Thoughts on economics and liberty

The foundations of India: in classical liberal philosophy

While searching for something else, I chanced upon a 1966 article on Whiggism in India. I'm publishing extracts here to remind us why India is a liberal democracy and not a Hindu or Muslim monarchy. Let us remember the great influence of classical liberalism in India, and recover our understandings of freedom.

Indeed, the entire national freedom movement was deeply steeped in classical liberalism. It was started by the likes of Raja Rammohun Roy, Ranade,  and Gokhle. Later, people like Gandhi only marginally modified it (he basically applied the ideas of classical liberals Henry Thoreau and of Leo Tolstoy), and thus these idea of liberalism nourished the freedom movement. The writings of Rabindranath Tagore fall into this stream of thought. And later, people like Ambedkar, fully within the classical liberal tradition, established India's laws.

And yet we have now allowed sixty years of Nehruvian socialism to wipe out ALL memory of the great contribution of the classical liberals to India. It is time we paid attention to our intellectual heritage. 

From my understanding three classical liberal philosophers influenced India the most: Edmund Burke, Thomas Macaulay and J.S. Mill. I've already elaborated quite a bit on Macaulay – who is so badly misunderstood in India today, by those who have never read or understood him. I'll elaborate on Edmund Burke some more in a separate blog post, for Burke's contributions are global. He has been one of the most influential of all classical liberals of all time, close to John Locke in his influence.

