The Argumentative Indian

Attracted by the author’s name and the title of the book, I bought Dr. Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” a couple of years back. I never had any opportunity to know about him other than repeatedly reading the title (only the titles) of articles about him in all mass newspapers and magazines when he was honored with Noble prize. Finally, I woke up his book from the shelf only now to start reading it. I had just finished reading Imagining India before starting with this book. Now I feel that it would have been better if I had read this book before Nandan’s imagining. Sen has spent more time than Nandan on history. Thanks to his Bengali background - he deals with the controversial issues more firmly and openly.

When I bought the book I was thinking that he would have made good fun of Indians for wasting their time in arguments instead of doing anything constructive. I expected a lot of sarcasm. Only now do I realize that that is not how a Noble laureate would view things. He talks more about the argumentative nature of us, which is nothing but our respect for democratic values and openness to discuss out things instead of being close-minded and adamant about one’s own views. To narrow it down, we could look at it as a detailed account on secularism.

He brings in a lot of interesting views about Indian history. It looks like he has done an objective analysis of Hinduism. It is very evident from the way he has talked about the two great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata that he has good admiration for the religion. He also talks about his grandfather’s contribution to Hinduism. The information he has shared about his grandfather also tells us that he is yet another achiever from the elite India and not from a pitiable background. It only goes to say that Abdul Kalams are still a miracle in our land.

He talks about Bhagavat Gita with the right spirit. The conversation about right or wrong against your duty is well articulated. He doesn’t ridicule Hinduism as a religion anywhere. It was interesting to read his explanation about his remaining an atheist despite his grandfather’s inclination towards Hinduism and the grandfather’s openness to let him think the way he wanted to. This is one common thing that I have seen across all atheists of our land – either they are given the freedom to think on their own by their elder family members or do they take that freedom on their own.

He also reassured my beliefs about religion-based politics. He questions every crooked move in rewriting the history by BJP when it was in power. Only after reading his book do I know that BJP stooped to the level of even removing the part that contained Gandhijs’s assassination by Godse. So unbelievable! He has also talked about other manipulations that they tried to do with the Indian history. Even if they wanted to do radical changes, they could have gone slow. They need not have rushed so fast that they were caught on wrong foot so embarrassingly. This is where they have a lot to learn from Congress, I guess!

First time when BJP came to power, as an ordinary youth with no knowledge on who stands for what, I expected them to make Dr. Sen their finance minister in the same lines as Congress made Manmohan Singh. Sometime later I heard a right wing supporter saying Amartya Sen is yet another pseudo-secularist from Bengal like the communists. Then I realized the reason why BJP cannot go with him. Only now do I fully understand how ignorant I was to think like that.

Every book would have some overused words. One such word in this book is “heterodoxy”. It just means unorthodoxy. It is this character of a society that allows them to go beyond boundaries. It is very clear from his advocacy that he doesn’t want to be swayed by the stereotyped Indian beliefs and ethos. He has his own judgments about his culture, which is not influenced by the popular beliefs of his own parents or grandparents. One of my weird beliefs is that a true intellectual is not someone who builds on what his parents or grandparents have told him, but the one who starts everything from zero (either ignores what was inherited or challenges it) and builds his own belief system. So, according to that belief, Dr. Sen is a true intellectual.

He also talks about how Indian society is superior compared to the western ones in terms of giving their share to the women much early in the history, even before the modern day civilization and feminist movements. He talks about how lower caste characters also have contributed to our argumentative tradition. He sounds very reasonable in questioning the right wing politicians. But, I am not sure if he could show the same courage in writing about other religions, which is what is the strongest question raised by our Hindu right wing politicians and activists. May be, like many of us, he also takes the liberty of being a Hindu by birth.

He also talks about the long-debated Dravidian theory (of course, in his own style) that claims that not all Hindus today were Hindus originally. It contends that Hinduism was followed only by a few groups whereas the rest of the population just worshipped various other things in their own crude way. He says why one cannot represent 80% of Indian population under the banner of Hinduism. It is just a word that many of them don’t even understand. It’s not their ignorance. It is just that it was not their belief originally. It is some of our other orthodox groups that included them also in the process and told them to follow all the rituals as they do.

