There's nothing quite like a good Indian argument

THE ARGUMENTATIVE INDIAN: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, by Amartya Sen. Penguin, 2005, 356 pp., £25 (cloth).

“We do like to speak,” admits Amartya Sen, citing a well-known fact about Indians in the opening paragraph of “The Argumentative Indian.” But what the Nobel Prize-winning economist goes on to demonstrate in this compilation of some of his best writings — and this is less known today — is that letting others speak is equally integral to the Indian temperament.

In choosing to examine contemporary India in the light of what Sen calls its long “argumentative tradition,” India’s most prominent “argumentative Indian” comes up with his own cogent interpretation of the current state of the subcontinent.

Is there something amiss about an economist writing on Indian culture’s predilection to heterodoxy and dialogue? Not when that economist is Sen who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1998 for restoring “an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.” A self-described “social activist,” Sen is best known for his work on poverty.

At the forefront of “welfare economics,” Sen has redefined the discipline by bringing a social vision to cold, hard mathematical theory and proving that economics can be actively engaged in bettering the lives of the poor.

In spite of his credentials — and in keeping with the tolerant spirit of the argumentative tradition that he is extolling — Sen modestly issues a disclaimer of sorts by stating that this is not the only way of viewing India’s history, culture or politics. It’s none the less intriguing for that. Sen finds numerous historical instances to aver that Indian culture has always involved an acceptance — implicit or explicit — of dialogue.

The author’s observations are deliberately timed: The concept of “ancient India” has been systematically hijacked by the ideology of Hindutva. Hindutva, literally meaning “the quality of Hinduism,” is politically represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the government between 1998 and 2004. Sen battles the Hindutva tendency to see Indian history through the narrow prism of Hindu religiosity. As he points out, tongue firmly in cheek, equating the Indian identity with being Hindu is a fallacy in a country where Buddhism was once the main religion for nearly a thousand years.

The argumentative tradition — and its tolerance of different voices — fosters both the spirit of democracy and of secularism, Sen opines. Here, Sen joins the dots beautifully, demonstrating a powerful link between the argumentative tradition and social change. He argues that “a more vigorous — and vocal — use of democratic participation” can give citizens a political voice, and that, in turn, a strong political voice can press for social reform and economic progress.

If India has not met with much success in removing its vast inequities of gender, class and caste, Sen pins the blame on the neglect of the argumentative tradition in modern discourse. “Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice,” he writes. Sen accuses sectarian propaganda of deflecting attention from the sort of discrepancies that should deserve our attention — such as why the victims of communal violence, whether Hindu or Muslim, are always primarily from the lower classes; or why a country with the “largest unused foodstocks in the world” suffers from endemic hunger worse than even sub-Saharan Africa; or how going nuclear has worsened, rather than improved, the security of the subcontinent.

Sen explains India to the foreign reader by zeroing in on all those things that find frequent mention in the international press — world’s largest democracy; secular country battling communal outbreaks; hungry people; even bride-burning. But at all times, he works to infuse appreciation for a culturally expansive India, not the downsized version that gets so much coverage these days.

The very fact that India is a shared home for minorities — the Christians and the Muslims, among others — suggests that peaceful coexistence is a long-standing tradition. Liberalism, asserts Sen, is part and parcel of the Hindu approach, where a man’s “dharma” — or personal code of conduct — is more important than his religion. So is skepticism.

The Vedas (Hindu scriptures), which are more than 3,000 years old, grapple with some difficult questions: “Whence this creation has arisen — perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not know.”

Sen’s comments run in the face of the current belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism, which prefers to dwell upon historical instances of inter-religious confrontation. Interestingly, Sen observes that two of the greatest contributions to the development of secular thought in India were made by non-Hindus: the Buddhist King Ashoka championed public discussion by convening Buddhist councils to debate on doctrine; and Emperor Akbar, who founded a secular state, was a Muslim.

Sen also addresses the Indian reader’s growing disenchantment with democracy, casting aspersions not on democracy as a political system, but on the manner in which it is being practiced today.

Your vote is of no use without your voice, Sen seems to suggest. Indians may like speaking, but they have obviously been speaking too much about things that don’t matter. “The Argumentative Indian” is Sen’s way of speaking up for the things that do.

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