The Argumentative Indian - reviewed by Pramilla Srivastava

An Argumentative Indian on The Argumentative Indian"The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity" by Amartya Sen Farrar, Straus and Giroux October, 2005


Thirty years ago when a somewhat large Indian American community became established in the United States, a common anthropological observation about American culture was often made in the form of a frequently invoked joke: 'What is the difference between an Indian and an American? When you meet an American the very first question they ask you is, what is your religion? When you meet an Indian the very first question you will be asked is, what is your income?' This western preoccupation with the "religiosity" of India and the schism between how Indians perceive themselves, and how they are perceived by others, is one of the paradoxes that noble prizewinning economist, Amartya Sen, seeks to explore in his new book, The Argumentative Indian. It is an effort to dismantle orientalist constructs which shape current representations of India in the west. It is also an effort to reclaim India's secular heritage and history, in order to preserve its long heritage of democracy.

Sen argues that Indian culture, history, and identity are vastly more complex, rich, and fluid than the monolithic, religio-centric, and reductionist characterizations of India, still prevalent in the western media. He shows how these characterizations are informed by archaic paradigms from cultural determinism and colonial historiography. For Sen this mischaracterization is not only erroneous, but it creates an artificial political and cultural divide between east and west; east being the domain of mysticism and spiritualism; and the west claiming, somewhat exclusively for itself, science, rationalism, democracy, and a commitment to tolerance, freedom, and human rights.

Using numerous historical references and relying heavily on the ideas of pre-independence Indian poet and novelist, Rabindranath Tagore, Sen challenges this divide by painting an alternative anthropographic picture of India today, as well as in the past. He presents India as a multicultural salad bowl rather than melting pot with, not only a rich and diverse history in spiritual thought, but also in math, science, language, art, and epistemology. He refers to the birth of the decimal system in India and the work of world renowned mathematicians such as Aryabhata. He devotes an entire essay to the many calendrical systems used in India, as a manifestation of both its accomplishments in astronomy and its history of heterodoxy, (each reflecting different schools of thought and traditions, in use often simultaneously).

The focus on science is not to brag, but to reclaim the place of reason in India's intellectual history. For Sen, public reasoning is one of the most important pillars upon which a democracy rests. He describes the Loykayata philosophy of skepticism and materialism in the first millennium BC and the atheistic, Carvaka, school of thought, both of which had many adherents from the Vedic period onwards and a respected place in Indian philosophical discourses through the ages.

Sen argues that this rich tradition of dialectical reasoning also gave India a heritage of tolerance and respect for individual liberty and freedom. Here he is challenging any assertion that these are exclusively western traditions. Indeed, he points out that they, in fact, pre-date similar European discourses. For example, in 1591 after taking note of the many beliefs and traditions in India, the Mogul Emperor Akbar, issued an edict on tolerance declaring that 'no man should be interfered with on account of religion and anyone is allowed to go over to a religion which pleases him'. Sen reminds us that this was the same time that Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy. Much before Akbar, another Indian emperor Ashok in the 3rd century BC, also championed the cause of tolerance and freedom. He even established rules for discussion that allow for mutual respect for all points of view, and covered the country with inscribed stone tablets proclaiming equal rights and basic freedoms for all members of society, including women; even India's "forest-people", (tribal populations) Sen juxtaposes this declaration to a similar one espoused by Aristotle, excluding women and slaves.

Although the book is a collection of essays written over many years, the central argument is a response to Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, which divides the world into distinct civilizations, defined predominantly, but not only, by religion; such as "Hindu", "Buddhist", "Islamic", and "Western". Huntington argues that these civilizations are destined to clash because of the conflicting values and ideologies between them. Sen rejects the description of India as a "Hindu civilization", and effectively shows how these conflicts and contradictions exist as much within a society as between different societies. However, he need not go back to the time of Aristotle or Rome. Glaring examples of conflicting "values" in the west exist even much later in history, such as slavery, the civil rights struggles of 1960s, and can even be found today, as U.S. and Britain deliberate on the different forms of torture that may be appropriate.

It is no coincidence that Huntington's thesis appears at a time when U.S. foreign policy seems poised to precipitate just such a "clash". It is somewhat disappointing that Sen fails to explore this coincidence. As the American neo-cons (who frequently invoke Huntington) officially induct the "war on terror" as a war for democracy and "the west", Sen's book seems to be an attempt to "liberate" the concept of democracy itself. Unfortunately this pre-emptive strike remains a merely rhetorical one. When Huntington proclaims that the "west was west long before it was modern", his purpose is not to engage in a dialogue with the "non-west". His purpose is to consolidate a new sense of collective identity and effect a new sense of loyalty, as the U.S. demands its citizens to support and participate in new era of imperial wars. Why is the U.S. so busy keeping people like esteemed Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadi, (invited to teach at University of Notre Dame) and '70s pop star Cat Stevens (now a Muslim), out of the country? It is because these figures challenge the fundamentalist characterization of the Muslim world. Sen himself, being a champion of reason, would be deemed a grave threat were he Muslim. Despite his laborious effort, any presumption that the message Sen is sending will be the message received, at least within the western media, is a function of a dialogic imagination.

