An Indian argument

Amartya Sen: The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (2006), Picador.

I picked this up in India, after having read Gurcharan Das’ India Unbound and wanting to learn more about the history and society of a country that holds a fifth of the world’s population and now, finally, is beginning to pull its weight in the international economy. Sen’s collection of essays is the intellectual complement to Das’ rather easier and less multifaceted account of the economic liberation of India, focusing on the central aspects of deliberation ("argumentativeness") and religious tolerance that has been central to India for centuries.

The book echoes my own impression of India: That it is a mosaic rather than a melting  pot, and a mosaic that seems to be able to sort things out in a peaceful, democratic and intellectual manner. Notwithstanding certain dynastic tendencies (not unlike the USA, incidentally), India has always been a heterogenous society, tolerant of religious variety, open to ideas, with lively debates and a relative lack of coercion.

Any collection of essays, primarily built on speeches, runs the risk of repetitiveness and a certain heaviness of language, and this collection is no exception. I particularly like the chapter on Tagore and his role in the building of India (for some reason he is seen as a sometime-fashionable mystic by Western readers, at least as I dimly remember from my high-school days), as well as the discussions of India’s argumentative tradition throughout the centuries – democracy did not come to India with the English, who rather built on a tradition of debate and openness that was already there. Sen cautions against an idea of India as a monocultural country in general, and as a militant Hindu contry in particular: India has 180 million Muslims, for instance, living peacefully among many other religions.

I have not heard this poem by Tagore, quoted by Sen in the book, but it sums up Sen’s hopes for his country – and describes the foundation of heterogeneity and openness he sees as there to build on:

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

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