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The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity by by Amartya Sen


The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity by by Amartya Sen

The Argumentative Indian is a discussion on the genesis and direction of the Indian identity, in the context of a global intercourse of ideas, ancient and recent.

The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity  by by Amartya Sen 1
The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity
by Amartya Sen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 409 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

Ideation and Identity: A reader’s reflections on The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book by Amartya Sen. Sen, now Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, was formerly Master of Trinity College and affiliated with many other universities in Britain, United States and India. The detailed vitae at Sen’s Harvard website lists the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (which he won, unshared, in 1998) in its strict chronological place among seemingly countless other professional elections and awards.

The Argumentative Indian is a discussion on the genesis and direction of the Indian identity, in the context of a global intercourse of ideas, ancient and recent. Sen speaks in a language refreshingly appealing to readers uninitiated in formal economic theory; a feat often beyond many others of Sen’s erudition and eminence.

The book is a collection of sixteen essays (the author often refers to them as “papers”, the original versions of many were presented at conferences and lectures), thematically arranged in the sections Voice and Heterodoxy, Culture and Communication, Politics and Protest, and Reason and Identity, four under each heading. The book takes its name from the first essay, where the author closely examines India’s rich heritage of heterodoxy and argumentative traditions of public discourse. Sen’s book is also an argumentative book. He considers conflicting views with patience, and presents his perspective with a carefully woven network of cross references and supporting material. The Argumentative Indian, though a sufficiently provocative title, in a way narrows perceptions of the book (for those who will only hear its name). The book delves deeper and wider beyond the argumentative traits of the Indian.

The Argumentative Indian addresses several levels in its topicality. On one hand, it offers a great opportunity to understand the often confusing socio-political entity called India; especially in light of the recent interest in an upbeat Indian economy and its implications for the global market. (An interest, which must be accepted, is often instigated by trends of out-sourcing and its concomitant situations.) On the other hand Sen’s discussions have a lasting relevance in a world which is increasingly finding itself at the cross-roads of ideologies, often with tragically violent symptoms. (Sen examines the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s much mentioned book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in several places in The Argumentative Indian and offers his reflections on the issue, not necessarily aligning with Huntington’s.)

A sadly glutinous perception of India’s past in the so called “Western” sensibility abounds with notions of vague religiosity, of sure-shot formulations of sexual ecstasy (I have met western tourists in India asking around for the nearest Kamasutra academy.), and of a steady supply of gurus, adequately ocher-clad and bearded, promising nirvana from the quagmires of modern existence. With copious references, Sen delineates a vibrant tradition of the pursuit of ideas across the spiritual, practical and scientific domains, and rues the blinkered view of India as,

… a serious neglect, particularly for a country in which some of the decisive steps in algebra, geometry and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where classical philosophy dealt extensively with epistemology and logic along with secular ethics, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education and initiated systematic political economy and formal linguistics. (Secularism and its Discontents, p. 316).

But more importantly, Sen unequivocally confronts some of the “seclusionist” ideas that have been professed with disquieting zeal within India in the recent past, mainly by the backers of a certain political outlook that seeks to color the Indian identity in one religious denomination, to the extent of disowning any intellectual heritage that appear contrary. Not only does he categorically list and dismantle the major “discontents” that have been said to be brewing in the secular polity, he also points to the instances of gross academic impropriety that have been detected in efforts seeking to establish a version of history wholly felicitous to that particular politico-religious view.(India : Large and Small, pp. 62-69)

Throughout the book, Sen attempts and largely attains the elusive balance between the insider and outsider view on his subjects. (In spite of currently teaching at Harvard, and frequent and extensive traveling, Sen manages to maintain close contact with India and the Indian subcontinent, visiting and lecturing often. Incidentally, Sen remains an Indian citizen, a fact mentioned notably early in the biographical note at his Harvard website.) In the Preface, the demands of such neutrality are underscored,

As an involved Indian citizen, who is very concerned with Indian culture, history and politics – and also with general life in India – it is hard for me to refer to Indians as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. So, ‘we’ it has been, not the distant ‘they’ (p. xvii).

Sen writes in a direct diction. His prose flows with easy linearity, belying the strong logical framework that supports underneath. The sense travels to the reader, sure and fast, and strangely striking.

