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Prof. Amartya Sen, Are the Indians Argumentative Enough?

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By Mosarrap H. Khan

Some pieces are difficult to write. You know it’s not going to make many people happy. You know there is every chance that people will be offended with your politics. The choice is between uttering what’s politically acceptable and blurting out what you want to say.

In a deeply fractured nation like India, every utterance is an act of violence; every utterance has the power to be co-opted by some or thrown back at your face as offensive by some others. Either way, speech is violence; writing is violence.


How often have you heard of a public speaker, a leading thinker and philosopher of our time, asked to stop his lecture and reframe it according to the demands of the protesters? Professor Amartya Sen was invited by the University of Hyderabad for the conferment of the honoris causa on 19 December, 2013. Post conferment, he was delivering the first Hyderabad Lecture, ‘Are Coffee Houses important for Education?’ Sen intended to speak on how the informal setting of a coffee house could engender a better dialogue, than the formal setting of a classroom, for resolving conflicts and strengthening democracy.

A group of students – under the banner of ‘Raju-Venkatesh Joint Action Committee’ – protesting against a series of deaths of Dalit students on campus demanded that Prof. Sen change the topic of his lecture. [You can read a report on the suicide of the Dalit student on Café Dissensus here.] The protesting students wanted him to speak, instead, on the discrimination and atrocities committed against the Dalit students on campus.


It’s an irony that a man who has written on the argumentative tradition of the Indians would himself be subjected to an extreme form of argumentation in India. Let us briefly sum up some of the points that Sen makes in his book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity (2005).

The context of Sen’s book makes his lecture at the UoH all the more ironic. Sen wrote this book in the context of the rise of the Hindu right in India, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Gujarat Pogrom, and the theory of ‘clash of civilizations’ between the East and the West. Sen wanted to remind that the Indians have always had a thriving culture of debate and dissent. In his Preface, Sen writes: “The selection of focus here is mainly for three distinct reasons: the long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions.”

According to Sen, since the ancient times, India had a culture of dialogue and argument, which tolerated different viewpoints. In his re-reading of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he locates dialogism and skepticism at their heart. In the Ramayana, Sen explains the incident of Javali, a pundit, who challenges Ram’s foolishness. Javali gets enough time to explain his position that there is no after-world and that the injunctions in the scriptures about worship was a mode of domination over other people by the Brahmins.

While Sen advocates public reasoning and voice as crucial component for the pursuit of social justice, he takes note of the common accusation that the dialectical method or dialogic mode of reasoning is the domain of the elite and the affluent. He negates such a view by pointing out that it is rather the aggrieved that has a better chance of securing social justice through debate and dialogue: “The critical voice is the traditional ally of the aggrieved, and participation in arguments is a general opportunity, not a particularly specialized skill (like composing sonnets or performing trapeze acts).”

To illustrate this point, Sen provides the example of Bharadvaja in the Mahabharata, who challenges Bhrigu’s theory that caste differences relate to the differences in physical attributes. Not only does Bharadvaja very intriguingly point out that there are considerable variations in skin color within the same caste but he points to the affective dimensions of being a human being cutting across differences: “We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labor; how do we have caste differences then?” Although this argument doesn’t win at the end, Sen claims that such a tradition of argumentation and skepticism shows that the underprivileged could employ such techniques to challenge, destabilize, and dislodge the well-entrenched caste interests.

However, for Sen, public reasoning and argumentation do not have any value unless they are connected to democracy. It is through participation in dialogues as a means to democratic politics that the empowerment of the underprivileged sections of society can be ensured. In other words, reasoned interventions are crucial for securing demands in a participatory democracy: “Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.”

One of the earliest examples of such discussion and debate were the ‘Buddhist Councils’ – a total of four were held and the best known, the third one, was held under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka – which attracted people from different places. Apart from religion, these councils also debated civic duties and social issues. Such tradition of public debate was continued by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who defended ‘the pursuit of reason’ over ‘reliance on tradition’. Thus public reasoning becomes the most important tool for resolving crisis and fostering dialogue between conflicting segments of society.

Commenting on the supposed political equality enshrined in the Indian constitution and the social/economic inequality of dalits, women and other underprivileged sections of the Indian society, Sen writes that the use of ‘voice’ – through arguments and agitations – by the marginalized segments can advance equality in different spheres of life.


Amartya Sen’s emphasis on public reasoning might appear similar to Jurgen Habermas’ notion of a rational public sphere. One question that comes to mind here is: what’s the role of emotions and affect in such a rational public sphere? I read a Facebook comment on the incident in which one student mentioned how Prof. Sen failed to take note of the fact that one protesting student was  ‘crying like a child’. Another student commented how a segment of the audience was relishing the pain of the protesting students by ‘laughing’ at them.

Recent studies – Arjun Appadurai’s Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (2006) and Dominique Moisi’s The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (2010) – show how affect and emotion significantly shape our politics. In such a landscape of anger, humiliation, and hurt, how does one expect public debates to retain the cool exterior of rationality on which Sen seems to found his view about the power of debate and argumentation?

Yet, one can’t deny the fact that there is an element of over-politicization at work in these frenzied protests. The politics from the margins have often the tendency to go on an overdrive: be it the casteist politics, feminist politics, regional politics, and politics based on communal identity. The most obvious logic seems to be a deep ingrained sense of injustice against such marginal communities.

There is always a fine line between a politics of equity and a politics of vengeance. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity of listening to an important Dalit ideologue and academic in Hyderabad. He argued that the Dalits must discard Telugu in favor of English, which can enable their social mobility. While a Hindi-speaking and, supposedly, upper caste student protested against this statement, he was almost physically abused and forced to leave the auditorium. This is just one example. There could be numerous counter-examples: the ‘beef festival’ at Osmania University was vandalized by the upper-caste dominated right-wing student group.

What seems to hinder reasoned debate in the public space is an over-effusion of emotions and affects. How would a theory of public argumentation accommodate such raging emotions, where one could cry like a child or one could set oneself on fire?

Prof. Sen’s painstaking excavation of a past argumentative tradition in India does justice to our understanding of Indian democratic culture and shows us the relevance of such a tradition in our own times for finding solutions to sectarian politics. What we further require is an understanding of the psyche of the ‘Emotional Indian’ in the general framework of the ‘Argumentative Indian’.

Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday, we will retain exclusive copyright for a period of 15 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Failing to comply with this and any unauthorized republication/reproduction of the piece will invite legal measures and will be liable to prosecution.

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