Monday, September 19, 2005

The discreet charm of Amartya (September 19, 2005)

Review Article

By Swapan Dasgupta

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Allen Lane, London, 2005) pp. 409, Rs 650

Ever since dissent became the leitmotif of the teaching classes, there has been a clamour among historians and radical activists to debunk the notion that history writing is the preserve of the ruling classes. “I am seeking”, explained Edward Thompson in his celebrated 1963 preface to The Making of English Working Class, “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” In 1982, the historian Ranajit Guha initiated the Subaltern Studies project which, apart from challenging “elitist historiography”, sought to highlight “the contribution of people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this (Indian) nationalism.”

These were worthwhile correctives to a historiography geared to understanding the exercise of power. Tragically, the correctives ended up becoming the mainstream. Whereas 50 years ago, the study of British constitutional precedents and the Afghan policy of British India, to mention two stray examples, were obligatory, today’s history curriculum devotes more attention to “peasant studies” and “popular” movements.

Electorally, the Left hasn’t prevailed in India and is unlikely to do so in a hurry. However, since the 1970s it has acquired hegemonic status in some of the important centres of intellectual production, particularly the history departments and the media. There is a striking mismatch between how Middle India thinks and how its intellectuals react.

The mismatch has been in sharp evidence for the past two decades. The rise of assertive Hindu nationalism and the six years of a BJP-led Government at the Centre triggered sharp intellectual reactions. Apart from an aesthetic revulsion to the outlanders, there was considerable disquiet at the assault on cherished Nehruvian assumptions of nationhood. It was painfully apparent that Hindutva was Middle India’s protest against a counter-culture that, quite inexplicably, was becoming the dominant “idea” of India.

Amartya Sen is not, and has never been, a doctrinaire Marxist. He is an archetypal ‘progressive’—the child of an expedient marriage between liberal cosmopolitanism and welfare economics. His sense of enlightenment is very Bengali. He combines his love for the universalism of Rabindranath Tagore with an almost Brahmo Samaj-like disdain for ritualised Hinduism. A creature of the multi-culturalism that is celebrated in the columns of The Guardian and New York Times, Sen reacted to the 1992 Ayodhya demolition, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2002 Gujarat riots with outrage. In the process, he also effected a curious alliance with the Left and libertarian critics of ‘majoritarian’ nationalism. This collection of essays is the outcome of this intellectual metamorphosis.

Sen’s central thesis is disarmingly simple and unexceptionable. India, he maintains, quite rightly, has the gift of the gab. Its people are naturally loquacious and argumentative. “Prolixity”, he writes, “is not alien to us in India.” Indian democracy is blessed with deep, indigenous, cultural roots. As they say in Indi-speak, we are like that only.

Pluralism, argues Sen, is also ingrained in the religious tradition of the Hindus and the history of Buddhism. He traces scepticism to verses in the Rig Veda, cites its recurrence in the Ramayana and notes the multi-polarity of Hindu philosophy, including the existence of a strong atheistic current. Curiously, Sen doesn’t even have a passing mention of the Kerala-born Sankara who travelled throughout India in the 9th century debating the philosophy of Advaita with Hindu and Buddhist scholars. Nor does he cherish Swami Vivekananda’s dialogue with adherents of the Christian faith. These are not by-the-way omissions. They indicate that rounded history is, perhaps, not Sen’s priority. Like Thompson and Guha, he too is into fetishising footnotes.

As for secularism, Sen notes that its earliest modern adherent was the Moghal emperor Akbar. “To take Aurangzeb as the ‘typical’ Moghal monarch, or as the quintiessential Muslim ruler of India, would be an extremely strange historical judgment.” He even suggests that Alberuni’s contemporary account of Hindu revulsion at the iconoclastic vandalism of Mahmud of Ghazni was a case of “overgeneralizing a little.”

Sen’s emphasis on the cross-religious basis of Indian secularism is well-intentioned. Yet, he does not pause to consider why the other countries in the subcontinent have chosen a less tolerant route. Till the 10th century at least, the Hindu-Buddhist civilisational extended right up to Afghanistan. What made Afghanistan and Pakistan evolve differently? Even Bangladesh, which Sen describes “as the safest country to live in, in the subcontinent”, isn’t quite as idyllic. Give this grim neighbourhood picture, Sen may find it worthwhile considering why the “inclusionary Indian identity” stopped at the Radcliffe line. Is there a greater Hindu basis to Indian secularism and democracy than is politically expedient to admit?

It is widely recognised that Hinduism cannot be equated with codified religions of the book. This is why the term Sanatan Dharma is preferred to describe what is in essence a way of life rooted in the geography of India. Sen is absolutely right to emphasise that Hinduism is inherently plural and lacking in certitudes. He is, however, alarmed by a feeling that the Hindutva movement “has entered into confrontation with the idea of India itself.” He sees in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement an attempt to refashion Hinduism into a monolithic set of certitudes.

Sen, unfortunately, is not contesting a dangerous idea; he is demolishing a caricature. Like most things Indian, the Hindutva movement is a coalition of very different impulses. They range from those who believe in the divinity of Ram and the existence of an exact birthplace in Ayodhya, to those who are self-confessed ‘political’ Hindus. It also includes Indian conservatives who see Hindutva as a loose, emotional anchor of nationhood. Hindu nationalism is itself a broad church. Sen may be an “unreformed secularist” but his understanding of the Hindutva ‘Other’ is not nuanced, and marred by over-reliance on the contrived alarmism of the likes of Arundhati Roy. In describing his enemy, Sen lacks empirical rigour; he becomes another non-resident polemicist.

Being a collection of published essays and lectures, The Argumentative Indian was not meant to be a comprehensive study of Indian identity. Yet, when Sen makes his passionate plea for “internal pluralism and external receptivity” to define India’s sense of self, it is natural to look at the contemporary global context. The reader, unfortunately, will have to search in vain for any reference to either 9/11 or terrorism within India. It is as if these traumatic developments had no bearing on today’s India.

With Sen, omissions are never casual. They follow the choppy trajectory of selective indignation.

1 comment:

Manish said...

Amartya Sen is one of the most famous of the millions of utterly brainwashed self-hating clerks Macaulay's education system has produced and continues to produce.

Most Indians, who like him are products of Macaulayite brainwashing and carry disdain for Hinduism/India in their minds already, can't distinguish between his economics and his politics and think that just bec he won the Nobel for economics, his politics is also worth emulating. Therein lies the tragedy of the educated Indian !