British influence in Bengal arose from Clive’s victory in the 1757 battle of Plassey. That period also coincided roughly with significant developments of political thought in England (e.g. John Locke in the 1680s, Edmund Burke who became influential from the mid 1700s and Adam Smith a little later) and in the USA (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton). After the consolidation of Bengal by Robert Clive, the economic advantages of learning English started becoming increasingly obvious. As a result Indians started to show interest in learning the English language and its literature. By 1835, Indians were paying good money to be taught English. T B Macaulay noted in his famous ‘Minute’ that ‘the natives’ had become ‘desirous to be taught English’ and were no longer ‘desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic’. Indians picked up English very well. ‘[I]t 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.’[i] While the British may have wanted to teach English only so that Indians could become their clerks, once the Pandora’s Box of knowledge is opened, its consequences are unstoppable. Indians quickly became aware of the enormous leaps made by Western political thought over the centuries.
This awareness laid the seeds for subsequent demands for self-rule. But India faced a steep learning curve first. It had not paid the slightest heed to what had been going on elsewhere for centuries, if not millennia. But in the meantime the world had completely changed. People’s power was on the rise as never before in Britain. While British kings still existed, their powers had been dramatically truncated. In 1757, a young man of 24 years in Scotland by the name of Adam Smith was thinking about the entire world and examining how the wealth of nations was created. His ideas would convert the tiny island of England into the world’s most powerful nation by the mid-1800s. It was not possible for Indians to advance straight to the forefront of the theory and philosophy of freedom given their late start. While people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) started to internalize the political arguments of freedom, no one could yet articulate new insights. All that the Indians did in this period, and could have reasonably done, was to catch up with liberal ideas and start demanding self-governance in India.
Lest we blame these Indians for lack of creative insight, we must remember that things like ‘independence’, ‘representation of the people’, and even ‘nationhood’ were completely new concepts for most parts of the world then. England had a head-start in freedom which would take many countries a long time to catch up. Apart from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, other contributors to the political discourse on freedom in nineteenth century India included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915) and Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915). By the time the Indian mind finally caught up with the West by 1850, Western thought had moved even further on its journey. But also by now, a battle against liberty was under way in the West. A competing theory to the theory of freedom had arisen in the dying years of feudalism – the theory of socialism (or communism). Both liberalism and socialism agreed that kings were no longer needed. But on what would come next, they differed completely.
These radically opposed Western world views, one founded on freedom, the other on equality, had begun a battle for the minds and hearts of people. Socialism wanted us to revert to our tribal state without the aristocratic overlay of feudalism. It did not want anyone to become exceptionally wealthy or powerful. Its approach had to be implemented, where necessary, by chopping the heads of the rich. The socialist model did not agree with Adam Smith who saw wealth as an unlimited product of the human mind, a mere consequence of innovation. It saw life as a zero-sum game where people had to fight for a share of the fixed pie: capital versus labour. In the model of socialism individual effort, merit or enterprise was irrelevant, for the total wealth was fixed. Therefore redistribution of wealth was the primary purpose of life. The vision of socialism held hypnotic sway amongst untutored minds. It was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. In a brave bid to foil socialism, Frédéric Bastiat wrote The Law in 1850 and John Stuart Mill his essay On Liberty in 1859.
Thinkers of the Austrian school advanced further explorations on the economic impacts of freedom and created the science of economics. In the early twentieth century Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand advanced these ideas even further. While socialism overpowered parts of Europe by the late nineteenth century, England and USA remained the bastions of freedom and kept trying to improve their political and democratic institutions of governance. The greatest advances in freedom therefore took place only in the West, not in India. The Indian intelligentsia remained focused on its challenge of independence. The Indian mind was distracted by another thing as well. Indians had suddenly come down from being supremely haughty and disinterested in the rest of the world to becoming ruled first by the Mughals and then by the British. A doubt arose in their minds that they were potentially racially inferior. The British encouraged this doubt through their own haughty behaviour, for when one is powerfully placed it is easy to be arrogant.
British racism left little breathing space for Indians to focus on the broader global issues of justice and liberty. But British arrogance was clearly misplaced on two grounds: First, the rapidly growing technological prowess of the British was not a product of racial superiority but the natural consequence of the freedom that its philosophers had propounded and its people fought for over many centuries. It was this freedom of thought which had enabled its society to become increasingly more creative and flexible, and thus technologically superior to other societies. Before the ideas of freedom improved the life of the common man in England, the British ‘race’ was actually quite ‘inferior’, being short-statured with mediocre intelligence. Normally, soldiers are the tallest and strongest representatives of any society, but British soldiers were very short till 1814, averaging only 5 feet 6 inches.[ii] But even these tiny fellows managed to conquer India because they rode the steed of freedom which gave them self-confidence and allowed them to innovate at each step.
The rapidly developing sciences in Britain arising from this culture of freedom led to higher survival rates of its infants and consequently to rapid population growth. This excess population also fed into England’s international exploits. The virtuous cycles of freedom kept reinforcing themselves. Their superiority for 150 years or so had nothing to do with race. Second, it was a great mistake for the British to think that there was nothing for the West to learn from India. That learning is a two-way street became apparent to them when some intrepid European scholars discovered the many-splendoured Indian past using methods of research and analysis hitherto not applied in India. Such findings about glorious achievements in historical India brought some comfort, even a sense of renewed confidence, to English-educated Indians. Unfortunately, with the advent of European scholarship of Indian history, a lot of navel gazing started among Indians. The Indian mind, both Hindu and Muslim, began to spend most of its time looking backwards, in reconciling its multi-faceted and possibly exciting past with its unhappy present.
A few Indians did raise broader issues in relation to freedom, such as Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and M K Gandhi (1869–1948). However, that was incidental to the focus on self-rule and opposing racism. This great mental energy led to the most awe-inspiring independence movement the world has ever seen. It was an exemplary movement – far ahead of its times in its principle-based standards of political protest. In addition, the British were gently taught a very important lesson in freedom by Gandhi. His exposition of the equality among peoples and of non-violent protest were significant contributions to the freedom of mankind as a whole. Through humane and dignified protest he demonstrated that all humans were equally worthy of regard.
This was of course helped by allegiance of the British to their rule of law. It is unlikely that Gandhi would have made a difference with Japanese or German ‘masters’ of that era. His methods also reminded the people of Britain that they should not lower their own principles of liberty by diminishing the liberty of others. As a result of Gandhi’s actions the age of racial officially came to an end in many parts of the world. Oppressed peoples of the past, such as the blacks of the USA and South Africa, acknowledge the contributions of Gandhi. Gandhi has therefore brought about a fundamental shift in the world’s landscape of freedom. In that sense, Gandhi was without doubt the most influential proponent of individual liberty (and thus, indirectly, of classical liberalism) in India in the first half of the twentieth century.