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Our Past and Our Present

India's past has become an ideological battleground. The central issue in this battle is not the invoking of the past, but precisely how the past is brought into discussions about the present. Related to this basic inquiry is the subsidiary question: does the acknowledgement of the continuing relevance of the past imply that "the distant past must guide how one acts in the present"? The recognition of the relevance of the past must be distinguished from the case for being guided by the past in a choice-independent way. It is important to recognise that the significance of the past for us today involves selection and choice in which our contemporary concerns can have a reasonable role. It is also important to see that this connection between the present and our involvement with the past neither undermines the need to look for veracity and ascertained evidence nor removes the case for deliberately concentrating on those cases in which the lessons involved have particular relevance to our concerns today. The problem of selections from the past involves, in this sense, both epistemology and practical reason.

Special articles

Our Past and Our Present

India’s past has become an ideological battleground. The central issue in this battle is not the invoking of the past, but precisely how the past is brought into discussions about the present. Related to this basic inquiry is the subsidiary question: does the acknowledgement of the continuing relevance of the past imply that “the distant past must guide how one acts in the present”? The recognition of the relevance of the past must be distinguished from the case for being guided by the past in a choice-independent way. It is important to recognise that the significance of the past for us today involves selection and choice in which our contemporary concerns can have a reasonable role. It is also important to see that this connection between the present and our involvement with the past neither undermines the need to look for veracity and ascertained evidence nor removes the case for deliberately concentrating on those cases in which the lessons involved have particular relevance to our concerns today. The problem of selections from the past involves, in this sense, both epistemology and practical reason.


I What Seems To Be the Problem?

olitical disputes in contemporary India are often fought, oddly enough, over India’s antiquity. India’s past has become an ideological battleground. The citing of the past to get guidance for the present reached a new level of grossness when the Hindutva movement became a dominant political force in India over the last decade or so. It was well supplemented by that movement’s elaborate programme – when it was in office in New Delhi – of “rewriting” Indian history to bring it in line with the priorities of their own political movement. But the general strategy of recalling the past to support present choices did not originate with Hindutva. Even Mahatma Gandhi, while critical of some of the terrible practices of the past (such as untouchability), did not flinch from invoking our past traditions to demand attention from contemporary Indians and to inspire them to courageous action. Hindutva’s need for soliciting historical legitimacy may be very special and its attempts to construct a suitably designed “past” for India may be full of contortions (I have discussed both these issues in my book The Argumentative Indian),1 but it would be a mistake to think that the Hindutva movement is unique in dragging the past into the present.

The central issue is not the invoking of the past but precisely how the past is brought into contemporary discussions about the present. Related to this basic inquiry, is the subsidiary question: does the acknowledgement of the continuing relevance of the past imply that “the distant past must guide how one acts in the present”? Those telling words, which are taken from Ramachandra Guha’s engaging and forceful essay ‘Arguments with Sen: Arguments about India’,2 come from a diagnosis in which he seems to think that this is exactly what I accept – if only implicitly

– in the reasoning about India’s past and present. That diagnosis is, of course, altogether mistaken, but delving into the way Guha thinks about these issues and the interesting questions he asks about my work is certainly a fruitful exercise (at least I found it to be so), and I am very grateful to Guha for giving me the occasion to revisit this interesting territory.

Guha’s highly engaging and stimulating essay was published, in October 2005, side by side with another review essay – also very interesting and deeply thought provoking – authored by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ‘The Acquiescent Indian’. Among the odd behavioural rules I tend to follow is never to respond to a review of any book of mine unless there is an altogether overwhelming reason for doing so. There may, however, be such a reason in this case. In nearly a year that has passed from the time when those well-reasoned review essays came out in October 2005 (I write this in September 2006), I have been repeatedly asked whether I agree with the points made by Guha and Bhattacharya, and I have also been told often enough that it was irresponsible of me not to reply to reasonable questions that had been put to me.

