What the world can learn from Indian liberalism

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Jawaharlal Nehru, later Prime Minister of India, with Mohandas Gandhi, the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. | <span style=”font-family: -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, “Segoe UI”, Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, “Helvetica Neue”, sans-serif;”>Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images</span>

Liberalism, it’s often said, is in crisis. Virtually everyone across the political spectrum agrees on that to some degree.

But nobody agrees on what the nature of that crisis is — or, sometimes, even on the basic question of what liberalism is. With such basic disagreements standing in the way, conversations about liberalism often feel like dead ends.

This week, I’m attending a conference that tries to answer these very big questions. “Liberalism in the 21st Century,” hosted by the Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism, is bringing liberals from around the world together to try and interrogate their own ideas — and figure out what can be done to rescue them from crisis.

To kick off the discussion, I sat down with another attendee, the Indian political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta. One of his country’s leading public intellectuals, Mehta has been a leading voice in articulating what liberalism means in a distinctively Indian context. 

In his telling, liberalism isn’t merely a set of specific ideas: it arises from a basic human impulse, one of hating to be dominated by others. Mehta argues that in India, the abhorrence of domination forms the core of a distinctive liberal tradition — one shaped less by Europe’s war of religion than India’s own tradition of caste oppression.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation on these themes (and others), edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

To my mind, liberalism starts with a moral and philosophical principle: that the purpose of government is to encourage or permit individuals to live life according to their own vision of what it means to be a good person, to live a meaningful life. 

Democracy is one implication of that, because you can’t have people choosing their own lives if they don’t get to determine the government that runs them. Individual rights follow from that for obvious reasons. But those things, which are often defined as primary to liberalism, I think are sort of secondary to the moral core of the doctrine. At least that’s how I see it.

But I’m curious, Pratap — what’s your definition of liberalism, and how does it compare to mine? 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Let me begin with talking about an elemental experience that is at the core of liberalism. 

We often have this thought that something would be unjustified if it were to be imposed upon us. Sometimes we say that about our parents. Sometimes we might say that about classmates. The thought is that forcing someone to do something violates something important about them. We often resent the fact that we are being made to do things against our will. And I think liberalism actually flows out of that elemental experience: that any demand of authority over us needs to be justified to us.

Underlying that negative prohibition is a sense that choosing what the good life is is both difficult and has various possibilities attached to it. This is almost like a spiritual quest, where authenticity and sincerity actually matter: It is important that it be your choice.

I feel sometimes this moral core has been lost because liberalism has now just become so encumbered by its kind of entanglement with Western history — this mistake we make that liberalism is specifically Western or imperial or something like that. 

Zack Beauchamp

This has been a hobbyhorse of mine for years, ever since I read Amartya Sen’s 1997 essay on liberalism and Asian values. It’s amazing how some debates never seem to end.

But though I share your view, I get the other side’s point. I understand why you would say liberalism is this tradition that we identify with a certain set of thinkers who are all European men, all born roughly between the 16th and 19th century, and that those people had a particular set of concerns and biases. Here I’d point to Charles Mills’s work on the racism and justifications for colonialism in Enlightenment theorists like Kant and Mill.

From this point of view, you could say that this is what liberalism is. However you want to define liberalism abstractly, in actual context, it’s a set of ideas that emerged from the West that co-traveled with racism and imperialism. 

Interestingly, Charles Mills himself doesn’t agree with that last leap. But many do. And I’m just curious what you make of it as somebody who studies liberalism in a decidedly non-Western context. 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Liberalism arises in 17th-century Europe because there is a kind of history of religious persecution and religious intolerance, right? The first wave of liberalism is, in a sense, a response to the problem of religious tolerance and religious pluralism. 

But when people say liberalism was invented in the 17th century,  it almost sounds like there were no traditions of religious toleration, no traditions that acknowledged value pluralism or any other tenet of liberalism in different traditions. 

Yet there are other parts of the world where theological intolerance was actually not a political problem at all. Just pick up any ancient Indian text. My own tradition, the Jain tradition, takes it to be a natural fact that different people will have different religious beliefs.

India had a different kind of intolerance, which was more social intolerance — that people are arranged in a kind of hierarchical order. But it does not have the tradition of theological intolerance that the West does. Right. So for India, a liberal is going to emphasize surmounting that legacy of inequality.

While the primary concern for 17th-century liberalism was theological intolerance, that doesn’t mean that the history of liberalism is going to be exclusively a Western history. It just means that the sources and enemies of liberalism are actually different in different societies. 

There are reasons why liberalism congeals into a particular set of attributes between the 16th and 18th century, but it actually doesn’t mean that much of the moral core of liberalism is not available elsewhere. Not only was it available, it was actually practiced. 

Zack Beauchamp

The Sen essay discusses Emperor Ashoka, a third-century BCE Indian monarch — specifically, his 12th edict at Erragudi. In it, Ashoka says, “He who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect.”

I find that really striking as a third-century BCE text. Here’s an emperor saying, as a matter of official state policy, that you must not disparage the faith and the beliefs of other people who share the territory with you. The edict really does support your argument that there are longstanding and deeply rooted versions of liberal principles across global history — and especially in Indian history. 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

I don’t want to romanticize the past. India also had its original sin in the form of inequality in caste. But at least on the question of theological and philosophical intolerance, the question actually never rose in quite the same form as it did in the Western world. 

