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In the beginning of 19th century, Lord William Bentinck, then-Governor-general speculated that the possibility of vast change occurring in the frame of society would eventually lead to the British leaving the country under capable Indian rule. But he also added that such changes should not be expected for centuries to come, thus giving justification to the despotic rule by British in the meantime. Mid-century liberals like John Stuart Mill provided the ideological basis for such tendencies.

At the end of 19th century, Gladstonian liberals inducted Indians from the elite class into new representative institutions , thereby providing a framework for later self-rule, which became a reality by 1947.[1]

Right-wing journalist Swapan Dasgupta wrote in 1994 that the spirit of liberalism in India is superficial and is tempered by authoritarian ideologies like Marxism.[2]


Classical Liberalism

Prominent ideas of classical liberalism emerged in Great Britain at the wane of the eighteenth century. These began as primarily leftist schools of thought, including (but not limited to) concepts such as individualism, liberty, and egalitarianism. Simultaneously, British India (Company Raj) underwent a similar chrysalis. The effects of classical liberalism in India introduced many Western practices, philosophical doctrines, and political ideologies to the nation, primarily because Indians were deemed unfit for self-rule, as outlined below.

Governor Generals of the British East India Company Warren Hastings and Charles Cornwallis instituted numerous changes over their rules. Notably, Cornwallis instituted the Cornwallis Code in 1793, a code of law influenced by Hindu and Muslim legal frameworks. The code placed the British at the top of a system regarding caste and religion that was present in India at the time. This marked the beginning of more than a century of classical liberalism in British India—setting precedent for forms of racial discrimination,[3] simply due to the widely held belief that the British naturally stood above Indians, and that they were not capable of governing themselves.

Scottish writer James Mill gained prominence among the British around this time. Generally regarded as a utilitarian imperialist influenced by classical liberalism,[4] his most successful work was A History of British India, published in 1817. Mill effectively tarnished the Western appeal of India, dividing its history into three significant eras: Hindu (ancient), Muslim (medieval), and British (modern). Mill’s reductionist philosophy toward Indian history set harmful precedent for British figures and liberal policies in the years to come, including his son (John Stuart Mill), the policies of Governor General Thomas Macaulay, and numerous other figures.[5] In his 1999 work Liberalism and Empire, Uday Singh Mehta outlines the framework that Mill proactively established, stating that a nation’s progress is dependent on a much more powerful nation:

“Mill sees in the histories of backward civilizations a potentiality on account of which they can in fact progress. But the actualization of this potentiality typically turns on a force external to those civilizations … Hindu civilization, for Mill, epitomizes this condition of being stalled in the past. But various aspects of Hindu Civilization had prepared it for progressive transformation.”[6]

Mehta later goes on to highlight Mill’s argument that the Muslims laid the foundation for British rule to thrive, and that Hindu and Muslim culture were in need of assistance from the British.[7] This motif among British liberalists, that Indians (both Hindus and Muslims), were not capable of civilized self-rule, appears again, as a common occurrence throughout the nineteenth century. The significance of Mill’s opus is noticeable in the abstract works of his son much later, but more importantly in the practical regulations established by Thomas Macaulay soon after. Macaulay served on Lord William Bentinck’s Governor-General Supreme Council from 1834-1838,[8] and went on to publish his Minute on Indian Education in February of 1835. This work set precedent for English education to be mandated in India, with the same, staunchly negative perception the British garnered toward Indians, as stated throughout:

“When we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable … all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.”[9]

Macaulay’s minute is a clear representation of the harsh British perception toward Indian culture, language, and adequacy toward government that prevailed due to classical liberalism in the early nineteenth century, setting precedent for legislation in the years to come.

Indian intellectuals of the era

A key figure from early 19th century is Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He along with his compatriots created a constitutional history for India centred on a local judicial body called Panchayat. Roy himself put forward arguments in favour of Indian representation in Parliament and for constitutionally limiting the Company's power. He felt that the Indian public would be empowered by free press and service on juries under a liberal British government.[10] Roy wanted modernity in curriculum for Indian students while not rejecting tradition outright. He was inspired by Christian humanism and insisted on reforming Hinduism, making it more ethical and rational.