I agree that the questions raised by both the review essays are indeed important and there is a very strong case for me to respond and to reply to the questions asked. And given the further fact that there is some rudeness in not taking up what were clearly invitations to argue (this applies particularly to Guha’s combative interrogation), I am indeed persuaded that non-replying would be at least as bad as replying. I should perhaps also add that as a very firm admirer of Ramachandra Guha and his writings, I would not wish him to suffer from the sad loneliness made famous by Allen Ginsberg’s classic question: “What if someone gave a war and Nobody came?”

II Identity, Truth and Choice

The occasion of responding to Guha and Bhattacharya gives me an opportunity to discuss some general methodological issues about the relevance of history for the present and our understanding of the past. I have visited this general territory in an earlier essay (about a decade old now), called ‘On Interpreting India’s Past’.3 This 1996 paper I had originally planned to include in the collection essays that went into The Argumentative Indian. I was dissuaded by editorial advice that was given to me (I think correctly) that this article was much harder to digest than the rest of the book and its inclusion might well interfere with the accessibility of the book. In this reply, however, I will draw freely on that 1996 essay. I will begin, in this section and the next, with a brief discussion of the general methodological challenge of historical interpretation and its implications for any hold that the past may have on the present. Neither Guha nor Bhattacharya will appear in this discussion. Then, in the rest of the essay, I will take up the specific points made by both Guha and Bhattacharya.

We live in the present, but it is a tiny bit of time. It passes even as we speak. The current moment, vivid as it is, does not tell us much about who we are, how we can reasonably see ourselves, and where we would place our loyalties when we face divisions. It is not surprising, therefore, that our identities and self-perceptions are strongly influenced by our past. Since we also have affiliations and associations – by birth or by choice

– with particular groups of people (linked to us by nationality, language, class, gender, residence, culture, politics, religion, and other bonds), the history of these different groups are of direct relevance to our self-understanding and self-description. While we cannot live “within” our past, we cannot, I argued in the 1996 paper, live “without” it either.

To recognise the relevance of the past can hardly be the same thing as making our present choices be passively determined by our reading of the past. This is partly because we have to decide on the relative importance we want to attach to our various affiliations, and correspondingly to the history of the groups and the connections involved. A person may simultaneously be an Indian citizen, a Tamil, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a musician, a mathematician, a school teacher, a vegetarian, and a person with an “untouchable” (Dalit) social background. The history of each of these groups and of each of these associations can – potentially and sometimes actually – have a serious influence on the choices that she makes and the actions she decides to undertake.

The Hindutva movement has attempted to prioritise the Hindu identity of those who happen to come from the Hindu background, and even of others who have been born and brought up in Hindumajority India. The identity, when it is significant for a person, could certainly be among the influences that may work on a person, but it has to face competition with other affiliations that the potential recruit has reason to consider (even though the advocates of unique identity can try to dissuade him or her – as they often do – from undertaking that critical examination). Similar difficulties are faced by other single-focus identity-mongers, varying from western chauvinists and Islamic extremists to total and unquestioning loyalists of communal or tribal affiliations. There is an inescapable case for reasoning and choice in this decision-making, which tends to be downplayed both by communal ideologues wanting active deeds (often of a very nasty kind) and by academic theorists persuaded by the intellectual conviction that identity is a matter of “discovery”, not reasoning and choice (a position made popular by some branches of so-called “Communitarian” theory). In my last book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny,4 which carries the discussion much beyond the 1996 essay, I have discussed the inescapable grounds for reasoning as well as the case for critically scrutinising the invitations and urgings to “discover your identity” that come our way both in earthy politics and in the academic corridors of high-brow “Communitarian” philosophy and medium-brow “Civilisational” theory.

The recognition of the relevance of the past must, therefore, be distinguished from the case for being guided by the past in a choice-independent way. The importance we attach to any particular context may also vary, depending on what is the issue at hand. To begin with a rather modest example, a person’s vegetarian identity may be more important than her political affiliations when she goes to a dinner, but the latter may well overwhelm the vegetarian identity when she votes in an election. The fact that many religious people give robust priority to their creed when deciding on religious functions would not conflict with the fact that the same person may refuse to be guided by her religious connections when undertaking a political action, for example voting in a general election. Mahatma Gandhi, with his combination of secular politics and Hindu religious beliefs, clarified this issue with compelling clarity (both by example and by arguments), and the fact that, today, a country of more than 80 per cent Hindus seems comfortable enough with a Sikh prime minister, a Muslim president, and a leader of the ruling party who comes from a Christian background reflects the fact that this elementary point is well understood by contemporary Indians. This is not a reason for the religious Hindus to question their devout convictions (that is a separate issue altogether), but it does indicate that the religious domain need not overwhelm the political arena.

