Our Task is to Build the Foundations

This is the seventh piece in our ongoing Brainstorm discussion on The Future of the Indian Republic. The first six: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

In this discussion on the Future of the Republic, both Shruti Rajagopalan and I argued that the idea of a state where individual liberty is the pre-eminent principle for the ordering of society finds little real purchase in India. Since our essays were published, a large nationwide survey of young Indians provided empirical evidence for the claim that the votaries of liberalism are likely to be in a minority well into the future. It appears that the prospects for liberalism in India are not too promising.

Why is this so? One reason is that the idea of individual liberty is a relatively recent foreign import. Hindu tradition has long upheld pluralism and over the centuries evolved mechanisms to manage it, even after it came into contact and conflict with Islam and European Christianity. It did not, however, elevate the individual over the family and community in its conception of social relations. This crucial innovation is largely the product of Enlightenment and came to us from foreign shores. Unlike nationalism, also a recent foreign import, liberalism has been resisted ever since its arrival because it goes against the grain of Indian tradition and practice.

The dominant segment of the Indian intellectual elite in the 19th and 20th centuries were influenced by liberal values and subscribed to them to various extents. It is not surprising that they wrote a constitution for independent India that was founded on the ideas they believed were on the right side of history.

Yet, it is unclear if the liberal elite paid any thought to the need to propagate their ideas to the masses. How do we explain this perhaps fatal omission? One reason for their negligence is that they might have presumed that liberal values are and will always be self-evident, and thus ignored the need to actively market them. The second is that Indian republic’s mandate for social revolution often required its governments to trample over its protection of individual liberties. After the passing of Nehru and Rajaji, India saw no political leader at the national level with any ability to move public opinion towards greater liberalism. While ideologues of every stripe invested in mobilising their flock and the reaching out to the masses, liberals did not.

Until recently, a typical Indian would have grown up with the religious convictions of her family, in the conservative traditions of her community, under a socialist syllabus at school and the identity-driven political mobilisation in the public space. The race to grab economic opportunities that come from a professional education meant that there was no incentive for a broad education even to whom it was accessible. Little wonder that a majority of our population does not believe in liberal values. The case for liberty was never made to them.

A lot more adults have heard of Karl Marx than of John Stuart Mill. Intellectuals like Ram Mohan Roy, Tagore and Ambedkar are placed on pedestals, their ideas forgotten and ignored. Worse, they are often politically appropriated in support of causes they would have abhorred had they been alive. Unlike the competition, there is no machinery that propagates liberal ideas and turns them into political constituencies. What should surprise us therefore is not the fact that liberals are in a minority, but rather, how we came to have them in any numbers at all.

For decades, the population has been growing at a pace much faster than the spread of liberal values. So it is much harder to advocate liberty today than it was a decade ago. But if the advocacy of liberty is not scaled up, this imperfectly liberal republic will be lost to an illiberal one.

We might actually be in a better position today than our counterparts a hundred years ago. We might not feel that way, but compared to the task of persuading society that every human being is equal regardless of caste, religion or gender—the task that Gokhale’s and Ambedkar’s generations had faced—our challenges are relatively easier. That is because we stand on the foundations they built. The least we can do is to create our own foundations that make the task of future generations a little easier.

As Gopal Krishna Gokhale said in 1907:

It will, no doubt, be given to our countrymen of future generations to serve India by their successes; we, of the present generation, must be content to serve her mainly by our failures. For, hard though it be, out of those failures the strength will come which in the end will accomplish great tasks.