, at least in his public politics, was not entirely disillusioned by the colonial system in which he operated. He proved a willing and enthusiastic proponent of political reform within British India’s existing state institutions – that is, within the colonial system – with an array of clear-sighted objectives in mind.

Gokhale’s liberalism did not view the state as a threat to individual freedom. Indeed, he believed that government action was crucial to maximising it, through the creation of what he called a “progressive” form of government: one that encouraged political representation for Indians and emphasised public spending on societal well-being – things such as education, sanitation, and agriculture.

Progressive government was “one of the fundamental conditions” that ought to have steered British policy in India, Gokhale argued, and the state bore a moral and material duty to continually improve the life of its citizens.

His record in the Legislative Council proves his commitment to this idea. Through two bills in 1910 and 1911, Gokhale attempted to introduce free and compulsory education. To him, literacy meant “a keener enjoyment of life”, “a more refined standard of living”, and “greater moral and economic efficiency of the individual”, among other personal and societal benefits.

Heeding a call to make literacy widespread by accepting his bill, Gokhale said, was not only the call of duty, but also “the call of statesmanship – that statesmanship which pursues, un-hasting but unresting, the highest interests of the people committed to its care,” once again emphasising his conception of the state as a paternalistic provider of public services and personal empowerment.

His bills did not pass, but did lay the groundwork for similar future bills at the state level, beginning with the Punjab Primary Education Act in 1919.

He also wanted the Raj to expand Indians’ access to government jobs, and advocated for the decentralisation of governance, arguing that the distance between local state outposts and their superior authorities was too great, making government both inefficient and not truly responsive to local needs.

Gokhale saw representation as being a question of communal harmony, and was in favour of reserving representative space in public bodies for Muslims to ensure that such institutions better reflected India’s demographic makeup.

He took on deeply contentious issues with enthusiasm, eager to push for reform. His clash with Tilak over the Age of Consent Bill in 1891 is perhaps most indicative of Gokhale’s conception of liberalism. The bill, introduced by the colonial government, intended to increase the age of consent for child brides from 10 to 12. Gokhale was an outspoken supporter of the bill, while Tilak and other orthodox Hindus were fiercely opposed, claiming that even if the measure was a benevolent one, the idea that the government could regulate social custom was unacceptable.

The controversy highlights Gokhale’s strong belief in the state as a force for good, having the power to improve the well-being of its citizens through regulating customs in a manner that improves social well-being, even at the cost of imposing one’s own view on others and even if the imposing authority is a colonial one.

Gokhale, like Tilak, strongly supported personal autonomy and individual freedom. But while Tilak felt that any state encroachment on personal choice was an attack on liberty, Gokhale was committed to the belief that genuine progress in social and individual freedom could occur even if it meant granting extra power to the state to interfere in private life.

He also vocally supported other legislative attempts at reform, including a 1912 bill to loosen religious restrictions on marriage, a proposal that he acknowledged would face opposition since it was “in advance of” the views of India’s Hindus and Muslims, but one that nonetheless pointed to an increasing realisation of “the dignity of individual freedom” in India.

This rhetoric may, to some degree, help explain Gokhale’s belief that the most effective way of making India more progressive was through the institutions of state, particularly the legislature. He may have felt that the socially conservative reflexes shared by most Indians made a more organic expansion of personal freedoms unfeasible, or at least made such a prospect unrealistic for the near future. Again, the bill failed to pass, but Gokhale’s support for it acts as a clear expression of his sympathy for the state-led expansion of progressive social causes.

His political work, as well as his output while editor-in-chief of Sudharak, or Reform, a liberal Marathi newspaper, suggest that progress, equality, and non-sectarianism were at the core of his political thought. He argued that the best way to overcome the “tradition of antagonism” between Hindus and Muslims was through the “spread of education, a wide and efficient performance of civic duties, growth of national aspirations, and a quickening of national self-respect in both communities”.

He made similar claims about the caste system, claiming that the subjugation of Indians for caste reasons could be ended through improved access to education. His public commitment to safeguarding religious freedom and equal treatment was unequivocal. His views outside of public life were less so, some of his private letters contain instances of Islamophobic prejudice.

The plaque at the foot of Gopal Krishna Gokhale's statue. Pratishkhedekar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

These days, though, his political legacy is of interest mostly to scholars, and even they are few in number. Gokhale has largely been forgotten. The sort of state-led liberal reform he championed saw a resurgence during the United Progressive Alliance’s stint in government from 2004 to 2014, a period that saw the passage of a number of critical laws expanding access to democracy and widening our conception of fundamental rights, but since then, Gokhalian liberalism has been abandoned in favour of populist, exclusionary politics that has little time for incremental reform or rights-focused policy.

Perhaps the cacophony of India’s political discourse, obsessed with imagined pasts and ancient invaders and Savarkarism, is simply too loud. Perhaps Gokhale, with his progressivism, his faith in the goodness of his rulers, his unshakeable confidence in the power of liberal reform, is ill-suited to an India that is appalled by liberalism, that reviles quiet competence and prizes hysteria and lumbers, as if in a stupor, ever further away from the ideals that he and some of his colleagues represented.

But Indian political thought is forever marked by his contribution: a complex and nuanced liberalism, marked by inflections of Western thought and yet distinct from the individualist ideas of many Western thinkers.

Some of India’s finest recent policy achievements – the Right to Information and Right to Education Acts, for example – were projects that followed Gokhale’s key principles. A Gokhalian state would be an enthusiastic legislator, pushing for improvements in education policy, working to reduce the pernicious influence of religious fundamentalism in public life and seeking to increase government accountability.

Personal rights and individual autonomy in India still suffer from the rigidity and conservatism that so deeply shapes our public and private lives. Legislative action, slow-acting and complex though it may be, would give serious heft to any attempts to change that. Look to Gokhale’s legacy – abandoned and scorned – and we might find a brighter, kinder, better country.

Aditya Narayan Sharma studied modern Indian political thought at Cambridge. His work on literature, history, and politics has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Economist, and elsewhere.