How does truth in general and historical truth in particular come into all this? I am well aware that there are fine and influential intellectuals who find the idea of historical truth to be entirely non-viable and mythical. While I do not wish to enter into that large philosophical debate here, I must make it absolutely clear that I do not think that the distinction between true and false statements is in any sense mythical. Let me illustrate the point with an actual example. When the justly famous Encyclopaedia Britannica said, in its vintage 11th edition (published in 1911), that in the Indian famine of 1344-45, even “the Moghul emperor was unable to obtain the necessaries for his household”, it would have been right to say that this was, unintentionally, a false statement. The minor problem in the statement lies in the fact

– and it is a fact – that the Moghul empire was not established in India until nearly two centuries later (in 1526, to be exact). A more major problem, linked to the main thrust of the contention, is that the Tughlak emperor in power in 1344-45 (Mohammad bin Tughlak, to be specific) not only had no great difficulty in securing necessaries for his household, but also had enough means to organise one of the earliest public programmes of famine relief in world history.5 More generally, the often repeated tales of united starvation in historical famines – very common in the famine literature – affecting everyone in the society do not tally with the reality of partitioned misery, and the fairly ubiquitous fact that, in every famine known to us, some starve, others do just fine. Truth is not, I would argue, an obsolete idea.

So, how is truth relevant in assessing an appeal to the past to incite actions here and now? If it is easy to see how the invoking of “our past” can be used to influence people’s thinking, it is also not difficult to see that the demonstration that the invoked past is, in a particular instance, a figment of a contrived imagination can do much to undermine radically that influence. We do not like being “conned”, and even though the determination of whether some historical claim is “true or false” is not at all the only issue to consider in arguing against the alleged “demands” of such an invoked past; truth is nevertheless one relevant issue, which should not be written off as unimportant. Nor does the fact that my book The Argumentative Indian devotes a lot of space to disputing particular historical claims (made, for example, by “Hindutva historians”) reflect any belief whatever on my part that had those historical claims been true, then there would be no further problem in following what is being urged on the alleged basis of those claims. While the human mind may not be able to take in too much complexity, we are surely able to see that more than one issue can have a bearing on the effectiveness of an argument that we are disputing. Truth has a role and so has decisional choice, and one does not pre-empt the other.

III Position, Selection and Distinct Historical Motivations

In the 1996 paper (‘On Interpreting India’s Past’) I placed a fair amount of emphasis on two particular methodological claims:

(1) the relevance of positional situation in the objectivity of observations and the knowledge they yield, and (2) the importance of practical reason (and decisions about actions and rules) in judging alternative perspectives and their respective claims to our attention.

Let me comment on each.

The nature and importance of “positionality” are easy to see in every field of knowledge, and it provides a different way of looking at objectivity – distinct from the claims of positionindependent objectivity, what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere”.6 Positionality can influence both (i) the observation of events seen from a particular position, and (ii) the overall assessment of an event seen in a particular perspective.7 To illustrate the positionality of observations with a physical example, consider the recognition that a distant object looks smaller, for example the fact that the sun and the moon look to be of much the same size from where we are, that is, on the earth. This is a statement that can certainly make some claim to objectivity, even though it is a positional kind of objectivity that is being asserted here, namely what we see from the earth. If someone did indeed “see” with naked eyes, from the earth, that the sun looked much, much larger than the moon, then that would be a reason for his checking his eyesight with an optician. The defective vision of the person who sees the sun as much larger than the moon cannot be vindicated by the invoking of other scientific knowledge, including the ascertainable fact that the sun is, in terms of mass, much larger than the moon. That is not at all the same issue as the way the sun and the moon look from down here.

