What Argumentative Indian?

Few days back, there was an interview (click on Listen) with Amartya Sen on National Public Radio about his new book, The Argumentative Indian. In this book he argues that civic debate is as important as elections in a democracy and India had a long history of encouraging dispute and discussion from Vedic times.He starts with the Bhagawad Geeta in which initially Krishna and Arjuna take two morally opposing positions and finally Krishna convinces Arjuna to participate in the war through reason.
The other examples he cites are from the Rig Veda, supposed to be a classical Hindu text, but one which has debate on if God exists and if he created the world. The Buddhist council held during various times argued about the Buddhist teachings and Emperor Asoka set forth rules for conducting debates. Amartya Sen’s reasons that, it was this historical track record that helped democracy succeed in India while it failed in many other colonies that got freedom from the British.
Last month, actress Khusboo expressed an opinion about pre-martial sex and said that people should take safe measures to prevent AIDS and pregnancy. Immediately members of the Dalit Panthers of India went to the office of the Film Artistes’ association in Chennai carrying brooms and slippers and demanded an apology. Pattali Makkal Katchi said it will protest outside the house of the actress. Khusboo was forced to apologize.
The Govt. of India is currently following the path of liberalizing the economy so that more people can increase their standard of living and naturally the Communists are against it. The path they chose to express their dissent was to shutdown the whole country. Communists are members of the Parliament, the body established to debate such issues, but they seem to have scant respect for the Parliament and the process etablished there.
An Oriya writer, Bibhudha Ranjan has a new book on Mahatma Gandhi called Michha Mahatma which contains some objectionable content according to some. The book has not been released yet, and hence this information comes from reviews. But that did not prevent people from demanding a ban on the book and burning the effigy of the writer. The author of the book claims that he has used only previously published material, but then who has time to read, think independently and engage in debate.
I have not read Amarya Sen’s book and hence don’t know if he claims that the Argumentative Indian still exists in India. If you look around you will see such species only in some pockets and soon they have to be added to the endangered species list. We as a society seem to have undergone reverse evolution to become The Coercive Indian.

10 thoughts on “What Argumentative Indian?

  1. >> soon they have to be added to the
    >> endangered species list
    I am currently reading the book. Having read 6 out of the 16 essays that form the book, my impression is that Amartya Sen too feels that ‘Argumentative Indian’ is indeed in danger of becoming an endangered species unless we realise that the argumentative spirit played an essential part in getting us where we are now and endangering it will set us back a lot.

  2. Hi,
    I have been reading your blog for 3-4 months now and I find most of your posts interesting. I have been a little lethargic checking out your History blog The Palm Leaf because of my own waxing and waning interest in history!
    But coming to your post on the Argumentative Indian, I am reading the book right now and I believe Amartya Sen essentially expresses the same lamentation as you make. It is probably his response to the current state of affairs in India.
    I have read the first three essays and all them have been great and very stimulating!

  3. I think the contemporary Indian is often quite argumentative, albeit in a manner that is overly ideological and hackneyed. I refer to the CPI, the CPI (M), the Laloo equivalents, Romila Thapar etc.
    A former British High Commissioner called it a “cacophonous cauldron”. Fortunately, voices of sanity and depth such as yours help reintroduce a degree of perspective in debate.
    I have not read Amartya Sen’s latest book. However, he has not contributed to the healthy debate in the past. He merely reaffirmed a left wing perspective on Indian history. Had he been more objective, he would have critiqued those ideological positions as well. And his views on Buddhism, while PC, were not always factual.

  4. Jaffna, In terms of discussion of history, you can find fault in both camps. The Hindutva camp tries to push the dates of various events as far as possible based on astronomical events and refuse to accept contradictory archaeological evidence. The Communists are upset by the fact that India had a great civilization. But these discussions happen without much physical violence.
    It is in politics that discussion is totally missing. In one political party, if you don’t agree with the supreme leader (or his wife), you have to quit. Most of these parties working in democratic India lack internal democracy.
    In the interview Amartya Sen came out as a very thoughtful person. I have to read the book to find out his biases.

  5. JK,
    I agree with you on the “Hindutva” camp. They have no sense of history. This has led to the monopolization of history by left wing ideologues. There is no insightful debate since K.N. Panikkar, Sarvapalli Gopal, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Sumit Sarkar etc go unchallenged for the most part given the lack of a credible intellectual alternative. Arun Shourie did a good expose but there is a need to review Indian history altogether. B.B. Lal and Meenakshi Jain had their strengths. The “Hindutva” school does not pose insights in the historical realm and is therefore no intellectual alternative.
    Turning to Amartya Sen, your very post refers to the debates in the Buddhist councils and Ashoka’s guidelines on a healthy discussion that he so approvingly quotes. The Buddhist councils led to splits, schisms and expulsions. Ashoka ruled that anyone who caused dissension in the Sangha had to suffer the harshest punishment. This is to me is not a charter for free enquiry. The critical insights are lacking in Amartya’s review of issues. He might be a good economist but is a poor historian.

  6. JK,
    Amartya Sen is no angel and isn’t beyond making the occasional slimy comments. What can you say about a Bengali who lived throught the Partition who has nothing to say about the horrors of Direct Action Day or the anti-Hindu pogroms organised by the Muslim League in the former East Pakistan that moved the only Hindu member of Jinnah’s Cabinet – JN Mondal – a Dalit to resign. Sen is given to talking and writing about things he has knowledge about for instance Indian Philosophy. While he knows Sanksrit he is no Sanskritist or philosopher of Indic relgions. And as far as Developmental Economics is concerned the man is stuck in a groove and has much difficulty explaining the recent emergence of China and India. His contribution to development economics in the past is certainly praiseworthy and applies very well to countries such as India that have been devastated by colonialism unlike resource rich de novo ones. But his audience in India either lacks the brains or the guts to question his propositions. The Indian Left which has no knowledge of India’s classical tradtitions lacks the brains; as for the guts barring Subramaniam Swamy and Swaminathan Aiyar who have written incisively about Sen the rest have decided to simply grin and bear it.

  7. I think we should never apply a binary “blanket policy” of “have” or “have not” for any trait with respect to a country or its population. For instance: The statement “Indians are good at software programming” doesn’t mean the entire population can code. The same goes with this case. Indians are argumentative in nature doesn’t mean each and every person of its one billion population is argumentative. Whether in pre-historic times or today or the future, there will only be a minority of people which represent a certain trait, which influences the majority.

  8. Interesting post. Indians are not known for team work. They work best abroad. Verbal conversations often degenerate into arguments even among educated Indians. Tolerence has to be both in letter and spirit.

  9. I haven’t read the book yet, but as far as I could gather from the reviews – all Amartya Sen laments about is that Secularism is not given as much respect and he blames the problem squarely on the BJP and the Parivar.
    Does he talk about anything else – Oh yes, I will read the book!
    Anyway, a Cambridge Historian thinks that Amartya Sen’s history is only school-level: http://www.indiblog.com/62/argumentative-indian-unworthy-amartya-sens-history-biased/

  10. The new Argumentative Indian
    In his book, Shivaji : Hindu King in Islamic India, James W. Laine presented a non-flattering view of Shivaji. Shivaji remains a “mountain rat”, a guerrilla of the hills and a narrow-minded fanatic Hindu rebel who, animated by vaulting ambitions…

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