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Posted at: Apr 16, 2017, 12:07 AM; last updated: Apr 16, 2017, 12:07 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A LIBERAL IN INDIA ED BY RONALD MEINARDUS.

Missing, the moderates in action

Young people, who believe in liberty and freedom, are distrustful of extreme positions taken by the Left and the Right and wish as liberals to "be critically conscious of and not succumb to several extremist social pressures and ideologies”

Ratna Raman

This book is a collection of 19 short essays, selected from an essay competition set up for university students to discuss the possibility of being a liberal in India. The essays have been selected from around 600-odd submissions, all of which were written by young educated Indians from different institutions providing access to higher education in the humanities, sciences and law from all over India. Ronald Meinardus, the editor and selector of what he calls the best essays, admits that holding the writing competition and then publishing the best essays involved a mixture of personal interest and strategic considerations. Meinardus identifies himself as a liberal who believes that “freedom is the most important human right” enabling“good governance and economic development.” He works for The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom whose objective is to promote liberalism by associating with local partners such as the Centre for Civil Society.

The book hopes to engage Indian liberals and others in a political dialogue.

Meinardus expresses surprise that India, despite being the biggest democracy on earth, has no major liberal party or major liberal political force. To what could we attribute India’s hard won freedom from colonial domination if not the liberal beliefs shared by our nationalist leaders, that also find their way in the framework of the Indian Constitution. In fact, much of the liberal traditions doing the rounds in Modern India, originated from the popular post-enlightenment ideas that suffused Europe even as it established expansive empires in other parts of the world.

It is pertinent to note that the contributors to Meinardus project are students who are enrolled in India’s liberal universities, which have, for the past few years, been at the receiving end of a hegemonic state that continues to crush possibilities for discussion, debate, dialogue or dissent, all of which are extremely important for the creation of a liberal atmosphere. Ironically, it is the ushering in of neo-liberalism that has rendered our freedoms extremely fraught. The students who are speaking in these essays come from privileged backgrounds of privilege and entitlement. They belong to elite institutions and are able to voice their opinions on a range of complex issues concerning India, such as class, caste, race and the sexual, economic and religious liberalism that dogs us. One essay explains that ‘to be a liberal in India means to be able to resist and challenge extremist ideologies without sacrificing a critical attitude towards the principles that often guide this very challenge.”

Most of the essays show an engagement with the issues that perplex urban India, the India of big cities and overcrowded towns where value systems and differences are often engaged in head-on collisions, exacerbated by lawlessness and political opportunism. In fact, most of the writers express serious concern about the prevailing political climate in the country and set great store by the ideas of liberty and freedom.

The book establishes that we have young people, who believe in personal liberty and freedom, are distrustful of extreme positions taken by the Left and the Right and wish as liberals to “be critically conscious of and not succumb to several extremist social pressures and ideologies.” 

Having put together a text that articulates the aspirations of India’s educated young elite, maybe, as part of the second phase of the project of discovering what it means to be a liberal in India, Meinardus could pull all these idealist out of their respective closets and put them on a train traversing the length and breadth of India with unscheduled stop-overs. Perhaps this new frisson will make for the writing of a whole new chapter in India’s liberal history.

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