Our observations are inescapably influenced by our position of observation, which locates us in relation to the objects to be observed, and we may have reason to speak about positional features of a phenomenon, rather than its position-independent characteristics. Despite their situational variability, these positional features need not be attributed to our subjectivity, as that idea is typically defined (for example, in the Oxford English Dictionary): (1) “having its source in the mind”, and (2) “pertaining or peculiar to an individual subject or his mental operations”.8 Rather, they are “positional” characteristics of actual observations and the objective interpretations of those observations. The similarity of observed sizes of the sun and the moon from the earth does not originate in our mind; indeed even the nature of the solar eclipse brings out the substance of positional projections (as Aryabhata had noted with much clarity sixteen hundred years ago, thereby initiating a major scientific debate which other mathematicians and astronomers, such as Varahamihira, Brahmagupta and Alberuni, among others, joined, as is also discussed in The Argumentative Indian).

Interpretations of observations – of the past as well as of the present – cannot but be mediated by the positional features of observation and interpretation. Each individual thing about the past that is observed can be understood in a particular way depending on the nature of the questions that engage and motivate the inquiry. For example, facts that are of interest for a general anti-colonial movement need not be of similar gravity for an assessment of the predicament of a particular disadvantaged community (such as the Dalits). When it comes to assessment, from the totality of the things observed, selections can be made and weights attached in which the positional perspectives can

– explicitly or by implication – be influential. To dismiss these positional variabilities as mere “subjectivism” would miss out something substantial in the nature of objectivity: not all of objectivity is about “the view from nowhere” – some relate to the view exactly from a specified “somewhere”. It would also miss the strongly impersonal quality of positional views (since different persons can occupy the same position and replicate the same observations and see the implications that follow from them).

On the other hand, positionally objective observations cannot be taken to be position-invariant objective truths. This was indeed the subject matter of Karl Marx’s discussion of “objective illusion,” which informed his analysis of the durability of what he called “false consciousness”.9 To illustrate again with the same physical example, the positionally objective conclusion that the sun and the moon are of much the same size when viewed from the earth does not entail that they are, in any positionindependent sense, “of the same size”. Different perspectives would give varying answers, for example in terms of their respective mass, or – for that matter – how they would look from, say, the planet Venus. To identify the two notions of objectivity would be to miss out on the crucial role that positionality plays in the nature of these investigations. The objectivity of a particular perspective does not, by itself, establish its epistemic status beyond that positional contingency. I will not go further into these epistemological questions here – I have probed these issues and their implications a little more, elsewhere.10

The relevance of the past to us today can incorporate our particular positional perspectives in line with contemporary issues and our ongoing concerns. This can have the effect of making the assessment of relevant history move away from pure epistemology (and also metaphysics) to taking note of “practical reason”, in particular the priorities that we have reason to pursue today. It is the relevance of contemporary practical reason, to be distinguished from any timeless epistemic concern (in the form of “a view from nowhere”), that particularly requires clarification in the context of contemporary debates. The “reading of history”, including what can be seen as “lessons of history”, at a particular point of time with particular preoccupations need not shy away from taking note of our priorities today, including the lives we would like to lead today. This type of look at the past has no claim to position-independent objectivity: the objectivity it seeks is strictly of that particular positional kind.

Let me illustrate the point with an example from the book under discussion. One of the questions that have been repeatedly put to me about The Argumentative Indian, is this: why do I focus on some particular enunciators, such as Ashoka, Kalidasa, Aryabhata, Alberuni, Kabir, Akbar, Dara Shikoh, or in our times, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, or Nehru, who presented interesting arguments and took articulate decisions in one form or another, rather than others who took other routes, including some who preferred the sword to the use of words. Are the latter not (for example, Mahmud of Ghazni who repeatedly invaded India and butchered his way through the treasures of India in the late 10th century) just as much of a part of the history of the country as others (such as Ashoka or Kalidasa or Alberuni or Akbar)? That claim can certainly be entertained, and there can be studies, for example of invasions, conquests and destruction in which many of these characters, Ghazni included, would have a tremendously important place.

