This article is written by Parth Verma, a student of the School of Law, Christ University, Bengaluru. It seeks to elucidate the concept of liberal nationalism, its origins, and its contribution to the development of the world in current times.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


In this modern world comprising 8 billion people, there are a large number of groups and communities having their own unique language, culture, way of life, and even religious practices. However, as human beings, certain basic rights are to be provided to us, which can’t be taken away from us under any circumstances. Yet, in several nations, these rights are taken away from people belonging to minority communities. Such disparities between the different communities call for a need to stand together. This leads us to the concept of liberal nationalism, which plays a very important role in upholding this feeling of unity and oneness among the people. Yet, in recent times, certain restrictions are being imposed upon free speech, which is an integral part of liberal nationalism, of such deprived people when they aim to assert their rights.

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Hence, this article aims to look into the impact of liberal nationalism on the people at an individual level and the country at large. Further, it has become very important to determine the pros and cons of liberal nationalism to check the applicability of this theory in India and other countries in current times. 

Nationalism and its types

Nationalism is the feeling of oneness among the people living within a particular territory of a nation. The spirit of nationalism spreads to the people when they start believing that they are all a part of the same union and when they discover some unity among them that would bind them together. In India, the spirit of nationalism developed among the people when they developed a sense of collective belonging among them at the time of the freedom struggle.

There are different theories of nationalism that are prevalent all over the world. Some of these examples are :

  1. Ethnic nationalism
  2. Language nationalism 
  3. Religious nationalism
  4. Expansionist nationalism
  5. Civic or liberal nationalism

All forms of nationalism aim to ignite patriotic feelings among the people and develop a sense of belongingness towards the nation, yet the means of achieving it are different. For example, expansionist nationalism aims to develop patriotism through the expansion of their territory by militaristic means. 

What is liberal nationalism?

Liberal nationalism is a concept that aims to develop a feeling of national identity by providing equal rights to all people regardless of their caste, creed, gender, religion, etc. It primarily focuses on equality in all respects for all the people in the country. It encourages the active participation of the citizens in the decision-making process, thereby providing legitimacy (public acceptance) to the state authorities. The underlying notion behind this theory is that all the people in this world are equal and, hence, must be provided with equal liberty, basic human rights, and equality before the law. 

This theory of nationalism had been suggested by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book ‘The Social Contract’. He suggested that it is the responsibility of the government to protect and promote the rights of the people. His theory suggested the relationship that should be there between the citizens and the state, with the state protecting people’s rights. 

Hence, liberal nationalism is a theory that is built upon shared citizenship among the people within the state. A nation would be called ‘civic’ only when the political institutions or liberal principles are respected and upheld by the people of the nation. This theory is not affected by the ethnic diversity of any country, as equal rights are to be provided to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.

Difference between liberal nationalism and ethnic nationalism

People are allowed to practice their fundamental rights in India without any discrimination and can lead an autonomous life as per their own will. Liberal nationalism, to a large extent, lays down the responsibility of the state to respect the rights of all communities and ensure that there are no ethnocentric decisions or approaches on their part. Ethnic or ethnocentric nationalism is the exact opposite of liberal nationalism. 

While liberalism focuses on empowering all the people from the various communities together, ethnocentrism focuses on the majority’s rights or preference for only one of the communities. It hampers the development of any nation. On the other hand, liberal nationalism helps in unifying the people across the country in a much better manner, whereas ethnic nationalism can create a division or a rift among the population by favoring the majority community over the minority. 

Yet in several situations, liberal nationalism can be combined with ethnic nationalism to constitute state nationalism. As per state nationalism, a country comprises a community of people who contribute to the maintenance and strength of the state. This is the basic objective of every human being who lives in a given country. 

Hence, liberal nationalism is a more inclusive theory than other forms of nationalism as it is very inclusive and accepting in nature. This is the primary reason that liberal nationalism still holds a lot of relevance in India and other countries.

Historical background of liberal nationalism

The concept of liberal nationalism had developed for the first time in Europe, after which it became a pervasive ideology in several countries. As discussed in the previous section, the concept of national unity has been developed to ensure equality and freedom for all people. The concept of liberal nationalism came up around the 18th century when Jean Jacques Rousseau introduced the Social Contract Theory. From thereon, a lot of events happened that led to the growth of this theory in Europe.

The Social Contract Theory

The Social Contract Theory has been developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and aims to establish a relationship between the people and the state. It aimed to address the questions on the origins of society, i.e., how does society gradually develop? Apart from this, it also aims to focus on the legitimacy of the state’s authority over any given individual. In addition, his theory mentioned the abolition of the monarchy and despotism, which became the basis of the French Revolution in 1789. His theory laid the foundation stone for the growth of liberal nationalism all over the world. The people of France obtained a sense of collective belonging that eventually led to the abolition of the Monarchy. This further inspired people all over the world to raise their collective voices. 