He also honestly discusses about barbaric invasions done by the Mughals. But, I still believe that no one that claims to be neutral dares to question other religions in this land. If BJP or Hindutva politics has to die, there has to be another force that could be as forthright with other religions as they could be with Hinduism. He talks as though Aurangzeb was the only intolerant Mughal, but what I couldn’t understand is why he could not quote anyone other than Akbar as tolerant in that league.

His piece on Gandhi and Tagore is interesting. I knew that Tagore was a towering figure in the pre-independence India but I never thought he was so big to be compared with Gandhi. Having grown up hearing about all sorts of comparisons between Tagore and Subramanya Bharathi, I only knew him as a poet and writer. Loved the discussion around the differences of opinions Gandhi and Tagore had around idols, religion, nationalism, patriotism, etc. One passing thought that I get is that Gujarat has always been very religious (not necessarily communal) and Bengal has always been liberal and leaning leftwards. Irrespective of whichever party one belongs to, their ideological stance has some influence of the inherent inclination of the land. I think that is why even the Congress party is alleged to be ideologically sliding towards right in Gujarat and left in Bengal.

His detailed analysis into where all Gandhi and Tagore had difference in opinion is good, but at times it sounded more detailed than required for an ordinary brain. When you are on a mission like a nation’s independence, it is not worth magnifying little differences in the approach two individuals have for the same cause. I am hearing first time about Gandhi’s answer to the question by British media, “What do you think of western civilization”. I loved Gandhi’s answer, “I think it would be a good idea.”! It just goes to say how good Gandhi was in making his point.

Yeah, it’s worthwhile talking a bit about Gandhi’s oratory skills at this moment. Most of my fellow countrymen think Gandhi always tried to avoid conflicts at all costs and he was a very weak person by nature. What most of us have not heard of in our text books is that he was a great orator. Some of his speeches feature in the world’s best speeches ever made. He would not have succeeded in bringing a whole nation (rather pieces of independent territories) together but for his powerful oratory skills.

By the way, what the author tries to say here is that Tagore was objective in his judgment about western civilization unlike Gandhi. I think Tagore need not have taken that comment so seriously, as it was just meant to trigger some self introspection for the British. I think Gandhi did achieve his objective by making that comment. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been spoken of so much in their land as well as ours.

The discussion around Gandhi’s nationalism versus Tagore’s humanity was very interesting to me. I am on Tagore’s side on that. But it was also interesting to know Gandhi’s point of view that says, “Nationalism is a mean to Humanity, like war being a mean to peace.”! May be, we couldn’t interpret what he meant to say.

I didn’t know that even Bangladesh has taken Tagore’s poem only as their national anthem. We should say Bangladesh has paid back appropriately to him even after the split as he was dead against splitting Bengal when the idea came up much earlier in the history. It is interesting to know that even Sen has spent his childhood in places that are part of current Bangladesh. Now I understand some feelings of Taslima Nasreen better, which she had shown in her novel ‘Lajja’.

It was good to know that Bengal’s two top most intellectuals after Tagore, i.e. Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen, studied in the school founded by Tagore himself in Shantiniketan. It seems Indira Gandhi also studied in Shantiniketan. Sen has talked about Ray also at length in the book. Cinema being the most powerful Art form of our times, it is good talking about the legends from there as well. Ray undoubtedly is the best movie maker of all times in the country. He was the first ever Indian to receive the Oscar award, that too, for his life time achievement. One common thing between both Tagore and Ray, as told by the author, is that they were open to other cultures. They never had any apprehensions about adopting any good from the western world. It is good to be open-minded and objective, but I also don’t see anything wrong in using all opportunities to show your disgust in all forms against your enemy, in this case it is the British, as done by Gandhi.

