Sunday, October 2, 2011

The rise and fall of the Indian liberal tradition: A talk by Ramachandra Guha

An Indian liberal visited Chennai a few weeks ago, and gave a talk on his perception of the state of the liberal tradition in India. In addition to being a liberal, he is a well known historian, a polemical writer in the grand tradition of George Orwell, a cricket enthusiast, and last, but not least, a Stephenian. Those who caught all the cues, (and read the title of this post), would have zeroed in on Ramachandra Guha.

It is not so easy to identify who qualifies as an Indian liberal, so Guha started off with the dictionary definition of a liberal, i.e. favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms, favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform, regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change. Out of these the OED distills an overall definition, viz. willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas. To these, the Indian liberal added some additional qualities, viz. hopefulness about the future, and implicit patriotism as exemplified by Tagore's notion of nationalism. The nationalist movement in the 1900-s threw up liberals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale,who tried to liberalise the backward and ossified indigeneous tradition using ideas brought in by the technologically advanced colonisers. It was pointed out that all of these violated the dictionary definition, as they did not believe in free markets, and liberals such as Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari accepted many aspects of traditional and religious belief. Despite this, the constitutional privileges, secular structure and multilingual polity that Indians take for granted arise directly from this liberal tradition. The second phase of liberalism was from 1940-1950 where the liberal tradition upheld by Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar led to the Hindu Code Bill, equal rights for women, anti-caste legislation and support for the disadvantaged segments of society.

The liberal tradition faced its moments of crisis. The first arose in the period 1947-1950 when Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead and the liberal tradition faced attacks both from the resurgence of right wing religious fundamentalism, and from the Marxist fundamentalism and support for armed insurgency by a leftist party like the CPM. However, the center held, despite these threats, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. The second attack on the liberal tradition came during 1971-1977 due to Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism and attempts to make the Indian National Conference a family firm. This destroyed the decentralised democratic structure of the Congress and created a cadre of committed civil servants and judiciary.

Today's threat to the liberal tradition comes from illiberal tendencies that arise from all directions, the left, the right and the center. The left contributes Maoist extremism, fueled by political economy, tribes displaced by development, and isolated by geographical terrain. The parties of the center contribute to corruption and family feudalism. Right wing fundamentalist ideas have not lost their attraction for certain segments of the polity.

So what can liberals do, to fight off this attack? Guha's prescription for the liberals is to stand firm against all forms of illiberalism. These include Hindu theocrats who feed paranoia, sycophants of political families, political opportunists, apologists for the Maoists, emotional blackmailers, and supporters of vigilante armies. He deplored the pussillanimity of the liberals, and said liberals should not be timid. He quoted Orwell who said a writer can never be a loyal member of a political party. He said that institution building is hard work, to which no substitutes or short cuts are available. The internet can spread ideas far and wide, but can also contribute to incivility. The media can spotlight a problem, but it can only be solved by debate, dialogue and receptivity. Finally, steady, patient work, away from the glare of the media, alone can provide lasting solutions to the evils that plague society.

This lecture was delivered at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, on September 7, 2011, as a memorial lecture for Rahul Basu.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

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