"The West", however, is not the only audience Sen wishes to reach. He is clearly also addressing expatriot Indians living abroad. Sen believes that they are highly influenced by western perceptions of India, and have both financially and ideologically contributed to the growth of fundamentalist political parties in the subcontinent. He derides their fantastical claims of Indian history and their use of history to advance their agenda. However, Sen himself becomes guilty of this enterprise of extrapolating from history. Though he tries to deflect this critique when he remarks, "Though we cannot live without history we need not live within it"; it remains a paradox he does not overcome.

Also problematic is the idea of reason and rationalism as liberal democracy and signifier of participatory governance. There is no mystery in an economist making the case for reason. It's like a fish arguing that there ought to be more water in the world. Where he fails is showing how any of this guarantees social, political, and economic justice. After all, the age of reason and rationality appeared at the dawn of some of the darkest days in human history. The savage slave trade and merciless genocidal colonial conquests enriched European nations beyond their wildest expectations as their intellectuals rejoiced in the love of individual liberties and freedoms. Moreover, was it not the ultra-rationalism of Nazi Germany which enabled it to exterminate millions of Jews with systematic and scientific efficiency? Some may argue that these were anomalies in western "enlightenment", (though they occupy the better part of the last 500 years of European history). But even as anomalies, they demand explanation. However, they cannot be explained away, because the first step in "manufacturing consent" is to manufacture "reason". This is even more so in today's hyper mediated world, where professional think tanks are spinning around "discourse" at such centrifugal force, that even the most rational minds cannot tell the direction of the center of gravity. Thus, it may not be reason that saves humankind, but something beyond reason, instinct or even conscience.

Finally in several essays at the end of the book Sen detours to make some contradictory commentaries on a range of contemporary concerns such as nuclear weapons in the subcontinent, economic reforms, and globalization. He finds India's development of nuclear weapons to be without much reason, advocates for a stronger United Nations, and sees no sense in India's desire to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. As we move closer to a single world government, it is odd that someone who champions the cause of "democracy" and "participatory governance" does not understand a nation's desire to be a meaningful participant in this process.

Sen also, wholeheartedly applauds both globalization and India's neo-liberal economic reforms of the '90s. He describes the economies of South Korea and Taiwan as models of "success", ignoring the fact that both act as large U.S. military bases. Moreover, South Korea has only recently emerged from decades of oppressive dictatorships. (Hardly a model a devotee of democracy ought to be invoking). He further describes India's period of economic "insularity" as misguided. Completely enamored with the economic success of post reform China, he argues that India should learn from China on conducting global trade and principals of economics. He advocates a free exchange of ideas and trade throughout the world as a guarantor of human progress and prosperity, reflecting on fruitful global exchanges in the ancient world, especially between India and China. Ironically, China went through many periods of isolation and insulation and even today is very protective in allowing access to its economy. I would urge him to consider the possibility that it was just this period of insulation which enabled both India and China to incubate the modern indigenous industries, that are now able to stand and compete in today's very predatory global marketplace, (the recent acquisition of Europe's largest steel company by an Indian company, being one such example)

Though only a small fraction of Sen's book is devoted to the issue of globalization, his uncritical advocacy of it is disturbing. Even more surprising is his somewhat arrogant dismissal of anti-globalization campaigns, "It is not at all hard to present arguments to reject many of the criticisms that have tended to figure on the posters and placards of the global protests movement", says Sen. By all means please do! He does address the central criticism of asymmetry in global relations, by proposing that global disparities can be overcome by even more global regimes. How that is to happen, however, remains an elusive question. Moreover this is exactly what the existing regimes were allegedly created to do.

Using Sen's own formula of extrapolating from history, and a model he is fond of, exchanges between India and China, one can conclude that exchange is productive only where it is symmetrical. Asymmetrical exchanges historically have yielded very opposite results, from great destruction to complete annihilation. Sen may rejoice in the high-tech gifts from China distributed through past exchanges, such as the printing press, clock, iron-chain suspension bridge, paper, and gunpowder, which he argues has "enriched" mankind; But what about an assessment of what the world has lost, for example, through the distribution of gun powder alone. Entire civilizations and cultures have disappeared from this earth, robbed even from our memory. In any case, even if the economist did do a cost-benefit analysis, the positivity or negativity of the outcome ultimately would depend on what one values.

India, unlike many smaller nations, can be well positioned to have a symmetrical relationship with the west, (thanks in part to the development of VOIP technology and the internet). And, if the balance of power were to shift even more from the west to the east, (perhaps through an Indo-Chinese alliance), then, like the early immigrants who were perplexed by the western preoccupation with religion, cultural theorists from the east may finally be studying the religiosity and theocratic nature of the west, as an axiomatic expression of Euro-American culture. In mathematical theory this is called an indirect proof. In other words, rather than proving how enlightened and democratic other cultures truly are, perhaps its time to start proving how un-enlightened and undemocratic the "west" truly is. Sen's enterprise responds to a distorted self-image created by an obtuse European cultural lens. But rather than the tedious process of re-drawing an image, perhaps it is easier and more effective to simply shatter the lens.

Pramilla Srivastava