The sage of Bengal has pronounced. Pluralism, we are informed, has an ancient pedigree in Indian history. It is embedded in the oldest known texts of Hinduism and, like a river, has flowed through Indian history (including the Mughal period, when the country was under Muslim rule) till the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century. It is this cultural heritage, ignored and misinterpreted by colonialists and religious fanatics alike, that shapes Indian culture and goes a long way toward explaining the attachment of all social classes to modern democracy. The argumentative tradition “has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India,” exerting a profound influence on the country’s politics, democracy and “the emergence of its secular priorities.” This view informs most of the thought-provoking essays in Amartya Sen’s new book, a set of reflections on India written in a very different register from his other books on moral philosophy and poverty. It is designed not so much for the academy but as a public intervention in the country of his birth, to which he remains firmly attached despite the Nobel Prize and his latest posting at Harvard as a Boston Brahman.
Although the essays in The Argumentative Indian were composed at different times, they have been successfully welded into a single volume. There is much to agree with here. Sen’s lofty worldview remains staunchly secular and rationalist, as befits a scholar whose intellectual formation took place in Nehru’s India, a historical time zone under constant attack today from Hindu nationalists on the one side and some of the more fashionable Indian luminaries of the US branch of the subaltern school of historians on the other. Unlike fellow Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Sen does not see the entry of Islam into India as a dagger thrust in the heart of Indian civilization. On the contrary, he argues that the effect of Mughal rule was beneficial. This was undoubtedly the case on the dietary front: The historian Irfan Habib has shown how the average Indian peasant ate better and more often in this period than under the British.
Given the title of Sen’s book, it would be churlish to prove him wrong by simply nodding in approval, as is so often the case in our wonderful subcontinent. What follows, then, from this argumentative Pakistani is the expression of a few doubts concerning his central thesis and the odd complaint with regard to some omissions.
Can the lineages of modern Indian democracy be traced back to the holy texts, as Sen suggests? And does the affection of ordinary citizens for democracy have any material (as opposed to mystical) links to the arguments once heard by Buddha or King Ashoka (273-232 B.C.), let alone the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605)?
It’s true that disputes abound in the ancient Sanskrit epics. Their multiple tales are, as Sen puts it, “engagingly full of dialogues, dilemmas and alternative perspectives,” such as that of Javali, the notorious skeptic of the Ramayana, who explains in detail how “the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the sastras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people.” In codifying the rules for debate in the Buddhist councils, Ashoka demanded mutual respect among the various sects. While the Inquisition was sowing terror in Europe, Akbar, himself a Muslim, ruled that “anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” The interreligious debates he organized in Agra included Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jains, Jews and the atheists of the Carvaka school, who argued that Brahmans had established ceremonies for the dead only “as a means of livelihood” for themselves. Even the Vedic Song of Creation on the origins of the universe ends in radical doubt: “Who really knows? Whence this creation has arisen–perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not–the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows–or perhaps he does not know.”
Yet the skepticism voiced by some rulers and reflected in ancient texts was usually, if not always, confined to the priestly elites. The model for the debates among scholars from different religions and sects that were organized by Akbar’s court was little different from similar discussions a few centuries earlier in the camp of Mongol leader Genghis Khan (1162-1227). With this exception: Mongol soldiers were permitted to both listen and participate in the arguments. The Mughal courts in India were sealed off from public view: The courtiers listened and, no doubt, nodded when the emperor smiled appreciatively as a point was scored, but they did not speak. Only the emperor and a few of his close advisers posed questions. The tyranny of the few over the many–exercised through a ritual combination of coercion and religion–was never seriously challenged in India until the advent of capitalist colonization. Nobody spoke for the subalterns.