When too many people have too many opinions about something it is good to put them in different buckets and analyze each of them objectively for pros and cons. It is better than accepting one as the right one and rejecting the rest. Dr. Sen interestingly classifies the researches on India into three groups and makes it very clear as to who said what and for what they said so. All the three approaches, i.e. curatorial, magisterial and exoticist, had their own agendas (some of them hidden). At a high level we shall define each of them as follows. The curatorial approach is the most objective one that doesn’t have any hidden agenda to prove any point to anyone. The magisterial one tried to prove a point to the imperialists that we were inferior and we had to be ruled by them for the good of us. The exoticist one tried to identify all exotic things in India, i.e. things that were unique and strange. Unique about us and strange to them! This classification helps us identify the right ones to be rejected or to be read for just fun.

The Iranian scholar Alberuni comes with an open mind, learns Sanskrit, collects all information first hand and understands everything about us before telling the world what he understood. He is supposed to be one of the best outsiders to have explained India to the outside world. Whereas, James Mill who is classified as the magisterial one never visited India nor did he learn Sanskrit or any Indian language before writing huge volumes about India. The biggest problem with the magisterial viewers was that they dismissed all our achievements in mathematics, science, astronomy, logic, etc. They just viewed us as a bunch of barbaric lots. I don’t think it would be irrelevant to apply this kind of a classification even for the researches done within India across regions and states. Any takers!?

The connection between India and China has been there from time immemorial. There are evidences of that right from first century itself. China has always enriched India with its innovative products and India has done that in the form of Vedic literatures and religious scripts, mostly Buddhist. He talks about how Chinese silk was popular in India in the first millennium itself. I remember very well in my childhood there used to be a material called “china silk”, which was very popular among the youth at that time. It used to be a shiny material, which would attract people’s attention wherever they go, irrespective of whether it is night or day. It would shine under both sunlight and street lights. A good number of scholars have travelled both ways and exchanged a lot of knowledge. Some of them have even stayed for around 10 – 12 years in the other country before going back with the takes-away to the mother land. In the process, some have even changed their home to the other country.

Xuanzang is one such name that sounded very familiar, though I would have misspelled his name if I haven’t read this book. Unfortunately, we don’t find our history books so interesting at the time when we had to find them so. Else, we are introduced to them so early when we are not matured enough to understand and find them interesting. All I remember about Xuanzang is that he had a long enough – funny mustache in my elementary school text book, due to which he was left untouched by my classmates, who generally used to draw mustaches and beards to those who didn’t have them and enlarge them to those who had normal mustaches and beards (we used to do it with lot more hatred to the British viceroys as we were taught that they were the ones that harassed our people and looted our wealth). Most of the times, we used to copy his mustache on other faces. Only now do I understand how great Xuanzang is and how good he was with our people when he was here.

I find this whole Indo-Sino story very important. We have been complimenting each other as good neighbors throughout the history. China has always been fond of being central to the world, but it is only now is it becoming a problem for its neighbors and the world. He has put it very well how China tries to place itself in the center of the world by calling India the west. Unlike the popular belief, it is not just Buddhism that was offered by India to China, there were many other things that went from here. For that matter, to the whole world, this has not just been a birthplace of some popular religions, but of various other important things that have been forgotten now.

China’s resistance to Buddhism initially stemmed out of the insecurity of losing its superiority if they adopt a religion from another country. This kind of nationalism is present all over the world, I guess. Calling my own culture as the best without even making an attempt to know about others’ is an easily sellable idea in any culture. Most of our people who say that their language is the best today do not know any other language than theirs, right?! It is the same issue.

China has historically been a good production unit. India has been a good market for their products and a trader of their products to the central and west Asia. They have accomplished lot more stuff than us by having a non-democratic setup, whereas we have proven our maturity by remaining democratic against all odds and despite all its problems. It is still something that makes me look down on China. If you can’t even allow your people to decide what they want, what is the point in growing to whatever level you are at? The author says that the famines are generally not a phenomenon in democratic nations. So, we have another reason to prove why democracy is superior to all other models, though it accommodates everyone including the problematic ones.

