Indian liberals of the past, including Dr B R Ambedkar, did not foresee the threat posed to individual freedoms by authoritarian exercise of state power, according to Rochana Bajpai, political researcher and founder member of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, at SOAS University of London.
At a three-day international conference on Dr B R Ambedkar organised by Karnataka government, Bajpai, author of Debating Difference: Group Rights and Liberal Democracy in India, said Ambedkar’s contribution to liberal thought and minority politics is not as well-known as his influence on social justice and the Constitution. While classic liberals believe state power poses great threat to individual freedoms, Indian liberals of the past, “nationalist or otherwise”, were more concerned with the thinking that “unless the state is bound to act and unless it is empowered to act, liberal ends would not be achieved and individuals would be trapped in oppressive traditions,” she said.
“What he and other Indian liberals did not see enough is the threat to individual freedoms itself that was posed by the authoritarian exercise of state power. The ways in which freedom of expression, freedom of dissent, freedom of lifestyle and values — conflicts that are with us today, can be threatened by unchecked state power.” Indian liberalism is yet to evolve reformative and institutional resources which protect the individual against an authoritarian type of state power, she said.
Ambedkar’s work expands the scope of liberal thinking beyond nationalist liberals like Ram Mohan Roy, Ranade and Phule in important respects, she said. “Ambedkar’s emphasis on equal dignity provided an ideological grounding for human rights. This is something we do not see in the strands of nationalist liberalism and colonial liberalism that was seen before Babasaheb,” she said.