The Argumentative Indian
I loved reading Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian. It's one of the finest books that I have read about India, a work full of insights, a serious work that commands serious reading. Parts of the book were new to me, parts of it have a fresh perspective on things that I knew of, and some other parts made me happy to see that Sen's take on certain issues further illuminates the kind of ideas that I have come across in others' writings, ideas that I have grown to become comfortable with, ideas that, I believe, might work!
It's tough not to take note of writings of such eminence, and naturally Sen's latest book too has got a lot of admiring reviews. The reviewers of The Argumentative Indian include Shashi Tharoor, Pavan Varma, Amit Chaudhuri, and Ramachandra Guha (link via Uma). All these reviews are interesting, but the one that appealed more to my tastes is that of Pankaj Mishra's.
While all these reviews laud Sen's book, some of these reviewers find a central theme of the work a bit unpalatable. The apprehension apparently stems from the fact that Sen makes extensive use of interpretations of our past.
Sometimes - and for entirely laudable reasons - he ends up making the same uncritical evocation of the past that he rightly criticizes among the Hindu zealots,
In making these (very large) claims for the relevance to modern politics of ancient history, Sen is at one with the Hindutva camp, except that he differs in who or what to uphold from India's past.
This post is motivated by Ram Guha's review.
Sen indeed argues that "the understanding and use of India’s rich argumentative tradition are critically important for the success of India’s democracy, the defence of its secular politics, the removal of inequalities related to class, caste, gender and community, and the pursuit of subcontinental peace". "Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice", and Sen contends that "the argumentative tradition can be a strong ally of the underdog, particularly in the context of democratic practices." Sen's mastery over India's ancient texts is more than clear in these essays, and he does make good use of it to fight the monolithic and manipulated description of India's heritage that suits the political needs of the Hindu rightwing. Sen's passion and pride in India's cultural heritage and her rich contribution to the world of science and mathematics are patently discernible throughout this collection of essays. Guha quotes Sen from different places in the book:
The contemporary relevance of the dialogic tradition and of the acceptance of heterodoxy are hard to exaggerate. In dealing with issues of contemporary inequality ... the reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition must be examined in terms of the contribution it can make today in resisting and undermining these inequities ... The tradition of heterodoxy has clear relevance for democracy and secularism in India ... Indeed, the importance of fuller knowledge about India’s traditions is hard to overemphasise at the present time.
Guha has a possible explanation for why Sen does what he does:
Sen allies himself with those who seek alternatives to the Hindutva genealogy, by searching for a past usable by the Left. What we have here is a sort of 'Bhakti Marxism', which seeks to excavate an indigenous radicalism which has the right progressive values, such as egalitarianism and secularism.
The past is a mix of good and bad, of beautiful stuff and ugly things. I'm comfortable with the position that Sen takes: "we need not bring in modernism -- either in praise or in denunciation -- at all, to recognize wisdom when we encounter it". And let's not leave this wisdom to be appropriated by fringe, but powerful, groups. It is indeed necessary, as Sen points out, "to avoid being imprisoned in formulaic interpretations that are constantly, but often uncritically, repeated in intellectual as well as political discussions on historical tradition". You praise something in the past, you are a Hindu zealot. You don't buy something from the past, you are anti-national.
The way Guha has gone about this theme might give someone who hasn't read the book a distorted picture that Amartya Sen has put forward a theory that arguments about the present can be derived from arguments about the past. That's far from the truth. What all Sen is saying is that arguments about the past are also worth looking at many a time. Sen has an unambiguous stand:
It would be just as much of a mistake to treat the argumentative tradition as being of no relevance whatever to contemporary Indian society as it would be to regard that tradition is powerfully effective on its own, irrespective of arrangement for politics, particularly of democratic politics. ... The argumentative heritage may be an important asset, but its effectiveness depends on its use. Much would depend on the political deployment of the argumentative voice in opposition to social inequity and asymmetry, and the actual use that is made of the opportunities of democratic articulation and of political engagement.
Guha ends his review thus:
One might choose to take Amartya Sen's side in all these debates -- I would, at any rate. One must nonetheless refuse to endorse his methods of argument. For there must always be maintained a distinction between past and present, between contested historical truths and necessary democratic practice.
Is it the case then that there's no disagreement between Sen and Guha. Of course there are differences. Curiously, Guha evades, at least he does not stress, these real differences in his review. Let me just point out a few. Amartya Sen, like many others, believes that the idea of India existed much before the arrival of the British. His arguments for this belief are fascinating. According to him, "it's a serious mistake to think that the idea of a nation requires the prior presence of a nation state". I believe Sen and Guha might differ on the ways they stress aspects of globalization too. According to Sen, "the real debate on globalization is, ultimately, not about the efficiency of markets, nor about the importance of modern technology. The debate, rather, is about severe asymmetries of power". Guha's review doesn't touch upon this aspect at all.
Sen, in this brilliant work, is fighting the battle for an idea of India that militates against "the sectarianism of the Hindutva movement and the cultural ignorance of many of the globalizing modernizers". One needs to be perceptive not to bracket him with the Hindutva movement when he fights the "cultural ignorance" and not to bracket him with the "modernizers" when he fights the Hindutva sectarianists. Sadly it's this perception that's missing in Ram Guha's otherwise excellent review.
Update (Nov 6): Also check out this wonderful post by Qalandar.