Liberalism comes from the latin word libre which means ‘free’. Libre is the origin for other words like liberal, liberty, libertarian, and libertine. It is also the inspiration for two of the most frequently used words in Indian social media these days : librandu and fiberal.
Even though its popular use started in 17th century Europe, its meaning, use and associations have gone so much change across time and geographical zones that today experts find it difficult to give an exact non-controversial definition. However, the spirit of liberalism and the core values it represents can be understood from the fact that concepts like democracy, secularism, gender equality, individual rights, laissez fair, freedom of speech, free market economy, pluralism, universalism, autonomy etc. owe their origin to liberalism. Liberalism also includes humanitarian values like care for the less privileged.
The early philosophers of liberalism proposed that in an ideal form of governance individuals come together and enter into a contract with the state to willfully concede some of their rights so that the state is able to govern and protect them. Thus we can see nationalism (not chauvinism) too is part of liberal principles.
Our constitution is based on liberal principles, which is clear from the preamble itself.
Liberalism was not always respectable, especially before the seventeenth century. When Europe was at the peak of religious morality and conformity there were people whose behavior defied social standards. They even did not respect the sanctity of marriage. People who took this extreme form of liberty were called as libertines. They were not seen in good light by the respectable people of society. But defying the existing social rigidity and religious authority was at the core of liberal movement.
Seen by those standards Krishna can be considered as the first liberal of Hindustan. The libertines of sixteenth century Europe were compulsive seducers. In this aspect, the less said about Krishna the better. In today’s world when the world is fighting its existential crisis, what are these liberal intellectuals upto? They are not fighting shoulder to shoulder with others in the corona battle. But they dole out advice after advice as to what to do and what not to do. Well Krishna did a similar thing. He refused to fight on behalf of either the Kauravas or the Pandavas. But he doled out some advisories on the war field that has thrived till date.
Jokes apart, in the back drop of the social life of those days, Bhagavad Gita is revolutionary. Krishna emphasizes the inferiority of Karma Kanda (Vedic rituals to appease various Gods) to Jnana yoga and Karma yoga. Rama thought in traditional ways and strictly followed the social norms. But not Krishna. Even Arjuna wanted to follow the traditional ways till Krishna, with the help of those seven hundred verses of Bhagavad Gita brainwashed him.
According to some historians, Krishna was born about five thousand back. So after about 2500 years India saw the rise of another liberal who changed the courses of world History. It was Gautam Buddha. He was not so multidimensional like Krishna. But except for not being a feminist he had all the qualities of a liberal. He was dead against the caste system and other social inequalities. What is more, like many liberals he did not bring God into the picture.
In modern context too, there have been liberals in India since pre-independence times. They never bothered to call themselves as liberals. Nor did we take care to notice that they were liberals.
However, in the last decade or so we have seen a sudden surge in the use of L word in our political and social media discourses. It all started when some people thought it cool and fashionable to call themselves as liberals, even though in real life they did not subscribe to its core values. Now they have become the self-appointed evangelists of liberalism.
Liberals are usually against religious dogma. But there is an unwritten code among the liberals of the west. When it comes to religion, they usually criticize the religion they were born to or are identified with. But in India this is not the case. Take the case of two self styled liberals like Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi. You would rarely find them criticizing any wrong practice of Islam. But they are quick to condemn anything they find odd with Hinduism.
Or consider these two self-proclaimed evangelists of liberalism- Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghosh. It is perfectly in line with the unwritten code of liberalism if they point out any wrong practice of Hinduism. But they don’t restrict themselves to doing that. In addition they also go to defend the radical activities of other religious groups. This is a disturbing trend in India. Liberalism, at its core, is against any form of radicalism whatever may be its source.
Unlike these spineless fake liberals there was a true liberal in twentieth century whom we associate with many other values but rarely with liberalism. But he was the man who gave us a constitution that has liberal values as its foundation.
He was also unequivocal in his attacks on religious dogma. On the one hand if he attacked the caste system of the Hindus, on the other hand he chastised the Muslims for their discrimination against women and treatment of children. He was not afraid to criticize the dogma of anybody, be it even Mahatma Gandhi.
Coincidentally like many liberals of the west like Adam Smith, Keyness and John Stuart Mills he too had an economics background. Of course later on he topped up his economics credentials with a doctorate in law.
His personal life and struggle, though outside the purview of this post, is worth serious study for any one who wants to know what it means to fight all odds and achieve seemingly impossible goals.
Today on his birth anniversary I offer my humble homages to such a glorious son of India – Babasaheb Dr. Bhimarao Ambedakr.
PS : This is the alphabet-L post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.
All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.