Ode to a Liberal India

The Argumentative Indian

Text: Amartya Sen

Publisher: Gardners Books

The Argumentative Indian is no not an exotic creature or an invention of Amartya Sen; turn left, right or centre – this redoubtable creature with an inborn love for speaking is everywhere, arguing and radiating his pleasure in this great Indian gift. Some may find this habit of speaking ad nauseam a fatal national flaw that has kept us in the limbo of under-development, but Sen revels in this Indian genius for talking, and occasionally asking discomfiting questions – a trait which is central to his idea of a pluralistic, liberal, multicultural India.

Not surprisingly, the eponymous essay begins with these celebratory lines: “Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length. Krishna Menon’s record of the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations (nine hours non-stop), established half a century ago (when Menon was leading the Indian delegation), has not been equalled by anyone from anywhere. Other peaks of loquaciousness have been scaled by other Indians. We do like to speak.”

This is not a new habit, Sen points out in his new book “The Argumentative Indian,” and quotes extensively from epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, scriptures and secular texts, ancient and modern, to underline the centrality of dialogue to the evolution of intellectual life of the country.

Sen’s new book—a collection of historical and philosophical essays written over the last decade—is an inspired meditation on the idea of India and Indian-ness at a time when the global image of India is in a state of flux and is under attack from various votaries of chauvinist passions.

“India is a large and diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints,” he writes in the preface to the book. “In India heterodoxy has always been the natural state of affairs,” says the 1998 winner of Nobel Prize for Economics.

Sen, a former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, argues spiritedly for a “capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement”.

This may sound like full-blown paranoia to some, but Sen is convinced that this large inclusive idea of India is in danger of being enticed by parochial ideologies and worldviews with narrow emotional appeals.

Clearly, Hindutva is his pet peeve and he attacks it with combative passion that can only come from a deep-rooted conviction. “Many of the barbed attacks on secularism in India have come from activists engaged in the Hindutva movement, including the BJP, which has been described as “the principal political party representing the ideology of Hindu nationalism in the electoral arena,”‘ writes Sen.

“Another serious problem with the narrow reading of “Indian culture as Hindu culture” is the neglect of many major achievement of Indian civilization that have nothing to do with religious thinking at all,” Sen writes in chapter entitled “Secularism and its Discontents.”

In place of this narrow and limiting view of India, Sen, Lamont University professor at Harvard, passionately espouses his vision of a liberal secular India that encourages diversity of viewpoints and heterodoxy as the ideal way for the country.

Dismantling stereotypes of India as the mystical, exotic Orient, and the new cliché about the country’s IT prowess, Sen’s essays engage with contemporary issues like poverty, class and caste divisions, gender inequality and the impact of India’s new-found nuclear status on human security in the subcontinent.

These problems can be resolved only through the creative use of the great Indian argumentative tradition. “The argumentative tradition, if used with deliberation and commitment, can also be extremely important in resisting social inequalities and removing poverty and deprivation.”

“Voice is a crucial component of the pursuit of social justice,” the author argues.

“Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs),” writes the venerable economist and thinker.

This all-important debate is grounded in larger questions of the Indian identity. “Should the Indian identity be seen as something of a federal concept that draws on the different religious communities, perhaps even including non-religious beliefs within the list of constituents of a federation of cultures?” he asks.

At the end of it all, Sen affirms Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of India which “militates against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” This is his vision of a large all-inclusive ecumenical India locked in a mortal combat with a smaller India based on narrow religious and ethnic identities.

To save this large India, Sen seems to be saying that one needs to celebrate the argumentative tradition and flaunts one’s love for argumentative Indians.

Befittingly, the author, whose love for argument is almost visceral, ends his eponymous essay on a light-hearted note by alluding to the legendary Bengali reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s witty diagnosis about “the real hardship of death,” which consists of “the frustrating – very frustrating – inability to argue.”

“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,” Ram Mohan Roy said famously.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.