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This article gives an overview of liberalism in India.


The strengthening of British influence in Bengal with the Battle of Plassey in 1757 coincided with significant developments of thought in England (John Locke, 1680s; Adam Smith in the late 1700s; and Edmund Burke) and in the United States (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, among others).

1603–1835: Introduction and development of English

The English language came to India in 1603 during the time of Akbar, but there was then no pressing economic reason for Indian people to learn the language. It was only after the consolidation of Bengal by Robert Clive, and the extension of the East India Company into the Indian political landscape, that the demand for learning English began to grow. By 1835, Indians were paying serious money to be taught English, as it allowed for job opportunities in the company.

As Thomas Babington Macaulay noted in his famous Minute, "the natives" had become "desirous to be taught English" and were no longer "desirous to be taught Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic." Further, those who wished to, seemed to picked up English very well: "it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos [sic]."[1]

Those who learnt English quickly became aware of its literature, including the rapid evolution of Western political thought. This greater awareness of the advances in freedom laid the seeds for the demand for self-rule.

Late 1800s–1947: Independence movement

While people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) began to articulate elements of these political arguments, no one was in a position to explore and articulate new insights. However, catching up to some key liberal ideas, such thought would begin to be implemented through new demands for greater freedom in India. While the West was firmly embedding its new political institutions, or contesting the growing forces of socialism (which had overpowered parts of the feudal and aristocratic West), the Indian intelligentsia was grappling with the challenge of the first major task ahead of it: independence.

In the Portuguese colony of Goa, Francisco Luís Gomes advocated freedom, self-rule, and political unity for India. His outstanding contributions towards the fields of liberal philosophy and economics led him to be widely hailed as "The Prince of Intellectuals" in Europe. In addition to Roy and Gomes, other contributors to political thought on freedom in 19th century India included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915), and Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915). Theory thus led to an independence movement in India.

Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated through a humane, non-violent, and dignified protest, that all humans were equal and should be treated equally, including their being given the opportunity to govern themselves. This was a major advance in the theory and practice of freedom, and can be argued to have had a major effect in ending the age of imperialism and of racial discrimination.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was very well-educated and fully aware of the history of liberalism, seems to have had surprisingly little faith in an individual's ability to think and take responsibility for himself or herself. Nehru did not emphasize the importance of each individual undertaking self-reflection and choosing among ethical alternatives. Possibly, in his view, making these ethical choices was too difficult for the common man. He definitely believed that these choices were best directed through state level dictates laid down by governing elites. Through planning. In any event, he veered toward collectivist and socialist thinking where decision-making power is concentrated in the State. Decentralization, where power and freedom vests with people at the lowest levels, was anathema to Nehru. He stated in his Autobiography, "socialism is ... for me not merely an economic doctrine which I favour; it is a vital creed which I hold with all my head and heart." Indian industrialists (with their Bombay Plan) also sided with Nehru on a socialist pattern based on the Soviet Five-Year Plan model.

Despite the environment in which socialist thought was flourishing, India was fortunate to enjoy at least a few liberties even before independence. The advances made in political institutions in England as a result of liberalism were imported and embedded into India over the decades by British rulers. Things like the right of assembly and protest under reasonable circumstances, the right to property, and freedom of expression – with a relatively free press, became a part and parcel of Indian political landscape before independence.

1949–1970s: Post-independence liberalism

C. Rajagopalachari, founder of Swatantra Party
C. Rajagopalachari, founder of Swatantra Party

The 1949 Constitution gave to Indians some of the liberal rights that the British and Americans had come to expect by then. In addition, India extended franchise to everyone: all adults had the right to vote in the republic. That was earlier than even most developed countries had provided to their citizens at that time. But on most political issues, India adopted Nehru's socialist model, that included a significant dilution in property rights, among others. The government entered businesses as its primary activity, to help it achieve the ‘commanding heights of the economy.’ Government factories sprung up quickly and began churning out shirts, watches, fridges, scooters, bicycles, milk, bread, and cheese.

Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (informally called Rajaji), the second Governor-General of India and a Bharat Ratna, and Minoo Masani, and economists like B.R. Shenoy advocated greater freedom. However, they were unable to over-ride the Indian fascination with socialism. Rajaji was a close colleague of Nehru during the independence movement, but soon after independence, he quickly began to see the risks to India of letting Nehru's fervour with socialism go unchallenged. Despite having fought for independence by Nehru's side, and without regard for his own advanced age (Rajaji was 80 by then), Rajaji decided to act to block Nehru's onslaught on freedom. He parted ways with the Indian National Congress in 1957 and formed the Swatantra Party which supported classical liberal principles and free enterprise.[2] For the next 14 years till his death in 1972 he waged a battle with Nehru's Congress party to advance freedom. However, as Nehru was extremely popular at that time, and also had the resources of the government at his command, Rajaji's was inevitably a losing battle.

The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival. The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property and carry on their professions freely and through binding mutual agreements among themselves and that the State should assist and encourage in every possible way the individual in this freedom, but not seek to replace him.

— Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari writing about his party in 1960

Rajaji's opposition arguably helped India minimize the excesses of socialism. His party held 44 seats in Parliament in the 4th Lok Sabha (1967–71). Swatantra was also part of the opposition to the Nath Pai Bill that advocated primacy for the Directive Principles of State Policy over Fundamental Rights. There were many other occasions when Swatantra acted as the voice of reason in a very unreasonable time. Making use of the free press and democracy, Swatantra pressed on for freedom, regardless of the difficulties it faced, but ran out of steam in 1973.

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.[3][4]

Economic liberalisation

Main article: Economic liberalisation in India

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Following Independence, India adopted the Socialist model of development. This led to creation of Licence Raj, the elaborate licences, regulations and the accompanying red tape that were required to set up business in India.

India's first attempt at economic liberalisation was carried out in 1966 as a precondition to an increase in foreign aid.[5]

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 Licence Raj and ended many public monopolies, allowing automatic approval of foreign direct investment in many sectors.[6][7]

Liberal organisations in India

Political parties

This is a list of both past and present political parties with liberal views.

Other organisations

Prominent Indian liberals


Swatantra Party

Post-Swatantra Party

Contemporary Indian Liberals

See also


  1. ^ INC is a big tent party which once took a socialist position, but now it is close to a social liberal party.


  1. ^ Sharp, H. [1920] 1965. "Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835." Pp. 107–17 in Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839). Delhi: National Archives of India. – via Columbia University. Retrieved 23 June 2020.
  2. ^ Rajagopalachari, C. "Why Swatantra?". No. 16 July 2016. Mint. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
  3. ^ "Evolution of Liberalism in India". Centre For Civil Society. 17 July 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  4. ^ "Classical liberal-reformer-activist-empowering-youth-for-a-better-india". Bookofachievers.
  5. ^ Mital, Ankit (24 January 2016). "India and liberalization: There was a 1966 before 1991". Mint. Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  6. ^ "India's industrial reforms of 1991: The inside story".((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. ^ "Everything about Manmohan Singh's Epochal Budget that marked the beginning of economic liberalisation".((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ Saar, Larissa (16 October 2020). "Interview with Venkatesh Geriti from Swatantrata Center in India". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  9. ^ "Jayaprakash Narayan: Fixing Governance With Reforms And Economic Freedom". Forbes India.
  10. ^ Verhofstadt, Dirk. "Liberalism is the best Cure for Poverty". Archived from the original on 12 October 2006. Retrieved 17 August 2008.
  11. ^ 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.