Effort to right wrongs leaves past shackled

The Argumentative Indian

September 30, 2005

India's long intellectual tradition and unique cultural diversity are well worth celebrating, Gordon Johnson says, but history should not be oversimplified to do it

In this book, the economist Amartya Sen reflects on Indian history, society and culture. He is motivated by a justifiable irritation at the stereotypes of South Asia that are commonplace about the countries inhabited by a fifth of the world's people and by anger at trends in contemporary politics that threaten democracy, secularism and liberalism by pandering to cultural chauvinism. He seeks to celebrate the rich diversity of South Asia, with its long history of interaction between peoples and cultures. He holds up for our admiration Indian rulers who have been wise and tolerant in the management of multicultural states.

He draws particular attention to the vigour of intellectual debate in South Asia and to India's significant contributions to scientific knowledge. These latter qualities are deeply ingrained in the Indian mentality, not simply acquired from the European Enlightenment. Indians have been true scientists and mathematicians since the dawn of time; atheism and agnosticism are coeval with religious thought and practice. One strand of Sen's argument is to reveal the hollowness of a (primarily) Western perception of India as a place of endless spirituality and unreasoning mysticism, its peoples lacking intellectual curiosity and unfit to govern themselves. He sees this analysis put forward in a particularly sinister way by James Mill in his influential History of India , first published in 1817. Mill never visited India and knew none of its languages, yet his book established the view that Indian culture was decayed, that there was no Indian nation. British rule was morally justified and the superiority of Western intellectual development affirmed. A prime purpose of Sen's book is to correct this perception and to dispel any remaining sense of Indian inferiority that might persist to this day.

A second target is India's new cultural chauvinism. This restores religious affiliation to a key position in defining who is an Indian, goes on to relate Indian identity to a particular sort of Hinduism and narrows the meaning of citizenship. The most obvious manifestation of this has been a sharpening of antagonisms between religious groups (especially, but not only, between Hindus and Muslims) and between India, its neighbours and beyond. Sen argues that the chauvinists' viewpoint, like that of the imperialists, does great violence to South Asia's actual historical experience, and it is absurd to deny Muslims a place in India, for they have lived there for more than a thousand years and Indian Muslims constitute the second largest Muslim population in the world.

Sen's own political agenda is clear for all to see and is wholly admirable. He would like a world that is more egalitarian, where the state is the benign protector of individual rights, balanced by a concern for fairness and equality between ethnic, cultural and social groups, and between the genders and social classes. Between states, he would like a better balance of power and distribution of resources. At national and international level, he favours liberalism, secularism, respect for others and reliance on discussion to create a truly civil society. Given the virtue of Sen's position, to which nearly all of us would subscribe, it is hard to have to say that The Argumentative Indian proves on close reading to be a flawed book. This is because Sen does not go beyond stating self-evident truths. Although nicely written, and with many points of interest, there is a thinness and superficiality about the whole that displeases.

Part of this discontent arises from the fact that the book is a collection of essays and lectures composed over the past ten years. It is a hazardous thing to bring such fugitive pieces together on the assumption that the combination will be a substantial intellectual creation in its own right. An argument sketched in an article for The New York Review of Books or given as a lecture can serve its original purpose well and hint at hidden depths and knowledge that cannot, given constraints of space or time, be fully developed on that occasion. But it is a different matter to write this out in a more sustained and coherent way. Too often distinguished authors succumb to the temptation to bind up slighter pieces, with some minor editing and the addition of a few connecting passages, to make a new book. In this case, the collection is too diffuse, revision has been slight and there is little new material. Reading the pieces consecutively, one is struck by the repetitions, by the recycling of very limited illustrative material and by the fact that the crucial arguments are not developed from their original brief formulations. I will be glad, though, to have conveniently to hand some of the essays, which I enjoyed on first reading in magazines, and to eavesdrop on lectures that I did not attend.

