Saturday, October 22, 2005

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,
writes Pavan Varma. Ram Guha echoes Varma's sentiments when he writes:
    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.
Guha says that Sen is "less than consistent" when it comes to the question "how far must arguments about the present be derived from the arguments of the 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.
Where's the "uncritical evocation" here? Not just here, I didn't see it anywhere in the book. The difference between Sen and the Hindu zealots is amply clear to me. The Hindutva guys mystify and mythify the past. The output that they get, they use to fuel hate-mongering and instigate communal tension. Sen's language is that of social justice and human rights. I'll agree that it's dishonest even then to manipulate the past to get to these noble aims. But Sen is not cooking up stories here. He approaches the primary sources with great rigor and with an open mind. For him, contemplating the distant past doesn't end with the interpretations that he presently has come up with. One has a scientific mind here, one is willing to be corrected, one is looking forward to arguments. On the other hand, I can't think of a single Hindutva ideologue who is willing to have a serious discussion on our heritage. For them, everything is a matter of unquestionable faith. A book is more than a few quotes from the book, and I think a serious reader will see the pointlessness of Guha-Varma arguments.

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 way I see it is simple. The past is there, interpreted and misinterpreted. The more you try to understand the past the more you understand. Even if you don't, there's no harm in trying. It so happens that a large chunk of the past is "usable by the Left". This isn't surprising at all as man must have always been materialistic. One doesn't have to "excavate" anything to see this much. One only has to have an alert mind while approaching the primary sources. Now the Left can "use" this past precisely to highlight its misuses. In the fight for social justice, let's not deny ourselves certain effective tools. Use the positives from the past when it's misused to maintain or to propagate injustices in the society. When the past throws up the negatives, do not hesitate to disregard it. In Sen's words, "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". Discussion, for Sen, is a means of social progress.

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.
And according to him, "important as history is, reasoning has to go beyond the past". "While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either", is his stance throughout.

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.
Guha wants to appear as if he has a different take than Sen's. But Sen's book is also loudly asking for maintaining "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.

16 Comments:

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Veena said...

There goes the $10 I was hoping to save by waiting to buy the book when I got to India next month :(

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger Kumar said...

Anand:

I disagree with much of your post, so thank you for writing it. :) For example, as a man of the Right, I do not agree with your implicit equation of the 'Left' and 'social justice'. However, I would rather leave that debate for another day.

Certainly, Dr. Guha and Dr. Sen do agree more than they disagree. But Dr. Guha’s anxiety about maintaining “….a distinction between past and present…” stems from a perceptive appraisal of the danger that Dr. Sen’s enterprise poses for modern-day Orthodoxy (whether Left or Right), as well as for the manner in which the historian’s craft is practiced nowadays. By the latter, I mean the danger of presentism, and other variants of Butterfield’s Whig Fallacy. I will focus on the former in this comment.

Despite your insistence that Dr. Sen is willing to change his mind when confronted by argument, the fundamental thrust of his book is that the past—the Indic traditions, orthodox and heterodox—are useful to the extent that they reinforce our present-day understanding of what constitutes ‘the good’. Dr. Guha is quite right that this amounts to ransacking the past for weapons useful in today’s intellectual and political battles.

Wheeling out an old distinction, Dr. Sen merely wishes to ‘think about’ Indic traditions. But Dr. Guha, I suspect, is rather more aware that ‘thinking about’ can very easily slide to ‘thinking with’ (some particular) Indic tradition. As I wrote earlier, the modern-day Orthodox, the ‘good and great’ of our day, do have much to fear from such a development--Hence Dr. Guha’s zealousness in patrolling the border between ‘past and present’ and his unease with Dr. Sen’s book.

Kumar

 
At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Let me take it as a good piece of news, Veena!

Kumar -- Thanks. I'm not sure, perhaps I'm a bit confused about your comment. It'll be nice if you could elaborate a bit on the danger that Sen's enterprise poses for the orthodox left. I don't have a problem if the orthodox left is in danger because Sen is candid about what he says, but I don't quite see it, that's all!

Incidentally, are you bracketing Guha with the modern day orthodoxy? Of the Left or of the Right? Guha's USP, I guess, is that of a "present(!) liberal" who's neither on the left nor on the right. You don't buy that?

