“We are born free and equal”

Liberalism in India - A Commentary by Sadaf Hussain

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” said French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Liberalism can be defined as the order of free people, of people who are free to make choices and also make mistakes without harming others. This order promotes civil liberties and, importantly, also economic liberty.  The ideas of choice, tolerance, the rule of law, civil and political rights and entrepreneurship are important in our lives; without them, the freedom of the individual would be meaningless.

Traditionally and historically, Hindu mythology teaches us in manifold manner how to focus on the self and challenge the higher power. Whether it was demons worshipping gods to achieve extra powers, women using their special rights to take revenge or children challenging the mighty God, Hindu text has mentioned these and many other stories  to inspire free people.

The last two verses of Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda (oldest text of Indian Mythology) talks about “But, after all, who knows, and who can say | whence it all came, and how creation happened? | The gods themselves are later than creation, | so who knows truly whence it has arisen? | Whence all creation had its origin, | he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not, | he, who surveys it all from highest heaven, | he knows - or maybe even he does not know.” This is the text which, in my opinion, allows us to question the freedom we have, even the age-old tradition about God as the creator. And, for me, this establishes the idea of freedom as the basic principle of liberalism, which allows us to believe it is deeply rooted in Hindu mythology.

Indians have lived a life of free thinkers in the past. People like Raja Ram Mohan Roy hold great esteem for Indian history for having challenged the Sati System which is not sanctioned by the scriptures or by the law-givers like Manu and Yajnavalkya. Sati was largely practised by women in the medieval era to save them from rape or enslavement after wars. However, the tradition continued even after the conquests stopped. Roy’s fight wasn’t against the British or Mughals; it was a struggle against the age old institution. 

Indian society was not based on any religion per se, but on Karma and Dharma. Both aren’t rules, but a set of principles that the individual acts upon with a sense of duty. Karma and Dharma are not for society or for “others”, they are for self. They help us live a life guided by responsibility and freedom.  In fact, Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of liberalism was based on Dharma and Ahimsa (non-violence). He lived a life inspired by the concepts of Swaraj, Swadeshi, Sarvodaya and Satyagraha which are based on the principles of Dharma and Ahimsa. Gandhi didn’t believe in curbing people’s rights and freedoms. He spoke up for freedom which includes the right to make mistakes.

The idea of Dharma and Karma is well established in one phrase from Upnashids “ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti” (There is one truth but the wise call it different names): We are born equal, born creative and free thinkers. However, as society evolves, some raise high to become the rulers.

 When India achieved her independence after 200 years of brutal British Raj we really didn’t know what to do with that freedom. For two centuries we had been programmed to be slaves; only a few knew how to fight.

We reached political freedom, and devoted ourselves to the procurement of economic growth. We relied on those who emerged as leaders, who got us our independence. Jawaharlal Nehru was 58 at the time of independence and held the strap to move the economy in the “right” direction. He was a literate man who, instead of letting the economy grow from bottom up, thought it better to steer things from the top. He came up with a concoction of Marxism, Soviet and Fabian Socialism which would become to be known as “Nehruvian Socialism”. He introduced Five Year Plans and similar disastrous policies. His economic ideas led to 3.5% growth rates over three decades with meager income growth

India then went through another curbing of economic freedom in 1966 with rupee devaluation by Indira Gandhi. Soon after that was the emergency period of 1975 to 1977. One of the reasons for this was that the people were unhappy with the Prime Minister after the 1971 war and strikes and protests were happening everywhere. The rise of a political opposition was not well-received by the leader. The authorities curbed libertiest hrough censorship of the press, cinema and other forms of art, and arrested political leaders at the whim and fancy.

India also witnessed dissent and protest: free thinkers, economists, advocates and liberals like the kind of BR Ambedkar, BR Shenoy, C Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani, Nani Palkhivala, SV Raju. These men and others defended civil and economic liberty and are historic voices of Indian liberalism.

Starting 1991, India saw a wave of liberalisation and privatization. The authorities started to appreciate the advantages of a free people and reduced rules and regulations to help the economy grow. The shift showed results: India’s economy grew by 6-8% annualy and per capita income rose  by more than four percent every year  in the past 25 years.

India’s economy has been through ups and downs. This went on ill the current government and the followers started to come up with ideas to curb the freedom of individuals in the name of “national interest” and “corruption”. India’s GDP growth rate slowed down in the first quarter of this year because of demonetisation and the Goods and Services (GST) reform. Arguably, these policies did more harm than good to the economy. While we should heed Bastiat’s advice and withhold final judgement on these policies in the short term and judge them by their long-term effects, seasoned economists agree that these policies were implemented without reading the basics of economics.

The landscape of politics is changing also. Today, people are less free to think, read or act freely. History is re-written. Eating habits are challenged. Patriotism and nationalism are questioned. Privacy of people is under threat.  In the words of Prasoon Joshi “…emotions and beliefs have become more important and facts have taken a back seat”.

This reminds me of a story called Anand Ramayana (another version of Ramayana from 15th Century). One day, Ram heard a courtier laugh and was reminded of Ravan’s laughter. Annoyed he banned laughter in Ayodhya and declared imprisonment for those who dared laugh! The result was disastrous. People stopped performing rituals or organize festivals, taking part in dance or games. They even stopped meeting friends. You never know when something you see or hear will make you want to chuckle.

India, in my opinion, is going back to this side of the Ramayana.  And I find it disastrous. Probably, we have forgotten our heritage. We need to follow our Dharma again and bring back a society not ruled by whims and fancies of men but by the rule of law, by principles of good deed. A society which is about Swarajya and Sarvodya.

Sadaf Hussain Program Manager FNF

Sadaf Hussain

Sadaf Hussain is a Program Manager at the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). In this commentary, he is sharing his personal thoughts.