S. V. Raju – The True Liberal

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Today is the 82nd birth anniversary of Mr. S. V. Raju.  He was liberal to the core.  For him, there was no compromise on anything that went against the liberal ethos.  Liberalism was a subject very close to his heart; it was literally running in his blood.  He was ever so eager to speak about and explain liberalism to an audience if he found them to be willing listeners. 

We felt there would be no better way to pay him our tribute on this day by reproducing extracts from his article “Liberal Political Initiatives – Past and Present, Third Time Lucky?” first published in “Liberal Times” (newsmagazine of Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung) of April 2000.  This is a very simple essay on “Liberalism “.  The full text of the article can be obtained from the office of Freedom First. 

Beginnings of Indian Liberalism

The history of Indian liberalism begins in the 18th century with Ram Mohan Roy “with his concerns for social reform and the uplift of women, for education as a means of social transformation, for the freedom of the press”.1

It was the liberals who spearheaded the freedom movement in the 19th century.  The Indian National Congress was a creation of the Liberals and pursued Liberal policies.  Liberals like Dadabhai Naoroji, Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dinshaw Wachha, Pherozeshah Mehta, Karsondas Mulji, Kandakuri Veeresalingam Pantulu and V. S. Srinivasa Sastri who founded “The National Liberal Foundation” in 1918, were trenchant critics of British rule.  But their priorities were not immediate independence.

Undoubtedly, they wanted freedom from British rule, but this had to be preceded by social reform, a campaign to remove the scourge of casteism, freedom from illiteracy, from superstition and blind faith.  They saw nothing wrong in taking what was good in British rule including the English language.  They did not subscribe to the belief that by learning English you were neglecting your mother tongue.  Many of those mentioned above were not only masters of English prose but were outstanding writers in their mother tongue.  They wanted that criticism be fair and opposition be based on reason and not on emotions.  They adapted western concepts to suit Indian conditions.

Role of the State

India’s liberals of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not subscribe to the concept of a negative role for the State.  For instance, Ranade had this to say on the subject: “Speaking roughly, the province of state interference and control is practically being extended so as to restore the good points of the mercantile system without its absurdities.  The State is now more and more recognized as a national organ, taking care of national needs in all matters in which individual and cooperative efforts are not likely to be so effective and economic as national effort.”  This is a correct view to take for the true functions of a state.  To relegate them to the simple duty of maintaining peace and order is really to deprive the community of many of the advantages of the Social Union.2

Post-Independence State

The liberal domination of the Indian National Congress ended when Gandhiji took over the leadership of the freedom movement and resorted to methods of agitation.  Gandhi was a Liberal.  His views and those of Gokhale (whom Gandhiji considered his political guru) were similar.  But Gandhiji demanded freedom here and now and was not prepared to wait while the people were educated and ready to take over the administration of a free India. Undoubtedly, Gandhiji galvanized the people and hastened freedom.  However, when one looks around India today, can one not legitimately wonder if the Liberals of the last century were not justified in their cautious approach?  The Liberals faded away and the Indian National Congress, after independence and under Pandit Nehru’s leadership, went on to adopt the “socialistic pattern of society” as its credo.  The policies pursued increased the powers of the state enormously.  It would be almost four decades before the Liberal movement made a comeback in the form of the Swatantra Party.

Tolerant India, Not Liberal

The assertion that the Liberal philosophy is natural to India and that Indian society has been essentially a liberal society is not quite borne out by our history.  Tolerant yes; Liberal hardly.  Often our tolerance was at the peer level.  We tend to be servile to those above us and lord it over those below us, particularly, those lower down the caste hierarchy.  The much praised panchayats, as evidence of our republican temper were, as Dr. B. R. Ambedkar pointed out, dominated by the upper castes.  While recent steps to restore Panchayat Raj institutions have tried to set right this imbalance, we need to accept the fact that liberalism does not come to us naturally.  It is necessary for this to be said to underline the handicaps which Liberalism has to contend with.

Liberalism v/s. Liberalisation

The words Liberalism and Liberalisation are used as if they are synonymous.  There is confusion that they are one and the same.  Liberalisation generally connotes a freer economy; Liberalism goes far beyond economics.  To the committed Liberal, Liberalism connotes a free economy in a free society.  On this there can be no compromise.


Footnotes 1&2: Cited by Dr. S. P. Aiyar in his essay “The Concept of Liberalism and its Relevance for India” published in “Freedom and Dissent” (Essays in honour of Minoo Masani)