The Argumentative Indian

Author: Amartya Sen

ISBN: 0-141-01211-0

Publisher: Penguin Books

My ending note should be written first. If you like reading such books, not for the sake of reading it, but for trying to develop a view, for understanding, don’t read this book without the company of a pen and a notebook to take notes. I made that mistake and realized that I should have done this when I started.

“Prolixity is not alien to us in India… The ancient Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which are frequently compared with the Iliad and the Odyssey, are colossally longer than the works that the modest Homer could manage…” Well that explains many things, among why we preach so much, and why we criticize others (often at length) who don’t walk their talks. The opening lines made me say, “I like this guy, he understands me”.

The book is a collection of 16 essays, many of which are based on the lectures that Amartya Sen delivered on various occasions on various topics from various daises. But, the entire theme is broken down into four neat sections – Voice and Heterodoxy, Culture and Communication, Politics and Protest and Reason and Identity. Now that one cannot be a pundit in all domains, and I am certainly not the best person (being little informed on such topics of relevance) to be commenting on topics of debate. But there are a few, points that I would like to make in or against Amartya Sen’s arguments.

While discussing the unity of India as a country, Sen sheds light on the aggressive ‘Hindutva’ issue that seems to have seen much light lately, particularly after the formation of the political party ‘Bhartiya Janata Party’ (BJP) which had Hindutva as its key agendas since the very inception. He explains how, in order to prove that India has been essentially Hindu nation since the beginning of civilization, the BJP sectarian forces, when in power spent much energy on changing the history presented in the history books which has some natural roadblock. He says “The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India’s history. The Indus Valley Civilization, dating from the third millennium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas… There is obvious material here for national or civilizational pride of Indians. But this poses an immediate problem for the Hindutva view of India’s history, since an ancient civilization that is clearly pre-Sanskritic and pre-Hindu deeply weakens the possibility of seeing Indian history in pre-eminently and constitutively Hindu terms.

Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India’s ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (Aryans) from the West…riding horses(unknown in the Indus Valley civilization) … and speaking a variant of early Sanskrit. The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the ‘double difficulty’ of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage.”

To place Hinduism on this timeline, the NCERT books renamed the civilization to ‘the Indus-Saraswati civilization’, where Saraswati is the name of the non-observable river referred to in the Vedas. A terracotta tablet was allegedly discovered showing a horse on it (which was later proven to be a digital distortion of the unicorn bull) and the origin of the civilization pushed back a further 1000 years or so. But Hindutva has had roots in times much before independence, and much before Jinnah’s 2 nation theory. One of the celebrated proponents on Hindutva was (Veer) Savarkar and Nathuram Ghodse (who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi) had close ties with the activist RSS. It is really sad that a movement that began with pride in Hindu values, in which the pursuit of truth is virtue, should connive such craven acts of deception. This line of bias divides the nation into Hindus and non-Hindus which debilitates national unity and pride. I felt really sorry when I read this, not just because it defies my common sense, but because it shattered the image of BJP’s ‘India Shining’. To be honest, I mistook BJP as an image of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a poet and a patriot and I am also aware of the sections of RSS committed to social service. Natural calamities and acts of terrorism have seen India unite as a single nation, as have the cricket matches in particular and sports in general. But I pray, that India, despite of its diversity, lives in unity in normal days too.

It seems, we not only fight with each other, but think of foreigners with disdain. This was closely observed by Alberuni, the great Iranian scholar back in his days “depreciation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the Indians, but is common to all nations towards each other.” There is little solace that we are not alone (as James Mill depreciated Indian civilization has ‘deserving to be ruled over by higher men’, Englishmen, without visiting India or reading a single text from India) but how sad it is that things haven’t changed much since the time of Alberuni.

Sen takes a rather negative viewpoint on the Indian Nuclear Programme. While, he makes many valid arguments, like one of the reasons for the Pokhran-II was to deter Pakistan from cross border terrorism by providing an ample threat, others being an opportunity to have permanent membership in the UN Security Council etc. While this clearly back fired because Pakistan did manage to develop Nuclear Weapons and at the same time refused to accept the ‘No-First Use’ doctrine thereby becoming a bigger threat to Indian borders. Chances are that the effects of this armament culminated in Kargil where Indian forces suffered huge losses because they had to climb the mountains from the front. They could (a possibility) have crossed the LOC and surrounded the militants if there were no nuclear threat from Pakistan. He is also of the opinion that a large proportion of the Indian community wasn’t happy with this nuclear demonstration. It is a tough choice to make here, because a race to armament is a treacherous path that isn’t easy to justify. But if we rewind a little and ask why did America make one in the first place to set off this race? They did it because Germany was allegedly building one (as I heard Richard Feynman saying that it was the reason given to him by others who asked him to join that programme). It was developed by scientists with a conviction that it will be used as a bug bear and will never be used in actual. But it was used. Feynman later admitted that it shouldn’t have been built in the first place. Second, why should the countries with Nuclear weapons champion the cause of nuclear disarmament of others countries while doing nothing about their own nuclear stockpile? (I think this counter argument was mentioned but not given much weightage by Sen)

There is another threat in the form of China when it comes to North Eastern borders. But it is surprising to know that India and China have had a lot of cultural intermingling and give-take of knowledge, particularly when Buddhism spread to Chinese soil. Many scholars from China spent a lot of time in India and many Indian scholars won accolades in China, even earning the highest seat in a university at that time.

