In India democracy has become embedded as the only acceptable form of rule largely because of geography. If Pakistan split into two after an eleven-year military dictatorship from 1958 to '69, what would an attempt to impose a military regime in India have done to that country? Created a three-way split? Or even more fragments? The regional elites realized that this would be an economic disaster, and the unity of India under a democratic umbrella became the common sense of the country. It is this and mass hostility to autocracy that explains the longevity of the democratic system, but one should not underestimate the power of turbo-propelled capitalism to weaken democracy in India just as it is doing in its heartlands. Indians may want democracy, but it is hardly a prerequisite for a dynamic capitalism. Europe demonstrated this during the first 300 years of capitalism; China does so today.
The essay on the giant of Bengali letters, Tagore (1861-1941), who died six years before India and his beloved Bengal was partitioned, is studded with gems. Sen knows Tagore's work well, and his grandfather, a distinguished historian of Hinduism, worked with the great poet in Santiniketan, a progressive educational academy that provided the inspiration for Dartington Hall in England. Tagore's standing in the West has been subject to many fluctuations. His mystic-spiritual side appealed to many Westerners, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, but as Sen explains, this was only one side of the man. In Bengal and India he was the voice of reason, a cosmopolitan who encouraged the self-emancipation of the people and urged them to free themselves from the Brahman and the British and break the chains of caste and poverty. The dangers he saw for India were structural, not spiritual. As he wrote in 1939: "It does not need a defeatist to feel deeply anxious about the future of millions who, with all their innate culture and their peaceful traditions, are being simultaneously subjected to hunger, disease, exploitations foreign and indigenous, and the seething discontents of communalism."
Sen's reflections on Tagore, however, would have benefited from comparison with another great Indian poet: Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who wrote in Urdu and Persian. Iqbal, too, was given to mysticism, but of the Sufi variety. Younger than Tagore, he was greatly influenced by Hegel and the German philosophical tradition and was a great favorite of both Nehru and Jinnah. Iqbal, too, died before partition. Tragically, he was immediately mummified by the new state of Pakistan, his message so distorted that he is seen by many in that country as a revivalist, which is far from the truth. Like Tagore, he loathed priest and mullah alike and celebrated reason and knowledge, as in this verse dividing God from Man:
You created Night, I the Lamp
You the earth, I the bowls
You created wilderness, mountains and ravines
I the flower beds, gardens and groves
I make mirrors from stone
I find antidotes in poison.
Both Tagore and Iqbal would have been mortified at the direction taken by the modern leaders of the old subcontinent. Like Sen, both would have been alarmed by the nuclear turn and missiles with confessional names targeted by each side against the other. Even those who disagree with Sen or see him as a tame and toothless Bengal tiger will be compelled to engage with his arguments. That alone is sufficient reason to welcome the publication of this book.