The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This often debated and allegedly misattributed quote says a great deal about modern schools of free speech and tolerance. In this collection of essays, Nobel winning Economist Amartya Sen celebrates the long history of argumentative tradition in Indian subcontinent, and its contemporary relevance in often neglected modern cultural discussions.

Paraphrasing Sen himself, a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive; and opening of the book is a research into the mentation of univocal messages of century old epics and history, by broader argumentative wisdom. Independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution, though drawing heavily on what it had learned from institutional experiences in Europe and America, a great deal was drawn from its own tradition of public arguments and intellectual heterodoxy. Which according to Sen has kept democracy and coexistence of different political ideologies in check, unlike many other countries where democracy has intermittently made cameo appearances. The essay narrative is not trying to impart some sort of uniqueness in Indian history or to side-line democracy as a Western gift, but argues that the it becomes easier to impart and preserve democratic principles where traditions of public discussions exists, West and East alike. Sen then looks back into this tradition in ancient India, from, ‘Buddhist councils’ of Asoka in 3rd century BCE to Akbar’s 14th century ‘pursuit of reason’ and other royal sponsorships for practise of public reasoning. This historical analysis then goes into an unavoidable cliché that every book on India tends to overdo, celebration of subcontinent’s secularism- like how it has been home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zorastrians, Bahas etc, inter cultural art, literature and music, traditions of Bhakti and Sufi, yada yada yada (no disrespect intended, just casual irritation out of repetition). But interestingly, Sen’s defence for this tolerance of diversity were ancient historical arguments in favour of richness of variation, need for interaction and mutual respect through dialogue.

Akbar’s Durbar

This epistemological departure from orthodoxy provided a catholicity of approach in cultivation of observational science, allowing an interactive openness to Indian work involving both give and take, Sen argues. Though Indian texts majorly involve elaborate religious expositions, there are protracted defences in agnostic or atheistic writings as well. I absolutely adored and enjoyed author’s take on works by Aryabhatta and others in Astronomy and Mathematics, through writings of Iranian astronomer Alberuni and outsiders of the like, thus acknowledging global interactions as opposed to the extreme nationalistic view of indigenous sufficiency.

To celebrate India’s argumentative tradition it is important to distinguish popular philosophies of Hinduism from the fairly crude unique assertion of ‘Hindutva’, which is currently on political offer. The statistical argument of seeing India as a pre-eminent Hindu country (colonial narrative), according to author is a conceptual confusion, for our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. The Hindutva political propaganda thrives on ‘historical guilt of Muslim conquerors’, by arbitrarily highlighting special chosen anecdotes, often as per convenience, of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, aimed at generating desired anti-Muslim sentiment; and it undermines by far Indian secularism in broad current of social cultural or intellectual history. History of India, like every other part of world, does contain nightmarish elements, but it also involves people of dissimilar convictions coexisting peacefully in creative activities of literature, music, painting, jurisprudence etc. Sen argues, with much conviction, that India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India. He then destroys early BJP government’s ill efforts in rewriting history on NCERT text books and other similar propagandas in creating pseudo history that suites political motives, with well referenced research and scholarship; and compares this exclusive narrowness within the country as cultivated ignorance of a kupamanduka (well-frog).

Tagore and Gandhi

Amartya Sen illustrates the argumentative tradition in modern day using Gandhi and Tagore, who had a relationship of great respect for each other while sharing completely contradicting viewpoints towards nationalism, education, economy and many more. Tagore called for appraisement of Western civilization in an open minded way, for he never saw India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from Western influence. Author greatly discusses Tagore and ‘sovergnity of reasoning’ in a very delightful manner, and further compliments the same with later discussions on India’s aggregation of heterogeneity, using something this reader least expected- films of Satyajit Ray.

In lines with Said’s ‘Orientalism’, Sen classifies Occident approaches for understanding the Orient, especially India, into three distinct categories – exoticist, magisterial and curatorial. Greater chunk is the romantic narrative of first category, whose major focus is on the wondrous and strange aspects of the country. The ‘magisterial’ approach assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian-hood to its narrative, and wants to view the country as ‘a great scene of British action’. The third category, Sen argues to be relatively free of preconceptions, as it doesn’t rely on the exhibit value (exoticist) nor is weighted down by ruler’s priorities. He illustrates this catholic approach using Alberuni’s ‘Tariq-al-hind’ of early seventh century and the writings of later Chinese travellers, and the more modern works by dedicated scholars like William Jones. Author in fact uses these curatorial works to expose the fallacy of magisterial readings like the ones by James Mill, who wrote voluminous demeaning work without even visiting India for once. Consequences of ‘exotic’ approach are the hallowed position’ mysticism’ and ‘exoticism’ enjoys in Western understanding of India over the traditions in mathematics, science, logic, medicine etc. (specialists in the streams are an obvious exception here). Immediate response of this exotic admiration is the tendency of Indian writers to exaggerate the non-material and arcane aspects (spiritual), often disregarding the more rationalistic and analytic elements (material), thus selectively alienating India from a very substantial part of its past.