Also, the broad interest of professional historians in “how it really was” would naturally take them to different kinds of descriptions and discriminations than looking at the past in terms of its relevance to contemporary priorities. It is possible that even for the “purer” pursuit of position-independent historical inquiries there will still remain the philosophical question as to whether any historical examination of “how it really was” can be entirely free of our present ways of understanding events and their significance, no matter how hard we try to dissociate the investigation from the particularities of the present. But in that “purer” historical exercise any influence – or “infection” – of the present in discerning the past would have a very different status from the deliberate use of the present in looking at the past for its relevance to present concerns – the type of exercise with which The Argumentative Indian as a study was mainly concerned. There is an entirely identifiable motivational distinction between looking at the past (1) for its relevance to the present (our concern here), and (2) for trying to understand “how it really was then” – an attempt at a more immaculate historical investigation that is basically moved by a different kind of drive (whether or not the habits and priorities of today continue to intrude). My abiding respect for the works of what I have been calling “purer” history, with its focus on “how it really was”, does not conflict in any way with my own involvement inter alia in exploring the past with an explicit interest in their relevance for our concerns today. It is important to understand the motivational distinctions involved.

Given that basic distinction, there is nothing particularly illegitimate in looking for the history of arguments in India in the light precisely of the significance of that practice for contemporary democracy, secularism, science, culture, or possible cultivation of peace – the basic connections on which The Argumentative Indian draws. Our priorities can, with reason and contextual legitimacy, easily tilt towards Akbar over Ghazni. This would not involve any denial of the fact that many people in our past have lacked any noticeable interest in arguing. This is exactly where the importance of our practical reason becomes particularly relevant for the comparative interests of different characters, movements and events from the past. If arguing is understood to have a significant role in the success of democracy, secularism, social movements, or science and technology in contemporary India, and if it is also observed that arguments have had an important presence in Indian traditions, then the case for focusing particularly on that aspect of Indian history does involve a choice with a practical relevance. Our examination of the past in this context need not – indeed must not – be based on a random selection.

To conclude this particular methodological discussion, it is very important to recognise that the significance of the past for us today involves selection and choice in which our contemporary concerns can have a reasonable role. It is also important to see that this connection between the present and our involvement with the past (1) neither undermines the need to look for veracity and ascertained evidence (truth does not lose its constant importance, for reasons already discussed), (2) nor removes the case for deliberately concentrating on those cases in which the lessons involved have particular relevance to our concerns today (for reasons also spelt out). The problem of selections from the past involves, in this sense, both epistemology and practical reason.

IV Minor Disputes on Details

In his enlightening essay ‘The Acquiescent Indian’, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya begins by drawing attention to two kinds of arguments that are distinguished in the Nyaya tradition: vitanda and jalpa. The former is an argument to dispute the truth or veracity of a claim made by someone else and the latter is an argument aimed only at establishing the truth. There cannot fail to be considerable overlap between the two since the ways and means of identifying the truth may well take us through the dialectical route of disputing some claims of others with which there are reasons to disagree. Ramachandra Guha’s vitanda with me is no doubt motivated by his basic commitment to jalpa.

This section is devoted to replying to some minor disputations presented by Guha in his vitanda. The more serious issues will come in the next section, where I will consider the grounds he gives to “refuse to endorse [Sen’s] method of argument” in general (Guha, p 4424), and I will then, that is, in the next section, scrutinise those grounds in the light of the general discussion already presented in the last two sections. This section, in contrast, deals with Guha’s pointer, in the part of his paper called ‘Contesting Sen’, to a set of alleged “errors” – both factual and interpretational – that he claims I have made in the book. While the disputes in this section do not have a direct bearing on the graver matters to be taken up in the next section, the accusations made by Guha do nevertheless demand a reply, partly because these questions have interest of their own, but also because no author can possibly be taken seriously if he does really make as many careless errors, even if minor, as Guha claims I have committed. There is a general connection here, one aspect of which was well versified by that pioneering woman writer – and actress – Susannah Centlivre in The Artifice (published in 1722): “For they who sin with caution, whilst concealed/Grow impudently careless, when revealed.” Before I turn even more careless, I must examine Guha’s alleged revelations.