 
At 9:45 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

So, Anand, would you see this as tradition-phobia among the likes of Guha and Varma ( hence atleast a few, if not quite a few, left-wingers )?

 
At 5:21 PM, Blogger Sunil said...

excellent op (ed) Anand....

i'm waiting to get hold of the book. I usually buy half price, so am waiting for it to show up on ebay/half.com, :-))

 
At 10:45 PM, Blogger Anand said...

froginthewell -- I'm not sure. Guha's problem with Sen's method is entirely theoretical. Can't term it as tradition phobia, I guess. I personally don't rate Pavan Varma as a serious commentator on related issues. I found his book 'Being Indian' very shallow. Also I wouldn't think Varma is a lefty.

Sunil -- Many thanks.

 
At 8:33 AM, Blogger Ananya B said...

Disclaimer: I haven't read the book yet.

The one good point Guha makes, I thought, was the injustice of giving M. Gandhi short shrift. Is that really the case? Any discussion of the Indian argumentative tradition without references to Gandhi's considerable participation in it would be quite strange.

 
At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Ananya -- It's true that Sen doesn't devote much space to modern thinkers including Gandhi and Nehru. But as The Argumentative Indian is a collection of essays -- written over the last decade or so -- sharing a common thread, than a book that's planned from the beginning to the end, I would think that it should be judged only by what's part of it, and not by what's not part of it. Individual articles must have been penned down to suit specific circumstances.

 
At 9:40 PM, Blogger pennathur said...

Where does one start?
I haven't read Sen's book yet but I am certainly in no hurry to buy a compilation of weekend-over-a-morning's-coffee reading. Why do I dislike big names churning out compilations like this one? Having been thru the contents pages of the book I am underwhelmed. First why the title "Argumentative..."? This wasn't Sen's original idea when he started writing those essays about 10 years ago, and in case it's an idea that has crystallised over the last ten years of thinking what experiences have led him to that end point? And if indeed he has arrived at this quite clearly new point of view how about delving into the idea and writing about it afresh instead of serving some warmed up leftovers?
Every one of the reviews linked by you Anand are interesting for the picture they paint of Sen and of the reviewers themselves. Let's start with the most simplistic and the only clueless one among them - Pankaj Mishra's. This man is given to what the bald-faced folks do. It is hard to take seriously a person who slimed the Indian armed forces accusing them of orchestrating the Chattisinghpura massacre on the eve of Clinton's visit to India. His recent article on bioscience research in India was a disaster. His ignorance of Indic classical scholarship is appalling. So he wants more arguing so that India's poor aren't kept out out of the rising services sector? Brother Mishra you can do a lot about it. How about speaking up for a few arguers like Narayana Murthy in his battles with incompetent politicians like Dharam Singh and Deve Gowda? An expressway from Mysore to Bangalore would cerainly help people a lot more than your kind of arguing would do. From there we move up a few rungs of the ladder and get to Amit Chaudhuri one of those perpetual narcisists who are in love of their own wrtiting. In close to about 2000 words Amit manages to reach his point of concern - modernity(ism?) and how to accept it or reject it. Shashi Tharoor writing like one who is comfortable with Indic folklore is quite happy with Sen's references to the Vedas, Upanisads and Ramayana and his attempts to find resonances in the practices of post-Independence India.