French Revolution

In 1789, the French Revolution took place, which laid down the idea of nationalism for the first time. There was a transfer of sovereignty from the monarchs to the French citizens, thereby making it a republic. This further led to the introduction of such practices which would help in creating a sense of collective identity (united community) among the people and equal rights for all as guaranteed by the law. This was a major development that took place with respect to liberal nationalism in the 18th century. 

Industrialization in the 19th Century

Coming to the mid-19th century, there was rapid industrialization taking place across France that led to the development of commercial classes. This increase in industrial production created new social groups such as the working class and the middle class, which were composed of industrialists who had good educational levels. They fought to abolish the privileges of the aristocrats and to develop national unity. This ideology gained a lot of prominence, which further contributed to the theory of liberal nationalism. 

German Revolution of 1848

In 1848, a serious attempt was made by the liberals to unify all the German-speaking states. The main cause of this revolt was the growing discontent among the people after the order imposed by the Vienna government. Though the liberals weren’t able to succeed in the German Revolution, the idea of individual freedom and civil equality was conveyed to the major sections of society as a result. Later, in 1871, Otto von Bismarck, the Prime Minister of Prussia, acknowledged that liberalism was everywhere in Germany. There is a need to mold it to shift its focus to realism, or ‘Realpolitik’. Similar revolutions also took place in other European countries, but none of those revolutions succeeded in 1848.

Further developments

After the Revolution, Germany disintegrated, whereas countries like Italy and Great Britain were unified. However, this unification brought with it several adverse consequences. The distinctive cultures of Scotland and Ireland were highly suppressed, thereby violating the principles laid down under liberal nationalism. This was because the English nation had steadily grown in power and wealth and hence aimed to impose their influence. In Italy, the rate of illiteracy was so high that many people were not even aware of the liberal-nationalist ideology. 

Yet all these events played a significant role in the development of the concept of liberal nationalism, which was conveyed to countries outside Europe as well. For example, this theory played a vital role in unifying the people at the time of the freedom struggle. This theory, as a result, permeated from Europe to several other countries and inspired various nationalist movements.

Liberal nationalism at a global level in current times

At this given point in time, liberal nationalism is enjoying one of its best phases all over the world. More and more people are joining together, and the theory is transcending international boundaries. They are fighting for basic human rights, global environmental rights, promoting sustainable development, and combating climate change. 

The ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, launched initially in the USA, was to restore the basic human rights of black citizens in the USA. This movement was launched after the murder of George Floyd by the police while he was in police custody. This is a form of liberal nationalism in which not only the aggrieved community but all the communities in that country join together to fight for equality and freedom. Finally, mass protests took place in support of the black community worldwide, and finally, their rights were also restored.

The Indian Freedom Struggle was the prime example of liberal nationalism in India, which paved the way for a large number of measures and initiatives to be introduced in the future. The initiatives to protect women from facing any domestic violence, focusing on the reduction of infant mortality, and reservation for representation of disadvantaged sections of society in Government jobs are all examples of liberal nationalism in India. These aim at ensuring equal opportunities for all, thereby promoting their right to livelihood. 

The battle against climate change has brought the world together since it is a common problem faced by the entire world. It was a form of liberal nationalism that was not restricted to merely a given country or region but across the entire world. It aims at providing the basic right to the environment, which further includes a right to safe and clean living conditions. Every individual is entitled to such rights. Furthermore, there is a need to preserve the environment and natural resources for future generations so that they do not suffer. Hence, the term ‘nationalism’ nowadays is not only restricted to any given nation but applies to the whole world at once.

Certain countries in the world have flexible and generous citizenship rules, such as France, whereas Germany still gives a lot more importance to the person’s ethnicity. This clearly reflects the difference between liberal nationalism and ethnic nationalism. On the other hand, France still has certain provisions which exclude Muslims from any form of social participation and which provide a subordinate role for Muslims in society. 

As a result, liberal nationalism nowadays has become a vital factor in bringing together people all over the world to combat global challenges. It can eventually help create awareness of global issues by helping them transcend all borders. 

Causes for the growth of liberal nationalism in India

The growth of liberal nationalism in India dates back to the freedom struggle that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. There were several factors that led to the growth of liberal nationalism in India, which will be explained.

Rise of a new middle class

Like in Europe in the 19th Century, there was a new educated middle class that was growing in India at the beginning of the 20th Century. They were demanding equal rights for all in the country and eventually played a vital role in helping India achieve independence from British rule. This middle class comprised a significant portion of the Indian population, which was concerned with putting British rule to an end.