He has clearly differentiated between famine control and hunger eradication. While China has not been very successful on the former and managed the latter better than us, we have been the other way around. It’s such a pain to watch huge amount of grains rot in store rooms while hunger remains a major problem for major part of the nation. He says we have been worse than most of the poorest countries on this front. Shame! Shame!!

His view on gender inequality is interesting. It is not an independent issue, but it is connected to many other inequalities. As he says it is a problem only in lower class not in upper class. We have had female prime ministers in most of South Asian countries, which is still not a reality in most of the well-developed western countries. According to him, that itself is an indication of how gender inequality is not a problem in our upper class. I have a slightly different view here. All those who became prime ministers were not just from upper class, but they were also from the most powerful political families in their respective countries. No upper class lady grew from grass-root level to the top post. They all came through the back door. So, it is still not easy to close the case with such a conclusion.

My views on nuclear bomb are the same as his. The reasons that I have also are the same as his. He has supplied some more supporting arguments. This kind of reading helps strengthen the beliefs one has, although it doesn’t give a chance to understand the opposite views. Somehow there is an attraction towards wars and bombs among common people. They don’t understand the kind of impact they can have on human lives unless they have lost their own loved ones themselves. All those who talk about war like cricket match have to be forcefully joined in army. They would understand how difficult it is to fight wars and lose valuable lives. We are just fascinated by the idea of power that the bombs generate. It is an unknown and meaningless fascination.

I think it was Bill Clinton if I am not wrong. He asked a simple question, “Do you feel safer after the nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan or before?” Dr. Sen also answers why the developed nations are justified in saying countries like India and Pakistan should not be having nuclear weapons when they themselves already have them. The simple reason is that the control mechanism they have is far superior to ours. He also talks about why disarmament is not possible as long as the top five weapon sellers are the only permanent five in UN Security Council. I always wondered why all those who made huge noise about India’s ability to make an atom bomb did so for so many years if it was so simple for a country like Pakistan to make it within a few days from the date we made it public. He also talks about what kind of personality Dr. Kalam is and how such a soft person has got so much of fascination towards the power that the bomb generates. It is also aggravated when it is mixed with nationalism.

Discussion on faith versus reason is very interesting. He says if they had been just following the tradition, i.e. the prevailing faith, the prophets would not have come out with so much new ideas and scriptures for the future generations, which has formed the basis for most of our current faith. So funny! But, I think, some people are born with reasoning ability and they go on to create new things such as scriptures, whereas, most others do not possess any such ability and they were just born to blindly follow what their parents teach them. They also create, but not anything new. They only create the same conflicts and fights between peaceful groups of people. They are just created by their gods and parents to spoil the harmony of the land in which they are born.

One major take away I have from this book is about his views on Akbar. Though we studied them in schools, it was not the right time to take them into our head for any other purpose than clearing the history exams. I am interested to know about Din-Ilahi now. Even today, at an age when there is so much broad-mindedness, our so-called educated elite preach something outside for the survival and practice something else inside. Victims of hypocrisy! It is so unbelievable to know that a king who lived many centuries back had Inclusiveness in his blood vessels.

60 years back, secularism was the best way forward for the country that had so many varied religions. Today, it is in question. We are to choose between pseudo-secularism and communalism. To me, that only indicates the failure in implementing secularism. If we were truly secular, we wouldn’t have had to deal with this question of pseudo-secularism versus communalism. We were not. We have given huge room for communalists to justify their stand, too.

His detailed account on calendars and their origination from our lands clearly indicates that we were far ahead of others in civilization and it is only in later periods we have lost everything to the invaders including our self-esteem (though we know that there are many other evidences to prove this theory). I am wondering if we would have been another China or a different country (or countries) altogether with different problems and different feel-good factors had we not been invaded so many times by so many different people.