Ram Guha's review is the most interesting. And I have been thinking so much about it for the last few hours that I fear I will not be able to frame my arguments given my very poor grasp of style and composition. I am one of the many who have corresponded with Guha (drawing replies on things he likes pointed out and silence on his illiberal observations which BTW are to be found often in his writings). Guha's makes a few observations that first of all undermine the praise that is uncritically heaped on Sen by a fawning public in India (and probably in the West where he is the latest token India guru). In doing so Guha as usual doesn't know where his leg stump is - so busy he is chasing the ball. Sen's ill-read and unlearned myth making imagining a connection between Akbar and Gandhi/Nehru's 'secularism' or Buddist 'republic' and modern Indian republicanism is unspun in a few well written paragraphs where he draws out references both from Gandhi's and Nehru's writings. While Gandhi thought Akbar turned tolerant because of the influence of Hindu India (which is like saying English Anglia) Nehru thought Akbar did little towards establishing a scientific culture. And India's present republican and constitutional form Guha shows is a result of the Constitutient Assembly and what came after. A few other errors that Guha points out in the book (calling Ambedkar 'leader of the constitution' etc.) show up a certain casual approach to very serious issues on Sen's part. That these errors have remained over the years and crept into a compilation speaks poorly of Sen's copy editors and research team (if any). While the larger mistake of seeing connections where there aren't any can be conceded as a matter of Sen's opinion these small mistakes are serious matters. Guha himself is not very well read in Indic literature it seems when he refers to the Yajnavalkya argument with some "girl" that the latter supposedly loses, when a little searching on the web would have let him read thru that now famous debate starring Gargi Vachaknavi. Instead Guha jumps forward to the present and trots out an obscure reference to a Yajnavalkya Smriti on marital relations as if to deny any argumentatism to those of the past Sen holds up as examples. Doesn't Guha know that even if he were to hold orthodox Hindus to account a Smriti is not forever only Sruti is More interesting still is what Guha leaves out. While Shashi Tharoor writes of Sen's examples of skepticism drawn from the Vedas and even the Ramayana, Guha for reasons best known to him leaves these references out entirely. Maybe it isn't the done thing to find questioning or arguments in these writings. While Guha seems to have read a lot of Gandhi, Nehru. a little Ambedkar and plenty of other 19th and 20th century writing he has never revealed any knowledge of classical Indian writing in Sanskrit or for that matter in any otehr Indian languages. Sen of course is better read in Sanskrit and Bengali but is by no means an expert in those languages and is clearly out of his depth in the Indian philosophical tradition. As for Guha the less said the better. All the four reviewers linked here may vary in their appreciation or understanding of the Indic classics but are uniformly ignorant of its language and content. And that is unfortunate. India must be one of those exceptions on the globe where a scholar of its culture needs to know study nothing written in its languages or by its own people. Which is why I liked Saeed Naqvi's simple unostentatious review here
http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=78657
Why is it someone like Saeed Naqvi who is probably the most well travelled foreign correspondent in the world today - save none - who is well read in Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Brajbhasha and English and can forget more national leaders than this gang of four will ever meet so modest?

 
At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks for the comment, Shiva. I have nothing much to say regarding the comment. I enjoyed the book and I'm glad that Sen bothered to bring out this collection. I had the feeling that Sen is very comfortable with his primary sources. I don't know how good Ram Guha is wrt ancient Indian lit etc. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter much. I enjoy reading his columns. I also admire his style of writing.

 
At 9:08 AM, Blogger Ananya B said...

Anand, thanks for the clarification.

About Pennathur's comment, I feel it is probably expecting quite a bit if we expect all these reviewers to be even better read than they are. They are novelists, columnists, officials at the U.N., etc. That they are as well-read as they happen to be in itself is quite startling to me (I am in a perpetual search for a half-hour to read and always feel super ignorant). Granted that they may be victims of their own selective reading--and not as well read in Sanskrit and other classical literature. It is sad, I agree. But the thing is, one doesn't really expect regular reviewers say for the American newspapers to be scholars in Latin or in Christianity or Judaism. About Sen... he is an economist who is interested in Indian history, arts and culture. Not many economists are.

Just as a minor aside, why is Hindu India like English Anglia? That didn't make sense to me. Hinduism in a religion (arguably) and English is a language and a national identity, right?

 
At 9:36 AM, Blogger pennathur said...

http://www.thes.co.uk/search/story.aspx?story_id=2024955

Another excellent review.

 
At 3:28 AM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

[Pankaj Mishra] slimed the Indian armed forces accusing them of orchestrating the Chattisinghpura massacre.

At best, this is a serious misreading of what Mishra said -- but given how many times I've heard this claim made, a deliberate misreading.

At worst, this is a lie.

I will return here when I get a moment and explain.

 
At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, here is another opinion on The Argumentative Indian.
http://www.shunya.net/Text/Reviews/Sen.htm

 
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