What does it mean to be a liberal in India?

To be a liberal in India means to live like a lotus in the gutter. The moment lotus loses its’ moral imperative, it is likely to “vote” for the political party with lotus symbol. Nevertheless, it takes liberalism to stand alone in the “desi” crowd and it takes nothing to uphold Indian statism.

Liberalism is a concept deployed occasionally in India’s public sphere or “prime time discussions” at 9 pm, but, confusingly, can generally refer to a range of ideological positions. So, for example, one type of liberal (a “social” or “leftwing” liberal) might “elect” generous welfare economics and redistribution at the expense of each other, while another (an “economic” or “classical” liberal) might prefer laissez-faire economics and [expropriating] minarchism.

The picture becomes even more bewildering, when India’s political landscape is taken into consideration. There, the term “liberal” is often used interchangeably with “left winger”. To make it still more confusing, liberal-hating Indian conservatives or saffronists are usually free-marketeers – ie, economic liberals or Modibhakts (devotees of the Gujarat model of development). Since it has evolved over time, as a political discourse, liberalism provides a set of ideas which can be articulated and also “adapted” in different ways. Liberalism is also best comprehended as a specific historical movement of ideas rather than as a collection of fixed, abstract values. To be a liberal in India does not postulate any kind of substantive moral commitment per se and moreover it doesn’t buy itself as a cult or any genre of rigid creed in the Indian society.

Liberalism, in India, in my view, emerged as a revolutionary ideology reflecting the ambitions of the rising bourgeoisie. Thanks to “colonial” British English too, this idea coincided with Locke’s treatise and American revolution. During the freedom struggle, there were liberals to retaliate against the Britishers tranquilly.

Nevertheless, because liberalism proclaimed radically universalist principles – most notably, liberty and equality for all – the doctrine provided ideological resources that could be taken up by hitherto “oppressed” groups. Those excluded from the early realm of liberal equality and freedom drew on the universalism of liberal principles in order to demand inclusion. So, the historical development of liberalism in India was shaped not only by the interests of the bourgeoisie but also by the struggles of the marginalised.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, defines liberalism as:

One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom—including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality—which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm.

The broadest aspect of liberalism also enlists personal liberty and individualistic volition. But, on a broader aspect, is liberty personally homesteaded and owned by the liberal, in a society of state? To believe that the liberal is blessed with personal liberty in a society of state is to also believe that fire creates the wood. The reason behind this polemic assertion is that the Indian state is a propaganda machine of equality and soft nazism, therefore, it is uneasy to ratiocinate that freedom coexists here. Thence, it takes a self-imposed valor to liberalize and deconstruct the given paradigm in India. To be a liberal in India is like standing out of the crowd and explaining the game of chess to illiberal pigeons. Since the “mainstream” discourses consists of: Gujarat model v/s Secularism, in India, it becomes difficult to massively penetrate the idea of liberalism. Albeit there are contestable political parties based on the principles of economic freedom and liberalism like Swatantra Bharat Party, Navbharat Party, Lok Satta Party, etc. but still there are miles to attain public notification of the same, in the society. The argument here is not undermining the salient contribution of them and other think-tank organizations, but endeavoring to divulge the suffocation faced by the liberals. However, slacktivism has helped some liberal thinkers.

Today, in India, liberalism as a political idea has become far too complicated. It appears there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals. To name just a few: libertarianism, classical liberalism, bleeding heart liberalism, economic liberalism, political liberalism, social liberalism, high liberalism, minarchism, objectivism, anarcho-capitalism, and of course neoliberalism. In international relations theory, you can also find neoliberal institutionalism, liberal internationalism or embedded liberalism, while no doubt additional liberalisms can be found in other academic subjects. Clearly this all amounts to an incomprehensible “liberal” mess, which needs to be sorted out.

Getting a decent grasp of liberal political thought does not have to be this complicated. As a rule of thumb you only need to keep in mind one of the perennial questions in political philosophy: what is the just relation between the individual and the state? Roughly, there are three liberal answers: the state should have (almost) no role in individual life, the state should have a limited role, or the state should have a fairly large role.

Unfortunately, in India, in order to solace the political ego, the current state of liberalism is blended with communal and marxian dimension. It has been trickled down to the podium of “equality of opportunity” from “freedom of opportunity”. Thanks to the ignoramuses, statists and “bollywood institute of social sciences”. The rationally-bankrupted liberal “intellectuals” have polluted the term, in universities, and mystified it with their situational leanings, excessive fiscal spending and subjective bias, and therefore to be a liberal in India is to constantly and continuously rejuvenate the term, otherwise it takes nothing to be another brick in the wall.

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About the author

Jaimine Bezboznik

Jaimine Bezboznik

Very 'critical' box writer. A blasphemous writer awaiting sedition charges for making Readoo.in readers to think critically and anarchistically.

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