Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Argumentative Indian 

Amartya Sen's new book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, I'd imagine, will have a far greater impact than both Sunil Khilnani or Shashi Tharoor's earlier efforts at attempting to explain the idea of India (primarily) to the Western world. This is largely because Sen, unlike Khilnani or Tharoor, spends a large portion of his time either in Shantiniketan, or lecturing and touring parts of India. He is actively involved in engaging both the public and public figures in dialogue, and given this, seems to approach the topic of explaining India - unlike the other two authors mentioned, not with a tone of 'India aggrandization', but a sense of fairness and balanced criticism.

I think a book of this nature was a long time coming, especially since early ideas of socialism have gone through several transformations, have seen governments picking up after Narasimha Rao's initial economic reforms, have been interrupted by the BJP (and to an extent the Left) in power, and are being examined in the light of India becoming the world's 'back office.' Also, the West's reading of democracy in India as a British legacy receives a bit of an 'Amartya lashing': from several readings and re-readings of Indian classics and historical records, he illustrates that the idea of democracy, in some form or fashion, predates the British by centuries.

Excerpts from a review in the Guardian.

In this superb collection of essays, Sen smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context. Central to his notion of India, as the title suggests, is the long tradition of argument and public debate, of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India's history.

While talking about Indian democracy, for instance, he cautions: 'It is important to avoid the twin pitfalls of 1) taking democracy to be just a gift of the Western world that India simply accepted when it became independent, and 2) assuming that there is something unique in Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy.' The truth is far more complex and somewhere between these two views.

Sen refutes the facile Western description of India as a 'mainly Hindu country' with the same rigorous scholarship that he demolishes the isolationist, circumscribed view of Hindutva held dear by the Hindu right that ruled India between 1999 and 2004.

Illuminated with examples from the teachings and lives of emperors such as Akbar and Ashoka, with illustrations from the epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, and a staggering range of other references, he propounds a view of Hinduism as an inclusive philosophy rather than an exclusionist, divisive religion. This view of Hinduism is mature enough and magnanimous enough to accommodate dissenting views and 'even profound scepticism'. This is a 'capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement'.