Growth of press 

The growth of the press and print media played a vital role in conveying the idea of liberal nationalism among the people. It eventually became a tool to criticize British rule and spread the word of unity among the Indians. The British used strict measures for censorship of the content published by Indians to suppress the freedom struggle, but by the 20th century, there were so many Indian periodicals that it became very tough to restrict all. Some of the prominent periodicals at that point were Hindustan Dainik (started by Madan Mohan Malviya), Young India (MK Gandhi), etc.

Growth in vernacular literature

Mahatma Gandhi was very much in favor of mother tongues or vernacular languages becoming the medium of instruction in schools and the language for communication. He believed that this would help in bringing the people together and would create a sense of belonging among them for their nation. There was a huge amount of literature being written in vernacular or regional languages at that point, which at first helped in making all people understand the idea of liberal nationalism and, secondly, gave respect to the cultures and languages of different communities. Even today, there is abundant vernacular literature that is published across the country, such as Bartaman (Bengali), Dhanam (Malayalam), and several others.

National movements outside India

At the time of the freedom struggle, there were several other movements that were taking place outside of India. The prime example of this was the Ghadar Movement in the United States of America. The Sikh ex-pats had formed the Ghadar party to gather support for the Indian National Movements at the global level. This further encouraged the people within the country to fight for their independence. Hence, it was one of the very important factors that led to a growth in liberal nationalism among Indians.

Western education

Though western education was imparted to only a few Indians by the British, they learned about the democratic ideals and principles laid down by the learned thinkers. They further communicated these principles to their fellow Indians for strengthening their support for the freedom struggle. They came to know that they, as human beings, had certain rights which they were being deprived of by the British. Hence, they realized the need to gain independence and live their lives with complete freedom.

Development of new means of transportation and communication

There was a massive development in the means of transportation along with communication, such as postage, during British rule. After independence, the use of telephones became very common. All these facilities helped in spreading the word of liberal nationalism among the people easily and within a very short period of time, which was the need of the hour. People could easily travel from one place to another to participate in the demonstrations and rallies that took place to make themselves aware of the developments taking place. Its current contribution to the growth of liberal nationalism in India hence can’t be under-estimated. 

Socio-religious reforms

There was a unification of the people in the country with the help of the introduction of socio-religious reforms by Raja Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda, and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan towards ensuring equality, the abolition of Sati, and providing individual liberty to all. These helped in developing the idea of liberal nationalism among the people and evoked a newfound spirit of belongingness among them.

These have been the major reasons for the growth of liberal nationalism in India and also increased awareness among the people. Most of these factors came up during British rule, as this theory was put to use for the first time by the literate middle class during that time. 

Constitutional provisions promoting liberal nationalism

The Constitution of India promotes liberal nationalism among the people by providing them with freedom in all aspects and ensuring their equality in society. The people of India also have the right to freely voice their opinions and to express their grievances. There are a large number of constitutional provisions which promote liberal nationalism.

Article 14

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution talks about the Rule of Law. It essentially means each and every individual is to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. This is the very purpose of liberal nationalism, in which all people, irrespective of their ethnicity, must be respected. 

Article 15

Article 15 states that there shall be no discrimination against any person on the grounds of caste, gender, sex, religion, etc. It further aims to promote equality among all and heal the wounds created by the caste system in the past. 

Article 19(1)(a)

Article 19(1)(a) is one of the most important articles for promoting liberal nationalism in the country. It states that each and every person has the right to freely express their opinion, within some reasonable restrictions such as national security, sovereignty, or foreign relations. The people, by voicing their opinions, can hold the government accountable for its actions. This is an essential element for any democracy to survive.

In the case of Disha A Ravi v State of NCT of Delhi (2021), the Court clearly held that the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression also constitutes the Right to Disagree, Dissent, and also to gather International Support for any given cause. The Right to Speech has to be on the highest pedestal in any democracy. The government can’t misuse its powers and charge any person for sedition or any other offense to just administer its wounded vanity. Unless the criticism made by the individual doesn’t incite any violence or hatred towards the government, regardless of the speech, it can’t be suppressed by the government. 

Article 21

Article 21 of the Constitution mentions the right to life and personal liberty, which are provided to all the people in the country. Every individual has the right to lead a life with dignity and also has the very important right to privacy. 

In the case of Justice KS Puttaswamy v Union of India (2017), the Right to Privacy was held to be a fundamental right that can’t be violated under any given circumstances. Further, the fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India are known as the “golden triangle.” It means that violation of any one of these rights would automatically violate the other two rights as well. 

These are some of the constitutional provisions that aim to directly support liberal nationalism in India. The aim is to create a sense of belongingness among the people by providing them with basic human rights and preventing them from exploitation.

