By M.V. Kamath
The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity; Amartya Sen; Allen Lane (Penguin Books) pp. 409, Rs 650.00
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ?argument? as: a heated exchange of diverging or opposite views; a seat of reasons given in support of ?something? and the word ?argumentative? simply as ?given to arguing?, ?using or characterised by systematic reasoning. To the less sophisticated the word has a more pejorative significance. By saying that a person is ?argumentative? the implication is that he or she is arguing for the sake of argument and not necessarily out of any conviction.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen would be shocked to be warned of this interpretation which surely is far from his mind. Certainly savants and saints like Sankara, Madhva, and Ramanuja advocates respectively of advaita, dwsita and vishishtadwaita can hardly be dismissed so casually. Credit goes to the Indian mind for its extraordinary power not just for logical thinking but for delving into the complexities of life.
Quite early Sen asks: ?Does the richness of the tradition of argument make much difference to subcontinental lives today??. And he answers his own question positively by saying: ?I would argue it does, and in a great many different ways. It shapes our social world and the nature of our culture. It has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India; persistent arguments are an important part of our public life. It deeply influences Indian politics and is particularly relevant, I?d argue, to the development of democracy in India and the emergence of its secular priorities.? How beautifully put!
That is the running theme in this profoundly argumentative book which, though it is a collection of articles and talks given by the author over a long period of time, nevertheless collectively makes for challenging reading.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I deals with India's ?unusual record as a robust non-western democracy? and ?the tenacious persistence of that system?, insisting that one must avoid ?taking democracy to be just a gift of the western world that India simply accepted when it became independent?. However, he is somewhat out of sync when he questions the assumption ?that there is something unique in Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy?. This is not to forget that Indian history is and has been a record of highly autocratic states but to remind Sen that even in such a background, social democracy has prevailed.
Sen, under the circumstances, is entirely right when he says that ?the long history of heterodoxy has a bearing not only on the development and survival of democracy in India but it has also richly contributed to the emergence of secularism in India?. That, that state of affairs was frequently under attack, as under certain Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb calls for no contradiction, even if Sen insists that ? to take Aurangzeb as the ?typical? Mughal monarch, or as the quintessential Muslim ruler of India would be an extremely strange historical judgement?.
One suspects that Sen'sknowledge of Indian history does not match his expertise in economics. But there is no gainsaying the fact that this is a profoundly enlightening work of deep scholarship.
Part II deals with culture and communication, Part III with politics and protest and Part IV with reason and identity. In the course of his intellectual meanderings, Sen discusses Rabindranath Tagore and his India, China and India, ?our culture, their culture?, Indian traditions and the western imagination, class in India, secularism and its discontents, India through its calendars, the Indian identity and even India and the Bomb.
In discussing ?India, large and small? Sen betrays a pathetic aversion towards ?Hindutva?, going to the extent of running down ?Vedic mathematics? and insisting that ?there is no sophisticated mathematics in them nor anything that can be called rigourous science?. He laughs at the thought that the Vedas could have been written by the people long resident in the Indus Valley, implying that they were written by ?Indo-Europeans? coming from ?abroad?. He dismisses the river Saraswati as ?non-observable?, Vedic science as ?concocted? and Natwar Jha and N.S. Rajaram, authors of The Deciphered Indus Script? almost as ?frauds?. It is obvious that Sen has not read more deeply into Indian history as he should have and surely he would have greatly benefited from reading the books edited by R.C. Majumdar for the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Nobody in his right mind ?transfers? as Sen points out, the guilt? (in quotes) of Muslim kings to the 140 million Muslims who live in India today. Sen in his chapter on secularism and its discontents insists that ?the nature of secularism as a principle calls for some clarification as well as scrutiny? but Sen'sown clarification and scrutiny leaves much to be desired. He is extremely unfair to one section of society, but one supposes that is only to be expected from ?intellectuals? who only see Hindus as villains. Sen can'teven stand Indians who take pride in the fact of having conquered nuclear science and dismisses President Abdul Kalam'sexcitement ?generated by destructive power? as a ?well-observed psychological state in the history of the world?.
It is possible that Sen has been deliberately controversial in order to make his Indian readers think. Considering that he thinks his countrymen are ?argumentative? anyway, his book offers a great deal to be argumentative about, especially in the matter of the Indian identity. Sen wonders whether India is a ?federation of cultures? with Indian ?identity? being ?inclusive? and quotes Tagore and Gandhi on the subject. He is provocative, which is just as well. He invites argument and isn'tthat what India'strue greatness is all about: the freedom it gives to all opinions?