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Indian Liberal Tradition

What is Indian liberalism? Was it transplanted in India from the west or was it rooted in Indian tradition? Was Gandhi a liberal? What is the role of religion in the evolution of India’s liberal tradition? Is there a liberal space in India politics? Are India’s liberals united or divided when it comes to solutions for India’s problems? How can we move beyond the “marketplace of ideas” to the “marketplace of policies”?

To discuss these questions and more, twenty liberals from politics, media, academics, civil society and government came together at the “Colloquium on the Indian Liberal Tradition” held recently in Bangalore from 13-15 June. It was organised in partnership with Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF).

The Indian liberal space with its long history, old defenders and emerging advocates is as diverse and wide ranging as the liberal political spectrum. Ambivalence on the role of state, the focus on systemic reform as well as reform of the individual, weightage towards social freedoms reflect this wide range. While the space includes thinkers and scholars with the conscious liberal tag, there are countless others whose writings without the tag could find resonance with some or all the core liberal values.

Bankimchandra Chattapadhyay on equality, Rabindranath Tagore on nationalism, BR Ambedkar on free banking, Gandhiji on the minimal state, Osho on virtues of capitalism, Swami Vivekananda on wealth creation etc., the pre-selected readings which formed the basis of the discussions spanned the history of Indian liberalism, its components, economic and social policy and liberal politics. They offered participants a possible different lens to look at age-old questions of the role of the state, society, and market.

In his opening talk, Ramchandra Guha asked India’s liberals to place the “liberal label” cautiously along a dimension. He regarded Nehru a liberal in the sense of his belief in democratic institutions. His economic policies, now seen as “illiberal”, should be reviewed in that context at that time. In his article, The Absent Liberal, he also argues that “Indian liberalism is a sensibility rather than a theory, a product of empirical engagement rather than an elaboration of principles laid down in canonical texts.”

One of key aspects discussed was the decoding of liberal message from principle to practical solutions to make it understandable and acceptable. Free markets are not about big business alone but of small vendors, farmers, and tribals. Property rights for tribals can possibly address the Maoist challenge. The government exists to serve us not rule us. Liberal principles like subsidiarity and new public management can help in effective provision of public goods. Along with the formation of a credible liberal party, there was a felt need to engage with all parties at all levels and offer credible, workable and relevant solutions to today’s challenges, big or small.