Limitations of liberal nationalism

Liberal nationalism has several benefits and has proven to be vital in the nation-building process, especially in India. Yet, at the same time, it has certain drawbacks which can’t certainly be ignored. These limitations act as hindrances to its universal use. 

Complicated unification

The unification of all communities in a country is a fairly complicated task. Equality and freedom for the disadvantaged sections of society might not be acceptable to the upper class as it would mean sacrificing the privileges they have. This might further lead to conflicts between the upper class and the poor, thereby directly hampering the process of unification and nation-building.

Problem of Regionalism

There was significant use of vernacular languages to promote liberal nationalism and shun the use of English in all its forms. However, its ill effect could be growing ‘regionalism’. The people having the language might discriminate against those who have another native language by developing the belief that their language is much superior to all the other languages. It would lead to increased unification among the people who have the same mother tongue, but in the long run, it is the overall unification among the people belonging to different castes, regions, etc. that is necessary to promote liberal nationalism. 

Lack of social solidarity

Liberal nationalism has a major focus on protecting the rights of refugees by allowing them to immigrate to their countries. However, the increase in immigration could further worsen the process of social solidarity as different communities might develop. Conflicts between them might rise as the migrant community might not be easily accepted by the others in society.

No limits on personal freedom

Liberal nationalism calls for personal freedom for all. However, it doesn’t lay down the extent to which it should be practiced. This might create some problems because the freedom of one might cause distress to the other. Uncontrolled freedom and autonomy are also not good for any nation. This could also lead to conflicts. Hence, this non-fixation of the limit to which a person should exercise his/her freedom could be extremely harmful for any nation. 

Lack of state control

Liberal nationalism focuses to a large extent on the abolition of all trade barriers and state control. This is also one of the key features of ‘liberalism’. However, completely preventing the state from controlling the market could defeat the welfare purpose of liberal nationalism itself. The resources would be allocated according to the market forces, and the poorer sections wouldn’t be able to improve their conditions. Secondly, if the market crashes, all the people would have to suffer its adverse consequences, and they might be deprived of their basic rights.

These are some of the major limitations of liberal nationalism that have led to a reduction in its usage among countries in current times.

Critical analysis of liberal nationalism

Liberal nationalism is a theory that has had negative as well as positive impacts on several countries. 

Case for liberal nationalism

On the one hand, it focuses on the vision of equality for all, but on the other hand, it might lead to conflicts between the different communities as the rights are provided to the minority at the cost of the privileges of the majority community. Though it is justified, the majority community can certainly be offended.

In India, this form of nationalism played a vital role at the time of the freedom struggle. There were several causes that led to the growth of liberal nationalism, which helped in bringing together the people from all over the country and unifying them. 

Case against liberal nationalism

More often than not, this theory has been criticized by the native ethnic groups as it focuses on the inclusion of migrant communities, which would imply giving up certain privileges. Further, this theory doesn’t provide any mechanism through which these conflicts could be addressed. 

Even in India, where Liberal Nationalism has had a positive impact, it has sometimes also led to increased instances of regionalism. This might lead to the demand for separate statehood, as in the case of the division of Andhra Pradesh from Tamil Nadu in 1956, or regional autonomy for several areas, leading to a rise in the regional parties. 

Hence, the objective of liberal nationalism is certainly very positive as it aims to ensure equality for all, but at the same time, it’s easier said than done. In the process, conflicts might arise, and instead of unification among the people, the region or the country might even break apart. Hence, this theory has both its pros and cons, both of which should be considered.


The ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, and freedom/ autonomy as proposed under liberal nationalism are still as important to people as they were in previous times. The aspect that has changed so far is that now it’s no longer only restricted to Europe, where it had come into existence. On the other hand, it can also have certain negative impacts, which should also be considered. Hence, it can be concluded that there is a need to bring about some changes in this theory so that the state can fulfill its objective of ensuring the inclusion of all the people in society. This would further ensure equal rights for all to achieve an amicable environment for all in the region. Liberal nationalism will only then achieve its purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Where did the theory of liberal nationalism develop?

The theory of liberal nationalism developed in Europe around the 18th century when Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and other thinkers criticized the monarchy system being followed at that point in time.

2. How is liberal nationalism different from ethnic nationalism?

The difference between both is that while liberal nationalism focuses on providing equal rights and freedoms to all regardless of their caste, creed, or religion, ethnic nationalism focuses only on giving these rights to the majority community or ethnicity. 

3. How did liberal nationalism grow in India?

Liberal nationalism was used in India to unify the people at the time of the freedom struggle. The word of liberal nationalism spread among the people by using vernacular languages for communication, through the growth of the press and print media, and also by providing them with Western education.


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