Chinese_Sources_of_Ancient_Indian_HistoryContemporary anthropological obsession is to classify world population into civilizations on religious grounds. Sen, dissects this phenomenon using historical closeness of India and China. Though Buddhism could be attributed as the initiator and catalyst for the ‘balance of trades’, the intercultural interactions in trigonometry, creative arts and linguistics weren’t always religion centric. The research provided in this realm is a fascinating read in history and extends to present day economics.

What follows then is a survey on Indian economics in retrospection with Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Though India has successfully avoided famines and abuse of coercive power in relative comparison, the ‘integrational’ and ‘institutional’ issues of class is a pertaining concern. Though data suggests handicaps in both ‘agency’ and ‘well-being’ in India and its neighbours, they collectively excel West in certain areas of woman participation like female heads of governments. Though no particular effort is being done in the book to explain this, the final concluding remark is a correlation between social achievements and greater voice of woman in that society. Observations are really interesting and contradictory to popular notions, since our general leaning is to connect everything with better access to education. Sen argues that, Fertility rate reduction in certain states like Kerala through consequential efforts of woman agency is often under looked, as we are eager to credit the coercive and brutal measures of China in the field.

Kargil war (May 1999 – July 1999)

The essay that follows (India and the Bomb) discusses geopolitics of India and its relationship between China and Pakistan in relation with existing Nuclear Policy. It is a critique on the asymmetry created by overestimation of persuasive power of the bomb; which crippled India’s massive superiority in conventional forces against Pakistan (as seen during Kargil war) and elevated the role of China as a regional status quo power (US-China joint non-proliferation efforts of 1998).

Much of Sen’s discussions on reasoning as a strong source of hope and confidence, went over my head like an early morning lecture, thanks to the high philosophies by intellectuals whose name I am bound to mispronounce. The undisputed Western dominance of the world today has created a tendency to identify and define other cultures by their contrasts with contemporary Western culture. Common notion is to attribute the origin of values like ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ with West and that of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’ with East. There is often a dialectic of conferring identity by contrast, which though ideally should not, may sometime have a dampening effect on assimilation of values elsewhere than its area of confinement. Sen tries to break this culture specific aspect using historic examples from Asia and Africa. He offers words by Ashoka, Akbar and the likes in defence of India’s judicially guaranteed multiculturalism and constitutional secularism, with role of reasoning. I would like to quote Akbar criticizing Indian sages who preach ‘good deeds’ for favourable after death outcomes- “To me, it seems that in pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practise simply because it is good”. When criticized for embracing the practise of smoking tobacco, as it is a European custom, Akbar ignored it on the ground that “we must not reject a thing that has been adopted by people of the world, merely because we cannot find it in our books; or how shall we progress?


The final essays are more of an effort to understand the unique nature of ‘Secularism’ in India, with the arguments that are against it. Scepticism about Indian secularism is often argued in lines of non-existence of the same in ‘Hindu’ India, ‘pseudo-secularism’ by Muslim favouritism, absence of homogeneous identity criticism, rather dangerous Muslim sectarianism argument, Anti modernist argument like those who criticized Akbar and prevailing ‘Hindu country’ narrative. Sen compares the Indian status quo with those of its neighbours in terms of constitutional laws to counter argue these rhetorics, thereby illustrating the dangers of each. To explain the argument of secularism being a folly of modernism, he takes readers through the connection between calendars and culture, for functioning and utilization of calendars involve cultural sophistication and urbanity. Indian subcontinent can boast co-existence of at least six calendars in systematic use as per Whitaker Almanak; and all of them suggests distinct elements of basic structure, interconnections and constancies suggesting the existence of definitive identity despite heterodoxy. The concluding remarks in this book celebrates the basic idea of plurality in modern India, and ends with the complex subject of one’s identity, which often calls for ‘homogenization to hegemonize’. Identity is quintessentially a plural concept in India, If I may quote Sen himself, ‘While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either’.

Unlike contemporary books on India, which takes the matter casually, Sen’s writing is a bit high on the scholarly side with passing references and detailed footnotes. And I believe, this research is the fundamental difference between his optimistic take and Naipaul’s pessimistic vision of India, former looking the past for enlightenment and learning, while latter seeing it as a source and excuse for present to blame on. Also the essays in this compilation seems to have been formed over different time, occasions and narrative intentions, thus making some core substances slightly repetitive.

I would like to enhance the opening quote of this review with another stolen one as an end note, one undisputed this time, by 19th century Bengali reformist Ram Mohan Roy.

“just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.

Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”