Liberalism is under siege in India. Violence against minority communities, repression of dissent and growing political intolerance raise questions about sustaining liberalism that was introduced in India by British colonialism wielding the gun. With liberalism on the dock in many places, it is time to raise a few issues concerning liberalism, its birthmarks and its dilemmas. While emergence of illiberalism in many liberal societies comes as a shock, history shows that from the start, illiberalism was very much a part of liberal drive.
There is a general agreement that certain universal values are embedded within liberalism. Some of these are freedom or liberty, equality, respect and dignity of the individual who together with his or her rights and properties are seen as the focal point of building a liberal society, and tolerance meaning freedom from bigotry and fanaticism. The famous Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that liberalism or liberty ensures freedom from oppression, but also freedom to build one’s own as one chooses. A civilised society, the argument runs, not only allows an individual to be free from oppression, but enables individuals to lead enriching lives of their own choosing.
With these noble values liberalism set forth into the world and arrived in India piggyback on the British Empire. Thus an idea that had equality and freedom as its two birthmarks arrived in India hand in hand with an anti-democratic and authoritarian institution. British rule in India was an act of conquest with violence as its ultimate imprimatur. Whenever rebellion challenged British rule, the latter reasserted itself through a deployment of violence and terror. The most dramatic and bloody articulation of this violence-based domination occurred in 1857 when the British monopoly of violence was transgressed by a violent and popular rebellion. This uprising was suppressed with British rule reestablished across North India through counterinsurgency measures whose sole aim was to kill and terrorise Indians. The British assumed they were superior and considered Indians backward and barbaric, in need of reform to become civilised. This reform could come only through the infusion of liberal values by way of western education and a western legal system.
A paradox was embedded in liberal thought and the ideas of the Enlightenment of which liberalism was an integral part. Every major British public figure in the 19th century was concerned with India and the British Empire in India, and this revealed some remarkable aspects of their thought and attitudes. David Hume, often considered the foremost advocate of reason and scepticism, made the comment, “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Non-whites were regarded as inferior and not quite prepared to receive the gifts of liberalism: This was a common thread running through the writings of liberal thinkers in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill advocated despotism in countries where the civilisation and culture differed from what prevailed in Britain.
India could thus only be ruled by the despotism that was the British Empire. There were universal values that liberalism upheld, but the reality of empire introduced exclusions to the principal universality. India was the exception that upheld the general rule. Partha Chatterjee has called this “the rule of colonial difference” – the same rule that made the founding fathers of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence unashamed slave owners. When the people of Saint Domingue, now Haiti, revolted and upheld the rights of man declared in the revolutionary assemblies of Paris in 1789, the uprising of the Black Jacobins was put down on the grounds that the rights of man could not apply to black slaves.
From its birth, liberalism carried the marks of illiberalism in the colonies. Liberalism even today has not quite eradicated the stain of this contradiction. People who differ in colour of skin, culture, language, religion and so on are often not allowed to be beneficiaries of liberal virtues by political regimes that claim to be liberal and democratic. Early nationalists in India were among the first to latch on to this contradiction. Dadabhai Naoroji described British rule in India as being “un-British” – unwilling to give to Indians the same rights and freedoms that British governments gave to Britons.
Another and radically different kind of critique of liberalism emerged in India with the writings and work of Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. This critique was directed to the emphasis in liberalism on the individual. While they upheld the absolute value of freedom, Gandhi and Tagore, through two routes, arrived at the conclusion that freedom, or Swaraj, could never be established on the basis of the individual alone. Swaraj could be established on the basis of a community – a network of reciprocal relationships of which an individual is part and from which an individual can draw strength and sustenance to regulate and live life. In such a situation both Gandhi and Tagore contended the State would be irrelevant. We are all kings in the kingdom of our king, Tagore would sing.
Jawaharlal Nehru, who fashioned himself as a Western-style liberal, was also Gandhi’s acolyte and an admirer of Tagore. In his mind there was never any doubt that independent India should be a liberal democracy. Emphasising the value of liberty, he wrote in 1949, “Nothing can be worse for the world than a deprivation of human freedom of the individual.” He worked to enshrine some of the liberal values in Indian society. Once asked what his legacy to India would be, he replied, “Hopefully, it is 400 million people capable of governing themselves.” In those words, “capable of governing themselves,” do we find Nehru the Western liberal echoing Gandhi and Tagore’s utopia of swaraj?
When Nehru died in 1964, India was a functioning democracy, with a stable constitution, a robust parliamentary system and a working cabinet system of government. Yet it was a work in progress cut short by Nehru’s own daughter by centralisation of power in the hands of the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office, the deification of herself and finally the suppression of all liberties and democracy during the Emergency in 1976-77. That experience only highlighted the fragility of the Indian democratic experiment. That fragility has been manifest in years subsequent to the Emergency by events like pogroms against minorities, the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, destruction of a 16th century mosque with the then prime minister doing nothing, the invocation of an archaic law called the Sedition Act against the writer Arundhuti Roy and medical practitioner Vinayak Sen, whose sole “crime” was that he had some Maoist literature in his house.
More recently of course, basic freedoms are under threat from a rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism that is intolerant of dissent and eager to regulate how people dress and what they eat, whose storm troopers murder journalists and lynch Muslims. Liberalism in India is vulnerable despite being grounded in the Indian national movement and the pillars built by Nehru.
This buttress is the point where liberalism is prone to transfigure itself when inflected by power. Power is notoriously suspicious of dissent. Yet the right to dissent, to differ, is at the heart of all for which liberalism stands. Liberalism advocates tolerance, but can it tolerate intolerance and survive?
Rudrangshu Mukherjee is Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University, India. He is the author of many books, and the most recent is Twilight Falls on Liberalism, Aleph Book Company (2018).
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.