Positive Liberty’ is the Answer in India


The problem of growing intolerance in India was discussed in the Parliament in this Winter Session as a pressing national concern that tampered with the fabric of peaceful co-existence, which is a vital determining characteristic of the Indian state. In modern Indian politics, the word ‘intolerance’ can be construed as an umbrella term that encompasses the problems of Communalism, Casteism and regional oppression in India. If one is to look more closely, the phenomenon of intolerance in today’s context is interchangeable, in fact, with the term ‘elitism’ – for only when a group of people consider themselves superior than others, they place themselves in the position of authority from which they can choose to tolerate or not to tolerate others. Elitism, in its extreme form almost always slips into intolerance. Today, in India, there are fundamentally three forms of intolerances that plague our socio-political system – regional intolerance, caste-based intolerance and religious intolerance.

Historically, the problem of regional elitism has been one of the oldest in the Indian context. Despite the notions of “Bharatvarsha” being devised and promulgated in the ancient Indian history, there seems to have been regional supremacies that have sustained in the cultural reminiscence of India right up to the modern times. For example, the whole of Indian history in the textbooks seems to have played out alongside the gangetic plains, with a few honourable mentions of the South and the Deccan here and there. The latter happen especially whenever history feels the need to showcase traditions of democracies existent in India, else the rest of the “Bharatvarsha” is conveniently kept aside from the spotlight. Even today, regional discrimination against the rights of the states, at times becomes an unfortunate manifestation of the workings of the government.

 Another old form of elitism in India has been the caste based one. It needs to be noted that the caste based elitism is a phenomenon absent in the Ancient Vedic texts.  Rig Veda that shows how in a family, there could be people practicing different occupations:

I am a poet, my father is a physician, and my mother is a grinder.

Earning a livelihood through different means we live together…

—Rig Veda, 9.112.3

However, gradually, in India caste became a defining factor, which over time crystalized into a major political determinant in the modern Indian society. A few years back, Government of India’s Anthropological Survey of India, brought out a series of publications titled ‘The People of India’. This project identified 2800 castes including 450 SC, 461 ST and 766 OBC and concluded that “Caste continues to be the basic building brick of Indian society”.

A final and perhaps the most dangerous form of elitism is the elitism based on religion. In the view of the recent western Uttar Pradesh riots, the revived fervor in relation to the Babri Masjid issue, the revivalist zeal associated with cow protection, and the deaf ears with which the government met with the intelligentsia of the nation are all pointers towards the fact that indeed the communal tides are once again on the rise in the Indian nation. In fact, if one is to notice, the rise of religious elitism, it can be traced from 1920s onwards when the agenda of tabligh (propaganda) and tanzim (organization) were taken up by the Muslim League and those of shuddhi (purification) and sangathan (organization) were taken up by the Arya Samajists and their supporters. Ever since then, religious elitism revived its medieval fervor only now with the help of modern tools and mediums of propaganda, bureaucratization, specialization and the mass media. All these three forms of intolerances combined have created an environment in the nation where there is ostensible liberty in the nation, but one just doesn’t feel that fearless liberty and freedom that the nation seeks to bestow upon its citizens.

It must be remembered that Constitution of India was founded on the principles of positive liberty and the appreciation as well as a clear understanding of the conceptual distinctions between positive and negative liberties is essential to the understanding of the fundamental character of modern democracies in general and that of India in particular. In mainstream philosophical tradition, the difference between negative and positive liberty was introduced by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” According to Berlin, negative liberty could be understood by answering the question: “What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” That is to say that negative liberty seeks to define an area within which citizens can be left free without intervention from the state – i.e. there is a boundary within which, the state may allow the people to do as they please but only as long as the boundary is not crossed. A common illustration of negative liberty would be of a child left within a room who is allowed to do whatsoever, so long as he or she does not step out of the room. A state tending towards negative liberty may well have freedom, but more often than not, it may only offer the “freedom to remain silent”.

On the other hand, the concept of ‘positive liberty’ seeks to treat citizens as mature adults who may traverse any path, except for a few restricted ones and as long as they do not block the others. It seeks to create a boundary for restrictions, leaving the rest as an open field for liberty to be exercised. In other words, the positive liberty principle says: “Here are the things that one may not do and beyond this all citizens are free to do as they please as long as it does not infringe upon the right of another”. It is due to the commitment to the concept of positive liberties, that democracies promise to offer their citizens freedom of speech, the right to exercise their faith and the right against exploitation. In essence, these are the rights that make living in a democracy in India so valuable – so much so that long sustained movements right from India’s struggle for freedom to the Telangana movement have found people who have given away their entire lives just in order to secure some of these fundamental human liberties for their people.

However, when the state begins to define, guide and even restrict the content of education that will be imparted through the textbooks; when it begins to give covet preference to a particular religious group or a particular region of the nation while restricting the liberties of the others; then the state begins to exercise negative liberty which imperceptibly ushers the nation into a culture of intolerance and elitism. It begins to create boundaries around people beyond which they are rendered unable to think, let alone act. The citizenship is then reduced to the child who may never step out of their room, no longer it remains the free-spirited mature adult who can define their own path for progress.

What is to be done under such circumstances? In a state like India where the socio-political environment is marked by a morass of overlapping and competing interest groups, it becomes the duty of the citizenry, the community and the electorate to fight not just for liberty, but for positive liberty. At the same time, it becomes the duty of the mass media and the intelligentsia, as has also been advocated by the celebrated thinker Noam Chomsky, to “call the bluff” of any institution pretending to serve negative liberty instead of a positive one, so that a mature democracy like India can never be bound in the shackles of a superstructure that plays one interest group against the other and can instead remain free to choose the way in which it seeks to make its own mark in the modern world. Hence, not just any liberty, but positive liberty is the answer to the growing intolerance in India.