For Argument's Sake: Amartya Sen's new book

07 September 2005 |

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's new book claims that debate has always been a vital part of Indian culture

DEBATER: Sen sees dissent as part of India’s democratic character

Back in November 1998, I stood in line outside the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University to hear Amartya Sen—who had just won the Nobel Prize in economics—talk on "Reason Before Identity." A long queue of students were waiting for admission; and I had to cram into one of the uncomfortable seats upstairs. Sen, in his heavy academic robes, began brilliantly, with a joke about how he had just been pestered by a dim-witted immigration official at Heathrow Airport who couldn't grasp the notion that an Indian like Sen could be the Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University. From then on, things went downhill. As Sen began unraveling his theories of personal identity, I realized that I disagreed with everything he said. Within a few minutes, I wanted to leave. Only the suspicion that it would be unpatriotic to walk out while a fellow Indian was lecturing at Oxford kept me in the Sheldonian.

Actually, the patriotic thing to do— as Sen himself asserts in his new book—would have been to walk out. In The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity Sen insists that the love of debate and dissent is as deeply entrenched in Indian culture as the love of religion and mysticism. Understanding this little-known fact, he says, is one of the keys to unlocking the puzzle that still baffles so many Western political scientists: how an impoverished and unruly country like India has turned into one of the world's most successful democracies.

A love of dissent certainly comes naturally to Sen. The Nobel Prize was awarded to him for his contribution to welfare economics. His body of work is diverse, but he is best known for challenging the conventional wisdom that famine is caused by a shortage of food. Sen pointed out that famine-struck areas often had enough food; the real culprit was a disturbance in the economic system—for instance, a sudden rise in prices—which made the food inaccessible. In his new book, Sen directs his iconoclastic zeal on the perception of India—held by many abroad, and also within the country—as a place with only one kind of culture, which is spiritual and otherworldly, and one kind of society, which is rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal. Sen points out that if Indians have historically been the world's most religious people, they have also been, paradoxically, its most skeptical. Many of India's most influential thinkers, like the Buddha, were agnostics—or outright atheists. "Indeed, Sanskrit not only has a bigger body of religious literature than exists in any other classical language, it also has a larger volume of agnostic or atheistic writings than in any other classical language," says Sen. Just as it has allowed space for skepticism within a mainly theistic tradition, Indian culture, he argues, has also made room for women and the underprivileged to voice their opinions.

Among Sen's targets are the Hindu fundamentalists, who permit no scope for diversity in their interpretation of India's history; so are those who insist that tolerance and dissent are uniquely Western concepts. Not so, he counters: they are as Indian as yoga and hot curry. He also takes a swipe at the "Asian values" theory, which was popular in the 1990s and emphasized a supposed dichotomy between "Western" values of individuality and democracy and "Asian" values of conformity, discipline and reverence for tradition. The dichotomy is fake. One of the basic requirements of a democratic political culture—a tolerance of those who challenge the orthodoxy—has always been a part of Indian culture.

As it is Indian to dissent, I have to point out that the book has its problems. Sen gives too much weight to historical anomalies and aberrations to make his case. He loves to cite the Mughal Emperor Akbar as an illustration of how open-minded and inquisitive Indian monarchs could be. Yet Akbar was a one-off—none of his successors was as ecumenical, and a few were outright bigots. The might of orthodoxy and narrow-mindedness in Indian history is greater than Sen allows it to be, while acquired Western political traditions probably play a greater part in creating contemporary Indian society's liberal values than Sen believes. Also doubtful is his insistence that the values of debate and dissent are not just Indian but "subcontinental." If so, why has democracy not taken firm root in neighboring Pakistan?

These are minor quibbles. But having missed a golden opportunity to curry favor with Sen back in 1998 by walking out of his lecture, I am now scribbling down every point of dissent in the margins of his splendid, wonderfully written new book.