November 22, 2005

Contesting Guha on Sen

Economic & Political Weeky 40:46, 12.11.2005

Ramachandra Guha provides an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat contentious, review of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (EPW, October 8). I associate myself with two of the points made by the reviewer. First, Sen’s grasp of historiography – self-admittedly – is not comparable to his depth of knowledge in welfare economics and social choice theory or western political philosophy. His factual errors, as mentioned by the reviewer, are a good example of this. Second, the reviewer has a compelling case when he agrees with Mohandas Gandhi in arguing that it was Hinduism which gave Mohammedanism its Akbar. Sen ignores the cornerstone of the “Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam” principle, and fails to gauge the importance of the inclusive nature of Hinduism that distinguished the Indian version of Islam from its counterparts in west Asia. For example, Sufism in India flourished as a mystic and unorthodox variant of the vigorously legalistic mainstream version of Islam prescribed by the muftis vis-ŕ-vis in west Asia where it came under the influence of the sunni and shi’a law schools to develop its own rigid and codified system.

However, this is not to grant the reviewer full marks, for there are issues that could be raised with his analysis of Sen’s work as well. First, his insistence on the fundamental – and perhaps only – reliance on the proximate past while understanding the present is misleading. While Sen would have done well to include a far deeper analysis of the thoughts of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, among others, the crux of his argument lies elsewhere. Sen argues that the essence of India is inevitably argumentative, and that can be seen in its most distinct form in ancient India, not corrupted by the advent of colonialism. Yajnâvalkya may have been a bigot, but he did debate with Gârgi. How often did Aurangzeb or Lord Linlithgow do the same?

Second, the choice of scholars is – as the reviewer argued – primarily from north India and especially from Sen’s native Bengal. I see nothing wrong in that except the possibility of a major school of non-deliberative and non-pluralistic thought being ignored by Sen. Whether that is the case is not pointed out by the reviewer.

Finally, Sen is not looking at just the past to understand the present, but he argues for identifying a trail of thinking that he believes is India’s soul. Admittedly, Sen associates with the idea of India, but it is not the imagined community envisaged by the Hindutva ideologues. Sen’s India is a pluralistic and argumentative civilisation.

Aruni Mukherjee
University of Warwick, UK

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