Unlike ancient Greece, there were no city-based institutions where important issues could be debated, and the overglorified village panchayats, or councils, were the domain of the privileged where the poor could only appear as supplicants. Ancient India produced an ugly caste system that led to early divisions and splits, but neither Brahmanism proper nor its wilder offshoots–Buddhism and Jainism–came even close to producing a political philosophy that could lay the basis for a popular or semipopular assembly like those in ancient Greece, whose formal decrees always began with the invocation: “The demos has decided.” The assemblies in Athens were barred to slaves, but they did include peasant proprietors and even some peasants who worked for others. Hence the debates between rich and poor; hence the fear of the multitude evinced by the wealthy; hence Solon’s New Deal-ish boast: “I stood covering both [rich and poor] with a strong shield, permitting neither to triumph unjustly over the other.” But even these traditions, while never forgotten, disappeared completely. The idea of democracy re-emerged in the debates that followed the English Revolution and found institutional form only after the American and French revolutions.
Ancient India produced great poets, philosophers and playwrights, along with art forms, gods and goddesses to match anything on offer in Athens, but it did not give birth to an Aristotle. And nothing remotely resembling the Assembly in Athens or the Senate in Rome arose on the subcontinent. Surely this must reflect some deficiency. Despite arguments within the elite and some wonderful expressions of skepticism cited by Sen, the demos was kept under strict control throughout Indian history. Uprisings threatening the status quo were brutally crushed by Hindu and Muslim ruler alike. Superstition and irrationality were institutionalized via a network of priestly domination.
The resilience of Brahman traditions lay not in encouraging debate but in the power of the iniquitous caste system that survives to this day and pervades the spirit of Indian democracy. One wishes that Sen, a longstanding critic of economic inequality, had given us his views on whether globalization tends to weaken or strengthen caste chauvinism in India. When in the third decade of the past century, the “untouchable” leader Dr. Ambedkar insisted that his caste not be considered Hindu so that they, like the Muslims, could demand separate electorates from the British rulers, he was sweetly rebuffed by Mahatma Gandhi, no doubt for the noblest of reasons. Hard-core confessional elements in the leadership of the ruling Congress Party were only too aware that without the “low castes” being counted as Hindus their overall weight in the population would be drastically reduced.
What of India’s Muslims? The Mughal conquest of India created a strong centralized state, but there was not even an embryonic consciousness of democracy, even in its most primitive, patrician form. The emperor was supreme. His subjects could plead for justice in his presence once a week, and if they were lucky they could be rewarded with a few coins and kind words. Interestingly enough, while all the existing texts of classical Greece and Rome were translated into Arabic during the eighth and ninth centuries, and while Islamic schools of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine flourished in Córdoba, Palermo and Baghdad, the one genuine innovation of the Greeks–the idea of democracy–did not travel. The caliph was both the spiritual and the temporal ruler, and any notion of an assembly of equals would have been seen as a godless challenge to Allah’s vice regent. The Mughal order in India was based on an alliance of the wealthy and the creation of a strong central bureaucracy with rights over large tracts of land.
Sen is correct to stress the tolerance of the Mughals, particularly Akbar, toward the non-Muslim majority. The reasons for this policy, however, were not simply altruistic. The Muslim conquerors, like the British after them, knew that stable rule was dependent on securing the consent of crucial layers of the indigenous elites. This they did successfully, and even the last of the great Mughal emperors, the devout and narrow-minded Aurangzeb, presided over an imperial army led by an equal mix of Hindu and Muslim generals. When the British East India Company’s army secured Bengal as a bridgehead in 1757 and made Calcutta the first capital of British India, it did so with a very small number of British officers, European weaponry and local recruits on a monthly wage. Like its Mughal predecessor, the company was desperate for allies and often bought them in the marketplace. The Bengali Renaissance that produced Nobel Prize-winning writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the Sens and numerous others was the result of a unique synthesis between local tradition and imperial modernity, based on a capitalist economy. Without capitalism there was no Indian modernity. Democracy in British India (as in Britain itself) came a century and a half later as a result of pressure from below on the part of a growing middle-class intelligentsia in Calcutta. “What Bengal thinks today,” declared the reformer Ram Mohun Roy, “India thinks tomorrow.”