Another point that I’d like to highlight is how the state should handle secularism. Sen proposes two main ways to do this, (1) by distancing the state (legislative) equally from all the religions or (2) by making provisions for each religion in the legislature. The second option is a formidable task, particularly in the Indian context where there is a huge diaspora of religions ranging from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Parsees etcetera and even atheists. The waters get even murkier if we look deeper. We find that even Hinduism is not uniform and is internally fragmented into various sects like Shaiva, Vaishnava etc. This isn’t just the case with Hinudism, but most of the religions like Islam which might be fragmented in terms of Shia, Suni etc. The first option thus seems more viable and seemed to be the approach when constitution was framed. This now is in danger owing to the sectarian policies of political parties and the interests of the affluent. I’d like to extend the idea of secularism from religion to all facets of life and comment on a topic that holds much relevance in these times, reservation. At the time the constitution was drafted, a reservation policy was introduced to uplift the ones who were in need. The plan was to completely eliminate this system by progressively bridging the gap between the rich and the poor and offering equal opportunity to all. Ironically, instead of narrowing the divide, the converse is being observed. Increasing quota ratios for targeted segments while the divide increases and at the same time, we move from option (1) to a prejudiced version of option (2). For example, the aim of the constitution at the time it was framed was to provide a uniform civil code for all. But because it was found that all groups will find it difficult to make this sudden transition and this might break the fabric of the nation. So, it was proposed to achieve this in steps. While most of the laws from Hindu community shifted to the Judiciary, Muslim Laws have still remained intact and I don’t understand this. As far as I know, it took a lot of effort on Nehru’s government to get the first Hindu law enacted, and through thick and thin, people have largely come to obey the law, why couldn’t such arguments prevail over our Muslim brethrens? Here, among many other places in the book, and in general do I find that arguments fail after a certain point and it is Chanakya’s Neeti that could come to rescue. The aim is to not divide India as Hindus or Muslims, but let us be Indians instead.

India’s history is dappled with long and short arguments. One of the most popularly read Indian text in India and in the past century, across the world, “The Bhagwat Gita” is just a small part of the ‘broader argumentative wisdom of the Mahabharata’. He debunks various arguments that are nowadays put forward in defense of various practices based on discrimination on the basis of gender, caste or class that plague the society. The social outlook towards women as essentially being home makers and being servile to their husbands with little or no say at all is certainly of apocryphal origins. The prowess of men in domains like philosophy and even warfare has been constantly paralleled by women of great might. For example, Gargi challenges Yajnavalkya with an edge over other Brahmins when he sets out on expounding the nature of God to the group. Maitreyi, wife of Yajnavalkya asks profound questions relating to wealth and its relation with life and happiness. Mira’s devotional hymes are as dedicated as those of Dadu or Kabir Das. Rani Lakshmi Bai was an exemplary warrior. Not just this narrow view on women, but the exclusivity of literature coming from (as the system today holds) venerable classes is challenged by the poetry from the likes of Kabir (weaver), Dadu (cotton-carder), Ravi Das (shoemaker) and Sen (a barber). The history of India provides ample evidence that we have been misguided somewhere along the past and present. The emancipation of society in general depends on how it is educated, not just in school, but at homes too. One of the reasons why Kerala boasts of a very high literacy rate is because the lower caste people realized it somewhere that the only way they could match up to the higher caste people is by education and enterprise. But still, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of communal outbursts among these classes. Blood is still being shed on inter-caste marriages despite the governments making policies and incentives to promote the dilution of class boundaries in terms of social interaction.

There are many other topics that I would want to talk about and I’d just throw Sen’s statements on how Indians love to argue if you feel annoyed, but then this post would get too long. I am hoping to zero on a single viewpoint after discussing a wide variety of viewpoints hoping that it fits my shoe and is correct. In order to develop that, I think that I cannot rely on what we are told is true, unless accompanied by reason and proof. I shall put here, in this place my views, open for discussions and debate with you all, if you shall consider my arguments worthy. History provides data, not diktat and is as open to scrutiny as the scientific theories. It might hold true for the time being, but blindly applying it to newer situations can lead us to anomalous results (as we are seeing today). Just like a theory is valid only until it is found to be wrong, such should be any tradition, always open to scrutiny and doubt. This pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of reason can make us better, and this world too.

There must be something about Amartya Sen that makes him a Nobel laureate. It is a worthy read, pretty heavy on the brain and must not be read with a light heart and heavy mind. And if you do decide to read this book, and like to ramble like I did, I suggest you keep a notebook and pen handy. Also, I would agree to Gordon on many occasions when he expresses disappointement, "because Sen does not go beyond stating self-evident truths. Although nicely written, and with many points of interest, there is a thinness and superficiality about the whole that displeases. [...] My greatest disappointment with this book is that its use of history is as unscrupulous and trivialising as that of those Sen wishes to bring down." Also, while examining the entire timeline of human history, Sen handpicks Akbar's inclination towards argumentative reasoning and thereby decrees him as a good ruler which needs to be examined. If Hindu fundamentalists cite the reign of Aurangzeb and the atrocities commited by other Muslim rulers on Hindu community (when it is equally just to say that not all Hindu rulers were benevolent feudal lords), citing one of many does not right the wrong (or wrong the right either.)

(No, I did not use a notebook. I realized the depth of my mistake when I was 4 essays past and I think I was already too late to start and that one reason why you shouldn’t actually have read this review. These views are from what I remember along with the influx of other ideas like those from reading and watching Feynman and much more.)

P.S. I couldn't help but notice that most of Sen's references from contemporary Indian writers were predominantly Begalis. I might be wrong, and would want to, if that gives you enough reason to read the book. :)