Harsh Gupta
Freedom is not a western concept – Part 1
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In her marvellous book on independence and partition, Indian Summer, Alex Von Tunzelmann writes that

“The notion that the “British race” had a monopoly on freedom and democracy was unsupportable with regard to the lengthy traditions of public debate, heterogeneous government and freedom of conscience that had existed for centuries in the India of Asoka and Akbar. If anything…the British army was always on hand to give succour to each imperilled tyrant…And so imperialists were able to perfect a classic piece of doublethink: railing against what they called “Oriental despotism” on one hand, while propping it up with another”.


Indeed, the notion that freedom is an alien Western concept (or for the more adventurous, an Anglo-American concept) is one of the most bizarre rebuttals one hears when one discusses classical liberalism in the context of India – now being peddled by “patriots” instead of colonials. A more modern understanding of freedom may have indeed been developed in the Europe of John Locke and Friedrich Hayek over the last few centuries, but to insinuate that one is not being authentically Indian by supporting such ideas is as sensible by saying that modern-day Americans are not being patriotic enough by following the Indian decimal system!

Firstly, it was only in 1945 that Nazism and Fascism were killed for good in Europe, only in 1964 was racial discrimination ended in America, and only in 1989 was Communism removed from countries like Poland, which were very much at the forefront of the Western Renaissance just a few centuries earlier.

If individual freedom must be declared to be exclusively Western, at least the West cannot be “accused” of having stood exclusively for individual freedom. Secondly, if the West has indeed had various competing philosophies like Socialism and Communism – why is the importing of these philosophies in India any less suspect?

Does India cease to be sui generis when it comes to learning class warfare from the West? After all, Marx was German, Engels was British, Lenin was Russian, and Stalin was Georgian. Why are their ideas kosher? Indeed, why is it OK even for the Swadeshi wing of putatively rightist Indian parties to channel Friedrich List (he too was a German, the horrors!) as they keep on repeating the stale infant industry argument?

Are the Milton Friedmans from the Chicago School of Economics to be detested just for being the barbarian mleccha, whereas leftists like the Harold Laskis from the London School of Economics celebrated as nothing less than the pinnacle of desi-dom? Nehru may have rejected Marx’s revolution, but he certainly accepted the ideas of Edward Bernstein and the Fabians – pucca Britishers – about the compatibility of central planning and socialism with democracy.

I suspect the real reason here is to again discredit the idea of individual freedom, classical liberalism and competitive markets in any way possible. Sophistry of language – fine; allegations of being deracinated – even better! But will those who use this line of attack – from the Indian left or the Indian right – also call Jayaprakash Narayan, a recovering leftist and the man who was most instrumental in renewing our democracy after Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship – to be inauthentic, when he said the following:

“Freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life and it has remained so ever since. Freedom with the passing of years transcended the mere freedom of my country and embraced freedom of man everywhere and from every sort of trammel-above all, it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become the passion of my life and I shall not see it compromised for bread, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else”

What about Justice HR Khanna who was the sole dissenter in a disgraceful Indian Supreme Court bench that tossed out the Right to Life as an inviolable Fundamental Right, with Justice Mirza Hamidullah Beg saying that “We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of the detenus who are well-fed and well-treated, is almost maternal. Even parents have to take appropriate preventive action against those children who may threaten to burn down the house they live in”. Was Beg authentic, and Khanna a poseur?