That is why imperial ideologues as well as colonial apologists like Rudyard Kipling came to despise Bengal. The Bengalis, in their estimation, were effete intellectuals ill equipped to fight, unlike the “martial races” of the Punjab and North-West Frontier. Kipling’s fiction is filled with crude stereotypes of the dark-skinned Bengali babu (clerk) as contrasted with the noble and fair-skinned Pathan or the Rajput warrior. Better they were kept illiterate lest they become uppity like the Bengalis.
Even supposing there was a strong “argumentative” tradition in India 3,000 years ago, was this the frail aqueduct through which the democratic stream finally moved? Such is the argument of Sen and (in a more fashionable formulation) of postcolonial scholars who scornfully dismiss the suggestion that the British presence had anything to do with the spread of democratic ideas and the rise of Indian democracy. This is, in my view, a form of mysticism. We may not like it, but there is no denying the impact of 150 years of British rule in India, which brought capitalism to the country and overwhelmingly determined the nature and character of Indian institutions.
Sen accepts uncritically the historian Partha Chatterjee’s argument that, in Chatterjee’s words, the emergence of nationalism created
its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before its political battle with the imperial power. It does this by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domains–the material and the spiritual. The material is the domain of the “outside,” of the economy…of science and technology…where the West has proved its superiority…. The spiritual, on the other hand, is an “inner” domain bearing the “essential” marks of cultural identity. The greater one’s success in imitating Western skills in the material domain…the greater the need to preserve the distinctiveness of one’s spiritual culture.
Here one discerns a retreat from the secular definition of nationhood espoused by Nehru and a slide into the murky domain of Hindu nationalism, albeit in an ultra-civilized fashion. In rejecting the heritage of Nehruvian socialism for its statism and affiliation with the urban middle class, “left-wing” postcolonial historians like Chatterjee have eerily converged in their arguments with right-wing Hindu politicians, who insist that the content of Indian nationalism has always been spiritual, i.e., religious, thus excluding India’s large Muslim minority from the national community. (When the Hindu nationalist brigade in the United States mounted a disgraceful campaign two years ago against the Library of Congress decision to award a research fellowship to Romila Thapar, one of the most distinguished secular historians of ancient India, a majority of Indian historians on American campuses remained silent.) What is “one’s spiritual culture” and “cultural identity” if not religion, even if lightly disguised as the Cow Protection League or the National Fund to Rebuild Mosques? Was it possible for nationalism to move in a more cosmopolitan than spiritual direction?
This raises the Gandhi question. Was it necessary for the Mahatma to use spiritual (Hindu) imagery and language to rouse the majority of the countryside from their torpor? Nehru and Tagore did not think so and argued heatedly with the old fox, but on this Gandhi would not budge. It was they who gave up, Tagore in despair and Nehru in the half-hope that the damage was reparable. But it wasn’t, and it led ultimately to the fatal breach with secular Muslims, including Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. That there were other straws in the nationalist breeze was revealed time and time again in the wave of strikes that paralyzed the country in late 1945 and then again in 1946, when Muslim, Hindu and Sikh naval ratings united against the British and seized the ships, raising the banner of revolution. This was the most significant mutiny in the history of the British Empire. On the advice of Jinnah and Gandhi, the sailors surrendered “to India not the British.”
The attachment to the “distinctiveness of one’s spiritual culture” undoubtedly helped provoke the bloody partition of the subcontinent, but the institutions that provided the spinal cord of the new states owed little to spiritual traditions. They were British creations, and Parliament was not the only one. It certainly helped to unite India, but in neighboring Pakistan it is the army and, to a lesser extent, the civil service, both creations of the Raj, that have ruled the country. What happened to the “argumentative” tradition here? Taxila (near Islamabad) was, after all, the site of one of the world’s first large (Buddhist) universities centuries before the Christian Era. It is not that most Pakistanis did or do not like democracy. A new imperial power decreed that the army was the most reliable guarantor of stability and order in the new country. Here Washington has been consistent. Only this year Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Islamabad, praised Gen.Pervez Musharraf and his regime–apparently secular and autocratic–as the model for the Muslim world. (Including Iraq?)
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.