Some Indians are rich; most are not. Some are very well educated; others are illiterate. Some lead easy lives of luxury; others toil hard for little reward. Some are politically powerful; others can not influence anything. Some have great opportunities for advancement in life; others lack them altogether. Some are treated with respect by the police; others are treated like dirt. These are different kinds of inequality,… (Class In India, pp. 210-211).

At times though, in the cross fire of weighty ideas, the reader does yearn a slight lightness, a humor with which Sen has written elsewhere, most notably in his autobiographical essay, published at the official Nobel Prize website. Sen offers some welcome interludes in this book. While examining the delicate and charged issue of whether Indian Muslims are sufficiently loyal to India – the litmus test considered to be public exhibitions of support to India in Indo-Pak cricket matches (cricket generates fanatical interest in millions of fans in the subcontinent) – we came across one of many cross references. Turning the pages to the Notes section, expecting citation of some redoubtable document, the reader comes across :

Whether or not Indian Muslims do this (cheer for the Pakistani team) in any significant numbers, I ought to confess that this non-Muslim author has often done just that, either when a Pakistani team plays as well as it frequently does, or when a Pakistani win would make the test series … more interesting. (p. 389)

On another occasion, capping the heavy discussions of the essay The Argumentative Indian, Sen writes,

I end on a positive (if somewhat light-hearted) note, by recollecting a nineteenth-century Bengali poem by Ram Mohun Roy which bears on the subject matter of this essay. Roy explains what is really dreadful about death: Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be./Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back. We are told, in line with our loquacious culture, that the real hardship of death consists of the frustrating – very frustrating – – inability to argue. (pp. 32-33)

Incidentally, this unexpected quotation offers a scope of affirming the pluralism Sen seeks to establishes in Indian traditions. A hymn sometimes sung in gatherings of the Brahmo Samaj — a liberal religious movement pioneered by Roy (Roy was a visionary social reformer and the earliest ideator of a modern Indian polity.) – has the couplet:

(In my spiritual quest,) I care not about the rigors of legality
Examination and cross-examination can only lead to vacuity;

(Original Bengali song by Rajanikanta Sen, lines adapted in English by the author of this essay.)

A posture, it may noted, rather different from Roy’s protestations at being robbed of the powers of arguing, even in death !

The writings in the Culture and Communication section stand somewhat apart in their explorations. Tagore and His India (pp. 89-120) is a deeply perceptive account of Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861-1941) life, works and the relevance of his world-view. Sen’s early education in the school founded by Tagore at Santiniketan, endows him with a rare perspective on Tagore’s ideals and vision. The essay also explores, with much sensitivity and candor, Tagore’s relationship with another iconic figure of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), which was marked by their contrasting personalities and notable divergences of opinion, and abounding respect for one other. The essay China and India (pp. 161-192) is an exciting journey into the congress of two of the world’s oldest civilizations, and a comparison of some of the countries’ societal parameters of the recent times.

In a book such as The Argumentative Indian the reader expects something more than just incisive analysis, and pertinent conclusions; there is a quest for some ideas, that by their breadth and cogency (irrespective of the arguments bolstered or brought down), leaves the reader charmed, and possessed for much time after the book is finished. Sen rewards the reader with several such: the three ways India has been looked at by foreigners — exoticist, magisterial, and curatorial approaches (Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination, pp. 139-160), the notion of what Sen calls “friendly fire”, the phenomenon where

…the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequity. (Class in India, pp. 204-219),

the reflections on the how the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute (The Indian Identity, pp. 334-356); to mention only a few.

As stated earlier, the essays cite very many sources, which can be pointers to further study for interested readers. In Our Culture, Their Culture, Sen (while discussing Oscar winning Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films) writes,

…the Ray films have neither cops nor robbers, well illustrated, for example, by Ray’s Mahanagari (The Great City), set in Calcutta, with many distressing events among joyous moments, leading to a deep tragedy, but with no villains on whom responsibility can be immediately pinned. (p. 128).

Ray’s film is titled Mahanagar. Mahanagari and Mahanagar are the feminine and masculine connotations respectively, of the same word – meaning “a great city” in Bengali; there may have been reasons why Ray chose to name the movie with the masculine variant. I am not sure “a deep tragedy” is apparent in the film’s denouement, in fact there is suggestion that the husband and wife are restored to mutual trust and affection, ironically when both of them find themselves without a job.

