A great question lies before all those who identify as liberal in India today. What is the central political concept around which they can mobilise? Like the opposition parties that seek to represent them, they seem to vacillate and quarrel over articulating a clear ideological vision for the country.
By contrast, the BJP and its many affiliated organisations have the idea of Hindutva – what Anustup Basu has recently called political monotheism. There is no doubt about what is at stake. And herein lies the rub. Liberals are rightly fond of celebrating the cosmopolitan pluralism and multiplicity of the Indian past as an alternative to the ideologically blinkered version offered by the regime in power.
While this might make for good history and philosophy, such polysemy does not translate to an articulate political message. They must ask themselves, therefore, what structuring ideological commitment is adequate to their struggle with the Right? What is the defining burden of their liberalism? The answer must be freedom.
Defining Liberalism and the Need for Freedom
The most obvious reason for this is the precipice on which the country is perched. This is not merely about impending elections, as undoubtedly germane as they may be. It is about the very trajectory in which it is headed.
An affinity fundamentally rooted in the fear and ressentiment of an invented majority, Hindutva constitutes the antithesis of what freedom means for most Indians. It is unfreedom, and needs to be recognised as such. It is a constraint on the capacity for freedom. Hindutva is, in the classical sense, tyranny. Liberation thus seems to be on everyone’s mind.
The Historical Context
There are good historical reasons for this choice as well. The struggle for human freedom found arguably one of its most dramatic theatres in the Indian past.
Historians over the generations have amassed much evidence for how the peoples of India have contested each other along the axes of their many collective identities and interests, such that examples are unnecessary, and would prove impossible to note in passing.
If there has been one constant to their history, the striving for a richer liberty has arguably been a central theme, even if we have been told otherwise many times over. The observation seems to hold true no matter which period or region one considers, and certainly does today. If fealty to and honoring the past is a matter of concern, one could do worse than amplify this historical truth.
Political Significance of Freedom
Politically, freedom could potentially serve as the binding concept around which a variety of political aspirants could consolidate their fortunes. The idea has deeply meaningful cultural and historical valences in all vernaculars, resonates strongly across variously defined popular mobilisations, and has unfortunately acquired a pressing salience throughout the country due to the actions of the present government.
A sufficiently pliable concept, it has the advantage of being able to accommodate a range of equally just aspirations, while nevertheless demanding a shared imagination.
The Question Before the Country
Perhaps most importantly, intellectually speaking, the liberals of India must ask themselves what is the cost of their freedom. What are they willing to do to defend their liberties from further encroachment? What does it mean to be a liberal today? The present moment is therefore an opportunity.
For the question before the country seems to be what is the alternative to Hindutva as an idea? There are, no doubt, a variety of contending views judging from the pronouncements of oppositional political parties and civil society actors across a vast and diverse array of domains of public life.
But what is one left with, conceptually, upon reflection on and distillation of this great multiplicity of struggle? How the Indian polity chooses to answer this question will have lasting consequences.
(Dwaipayan Sen is a PhD from Department of History in the University of Chicago. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)