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Was India ever liberal?
We Indians take pride, with considerable justification, in the fact that we are the world's largest, ie, the most populous, democracy. But is our society liberal? Is there enough space in India's political-ideological spectrum for authentic liberalism?
My regretful answer is: No. Not merely because of the plight of a host of creative persons who have over the decades had their freedom of expression circumscribed in the name of not hurting collective communal sentiment or, sometimes, to appease a violenceprone politician or religious bigot. A Salman Rushdie or a Kamal Haasan, an M F Hussain or an Ashis Nandy faced the heat of intolerance because tolerant liberalism lost its glow after flickering for a while in the early years of the republic.
It had a promising start. The Constitution as it was first implemented was a liberal document, though we can quibble over the presence or absence of certain liberal features in the way it finally turned out. Among the early directors of India's destiny were many liberals. The architect-in-chief of the Constitution was B R Ambedkar, a profound liberal;C Rajagopalachari, independent India's first governor-general, was a liberal intellectual;and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, was a true liberal in values and thought. And there were others in that elite corps of leaders.
That very elite exclusivity, within which grand debates took place over values and policies in a liberal spirit, was perhaps the problem for liberalism's future. The spirit did not really trickle down to mass politics or into the inner minds of most of midnight's children, barring an elite few, who came of age in the '50s and '60s. For, as a concept liberalism sounds attractive, but it's not easy to appreciate in full form.
The word 'liberal' comes from the Latin 'liber', which means 'free'. That's why a founding pillar of liberalism is freedom of expression. It has several pillars on which the idea rests, but the right of all citizens of a liberal democracy to be entitled to free expression is a central requirement of any society that cares to call itself liberal.
A crucial corollary of that right to free expression is the right to offend. That's precisely where the Indian experience has veered off the liberal path. But if I can never offend anyone, how can I freely express myself ? We are not talking of tonal quality or the necessary grace of social behavior. But my views are mine and anyone who feels offended can express a competing viewpoint to offend me in turn.
After all, what good is democratic politics without disagreement that can, and often does, offend persons holding different views? Thus, a Marxist-Leninist in India might describe me contemptuously as a 'bourgeois liberal' and I might not like that. Or a religious and cultural nationalist from the right might describe me as 'pseudo-secular' or a 'chamcha' of un-Indian values, but then I reserve the right to call them prehistoric idiots. Orderly disagreement despite offensive speech is democracy.
The ensuing conflicts of speech can be resolved through a number of forums in a liberal democracy. There are, to start with, elections at periodic intervals in which political parties that have very different and conflicting opinions can compete to garner support. There's Parliament and there are state assemblies, where debates are supposed to take place within established rules. In case of libelous speech we have the courts. And a free media would be the other vital channel to express our thoughts, feelings, disagreements and anxieties, offensive or otherwise.
OK, but is the right to offend absolute? Of course not. The moment offensive speech becomes a clear call for violence, or forcibly steals the legal rights of others to live and think as they like, you forfeit your right to free expression. It's easier to say this than to judge a crisis in real life but liberal democratic experience worldwide has developed fairly clear norms. Thus, say, an Islamic cleric claiming to speak on behalf of a whole community can say that his brethren have been hurt by Kamal Haasan's film;but while he can call the film maker foul names, he can neither beat him up nor must he, by threatening violence, force a ban on the director's right to show his film.
Somewhere along the way, the lofty liberalism of the early years became just an ideal to nod to. Actually, the degeneration probably began in the '50s, when some films, books and organisations were first banned. But with the arrival of Indira Gandhi's style of politics, liberalism took a long hike from which it has not returned.
With an amendment forced through Parliament in the '70s, it is now technically impossible for a political party to operate in India unless it first declares its adherence to 'socialism'. Liberalism is not socialism though it can sit well with social democracy of the kind that is prevalent in modern welfare states. In India, however, there is no presence in the political arena of a truly liberal party, whether free market-oriented or social democratic.
So, has the liberal space shrunk in India? Yes, but it was hardly ever there.
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