After all my dramatic agony and breathless complaining, I am glad I endured. The Argumentative Indian is neither easy nor fun to read. The first three pages of every chapter and sub-chapter are essentially wordy justifications of why the topic is deserving of discussion in the first place.
Throughout the book I was constantly thinking, Amartya, homeboy, stop talking about what you’re going to talk about and just get to it. Sen himself is quite the argumentative Indian and sometimes the book reads as if you walked in on a one man debate competition in which Sen, the convincing devil’s advocate, faces off with Sen, the impassioned and patient defender of peace and tolerance.
Whichever literary framework you prefer, it must be said that Professor Sen is not an effortless writer. Cautious yes (footnotes, endnotes, and asterisks are abundant), but often at the expense of clarity.
Despite all of this, The Argumentative Indian is a book I recommend to everyone with an interest not just in India, but also the slippery relationship between cultural uniqueness and so-called universal values. The book is a collection of wide-ranging essays – most of which were previously published elsewhere – that are difficult to encapsulate in a single thesis, but maybe it would be something along these lines: Just how Western are so-called Western values? Democracy, individual liberty, multi-cultural tolerance, secularism, reasoned debate. Are these values unique to Western culture or have they been excluded from shallow historical readings of other civilizations. Like India, for example.
Sen is critical of two interpretations of modern India – internal separatism and global isolation. India is often portrayed as a mishmash of separate religions, languages, ethnicities, and castes which are only loosely held together by the legacy of European colonialism. He rejects that claim completely and spends much of the book reviewing the history of two major Indian leaders – Ashoka and Akbar – as examples of India’s pre-colonial embrace of pluralism and multiculturalism. Sen is equally critical of those who try to promote a sense of Indian national identity by rejecting any economic, social, or intellectual engagement with the West. In fact, he keenly observes that most anti-Western thought in India is, in fact, rooted in European intellectual circles.
It was the first essay – responsible for the name of the book – that I found most interesting. Why has India become such a strong democracy (the one blemish to India’s post-colonial democracy was Indira Ghandi’s “Emergency” which was strongly rejected by Indian voters) compared to most other British colonies-turned-nation-states? Sen seemingly argues that India was democractic before it was ever a democracy. That is, India despite it’s endless history of being invaded by foreign powers, has always embraced skepticism, reasoned public debate, and multicultural tolerance – all of which are key ingredients of modern democracy.
It is his idea of “democracy as public reasoning” that intrigued me the most because that is one of my main arguments for why I go around passionately promoting participatory media. I’m a sucker for the idea that the more we discuss and debate – and especially the more we listen – the more tolerant and empathetic we become. Sometimes I worry that in aggressively promoting discussion, I am promoting a particularly Western way of interacting with the world around us. Amartya Sen doesn’t seem to think so. Discussion, he argues, is as universal as love.