When Penguin released Amartya Sen’s latest book The Argumentative India in early August, the book became a metaphor for both Sen, the man, as well as Sen, the Noble prize-winning economist. The book reflects on Indian culture, history, and identity. It gives us an opportunity to understand where Sen derives his notion of economics as a discipline which should be rooted in equality, fairness and entitlements. The 400-odd page of elegant prose that is accessible to the general reader paints India in particular, and Southasia in general, in broad strokes. While retaining an eye for the detail, never once does Sen miss the larger canvass. Unlike a single theme, Sen’s anthology of essays brings out the heterodoxy of the mosaic called Subcontinent.
The first section, ‘Voice and Heterodoxy’, takes the reader on a moral and ethical tour of the beginnings of Southasian thought. Starting with an analysis of the Bhagvad Gita, the essential arguments between Krishna and Arjuna, Sen concludes that though Krishna’s argument for action and duty captured the imagination of Isherwood and T S Eliot, it was Arjuna’s profound doubt about pain and post-war desolation that has emerged of eternal value. The entire book operates on the one cardinal principle that a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated remains alive. It is thus central for any system or society to remember Arjuna’s consequential analysis and not to be just driven by Krishna’s notion of “doing one’s duty”.
There is another handsome technique Sen uses to demolish hegemonising ideology to embark upon a concrete empirical analysis. Refuting Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis, which has placed India firmly in the category of ‘the Hindu civilisation’, Sen argues that this reductionist approach downplays the fact that India has more Muslims than any other country in the world with the exception of Indonesia. The Muslim population in India is about 140 million- larger than the entire British and French populations put together. The chapter titled “India: Large and Small” is a fine exploration into the number based classification of majorities and minorities. For instance, he explains there can be at least five different ways to identify a majority group among Hindus: 1) the category of low-or middle-income people; 2) the class of non-owners of much capital; 3) the group of rural Indians; 4) the people who do not work in the organized industrial sector; and 5) Indians who are against religious persecution. Using these five examples, he successfully establishes the erroneous nature of the assumption of the centrality of religion-based categorization over other systems of classification. What gives this essay its edge is that Sen, by broad basing his arguments, not only challenges the assumption of the Western Huntington but also the local proponents of Hindutva. He patiently weaves warp by warp, weft by weft, the multiple strands and plurality of voices that constitute India’s past and the present. By drawing attention of the reader to every nuance, he warns us of the danger of simplification and reductionism.
The essays on Tagore and Satyajit Ray are a great primer into the works of these two masters of their respective arts. While writing about Tagore and Ray, Sen also brings out the creative tension in dealing with other cultures, problems of representations, and narrative logics of a work of art. Unlike Edward Said who sought identity in every work of art, Sen manages to establish the space for both identity as well as universality in the realms of narratives – be it novels or films. He successfully retrieves the sacred space of art’s autonomy and the deepest conviction of not to be ghettoized into any singular identity even as it deals with cultural particularity and peculiarity. He brings out Tagore’s valiant struggle against the corruptibility of nationalism.
The central essay is Indian Traditions and The Western Imagination. Sen explains that the internal identities of Indians are drawn from different parts of India’s diverse traditions. The observational leanings of Western approaches have had a major impact-both positive and negative – on how postcolonial India perceives itself. He refuses to indulge those who seek simple classifications and writes quite pithily: “What is India really like is a good question for a foreign tourist’s handbook”. He repeatedly brings forth the other positions, other contexts, and most importantly other concerns. He rightly explains the limitation of three dominant Western views and readings of India: curatorial, magisterial and exoticist, thereby hurting the rationalist part of India’s tradition.
Part three of the book is a reflection of the contemporary Indian sub-continent. It deals extensively with issues of politics of deprivation. Sen not only looks at poverty from class and caste dimensions but also from the point of view of gender inequality. This is also the only section where there is an overt relationship between his economics and his politics. Positioning himself firmly in the left-centre economics, Sen brings out most of the major ills that are plaguing the sub-continent. While holding the mirror closer to Indian sub-continent, he manages to do two things simultaneously: first identifying the problems of today and second, suggesting implementable ways to get out of the present state of misery. The only essay in this section, which Sen might have loved to completely rework, is India and the Bomb. The essay is based on his lecture at the Annual Pugwash Conference at Cambridge in 2000. Since then, there have been substantial developments in the opinion of the dominant powers over India’s overt nuclearisation programme. The recent Indo-US agreement on the nuclear technology- which in real terms accepts India’s nuclear weapon status and deals a body blow to the six decades old disarmament debate- is an issue that deserves a much more closer scrutiny by razor-sharp mind of the likes of Sen, and one hopes he takes it up shortly to explain the precariousness of this giant nuclear alliance.
After taking the reader through an uncomfortable excursion in economic erudition, Sen moves to a fascinating tale “India through its calendars”. In this rather enchanting piece, he brings out India’s multicultural history through the profusion of well-designed and well-developed calendars that exist, each with a long history. He also establishes the notion of continuity by drawing attention to the fact that Ujjain remaining India’s principle meridian from fifth century CE onwards to till date.
Sen seeks to draw out India’s rich tradition of argumentation, skepticism, rationality and heterogeneity in this important work. However, if one were to ask whether the book covers the entire gamut called India, the obvious answer is no. For instance, there is nothing about the non-Sanskrit past of the south and the literary and cultural references are primarily from the North and the East. But, these are not acts of omission but an honest recognition of the vastness of the sub-continent and its infinitesimal plurality. Amartya Sen succeeds in drawing the readers into his universe by not projecting his work as “The reading of The Indian Sub-Continent” but as “A reading of the sub-continent” and opening up the space for each of us to add to this massive multitude of voices.