The world over, self-proclaimed liberals are on the defensive. Perhaps the time has come for them to reposition themselves – politically, intellectually, and philosophically. Over the last 30 years, they have lost their political space to all kinds of extremists, fundamentalists, and egotists. They have surrendered their intellectual space to technocrats, bureaucrats, and corporates. They have allowed the philosophical discourse to be conducted on television debates or in think tanks which work on a brief handed to them, or by polemicists who want to win an argument rather than make a statement.
Those liberals who do not want to get trapped in one of these predicaments are afraid that if they take a position on any issue, they will cease to be liberals! Many of them have defined liberalism as being totally open-ended. Some others think that all are right from their own points of view or their personal or social situation. And there are those who have “philosophically” concluded that there is nothing like a “correct” or “morally right” position and hence it’s a free-for-all. Some of them are post-modernists who have brought liberalism close to opportunism or to philosophical anarchy.
This was not so in the turbulent 60s and early 70s. All liberals, irrespective of their political hue, cultural background, religious persuasion or profession, were against the war in Vietnam, in favour of withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia, critical of the oppressive state as well as dominating corporations. None among them felt that there was a case for President Richard Nixon. None among them wanted or defended communism as an ideology. Neither The New York Times nor the students or teachers on the university campuses were against the free market economy.
From Jean Paul Sartre to Bertrand Russell, from Osho Rajneesh to the Beatles and hundreds of rock music groups, from Steve Jobs to astrophysicist writer Carl Sagan, all were anti-war. None of them were socialist or thought that Vietnamese communism was better than American capitalism. In every respect, they were different from each other and yet they took a firm position against war and against U.S. involvement.
They were the liberals who did not hypocritically cover themselves by saying, “Maybe Nixon-Kissinger have a point.” They were not afraid of the so called “domino effect” which would lead to the cascading communist victories in Asia. They were able to take a position without sacrificing their commitment to liberalism. They belonged to the philosophical tradition of liberalism that had its roots in the Enlightenment, the European philosophical trend in the 17th and 18th centuries which emphasised reason and individualism, life and liberty. Indeed, the American war of Independence in 1776 and also the French Revolution in 1789 were expressions of that Enlightenment.
This European liberal thought spread hand-in-glove with European colonialism. Even the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions, inspired by Marx, were in one way the culmination of that tradition, because Marx himself belonged to that legacy of Enlightenment. One can say in hindsight that because those revolutions deviated from the essential values of the Enlightenment, they developed aberrations and imploded.
The baton of that liberalism was passed on to the Indian resurrection. In fact, just when Europe was witnessing the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, the Indian freedom struggle was giving rise to Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. They differed with each other, sometimes strongly, but never gave up their true liberal values. They could distance themselves from the regressive Indian tradition and yet could integrate progressive eastern values with western Enlightenment thought.
Mahatma Gandhi described himself as a proud Hindu and yet he could assimilate not only the Christian thought of the Bible but also the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. He evolved a philosophy of pacifism and global humanism at a time when many ideologies, from communism to fascism and from aggressive nationalism to expansionist capitalism, were advocating and practicing violence to achieve their objectives.
Initially reviled and ridiculed, Gandhiji soon became a symbol of an enlightened liberalism, which advocated the right to life, liberty, and fraternity among all religions, nations, and societies. Without giving up the “religious” foundation of his philosophy, he could bring together peoples of all religions. He emphasised that the freedom movement was not against the British people but only against the British raj, their rule and their laws. The hallmark of the liberal value is tolerance. Gandhiji personified that value.
Pandit Nehru, on the other hand, was committed to the ideas of science, secularism, and liberal democracy. On this score, he had strong differences with the Mahatma. Without Nehru, the democratic and secular ethos of India would not have come about. He always said that to his western friends, he appeared completely Indian and to his followers in India, he was regarded as a thoroughbred westerner. To him, that was a badge of liberalism.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the architects of the liberal Indian Constitution, was in the forefront to implement the truly liberal programme – not only in the political sphere, but also in social and personal life. He founded the Republican Party of India. He believed in the republican values that were the product of the liberal traditions of the West.
Dr Ambedkar could integrate Mahatma Phule, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Abraham Lincoln. Panditji could bring together the reformist tradition of our own past. Gandhiji could be philosophically at home with both Tolstoy and Tagore.
Indian liberalism has been truly global in its content. The regions of Bengal and Maharashtra had the glorious traditions of the social reform movement. So it was not difficult for the Mahatma to weave into the freedom struggle both the social reform movement and the idea of renunciation of material riches.
The secular, democratic, and federal Indian Union is based on this Indian liberalism, not just on the foundation of the European tradition of the Enlightenment. But in the past 30 years, slowly but surely, Indian liberals have begun to shed their values of tolerance, reason, and dialogue. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the 1980s, as a response to growing global Muslim identitarianism, stridency in socio-political discourse, and taking recourse to post-modernist individualism, are indications of the decline of the liberal ethos in India.
In fact, the rise of caste identity in the name of Mandalisation, the whipped-up pride in linguistic chauvinism and provincial consciousness, have begun to influence the media so much that it has ceased to remain an independent voice. Now the liberals are either Left Liberals or Right Liberals, Hindu Liberals or Muslim Liberals, Global Liberals or Patriotic Liberals. Their position is determined not by values and reason but by exigencies.
This is not only a threat to India’s secular democracy, it is a threat to the “argumentative Indian” who kept up the vibrant intellectual and philosophical liberal tradition. It is time for liberals to unite, because they have nothing to lose but their freedom.
Kumar Ketkar is a veteran journalist, columnist and political commentator. He is currently Chief Editor of the ‘Dainik Divya Marathi’ newspaper of the Dainik Bhaskar group. He was earlier the Chief Editor of ‘Loksatta’, a leading Marathi daily of the Indian Express group.
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