The root of the word “liberal” is the Latin “liber” – “free” – and since that root is found also in words such as “liberation”, with their implicit suggestion of carefree freedom, we tend to unconsciously mistake liberalism’s objective with its process. To be liberal, we think, is to be easy and relaxed, even blithe. But while freedom and tolerance are the goals of liberalism, the process of achieving those goals needs effort and dedication. “The price of freedom,” Thomas Jefferson once cautioned, “is eternal vigilance.”
In India, where the model of a liberal society has been fantastically and precariously crafted by the nation’s founding fathers, there are few more vigilant monitors of liberalism than Ramachandra Guha. His work as a historian is simultaneously erudite and accessible; his writing on cricket is ardent and, for devotees of the sport, highly enjoyable; his magazine and newspaper articles provide perspective and insight.
However, all of his work is shot through with the portentous question of how to keep liberalism – liberal thought and liberal action – alive. It is a question that engages his intellect as well as his passions; after all, as he once wrote, with contemporary history, “the historian too is a citizen,” with a stake in the society for which he serves as chronicler. And the answer to this question, Ram finds repeatedly in both history and the present day, must involve constant critical thought and application. This is why his writing is so valuable – not only because it keeps such a tight focus on why liberalism matters, but also because it reminds us of the never-ending hard work required to keep India liberal.
Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. His first book of non-fiction essays, “Following Fish,” was published in 2010. A selection of his work can be found at http://www.samanth.in.