The Argumentative Indian

Amartya Sen

Read October 2006

When Amartya Sen titles a book The Argumentative Indian, the reader naturally assumes something by way of an autobiography. (Or, as a friend teased, perhaps it was about me.) The joke is no doubt intentional, but Sen's goal is something much grander. As many Indians have watched in horror, over the past decade the term “secular” has successfully turned into a curse in Indian politics. It is this taboo that Sen tries to combat, by demonstrating two things: that Indian culture is richer than only Hindu culture, and that Indian culture—including Hindu culture—has a long and rich argumentative tradition. For Sen believes that where argument lives, skepticism thrives, and fundamentalism must inevitably fail.

First, the goal of Sen's project. It would seem difficult for just about anyone who was raised in a traditional Indian Hindu environment to reconcile the oxymoronic notion of “fundamentalist Hinduism”; Sen's goal here is to expose this line of thought, explaining precisely what it is about Hinduism that makes fundamentalism meaningless. The openness of faith Sen was exposed to led him to a muscularly, militantly secular bent of mind. Borrowing a leaf from a “Jewish atheist” I know, I would regard Sen as a “cultural Hindu”. All these descriptions apply equally well to me, so it is a project I desperately wish to succeed.

There is the goal, and then there is its execution. Here, Sen falls disturbingly flat. He retreads the same tiny arguments repeatedly—a quote from the Rig Veda here, an excerpt from the Ramayana there—driving the reader first to frustration and then to outright concern. Is this the best we can do as an argument? Was Sen simply lazy, or is the evidence really that thin on the ground? His euphoric embrace of Ashoka and Akbar are bound to mislead a Western reader who is unlikely to realize that they were significant outliers to an at least tepid, and sometimes disturbing, mean. It is, ultimately, a very unfulfilling, and therefore worrying, fare.

The book's other major undoing is its format. This is a collection of essays from over a decade, which have since been annotated by Sen. His scholarly touch in this process is evident: the number of forward and backward references, and the substantial indices, demonstrate that this was no mere stapling together of pages. But that superficial thoroughness cannot mask a deep problem: there is something embarassing about seeing effectively the same essay rewritten about eight different times in slightly different contexts, and the degree of repetition of a small number of facts could be used as a counter-argument by his foes who would argue that it lays bare how thin his argument is.

These essays constitute the first two quarters: Voice and Heterodoxy, and Culture and Communication. The book is somewhat rescued by the second half: Politics and Protest, and Reason and Identity. Here Sen comes alive as the great social economist he is, walking an interesting line between free-trader and social conscience. When, late in the book (p. 225), he discusses the controversial phenomenon of the “million missing women”—the victims of society's treatment of girls and women—and you then realize he coined the theory, you wonder if perhaps economists, like all other experts, should always consider sticking to what they do best—even if their goals in straying are truly noble.