Whiggism in India

By GANESH PRASHAD Banaras Hindu University, published in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Sep., 1966), pp. 412-431. Word version.
Lord Acton once said that the French Revolution was inspired by “the system of an international extra-territorial uni­versal Whig.”[1] What he had in mind was the radical Whiggism, which, based on Locke’s idea of Natural Rights, had traveled from England to France and America. The Indian nationalist movement was also inspired by a “system of an international extra-territorial universal Whig,” but this was a conservative version of Whiggism based on Locke’s concept of Community Supremacy. This under­standing of political society came to India mainly through Edmund Burke who had “pushed Locke’s theories [of contract, law, rights, society, and state] to conservative conclusions”;[2] and, directly or indirectly, it was this system that became the principal source of inspiration to Indian socio-political thinking. Other ideas, tenden­cies, and systems made their appearance, but only to make the Burkean analysis more acceptable. How and why the thought of Indian liberals was inspired chiefly by Burkean conservatism is an intricate and intriguing problem that deserves exploration.
So great was Burke’s popularity with the Indian patriotic elite that the bureaucracy suspected that his works fostered disloyalty and radicalism, and in the opening years of the present century for a time interdicted his writing at Calcutta University.[3] The Bombay government, too, contemplated removing some of his works from the university syllabus.[4] That Burke was regarded as a radical by a fearful bureaucracy is not surprising, but what about intel­lectual India? The testimony of Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1914), the leader of the nationalist elite for about a decade, is illuminating. He hailed the presence of Morley at the India Office, because “he was the reverent student of Burke, the disciple of Mill, the friend and biographer of Gladstone.”[5] For the nationalist elite Burke passed for a progressive, if not a revolutionary. Natesan and Company of Madras, publishers of nationalist literature, gave Burke the place of honor as a “friend” in their “Friends of India” series.
Why did Burke become the favorite author and philosopher of generations of Indian literati? One reason was that his speeches and writings on India satisfied the patriot’s elemental, though nega­tive, urge to denounce the ruling power. The “conqueror’s critic is our friend.” The East India Company was the conqueror of India, and the best exposition of its misdeeds is found in late eighteenth-century British literature. Of these critical writings, Burke’s were most effective. Motives of the author apart, the Indian patriot’s blood was stirred while reading passages from his Impeachment of Warren Hastings.[6] This naturally earned for him the affection and reverence of the patriot, and it was not at all unnatural that he be­came a “Friend of India.”
But the patriot was also moved by the positive urge for a radical change in the conditions of the country. Before World War I the French Revolution had a romantic appeal for him,[7] and he was eager to study its literature. What better work could there be than the one penned by the “Friend of India”? For, to the patriot at least of the pre-Gandhian period, Burke “stood out . . . as a leader of mankind, a prophet of race, calling aloud . . . for justice, social order, integrity and humanity.”[8] So the Reflections on the Revolu­tion in France was read. And before the involved philosophy of that bible of conservatism could be comprehended, rhetorical pas­sages were committed to memory and repeated in classrooms and on platforms. Gokhale, it is said, would recite this book on a bet to his neighbor, who “would sit for hours waiting for even one mis­take,” in the vain hope of getting one anna for an error.[9]
Thus the Indian progressive elite completed the mental exercise which should have done honor to a conservative youth. Puzzles there are in the history of social thinking, but perhaps very few are of this magni­tude. Thus a search for revolutionary strategy, tactics, and philoso­phy impelled the patriotic literati to study the Reflections, and im­pressionable minds assimilated Whiggism. How? The panegyric on the British political system and on Whiggism sustained them. For them as for Burke, “the constitution was sacred . . . as the voice of the Church and orders of her saints are sacred to the believer.”[10]
[Note: I'll write about constitutional conservatism shortly in a separate blog post. Sanjeev]
The study of the Reflections assuaged another positive urge of the patriot, namely, to know the ruling virtues of the Ruling Race. For the Indian patriot, parliamentary institutions were seen as the main factor in Britain’s greatness, and he always aspired after such institutions for India. To this end, so the pre-Gandhian patriot thought, it was essential to assimilate those virtues which had made the English great. The Reflections was a veritable storehouse of those virtues, which were synonymous with Whiggism. So, the study of the Reflections engendered an admiration for Whiggism, and admiration led to imitation.
Mock parliaments, mock impeachments and debates constituted important extra-curricular academic activities in schools and col­leges. Could there be a better guide than Burke? He was invariably recommended by elders, boys learned by heart passages from his speeches. It is said that no day for a college debate “was missed without his [Gokhale’s] quoting elaborately from Burke’s Reflec­tions.”[11] For improving diction, too, Burke was recommended to the adolescent. In short, he became an indispensable companion of the future elite. The Burkean style of oration, cultivated during impressionable adolescence, proved an asset in later life. The habit of mind, developed during youth by study of the conservative phi­losophy of Burke, could not but influence the thought processes of the Indian patriotic elite.
What was the character of this elite? In 1920, Ramsay MacDonald asserted that the Indian liberal nationalists had “naturally passed into the ranks of statesmen.”[12] The fact is that statesmanship was the hallmark of the elite. In the Congress, Gandhi, the saint-states­man, was surrounded by followers who were either agitators aspir­ing to be statesmen or statesmen threatening to be agitators. Who could be a better guide than Burke? Even socialist Harold Laski ad­mitted that Burke had “endured as a permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.”[13] Then, the English political authors and leaders (the Mills, Bright, Macaulay, Cobden, Maine, Gladstone, and Morley) whom the literati, especially of the pre-Gandhian period, studied were either statesmen-philosophers or philosopher-statesmen. Burke was the natural guide of them all. Through them also Burkean Whiggism entered Indian intellectual life. True, during the Gandhian period the study of these luminaries considerably decreased. But the die was already cast. The habit of public life, the lines of socio-political development, the mode of thinking had quite matured. In the Gandhian era as well, therefore, the ghost of Whiggism continued lurking at the back, if not at the front, door.
Social reformism generally followed the sober, balanced, and liberal line laid down by M. G. Ranade—to win over the conservatives and not to antagonize them. In the political sphere the strategy and tactics of the predecessors of Gandhi were reputedly Whiggist or Liberal. Their faith in the ef­ficacy of that methodology was the product of the infant stage of nationalism and of their study of Burke and English history. Their indefeasible faith in moderation earned for them the label of “Mod­erates.” To their tactics of prayers, pleas, protests, petitions, resolu­tions, agitation, and legislative activities were added some new ele­ments during the Bengal Partition Agitation (1905-10). These were Swadeshi, boycott, and passive resistance, which gave teeth to the liberal strategy of constitutionalism, gradualism, moderation, and progress by “insensible degrees.” So far as violent activities were concerned, they were sporadic and spontaneous, and they never found a place in the approved creed of the Congress. [Congress was almost entirely classical liberal in its foundations, till Nehru took it over. Sanjeev]
Now a pertinent question arises: Did Gandhism constitute a basic change? The answer is, No. It was a continuation of the Whiggist or Liberal tradition, for Gandhi assimilated the spirit of the phi­losophy and outlook of Gokhale, whom Gandhi called a saint, his Guru or Master. And what was the essence of Gokhale’s thought? For him the Reflections was the “life-long reservoir both for thought and language.”[18] To have heard Gokhale lecturing on Burke’s Reflections was to have drunk at the fountain-head of constitution­alism and moderation.”[19] Gandhi’s genius transformed the Mas­ter’s virtue into a new ethico-political system in such a way that the whole looked like a totally new phenomenon. He confessed to Louis Fischer: “I am essentially a man of compromise.” His ideal soldier or Satyagrahi “is ever ready for fight” and at the same time “must be equally eager for peace”; he “must welcome any honour­able opportunity for peace.”[20]
Taking over the liberal technique, Gandhi improved upon it, and made its teeth­ Swadeshi, boycott, and passive resistance—bite more effectively. To the traditional liberal tactics it added civil disobedience, non-co­operation, constructive program, and ascetic self-denial. Even one of these would have sufficed to immortalize the author. Perhaps, after Burke’s, Gandhi’s was the greatest contribution to the liberal methodology, as, after Asoka’s, his was the greatest contribution to the Indian tradition of non-violence.
Thus, as a technique of socio-political progress, Gandhism was a variant of Whiggism or Liberalism—more correctly, a meta­morphosed Liberalism, an Indianized Liberalism. The process of metamorphosis or Indianization was absolutely essential. Without that a slave nation would not readily accept and employ the tools borrowed from the ruling nation to end its rule. The task was indeed extraordinarily difficult. … Gandhi metamorphosed it in such a way as to make it look wholly Indian.
By “insensible degrees” Gandhi transformed Gokhale’s liberal method­ology based on British Whiggist tradition. The superb artist in him sharpened its existing teeth, went on adding new ones, and made them bite jointly and separately. He couched the philosophy in the religious, mystical language of India, and the chauvinistic climate linked it with ancient India, with the Buddha and with Asoka. For­gotten was Gokhale, the preceptor of Gandhi and a student of Burke. Forgotten was British liberal and Whiggist tradition. The metamorphosis was absolutely essential. The frustrated colonial bourgeoisie and literati would not accept and adopt techniques of foreign origin to end foreign rule. They longed for something new. And Gandhism satisfied that longing. It made them proud. The na­tion, so they argued, could give something new to the world even under conditions of slavery. Thus the Indian revolution was in­spired by Burkean thought. The metamorphosed thought became India’s legacy to the struggling countries of Africo-Asia and to the world. In this sense modern India internationalized, extra-terri­torialized, and universalized “the system of an international extra­territorial universal Whig.”

