Review of Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian—S.N. Balagangadhara

[Original Dutch version is here.]

Today, there are multiple images of India current in the West. There is the mystic India, an image that the German Romantics created and the ‘flower children’ of the sixties made popular. There is the third world India with enormous poverty and suffering, which the developmental workers have projected. There is also the India, the centre of IT outsourcing, which the developments in the last decade have brought into existence, and so on. Amartya Sen, the Indian noble prize-winner in Economics, has written a book on “The Argumentative Indian” which speaks of an India that he wants us to consider. This India is an India with a history of toleration and pluralism, an India that has brought forth its own version of ‘secularism’, and an India that is every bit rational, discursive and analytical as the western culture itself.

Before reflecting on some of the issues that Sen raises, let me confess to my disappointment: this collection of essays, written over a period of time, is neither thought-provoking nor deep. Despite the ecstatic reviews this book has received, I find the essays very shallow. They are quite obviously written by an intelligent mind but to say that is to say little about the quality of the essays. They are intelligently mediocre; though in saying this, I am being charitable.

‘India is a secular republic’ – that is what the preamble to Indian constitution grandly proclaims. For nearly two decades now, Indian intellectuals have been debating the nature of this ‘secularism’ in India. Many prominent intellectuals, including Sen whose own contribution is republished in this book, have argued to and fro on the matter. Much heat has been generated through this debate, it is true, but how about some light?

Two background facts are needed to appreciate the force of this question. The first is the emergence of the so-called ‘Hindu right’ or the ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’ in India. There is a virtual consensus among the Indian intellectuals that the attempt to create a ‘Hindu State’ (i.e., a State that proclaims itself to be ‘Hindu’), something which those who want to proclaim the ‘Hinduness’ (Hindutva) want, is a retrograde movement. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which formed a previous government at the Centre, is seen as a political expression of an attempt by those who argue for this ‘Hinduness’ (thay are called the ‘HindutvaWaadins’). The ‘secular’ intellectuals have taken to the streets and their pens in order to combat this ‘fascist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ development in the Indian society.

The second fact, which is of greater importance, is something that Sen also talks about extensively. India has had a very rich history of and experience in pluralism and toleration. Many religious communities have lived together for centuries, without any community being systematically prosecuted because of its faith. So, one would expect the debate on ‘secularism’ in India would bring new considerations to light than those we know from the familiar debates in the West. Instead, what we find is an atrocious rehash of the western discussions, conducted mostly by those who know little or nothing of the western intellectual history. Quite apart from throwing light on their intellectual ignorance, this empty argument about the different meaning that ‘secularism’ has in India also raises an issue that is puzzling: if Indian culture has such a deep appreciation of tolerance and pluralism, why are not the Indian intellectuals reflecting on such a rich cultural experience? Why do they, like Sen does, merely parrot what we already know, namely, that the state can be ‘neutral’ towards religion either by supporting all religions equally or by being equidistant from all religions? Surely, we need more than such a text-book reproduction or a slogan like ‘in India, secularism is a way of life’, to understand why ‘secularism’ is a problem in the Indian society and culture of the twenty-first century.

There is even a deeper puzzle. When you read the debates on Indian secularism, you are left with the impression that you understand what ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’ is. This impression has to do with the assumption that Hinduism is a religion the way Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also religions. Yet, if there is one fact that all students of Hinduism (whether from the West or from the East) agree upon, it is this: Hinduism is not a religion like the Semitic religions. It has no founder, no church, no creeds, no dogmas; no single practice or belief or holy book is common to all those who call themselves as ‘Hindus’. So, what makes ‘Hinduism’ into a religion at all? This question knows of different answers, but that is not at issue here. The issue is: what is the ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’ that the ‘secularists’ oppose?

Let me develop this issue a bit more. Basically, it involves the problem of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. In the Indian debate on the Hindu-Muslim problem, three parties claim to offer a solution. The secularists argue the need for a secular state in India; the Hindu nationalists or the Hindutvawadins plead the case for a Hindu state; and the anti-secular Gandhians claim that the Indian tradition has the resources to handle the question of pluralism of religions. For the sake of argument and convenience, I will divide these parties into two groups, viz., secularists and anti-secularists.