Another important person was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, leader of the Indian National Congress who demanded self-rule for the nation reeling under Lord Curzon's oppressive rule. [11]

Modern Liberalism

Soon after Indian independence, Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (informally called Rajaji), began to see the risks to India of letting Nehru's fervor for socialism go unchallenged. Rajaji parted ways with the Indian National Congress in 1957 and formed the Swatantra Party which supported classical liberal principles and free enterprise.[12] Since then, many new thinkers such as S. V. Raju, Sharad Anantrao Joshi, Barun Mitra, Lok Satta Jayaprakash Narayan, Parth J. Shah, Gurcharan Das, and Sauvik Chakraverti, Raghavendar Askani, Venkatesh Geriti, among others, have emerged on the Indian liberal scene, contributing to the debate on freedom in India, and advancing classical liberalism.[13][14]

Economic liberalisation

Main article: Economic liberalisation in India

India's first attempt at economic liberalisation was carried out in 1966 as a precondition to an increase in foreign aid.[15]

The economic liberalisation of 1991, initiated by then-Prime Minister of India P. V. Narasimha Rao in response to a balance-of-payments crisis, did away with the License Raj and ended many public monopolies, allowing automatic approval of foreign direct investment in many sectors.[16][17]

Liberal organisations
Prominent Indian classical liberals
Prominent Indian left-liberals

List of current liberal parties

Classical liberal parties

Social-liberal or left-liberal parties

List of defunct liberal parties

Classical liberal parties

See also


  1. ^ Chatterjee, Partha (27 September 2011). "THE CURIOUS CAREER OF LIBERALISM IN INDIA". Modern Intellectual History. 8 (3): 687–696. doi:10.1017/S1479244311000412. S2CID 145252660.
  2. ^ Dasgupta, Swapan (31 July 1994), "Right to be partisan", The Indian Express, p. 8, retrieved 2 February 2024
  3. ^ Wickwire, Franklin B. (1980). Cornwallis: The Imperial Years. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780807813874.
  4. ^ Pitts, Jennifer (2006). A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 123. ISBN 9780691127910.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Mehta, Uday Singh (1999). Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 94–95. ISBN 9780226518817.
  7. ^ Ibid, 95.
  8. ^ Evans, Stephen (2002). "Macaulay's Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India". Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 23 (4): 260. doi:10.1080/01434630208666469. S2CID 144856725.
  9. ^ Macaulay, Thomas (1835). Minute on Indian Education. Retrieved 26 November 2023.
  10. ^ Bayly, C.A. (8 March 2007). "RAMMOHAN ROY AND THE ADVENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERALISM IN INDIA, 1800–30". Modern Intellectual History. 4 (1): 25–41. doi:10.1017/S1479244306001028. S2CID 145404296.
  11. ^ Valdameri, Elena (24 June 2015). "The Influence of Liberalism in the Definition of the Idea of the Nation in India". La Révolution française (8). doi:10.4000/lrf.1333. Retrieved 2 February 2024.
  12. ^ Rajagopalachari, C. "Why Swatantra?". No. 16 July 2016. Mint. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
  13. ^ "Evolution of Liberalism in India". Centre For Civil Society. 17 July 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Classical liberal-reformer-activist-empowering-youth-for-a-better-india". Bookofachievers.
  15. ^ Mital, Ankit (24 January 2016). "India and liberalization: There was a 1966 before 1991". Mint. Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  16. ^ "India's industrial reforms of 1991: The inside story". 6 August 2016.
  17. ^ "Everything about Manmohan Singh's Epochal Budget that marked the beginning of economic liberalisation".
  18. ^ Saar, Larissa (16 October 2020). "Interview with Venkatesh Geriti from Swatantrata Center in India". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  19. ^ "Jayaprakash Narayan: Fixing Governance With Reforms And Economic Freedom". Forbes India.
  20. ^ Verhofstadt, Dirk. "Liberalism is the best Cure for Poverty". Archived from the original on 12 October 2006. Retrieved 17 August 2008.
  21. ^ Fotopoulos, Takis (October 2004). "Why an Inclusive Democracy? The multidimensional crisis, globalisation and inclusive democracy". The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy. 1 (1). Retrieved 21 May 2008.
  22. ^ "Lok Sabha Elections 2014: Know your party symbols!". Daily News and Analysis. 10 April 2014. Founded in December 1997, the Biju Janata Dal or the BJD is a regional political party of India. Having split from the larger faction Janata Dal, the party stands by democracy and liberalism.
  23. ^ Emiliano Bosio; Yusef Waghid, eds. (31 October 2022). Global Citizenship Education in the Global South: Educators' Perceptions and Practices. Brill. p. 270. ISBN 9789004521742.
  24. ^ Jha, Giridhar (25 November 2019). "Maharashtra Govt Formation: BJP's Return Into Ring Makes Scene Murkier". Outlook. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  25. ^ Das, Gurcharan (2002). The Elephant Paradigm. Penguin. p. 244.