More seriously, Sen's history is weak. He chooses his examples to suit his present purpose without apparent awareness of their historical context. Take, for example, his view of Ashoka, the great Mauryan ruler who established a huge dominion over South Asia in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka is a symbol of the just and tolerant ruler who was inclusive and secular in practice: hence his success. That is a fair rendering when simple heroes are called for, but the real history of the Mauryans is more tortuous and complex. Similarly, Sen praises Kautilya's Arthashastra (written in the Mauryan period) for emphasising that good economics sustains a fair society; and he tells us that it is a book about economics. But it is also remarkable for its understanding of politics, its timeless psychological insight into human ruthlessness in the quest for power, and its sophisticated formulation of the idea that (virtuous) ends justify (any) means.

There is a more serious distortion of Mughal history. The Mughal emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, is always compared to Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1658 to 1707. There has long been a 1066 and All That view of these rulers, and it is one to which Sen repeatedly subscribes. Akbar was a good thing because he was nice to Hindus, was non-discriminatory in his policies towards his many and varied subjects, took little account of religion in public affairs, and consequently ran a successful state.

By contrast, Aurangzeb seized power illegitimately, espoused religious causes, was a fundamentalist Islamic bigot and implemented policies that discriminated against his non-Muslim subjects, which was all a bad thing and caused the downfall of the Mughal Empire. But this is a grossly over-simplified account of Akbar, whose reign saw some pretty bloody politics and whose position on religion seems not too far removed from that of contemporary European princes with their resort to axe and fire. And it misreads the whole of the second half of the 17th century. Of course Aurangzeb was keen on Islam (or on a particular strain of it), and his piety spilled out into public policy. Of course he was cruel to his subjects, among them Hindus. But under Aurangzeb the Mughal Empire reached its greatest extent and successfully incorporated military, political and social elites of all religions into its structure. By the time of his death, the Mughals had created an extraordinarily sophisticated political and economic regime commanding consent despite its intolerances and its religious enthusiasm.

It is striking that, for an author keen to show India's diversity and willingness to accommodate other cultures, Sen does not venture seriously into modern times. True, he has an essay on Rabindranath Tagore and he mentions Ram Mohan Roy, two important figures from Bengal who stand out as creative beings who sought inspiration from every tradition they encountered. But there is nothing here about the matter that truly bugs contemporary studies of India - the relationship of India to the West or of India to modernity. This debate has become sterile and needs new thinking.

On the face of it, Sen, both from a cultural perspective (a passionate and civilised Bengali) and from the dazzling trajectory of his academic career (a holder of the most prestigious Western academic appointments and a Nobel prize in economics), is an ideal person to have set the problem out afresh and to have suggested new lines of inquiry. But he does not go beyond the stage of protesting the worth of the East in the face of the dominance of the West. As with some recent Indian history textbooks, "foreigners" do not appear in Sen's book, even though an engagement with them is highly relevant to his argument. It is as though the whole period of recent Western contact with India is to be ignored except to bear the blame for what has gone wrong in India. Certainly, Ashoka's edicts express noble thoughts on truth and justice, and Akbar delighted in listening to debates between theologians; but the contemporary Indian world has been shaped by other practices and other ideas. British rule may have been harsh and autocratic; but underlying it, paradoxically, was an ideology of liberalism, secularism, social responsibility and the value of the individual. More generally, the legacy of the European Enlightenment has spilled out beyond its geographical confines. Roy and Tagore knew that the 19th-century world had been changed, and they had the confidence to be unfazed by it; with Sen, there is a lurking suspicion that he would rather not wrestle with the conflicts and the paradoxes thrown up by his own life.

My greatest disappointment with this book is that its use of history is as unscrupulous and trivialising as that of those Sen wishes to bring down. The Argumentative Indian is not sufficiently thoughtful and serves as a forceful reminder that history is constantly being used in a dangerously naive way.

It is all the more imperative, therefore, to heed Eric Stokes's injunction that the duty of the historian is to liberate rather than to colonise the past. There is a further implication: that the public good is served best by improving our understanding of the past rather than by repeating historical cliches. In this case, as I suspect many of Sen's friends will concede in private, there is a real sense of an opportunity lost - to show off the glory of India and to write a persuasive and profound political treatise for our times.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge, and general editor, The New Cambridge History of India .

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Author - Amartya Sen
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 409
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9687 0

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