On the one hand, there are the proponents of secularism: they propose that the Hindus and the Muslims (and the other communities) should accept a common framework of secular law. This framework claims neutrality with respect to all religions. The position of secularism in India is generally associated with the ideas of her first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who said that “no state can be civilised except a secular state”. The Indian secularists generally defend a position well known to political theory: the religious neutrality of a liberal state.

On the other hand, there are the opponents of secularism: they refuse to accept the western theories about the religiously neutral state and offer an alternate system of traditional values. The different communities, they feel, should accept this system as the common framework. Its fundamental principle is the equality of religions: since all of them are incomplete manifestations of a supreme truth, all religions are equal. This group consists of the advocates of Hindutva on the one side and the Gandhian anti-secularists on the other. Although there are significant differences between these two anti-secularist parties, they agree on one issue: in India, one should not separate politics from religion because Hinduism yields a more tolerant politics than western secularism. When Balraj Madhok, one of the Hindutva spokesmen, says that “Hindu secularism” is superior to western secularism, he is voicing a widespread opinion:

… [A]ll through the history, the Hindu state has been secular. All Hindu rulers were expected to live up to the ideal of ‘Sarva Panth Sama Bhava’ in their dealings with the people. This concept of ‘equal respect for all panths or ways of worship’ is a positive concept with a much wider and broader meaning than what is conveyed by the concept of secularism as accepted in the West (Madhok 1995: 116).

Or, to let the most distinguished among the Gandhian anti-secularists, Ashis Nandy, explain the moral of his story:

…[I]t is time to recognize that, instead of trying to build religious tolerance on the good faith or the conscience of a small group of de-ethnicized, middle-class politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals, a far more serious venture would be to explore the philosophy, the symbolism, and the theology of tolerance in the faiths of the citizens and hope that the state systems in South Asia may learn something about religious tolerance from everyday Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or Sikhism rather than wish that ordinary Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs will learn tolerance from the various fashionable secular theories of statecraft (Nandy 1998: 338).

The anti-secularists challenge the secular belief that different religious communities can live together in a society only within the framework of a religiously neutral state. Thus, this debate revolves around one of the basic tenets of the contemporary theories of toleration, viz., the belief that state neutrality is necessary for a peaceful and viable plural society.

One should not reduce the clash between secularism and anti-secularism to a clash between a tolerant, progressive left and an intolerant, conservative right. Instead, it is a clash between two frameworks both claiming to provide a solution to the problem of conflicts between the different communities in Indian society.

Some go even further and claim that the concept of tolerance is inadequate to represent the Hindu way of life: “You can hate a man but still tolerate him. But there is no hatred. You recognize the right of every person to have his own belief. He is recognized and respected – religion is no barrier for mutual love and understanding. This is the Hindu attitude” (K. Suryanarayana Rao in Kanungo 2002: 125).

Since their organizations are often involved in the hate campaigns and the violence against the Muslims, one could suggest that such people are hypocrites. In that case, we need to question the neutrality of the secular parties as well: they have consistently failed to treat the Muslims and the Hindus on equal terms. For instance, several reforms were imposed on the Hindu traditions by the Indian state under Congress rule, whereas Islam was left untouched. Instead of getting into such a dispute, let us take the claims of the two parties at face value.

Both parties agree on the objective of a peacefully diverse society. Both allow people to worship, pray, or do puja in whichever way they prefer and to whatever god(s) they prefer. Both allow the followers of the various religions to visit their mosques, churches, gurudwaras, temples, or stay home. Both allow people to believe in one God, or in three or five thousand gods or claim that there is no God. If there is agreement on all these issues, what then is the clash about?

In vain, you search for an answer to this question either in Sen’s book or in the decade-long discussions on ‘secularism’ in India. In fact, and this is even worse, there is not even a sense that such a question is present. Repeating the western arguments glibly, as Sen does, takes us hardly any further. It is not my intention to provide answer to this question here, but I would be amiss if I did not locate the direction in which answers have to be sought.