What has been at the center of Indian debates is a different kind of social power, namely the power exercised by communities over individuals within them. 

There was a version of toleration that meant, look, each community can have its own beliefs. And yet we know communities exercised power over their individuals within them. Often they will exercise power over women within communities, right? They will exercise power over the ability of individuals to exit communities — to convert, for example. 

I think one of the interesting things when I look at these Indian traditions — including Buddhism and Jainism — is that they are also asking an interesting moral psychology question for liberals. What is it that leads people to want to dominate other people? To want to exercise power over their beliefs? 

It’s not just a question of conviction that I’m right and you’re wrong. There is also something about the way we construct our own identities in our own selves — the privileging of our own egos, as it were, that lies at the base of this desire for domination. 

One of the things you actually find in a lot of these texts is that if you want a liberal culture, right, where you don’t seek to dominate others, you respect other people’s beliefs and so forth, you will actually have to ask a deeper and profound question: What kind of people do we have to be? Where that thought comes naturally to us. That’s not just a question of philosophical doctrine. That’s almost a question of temperament, of moral psychology. 

Zack Beauchamp

So that brings me to my next question — which is a big one. Hopefully not too big!

When we talk about Indian politics today, we’re talking about a modern state.  All sorts of complex historical developments that bridged from over 2,000 years ago to today, including British colonialism. So when we talk about liberalism in its modern Indian form, how did it evolve? How did these various different proto-liberal ideas in the Indian tradition interact with more recent developments to produce what we might now call Indian liberalism? 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

That’s a profound question. 

One of the interesting things about the Indian Constitution is that for many of its framers — like B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru — the big worry was that the state was not empowered to reform communities. It is quite possible that you could actually end up with a state that is liberal in its broad constitutional structure, but so much social power is exercised by communities over individuals that most individuals still find the social systems they live in actually quite oppressive. 

Caste is one example. In principle, you could say the state should be completely neutral: It shouldn’t particularly care how people define their identities. But if caste structures social power, it is going to have profound implications for the kind of freedom individuals actually exercise. The state might say people should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they want. But does that mean, as a society, we can exclude people from taking water from the well in our village just because they happen to be from a lower caste?

So I think Indian liberalism’s biggest social challenge was profoundly shaped by that experience of social policy.

So, many of the debates in Indian liberalism are preoccupied with the question of social justice; the question of how the state can ensure individuals are freed from very oppressive forms of social power. These may not have the sanction of the state behind them, but still can mutilate the dignity of individuals in quite profound ways. 

Zack Beauchamp

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no doubt a threat to Indian liberalism. His Bharatiya Janata Party is traditionally the party of the upper caste and the wealthy, but it has expanded its appeal across caste. Its main argument ideologically against Indian liberalism has been an almost Western-type sectarian argument, which is that Muslims don’t belong in India because India is a Hindu country.

So Indian liberalism is concerned with social power. But now it’s facing a challenge from something that you describe as alien to the Indian tradition — sectarianism. So I’m curious: was this challenge anticipated to a great degree by the modern creators of Indian liberalism? And, if not, what happened to give rise to Hindu nationalism as such a potent force in India that they didn’t anticipate?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

That’s a wonderful question because it allows us to introduce one subject we haven’t named in this discussion so far: nationalism. 

The Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] right is actually a very modern phenomenon. What makes the emergence of Hindutva possible is the rise of the modern nation-state. Once this idea got around in the late 18th and 19th century — that we can institutionalize something like liberal democracy only in a nation-state form — it naturally led to big questions. How do we define who the people are? Who gets to be a member of a particular society? A modern democracy requires much stronger forms of mutual allegiance: the state taxes you more, the state relies on voluntary armies, and so on and so forth.

How does 19th-century Europe respond to that? By defining nations in terms of particular ethnic characteristics, [like] a language or a religion. In the process of that nation-state formation in 19th-century Europe, you get enormous bloodshed and homogenization of populations. When the Habsburg Empire dissolves, when the Ottoman Empire dissolves, that’s the process which then unleashes the quest to create somewhat more homogeneous nation-states with cohesive identities. And the result was a kind of moral catastrophe for Europe. Nationalism. Two world wars. 

Now, what was interesting about the Indian national movement, I think, was that it saw that history and said, “If you want to avoid the catastrophes of Europe, you have to think of nationalism very differently.” It cannot take on board the simplistic ideas of nation-state ideology that Europe propagates, which is that a nation-state should have a principal ethnic identity, that it should be based on one language or one religion, or one dominant kind of sense of community, of faith. They realized that if you try and institutionalize that kind of a nation-state in the Indian context, the only logical conclusion would be immense violence and displacement of people in the quest for creating homogeneous nation-states. 

So in that sense, I think the challenge for modern Indian liberalism, like for modern European liberalism, and I dare say even for America, has actually not been traditional theological intolerance. It’s actually the nationalism question. And liberalism has always had a difficulty with the nationalism question because it has a theory of the state. It has a theory of the good life. It doesn’t have a clear theory of membership. It doesn’t have a clear sociological theory of what produces the forms of identification that allow communities to function as democracies with deep allegiance. 

So I would actually argue that what Narendra Modi is trying to do in some ways is not revive ancient fundamentalism. He’s as thoroughgoing a modernist as you rightly said. He’s actually trying to import the fantasy of a European-style nationalism in a context where its consequences — like in Europe — will be conflict and violence.