FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW: JUNE 20TH: REVIEW: THE ARGUMENTATIVE INDIAN: WRITINGS ON INDIAN CULTURE, HISTORY AND IDENTITY: BY AMARTYA SEN: REVIEWED BY SALIL TRIPATHI.
One of the enduring images of Calcutta is the presence of an adda. Roughly translated as 'the place,' it is a spot where people gather, often at a street corner, usually at a set time, to discuss and debate. The topic may be anything: French New Wave cinema; the differences between Stalinists and Trotskyites; or even whether 'the prince of Bengal,' Sourav Ganguly, has outlived his utility as India's cricket captain. Opinions are expressed freely, and discussions go on for hours, with neither side (assuming there are only two sides) willing to give in easily.
While addas are special to Calcutta, they are found in other parts of India as well, and form an essential part of the Indian tradition, of conversation, deliberation and debate, where the give and take of opinions is routine and loud arguments are frequent. The willingness to listen to other points of view, accepting some, modifying others, rejecting a few, is at the heart of India's democratic experience, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. In his new book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, which brings together his essays on Indian society published over the last decade, Mr. Sen reinforces the idea of Indians being loquacious, whose liberal traditions are derived less from their appreciation of democratic ideals learnt from the West, and more from their own tradition of svikriti, or acceptance.
This exchange is not restricted to the elite. He writes:
It would be a great mistake in this context to assume that because of the possible effectiveness of well-tutored and disciplined arguments, the argumentative tradition must, in general, favor the privileged and the well-educated, rather than the dispossessed and the deprived. Some of the most powerful arguments in Indian intellectual history have, in fact, been made about the lives of the least privileged groups, which have been drawn on the substantive force of these claims, rather than on the cultivated brilliance of well-trained dialectics.
The examples he cites are not only from ancient India, but also drawn from contemporary history, including election results like those of 1977, when Indira Gandhi's Congress Party was routed after a spell of emergency in which democracy was briefly suspended; and of 2004, when poor Indians voted out a coalition which had presided over a period of prosperity which had in some areas widened inequality.
However, as the economist Joan Robinson, who taught Mr. Sen at Cambridge, told him once, whenever you make any generalization about India, the opposite is equally true. Put another way, the late Nirad Chaudhuri wrote once that in India even exceptions run into millions. Some may challenge Mr. Sen's hypothesis of the argumentative nature of Indians by pointing out the submissive nature of Indians before those with power or authority, a point the Indian diplomat Pavan Varma makes in his recent book Being Indian. And many could question the notion that Indians settle their differences peacefully by pointing out the sorry history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent.
But Mr. Sen, renowned as an economist and widely praised for bringing a moral, philosophical perspective to the dismal science, is on to something when he says that such violence is the aberration, not the rule. And he does this in a gentle tone, and spares no one in his critique. He challenges Hindu nationalists who have portrayed Hinduism as a monotheistic, intolerant religion, out to seek revenge against Muslims today because of the plunder and pillage of some Muslim invaders centuries ago, by showing other Muslim kings who were integrationist and respectful of Indian culture. But he also upbraids—again gently—the left-leaning secularists of India, who challenge the Hindu nationalists by emphasizing the contributions of other religions and cultures, and by belittling Hinduism for its hierarchical nature.
Mr. Sen is critical of such an approach. You cannot deny that a vast majority of Indians are Hindus, and their practices and thinking have influenced India, shaping it positively, making it a speCIAl place, in which the narrow nationalism of the Hindu fundamentalists is the exception. The posturing of some Indian academics and the broader left come in for special criticism: they draw on arguments developed in Western universities and criticize globalization and its influence on India, as if India is a fragile state that would get swamped by the tide. Some Indian politicians regularly fulminate against the influence of MTV, and their followers have ransacked shops selling St. Valentine's Day cards in India. But India has always had an open mind, its feet planted firmly in the ground, and it has absorbed external influences remarkably well, Mr. Sen points out.
What Indians learn from the West is not so much outward manifestations as the underlying ideas. And so it is that a poet like Rabindranath Tagore develops dislike for nationalism which can degenerate into fascism, and a filmmaker like Satyajit Ray, sees Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief, yet does not make an imitative film, but learns to use nonactors in outdoor locations, and makes Pather Panchali, (Song of the Little Road), which then goes on to win a special prize at Cannes in 1956. This ability—to learn from elsewhere, transform the idea, and make it your own, is a major part of Indian tradition. Which is why when McDonald's sets up shop in India, it does not sound the death knell of the samosa, and Indian chefs don’t go about destroying the restaurant; rather, McDonald's is forced to offer the McAloo Tikki Burger for its vegetarian customers. India has always absorbed external influences, making them part of its syncretic being.
In highlighting this absorptive capacity of Indian culture, Mr. Sen also challenges the notion that Asian values are somehow different from Western values, and that human rights is a Western, and hence foreign concept for the Asian mindset. He would have approved of the response the former New York Congressman Stephen Solarz gave a journalist in Singapore in the late 1990s. The reporter asked him if democracy was after all a Western value, since Singapore's then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had said so. Mr. Solarz replied that he could think of several Asians who would disagree with that view, and they included the Dalai Lama and Anwar Ibrahim.
At a time when China and India are emerging as this century’s major economic powers, one of the most interesting chapters in the book is devoted to the cultural connections between ancient India and China. Mr. Sen reveals the rich and deep exchange of views among scholars, shared manuscripts, trade, and more importantly, scientific and mathematical knowledge. The colonial experience brought this exchange to an end. Today, when Indian pharmaceutical companies set up shop in China, and Chinese software companies invest in Bangalore in India, they are only picking up the contact that had been suspended temporarily.
The resilience of Indian democracy, ultimately, emerges from its argumentative tradition, based on public reasoning, which also explains the defense of secular politics and the struggle against inequality. It does not mean the absence of horrendous inequities, but it does show that Indians have the means to deal with those problems peacefully.