The Argumentative Indian is not an easy book. It calls for sustained cerebral commitment from the reader, challenging many extant notions with arguments grounded in realities of the world, old and new. The book’s power – and beauty – struck me at an odd place. I was reading the essay India: Large and Small (pp. 45-72) seated near the entrance of our local Super-Walmart (an oft occurring happy arrangement, that allows my wife to pick up our supplies without me getting into her hair !). As the mosaic of 21 century America floated past me, a potpourri of class, culture and communities, the heterogeneity of civilizations that Sen so brilliantly establishes in the book, suddenly awakened. It was a living idea; free from the scaffoldings of academic theory or philosophic ruminations.

Amartya Sen has written many books. (Thirty seven, before The Argumentative Indian; with another — Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny — forthcoming.) May he write many more to share the vistas of a lifetime’s research and inquiry with the lay readership. The world, in its current connectedness, and ensuing friction, needs voices such as Sen’s.

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Nandan Datta was born in India. He writes on literary themes. Beyonce Net Worth



  1. Rennasiancea

    December 30, 2010 at 8:33 am


    Its good to write than do anything..

    In Calcutta Still Bare Foot Man Pull Man like Animal on wood cart……a Below animal condition of this Toiletless civilisation of Temple Crook..


    Coolei Office

  2. Samaila Mohammed

    November 7, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I am a Nigerian. I have read the Argumentative Indian by Proffessor Sen. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of India and Indians: their rich culture, their tolerance, their industry, their history and many more. Well done, Sen. Well done India.

  3. Abhijit Ghate

    November 4, 2010 at 8:16 am

    I am not a book lover however , we see some dispute here between Mr. Sen and Tuhin… both seem to be correct in their own ways. I definitely am a critical evaluator. Claiming details of history is one thing and prooving it is another. Though intresting the book lacs some present day updates. Thanks you

  4. Zubair Khan

    November 4, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Not to be a trend follower but I do find some sense in what Tuhin says against what is mentioned in the book . I we go into details we do find adequate proof. Thanks

  5. Bijoy

    November 4, 2010 at 8:05 am

    I support Tuhin

  6. Nandu

    July 26, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Wow! What faith Tuhin has!!! Does he really believe in all he has written? He has not an iota of substance in what he has written but wants us to digest it in the name of “deep knowledge in spirituality”. Is spirituality knowledge? Of what use is the knowledge which I cannot test with my intellect and senses? Am I only to accept all this humbug of “spirituality” which will most likely seek to consign me to some corner of social order and let Tuhin perch on TOP??
    That is why Buddha’s religion, which rejects the unbridled authority of Vedas and establishes the authority of intellect and reasoning is superior (but was destroyed by the likes of Tuhin).

  7. Atma Gandhi

    July 19, 2010 at 1:14 am

    The Title of Book should have been “Argumentative Bengali”. Mr. Sen is a Bengali and they are argumentative, they can go on talking endlessly without reaching conclusions/agreements.The poor economic development of Bengal is concrete proof of their iaction. The book is substantially a political book to counter revival of Hinduism, which is reviving as more & more Hindus are getting education, wealth & power and trying to recover their pride by looking back their achievements of their Civilisation which were destroyed by invading Muslims and manipulated Britishers. Even today Hindus are humiliated & suppressed by corriupt political parties & foreign funded media. Mr. Sen may be educated, intelligent, famous & well connected but he, like Bengali communists, is mental slave of Islam & Christianity. BJP does not opposes Muslims or christians, they oppose special privileges to them particularly in view of PARTITION in 1947.

  8. Prerna M

    April 30, 2010 at 6:27 am

    I have started reading this book & the book helps me to delve deeper into the concepts of Indian Culture & its History. Although, the Indian History has presented some of the most complicated concepts but Sen has presented a very vivid picture that not only appears simple to comprehend but also leaves a deep impact in our minds. The way Sen has tried to incorporate examples in his every explanation paves way for a better & thorough understanding! I am about to complete the 1st section “VOICE & HETERODOXY” & i must say that the book is a MASTERPIECE INDEED & it must be read by all the Indians who want to have a better understanding of their culture & thus evolve a better understanding of themselves.

  9. Aseem

    March 17, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Very good quality writings of prof. Amartya sen.It’s a genuine identification of Indian culture and history.