He has also recognized the separatist views based on other factors such as region and language almost a decade back itself in his discussion on Indian identity though he doesn’t subscribe to it. Keeping that identity and its meaningfulness alive is always going to be a challenge for us as we are united by a unique model that has not worked anywhere else on this planet. Is there any other country that has so many different languages, religions and cultures co-existing peacefully for longer than 50 years with most of its neighbors sharing some of the same languages, religions and cultures? I think this is one thing (separatist views) that needs highest amount of attention at the moment if we want to keep this country intact. May be, had he written this book now, he would have written about it in detail, I guess.

Another most important and interesting thing that I took away from this book is about the comparison between two Hindus and two Muslims. Gandhi practiced Hinduism in his daily life and advocated secularism whereas someone like Savarkar who was a diehard Hindu nationalist didn’t believe in the existence of god. I am still wondering how Hindu Mahasabha accepted him as its president. Likewise, Jinnah who was not very spiritual wanted a separate nation for Muslims and Azad who practiced Islam ‘religiously’ was opposed to it. This tells us the difference between being religious and spiritual and why they both need not go hand in hand. Personally, I get attracted so much by spirituality, but do not find anything appealing in religious politics. So, that made this point very interesting to me.

One very silly criticism I have on him is that he talks disproportionately more about Bengali sources. It is natural that a Bengali refers to Bengali sources more than others. There is nothing wrong in someone referring to his own culture as he knows that more than anyone else’s. It would have been better if he had referred to various other sources as well to give a balanced view. I couldn’t resist this as I was getting an impression in many places throughout the book (leaving out some exceptions) as though those sections are more about Bengal than about India. I know he surely didn’t make a conscious attempt to create any such image unlike some immature people who try to do that using every opportunity that comes their way, but even such an unconscious – natural bias (I can’t even call it a bias) is not good as it gives an amateur like me an opportunity to write a paragraph. Even if you look at the index in the end, Tagore is the most talked about person in the book. More than Gandhi, Nehru, Akbar and Alberuni! I think, Nandan was more balanced in his book that way. It certainly doesn’t mean that I forgot the role played by Bengal in the making up of this country from its earliest days. 

Finally… I come from a region that loves to show its love for anyone by making them their chief minister or bringing them to politics. So, I have a related question. The question is, now that it has become clear that the right wing would never make the first Asian Nobel laureate for Economics their finance minister, why not Congress do it? I know it might sound absurd but I think my question is all the more valid when there is someone like Manmohan Singh in PM’s seat and someone like Nandan Nilekani in a visionary role with cabinet ranking in his team.

Mr. Sen, aren’t you interested in the job?! Or, is it the Congress party that isn’t interested??!!


  1. Allow me to argue on some points :)

    Gandhi's answer to that question about western civilization sounds amusing to us. But that's all we should seek from that answer-amusement. Neither pride nor relief. He was certainly being sarcastic when he said that. Not serious. Mills was serious while ridiculing our ancestors outwardly. Do we want to west to see Gandhi as Mills of east? If not, then we should not use this quote of his as only legitimate view about west. We must not forget that Gandhi's-ideology that we are so proud of-was more or less product of the same *good idea* that he wished did exist.

    About Moghals, I felt the same case as you-only if he had provided someone else's name other than Akbar. There was no one secular moghal other than Akbar maybe. Except we know Aurangazeb's eldest brother Dara Shukoh translated Upanishads. But I don't understand why do you want him to list out the names of non-tolerant dictators? What purpose will it serve?

    I also feel he should have given some space to heterodoxy preached by swami Vivekananda. A complete chapter may have been written in his name.

    You talk about him being made finance minister. What do you think-what kind of president he would have made in place of Peanab-da?

  2. Good to see you keep coming back, Rohan! Looks like you are the only person seriously following me. :)

    We shouldn't certainly use it as the only legitimate view about West. It was just his way of taking out his frustration. "If they are so civilized why do they do all these?" is his question.

    Yes, Dr. Sen talks about that also. The entire freedom movement itself was lead by all English-speaking Indians, who were influenced by the ideas of west one way or the other.

    After seeing Pratibha Patil in that position, I can't think of any able leader in that position. It would be good to have him head a committee that studies the relevance of that post for this country! :)


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