Liberalism : Different Strands





Liberalism Strands

Liberalism as a political idea in India was developed by the English educated middle class, a product of the colonial education system. The colonial education was introduced with the aim of creating cultural and ideological hegemony for maintaining alien rule. It was intended to project the superiority of European values and institutions to disseminate them as the ideal for Indians. The Indian “traditional” values and institutions were not considered to be conducive to social progress. .

The liberal critique of Indian society and colonial state began with Renaissance.

  • Raja Rammohan Roy
  • Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
  • Devendra Nath Thakur
  • Akshay Kumar Dutt
  • Jyotiba Phule
  • Gopal Ganesh Agarkar
  • M.G. Ranade
  • Dada Bhai Nauroji
  • Surendra Nath Banerjee
  • Pherozshah Mehta
  • Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

The above listed Indian liberals and others tried to set a liberal model for transforming Indian society and polity. They looked upon the colonial rulers to lead and guide the sociopolitical transformation.

The English liberals like J.S. Mill and many others pleaded for the continuation of colonial rule as it was essential for ‘civilizing’ the native and putting them ‘on the path of progress.’

The conception of colonial rule by various stands of Indian liberals was not very different from their European counterparts.

Even those who understood the exploitative character of colonialism did not go to the extent of denouncing it and were concerned only with the question of impoverishment and pauperisation of Indian masses due to the colonial drain of country’s wealth.

The liberals like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dadabhai Nauroji and others exhorted the colonial rulers, through petitions for redressal. But even this concern eventually boiled down to the problems of the members of the educated middle class who had not found appropriate place in the administration. Dadabhai Nauroji in a memorandum submitted in 1880 appealed to the ‘manliness’ and the ‘moral courage’ of Englishmen to pay attention to “the thousands that are being sent out by the universities every year” and who “find themselves in a most anomalous position.”

Similar conception of colonial rule found expression in the writings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who projected the colonial rule as ’emancipatory’, ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’. Its continuance was desired to safeguard and enhance the interests of the Muslim community as Islam did not come into conflict with progress and reason symbolized by British rule. This can be compared with the logic of Renaissance thinkers who desired and justified the continuance of a representative system of government on the ground that “so long as differences of race and creed and distinction of caste form an important element in the sociopolitical life of India, the system of election cannot safely be adopted.” This line of argument represented the interests of landed and educated Muslim middle classes and was unconcerned with the problems of lower classes of the community.

The nascent Indian capitalist class and the new intelligentsia, which drew from the traditional social elite of Indian society became the main vehicle of liberal political ideas.

  • The Bhadraloks of Bengal, the Brahmins of Madras, and the Brahmins and Prabhus in Bombay presidency were among the earliest to be affected by the spread of liberal ideas.
  • Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), Dadabhai Nauroji (1825-1917) S. N. Banerjee (1848-1925), Pherozeshah Mehta (1845-1915), G. K. Gokhale (1866-1915), Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-95) and M. G. Ranade (1842-1901) among others, evolved a liberal critique of Indian society and colonial state and underlined the importance of liberal ideas for the transformation of Indian society and polity.


M. G. Ranade

Ranade, a representative of the dominant liberal thinkers, articulated the interests of the rising Indian capitalist class.

  • The central part of his argument was that the Indian economy should follow a capitalist path of development, if it is to solve her problems.
  • He argued that the state must play an active role in economic development.
  • He disagreed with the laissez-faire concept of state.
  • He believed that India could get rid of its phenomenal poverty and dependence on agriculture through industrialization and commercialization of agriculture, and the state must play an active role in such transformative process.

Ranade pointed out the immense progress of agriculture in France, Germany and Russia after the liquidation of feudal agriculture and introduction of capitalist relations and peasant proprietorship.

However, Ranade’s advocacy of state intervention in economic activities did not give the state unlimited sanctions, for he was a believer of individual freedom. Unlike the western liberal philosophers, however, Ranade’s individual liberty was a concept that derived from his metaphysical ideas which based themselves on the upanishads. In his view God resides in everything in this universe, and therefore, in each human being. Thus the freedom of conscience is the real freedom and the rights of conscience must take precedence over all other considerations. Man should then submit to the voice of his inner conscience alone and not to any outside force or authority – religious or political. However, this also means that individual freedom of action is to be used in a way that it does not impose restraints on the equally free rights of other people.

Ranade, for the above-mentioned reasons, was also a critic of the caste system which imposes external restrictions on human behaviour. He supported the Bhakti movement because he thought the saints asserted the dignity of the human soul irrespective of birth.

The agency of social change and reform in Ranade’s view was the elite stratum. In his opinion, “…..there is always only a minority of people who monopolize all the elements of strength. They are socially and religiously in the front ranks, they possess intelligence, wealth, thrifty habits, knowledge and power. This elite group was composed of Brahmins, Banias, Zamindars and the educated middle-class.

So, true to the aspirations of the capitalist class, he believed that “power must gravitate where there is intelligence and wealth.” His scheme for representation to Indians contained provisions for giving political power to the rich and educated. At the municipal level, for example, the elected seats were to be divided in the ratio of two to one between property holders and the intelligent class. Though he did not consider such representation democratic, he nevertheless believed that it was necessary as the masses were still incapable of electing worthy-men as representatives. Generations of training and education were required before they could be made capable of it.


Jyotiba Phule

In contrast, Jyotiba Phule (1827-90) and B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) presented the other pole of liberal thought. The predominant influence of Phule was the revolutionary liberalism of Thomas Paine. He maintained that all men and women are born free and equal. God had made them so and no one should suppress anybody else. They should therefore, have equality before law and equality of opportunity for entry into the civil service or municipal administration.

In the light of this, naturally, the high caste politics of the Ranade School did not make sense to him, nor did the strategy of developing capitalism.

  • Phule’s main preoccupation on the other hand was liberating the downtrodden castes – the Shudras and Adi-Shudras from the grip of caste-slavery.
  • He rejected the whole system of Hindu/Brahminical mythologies and the cruel and inhuman caste laws that went with them. Whatever improvement was evident in the conditions of these people was the result of British rule.
  • Unlike Ranade, Phule therefore, was a votary of mass education and criticized the British for diverting funds to higher education which was to him of secondary importance.


B. R. Ambedkar

Fundamental to Ambedkar’s approach for the upliftment of the ‘untouchables’ was their education. Education, for him, meant not only literacy but higher education.

  • ‘Untouchables’ must possess self-respect and dissociate from traditional bonds of untouchability and refuse to do traditional untouchables work.
  • ‘Untouchables’ must be represented at all levels of government by their representatives.
  • He was always firm on the question of ‘untouchables’ leading themselves, i.e. producing their own

Further, for ensuring that the downtrodden castes got their due, he insisted that the government take responsibility for the welfare of all its people, create special rights for those who had been denied education and occupational opportunities. To this end, he visualized a strong central government with a clear-cut commitment for the welfare of all its people.


Phule’s and Ambedkar’s liberalism despite a chronological gap, provided a counterpoint to the elite liberalism.



Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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