In the western culture, the problem about the neutrality of the state emerged when different Christian denominations confronted each other, each claiming to be the embodiment of “the truth”. The same problem continues to persist, when different Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) confront each other: each claim to be the exclusive purveyor of (the Biblical) God’s revelation. However, ‘pagan’ traditions, whether from the European Antiquity or from the Indian subcontinent of today, do not make such claims. Instead, they suggest that all religions are partial answers and that, therefore, no religion is either true or false. Consequently, the modern Indian society does not confront the question, which the European societies confronted. In India, the ‘pagan’ traditions are a living force; they confront the Semitic religions that argue the opposite. Consequently, the problem of ‘secularism’ in India cannot even be formulated (let alone answered) by reproducing ill-understood clichés from political philosophy textbooks. It is in such mindless repetitions that we see the intellectual poverty of the ‘secularist’ thinkers like Sen.

The failure of Sen, and generations of intellectuals in India, can be localized in their absence of insights into both their culture and the western culture, even though they think they understand both. Perhaps, nowhere is this more forceful than in Sen’s urgency to show that India is every bit as ‘rational’ as the West. Let me leave aside the image about the ‘rational West’ but focus instead on the ‘mystical East’.

Ever since German Romanticism, the period when translations of Indian texts into European languages occurred, it is indubitable that India has been seen as a ‘mystical’ culture. It is also true that this image has often been used to portray India and her culture in unflattering ways. Quite independent of these issues, however, there is an intellectual problem: is this image false? Could we make the claim that, for centuries, the westerners (travelers, tourists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, etc) have been hallucinating in their perceptions about the ‘mystical’ nature of the Indian traditions? If we say ‘yes’, how shall we go about either explaining or understanding this massive hallucination about India? We cannot use explanations from Individual Psychology: it is impossible to argue that, for the last 250 years, all westerners share the same psychology. Social psychology will not help us either because the western society has changed in the course of the last three centuries. We do not have a Cultural Psychology that can tell us why people in the western culture have a tendency to succumb to such a massive hallucination. In other words, the explanatory problem is so huge that it is embarrassing to see people not even recognizing its existence, when they go on pontificating about India and her culture. Surely, no one can take the claim seriously that one culture (the western culture) has only hallucinated about another culture (the Indian, in our case) for centuries on end, unless one can come with a theory explaining such a “cultural hallucination”. Needless to say, neither Sen nor those like him who claim to ‘know’ both the East and the West have even a clue how to go about accomplishing such a task.

I owe the reader an answer [i], but the size of the article prevents me from saying much more. Let me, therefore, issue guidance instead: my research in Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap takes up these and analogous questions in an attempt to understand the relations and the interactions between the western culture and the Indian culture. It is against this background that I judge intellectuals coming up with their favorite hobby-horses. Against such a background, only one judgment is possible about Amartya Sen’s efforts: it is pathetically poor.

i. For the answer, check Balu’s student’s book Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism.

For more, check the following articles:

1.  Dark hour of secularism: Hindu fundamentalism and colonial liberalism

2. The secular state and religious conflict: liberal neutrality and the Indian case of pluralism

  • Umang Dixit

    Fascinating and wonderful. I have been looking for a meaningful response to Amartya Sen’s trite thought. It is a pity that he sits in Harvard stroking his Nobel prize while true intellectuals like you remain under-appreciated and under-recognised.

  • While growing up I knew myself and other people in my community were really ‘secular’ and yet I was not comfortable with state being neutral, tolerance etc. There was no other ism that was for a harmonious society etc that I could say I agree with. It was always “I am also secular but” ism! Your articulation answers why I have that discomfort. Thank you.

  • I have put up a comprehensive review of this Sen’s book. The title being so appealing and representative of Vada-Vivada culture of our Indians, i picked it. But thoroughly disappointed. So i wrote this review in my blog site: http://npraveer.blogspot.in/2014/02/the-argumentative-indian-by-amartya-sen.html
    I agree here with Balagangadhara, the narrow & limited view of Amartya Sen at the Indian diaspora. Sen being a Nobel Lauereate will be widely read and reffered. His narrow view will have detrimental impact on the future generations and on the external world.