THE ARGUMENTATIVE INDIAN by Amartya Sen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. Hardcover, 391 pages. $26.00.

“Advocacy means speaking what you think, speaking for a point of view. Inquiry means looking into what you do not yet know, what you do not yet understand … . Bringing advocacy and inquiry together implies learning how to make explicit the thinking that leads you to say what you say.” —William Isaacs from Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

Brilliant teachers skillfully balance advocacy and inquiry. Using techniques such as Socratic Dialogue, the teacher asks as much as he tells, serving as a facilitator for critical thinking. If his splendid The Argumentative Indian can be thought of as a classroom doubling as a book, then Amartya Sen most certainly is a gifted teacher. The sources of Sen’s pedagogy are suggested in his Nobelprize.org autobiography: “I was born in a University campus and seem to have lived all my life in one campus or another … . Born in Santiniketan, on the campus of Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati, … it was mainly in Tagore’s school that my educational attitudes were formed.” Outside of Santiniketan, Sen has studied or taught economics at universities in Kolkata, Delhi, London, New York, and California.

While Presidency College, Delhi University, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and other elite universities have undoubtedly shaped Sen’s social choice and human development theories of economics, it is perhaps his early schooling that most informs The Argumentative Indian’s collection of essays on Indian history, culture, and identity. Fondly recalling his Santiniketan education, Sen writes, “There was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere.”

This embrace of dialogue about, and between, different cultures recurs throughout The Argumentative Indian. In the preface, Sen writes, “The contemporary relevance of the dialogic tradition and of the acceptance of heterodoxy is hard to exaggerate. Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning.” Beginning with “The Argumentative Indian” and closing with “The Indian Identity,” the essays explore what it means to be an Indian. A frisson of intellectual hope, excitement, and curiosity infects the reader upon realizing that Sen avoids “seeing Indian traditions as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical.” For Sen, “the issue relates directly to the plurality of identities … and to the scope for choice in the determination of identity.” Indianness involves a choice for each Indian: matriarchal Keralite or patriarchal Punjabi, Kashmiri pandit or Hyderabadi imam, devotionally religious or skeptically agnostic, solidly rooted to the interior landscape or ever-responding to evolving externalities, high-tech entrepreneur or high-touch tiffin-vala, deshi or diasporic, or some combination of identities.

A passionate commitment to reason (rather than blind faith in tradition) and Sen’s insistence on pluralistic heterodoxy as core to Indian identity are The Argumentative Indian’s leitmotif. Tedious repetition is risked, but like a musical score running through a film, the twin themes of reason and heterodoxy serve to integrate the book. Integration is vital because this thick book can at times result in intellectual fatigue.


The first two sentences of the book aptly describe Sen’s expansive quality: “Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length.” Indeed, Sen covers a lot of territory: Bengali stalwarts Tagore and Satyajit Ray, India’s version of secularism and her many versions of calendars (over 10 calendars are periodic reminders of pluralism), the bomb-based relationship with Pakistan contrasted with the Buddhism-based relationship with China, and a lovely essay titled “India: Large and Small” that challenges the xenophobic Hindutva movement. Sen advocates for a “capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism” while simultaneously helping the reader to inquire into (and perhaps resist) the “miniaturization” of India. “Through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India—proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present—and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism.”

In an otherwise exceptionally balanced book, the violence of Hindutva adherents brings out the scold in Sen. Some essays obsessively focus on how this movement has attempted to reinvent the past. It clearly pains Sen that these sectarian Indians conveniently forget the contributions of non-Hindus while waving saffron-colored flags proclaiming that India is a Hindu country created by Hindus for Hindus. As abhorrent as it is that schoolchildren have been educated with Hindutva textbooks that amplify the fraud that there was no India before Hindu India (and thus the even more repugnant syllogism that there should be no Indians except Hindu Indians), there is good reason to rewrite Indian history: it is not only members of the Hindutva movement who believe that history should be whisked away from the colonial lens and reconsidered from an Indian perspective; subaltern scholars go one step further and argue that Indian history needs to not only be re-appropriated from Western colonialism, but also from Indian elitism. Sen is certainly aware of the imperialistic hubris of John Mill’s History of British India and is not unsympathetic to Ranajit Guha and his colleagues who have developed the subaltern historiography based on giving voice to the dispossessed. But his focus on the Hindutva movement seemingly squeezes out the possibility of anyone rewriting history.

Upbraiding the Hindutva bigots doesn’t belong in this book; a longer, more specialized treatise would be better suited for that purpose. As a journey into Amartya Sen’s brilliant, compassionate, fair, and, yes, argumentative mind, The Argumentative Indian (except for the understandable impatience with violent bigotry) is consistently faithful to the values Tagore expressed in Gitanjali. It is a book, a classroom …

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; …

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits.

For Professor John “Jock” McLane, the first of a long line of teachers who fostered in RCO a lifelong learning about—and love for—all things Indian.

Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, P.S., Papa’s Stories, and Living in...