  10. Chandra

    January 27, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Tuhin’s ramblings are laughable! It reminds me of someone spitting against the wind to spite the latter! Sen’s excellent contributions to humanity are beyond question. Tuhin’s exposition of the Hindutva insanity belies his prejudice. The most extensive DNA analysis of the Indians commissioned by the Indian Academy of Science seems to have finally settled the issue for most scientists (may not appease people like Tuhin). There are two distinct racial types in the Indian subcontinent: the North Indians with more of Indo-European lineage and the South Indians with more of the Australoid or Dravidian lineage.

  11. S De

    July 7, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    He ends himself here.

    Such an interesting and engrossing concept,the question of the Aryan invasion, and whether it ever happened or not! Yet the only people who have been interested in it are people with political or religious agenda. The trend started with Max Mueller, and has continued down the ages to the illiterate Hindutva activists. Just read the comment below. If anyone had any respect for the indigenous origin that he is trying to discuss, his poor English, use of web-slang (cud!), and his apparent lack of the ability for rational discussion is simply goes to undermine that respect for the theory, if such were its supporters.

  12. tuhin

    July 12, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Good morning,
    i am reading the book. However not very happy when I go thru the pages.Mr Sen is an economist and show adequate ignorance in discovering India. I wud like to say if someone really wants to understand India then first he have to have deep knowledge in spirituality and eternal religion-sanatan dharm. From Satya to treta to drawpar there has been a continuity in existence of a race in india. Ram in treta -Krishna in dwapar -Buddha in Kalki. Lord Krisna himself spoke about his own personality as ram in treta. Mahabharat war took place 5000yrs back ie 3102 bc. Then how does Mr Sen says India was invaded by Aryan 1500bc giving strength to western propaganda of undermining india and her civilization. Everything starts here, before proceeding to further pages of the book. Secondly He says Sanskrit is indo European language. Sanskrit is a language which is existing eternally, though it is difficult to digest this fact that’s why I said earlier, you have e to have a strong spiritual base. Sanskrit can’t be compared to any language in the world as most language is somewhere or he other imperfect. Thirdly the reason Indian school children made to read about highly theoretical ‘indus-saraswati civilization’ because it is highly scientific. Because saraswati river is mention in the time of Mahabharata that it was almost dried up and it was considered to be the holy river in rig Veda, taking the origin of river to be somewhere in 9000yrs-11000. Research is still on, thus disproving Aryan invasion theory. I can go on…..I can go on arguing and I know I have no proof that doesn’t mean proof doesn’t exists. The book is cleverly named Argumentative Indian, because it is definitely going to boil the blood of India after reading this book and will cause argument in intellectual class. .Mr. Sen may be a Nobel Prize winner but shown void knowledge in his study towards Indian history. He has touched something unknowingly which in the long run will not only spoil his personality but also the self respect that he is enjoying in India and abroad. I believe either Mr Sen’s brain is corrupted or that he is influenced by corrupt personality. The entire book is cooked wth very unindian spices which is undigestable and poisonous. if i go by his words then my ancesters are arogant, ignorant, cruel and dirty, eitherwise how can they invade other country.
    It is true that today we are having difficulty to trace our own race and our revered past, but as times penetrates more and more into dwapar( started 1700 AD, india wud again awake to proclaim her own identity. It is not that we Indian cant prove it. Patiently waiting for the day when the world order changes. The mother of all races is still not recognized. How cud she be? She is poor and week insulted and assaulted. Raped and robbed. Who will like to talk about such a mother in high esteem? The mother who taught and loved the world and what is she getting in return. I can understand from a far of country, but what about her own child who being born in her womb, still feels ashamed of give her adequate respect.
    Satya yuga-100 enlighten –loving and respecting.100% spiritual/Lang: Sanskrit
    Treta yuga-1/4 lost contact with divinity-Lang :Sanskrit major
    Dwapar yuga-1/2 lost contact with divinity-lang: Sanskrit major
    Kali yuga-all lost divinity-complete ignorance-lang Sanskrit major in the first part of kali then degraded wth degradation of human intellect to todays regional lang across India. The time we are living today is one of the most critical and happening time of the last 5000 yrs after Mahabharata war
    Lot of books written about her none cud define her adequately. Time is not far when she will define with her own definition. I end myself here.
    Thank you.

  13. Deepa Bhat

    January 21, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Yeah…The review of the book,”The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity” by Amartya Sen is really as to say excellent.Though it is brief, it provides the glimpses of this book, in a very effective manner…One can feel, as if the whole book is felt…Just superb…

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