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Argumentative Amartya

By Nilanjana S Roy in New Delhi
August 06, 2005 14:57 IST

When the Nobel Prize marked its centenary in 2001, the foundation asked a handful of laureates for two mementos each that might be included in an exhibit.

"They took away my bicycle, on which I had done a lot of field research on the famine and indeed later my research for gender inequality in Bengali villages," says Professor Amartya Sen.

"Also a modern print of Aryabhatta's book on mathematics and astronomy. These were the two, to reflect my past."

There are many ways in which you might attempt to describe the progress of Professor Amartya Sen, from his brilliant career at Cambridge, returning to India to set up a new department of economics at Jadavpur University at the tender age of 23, to the path-breaking work in welfare economics that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1998. You might want to point to his books -- on subjects as diverse as economics, gender, philosophy and now, with The Argumentative Indian, on the idea of India; or to the six-page-long list of honorary degrees conferred on the former Master of Trinity.

But the mementos, one a tribute to the image that many in Shantiniketan still carry of Sen, bicycling down the paths of Tagore's university, the other testimony to his passionate love of learning and his early acquaintance with Sanskrit, will do.

Earlier in the week, Sen gave a talk in which he set out the positions he's taken in The Argumentative Indian, one of the most profound and wide-ranging inquiries into the idea of India written in recent times.

Indians like to argue, he said, pointing to what he calls the "argumentative tradition", an acceptance of plurality as the natural state of affairs, a long and robust tradition of heterodoxy, dissent, inquiry and analysis.

During question time, the audience proved his point, to excess. Sen responded with patience and wit, producing answers of admirable brevity and depth to questions of astonishing prolixity and obtuseness.

Speaking of his view of Indian history, he says, "There was a great strength in the old Indian tradition, where you took plurality as the natural state of affairs. Ashoka in the 12th century BC mentions the fact that we have different beliefs, we should listen to each other, we must argue with each other. That was an acceptance of heterodoxy."

In recent years, that tradition has been threatened: "When we have a miniaturised view of Hinduism and of the Indian past, presented by the Hindutva parties, suddenly all that intellectual discourse disappears. We're concentrating on where Rama was born, allegedly, with the holiness of the cow, the nastiness of Christian missionaries trying to convert us. It was the psychology of the loser -- if we can't win the argument, we will eliminate the argument. That debate continues. But I hope that those who are in favour of a non-miniaturised view of India in which arguments of different quarters could be entertained continue to occupy a good position."

His view of history clashes, as William Dalrymple pointed out, with the opinions expressed by another Nobel laureate, V S Naipaul. Sen won't comment on Naipaul's views directly -- "I leave it to him to determine his own position" -- but he makes his position clear.

"To see the Muslim arrival in India as primarily destructive is to blind oneself to a big part of Indian history," he says, pointing to the interactions between Islamic and Hindu culture in art, in literature, in politics, and the encounter between Muslim Sufi and Hindu Bhakti thought between the 15th and 17th centuries.

We trace the history of Aryabhatta's contribution to mathematics in the 5th century, the export of those ideas to Europe via the Arabs in the 11th century, the fallacy of the belief that democracy is strictly a Western invention, how you might explain the occasional but prevalent Indian suspicion of the outsider and of "foreign thought" through the parable about the Kupamandaka, the frog who can see nothing but the inside of his well.

"Our understanding of right and wrong is really dependent on our ability to listen to other arguments and think about it. To me, knowledge is post-interaction and post-openness, rather than pre-interaction and pre-openness. It's not a question of winning the argument; it's a question of making a perspective available that people can invoke later, even if at that time it doesn't win the day."

Given the intensity of the battle over Indian history in recent years, one hopes that the last word will rest with Amartya Sen.

Nilanjana S Roy in New Delhi
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