[1] Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (London, 1910), 20.

[2] Alfred Cobban, Edmund Burke (London, 1929), 53.

[3] S. N. Banerjea, A Nation in Making (London, 1925), 142.

[4] C. H. Setalvad, Recollections and Reflections (Bombay, 1946), 200.

[5] Gokhale's presidential address, Benares Congress, 1905, in Speeches of Gok­hale (Madras, 1916), 841.

[6] For example, "I impeach Warren Hastings . . . of high crimes and mis­demeanors. I impeach him in the name of the Commons. . . . I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties he had laid waste and desolate. I impeach him in the name, and by virtue of eternal laws of justice, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation and condition of life." The Speeches of Edmund Burke (London, 1873), I, 231.

[7] The example of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Father of Modern India, is sig­nificant. It is said that at the Cape, despite serious physical disability, he board­ed a French frigate to pay homage to the French Revolution and its principles.

[8] G. A. Natesan, Edmund Burke (Madras, 1912), 16.

[9] J. S. Hayland, Gokhale (Calcutta, 1933), 16.

[10] John Morley, Edmund Burke (London, 1867), 121.

[11] T. K. Sahani, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Bombay, 1929), 39.

[12] J. R. MacDonald, The Government of India (New York, 1920), 19.

[13] H. J. Laski, Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham (London, 1949), 172.

[18] Sahani, 38.

[19]Ibid., 55.

[20] Quoted in G. K. Dhawan, Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (Ahmed­abad, 1957), 138, 136.

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2 thoughts on “The foundations of India: in classical liberal philosophy
  1. A

    This is a huge revelation of sorts, that India was “hijacked”, so to say. The other interesting questions it raises are: What is our complicity in this ? What defects of the Indian character, if any, contributed to such hijacking ?

    On a minor point, I think the phrase “insensible degrees” probably needs explanation or a foot note. I think it is akin to the “infinitesimal delta” of differential calculus, so small an increment that each step is hardly noticeable (sensible) against the previous.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    A, not sure what are you referring to. There is no character issue involved here. Gandhi remained a liberal till the end. He was even inclined to libertarian anarchism. It was Nehru’s ideas that have derailed India, and I don’t blame his character.


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