But first a point of some agreement. Guha argues that while I may be surefooted in technical economics, social theory and moral philosophy (he vastly overestimates my strength in those fields), in “the realm of history” my “grasp is less sure and the ground beneath” my “feet less certain” (p 4422). This must certainly be the case since I am no historian, and I do not disagree at all with Ramachandra Guha in his general scepticism of my claims to writing reasonable history. What, however, has to be discussed is whether my mistakes – of which there must undoubtedly be many – are actually the ones that Guha has identified.

First, Guha argues that I have got dates badly mixed up when I discussed the error in thinking of the hero – or anti-hero – Sandip in Tagore’s novel The Home and the World as Mahatma Gandhi. Guha puts his criticism thus (p 4422):

while Sen writes of The Home and the World that “it would, of course, be absurd to think of Sandip as Gandhi” – it is perhapsabsurd that he should even raise the question, for when that novelwas published not many among Tagore’s readers would haveknown the name of this then obscure agitator in South Africa.

This, in fact, is not so. Gandhi returned from South Africa to India in 1914, in a blaze of publicity and glory (through having won something of a victory over the powerful rulers of South Africa). The Bengali book of Tagore, which had an earlier history, was published in English translation in India in 1915, the year after Gandhi’s triumphant return. This was followed by the English edition of the book by Macmillan in London, published only in 1919. It is presumably the reading of this English edition that made Georg Lukacs, the well known Marxist critic, remark that Tagore had put himself “at the intellectual service of the British police” in this “libellous pamphlet” containing “a contemptible caricature of Gandhi” (italics added).11 Perhaps it was not so “absurd” that I should “raise” (to use Guha’s expression) and address that question, since I was discussing Lukacs’ diagnosis (as indeed I said there), rather than airing a fresh question of my own.

Consider another example. Guha says (p 4422):

B R Ambedkar is described as the “leader of the Indian Constituent

Assembly”: a quaint characterisation, since he was merely chair

man of the Drafting Committee. (The official leader was the

Assembly’s president, Rajendra Prasad; the unofficial leader,

Vallabhbhai Patel.)

Without slighting the formal position of Rajendra Prasad and the informal role of Vallabhbhai Patel, it would be very hard indeed to downplay the widely acknowledged leadership part that Ambedkar undoubtedly played in the Constituent Assembly in giving shape to the Indian Constitution. As it happens, in different places in The Argumentative Indian, I described Ambedkar several times. The first time he was described as the person who “chaired the committee that drafted India’s democratic constitution” (p 36), and this, I take it, would meet with Guha’s approval. The second time I called him, again, “the Chair of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution” (p 80), and the third time as “the leader of the team that framed the Constitution of India” (p 305). Following all this I had once taken the liberty of recognising what I believe was Ambedkar’s effective leadership role in the Constituent Assembly (p 309), and this is the only description of Ambedkar in the book that Guha quotes in his disputation, without mentioning the preceding descriptions. Despite Guha’s dismissive pointer to Ambedkar’s having been “merely” chairman of the Drafting Committee, I cannot agree that there is any need for a substantive correction here.12

Guha has more of an immediate case in his difficulty with my citing of Sarojini Naidu as “the first woman President of the Indian National Congress,...elected in 1925, fifty years earlier than the election of the first woman leader of a major British political party (Margaret Thatcher in 1975)” (pp 6-7). As he points out, accurately enough, Annie Besant occupied that position earlier than Sarojini Naidu. Formally, this is exactly so, since Annie Besant came to occupy this position in 1917, soon after her release from British Indian prison, and this was very much a gesture of recognition by the Congress (her parting of ways from Gandhi and the Congress happened afterwards). So Guha is absolutely right in making the formal correction. What has to be decided, however, is whether Besant’s being made into the president of the party (it would be hard to see it as a normal election) should count in the same way as the party-activist Sarojini Naidu’s election and more substantive role in leading the party, which effectively transformed its political role under Gandhi’s leadership in the 1920s. Nevertheless, I am absolutely ready to accept Guha’s formal correction, and this would, as it happens, make the comparison I was making stronger (not weaker), elongating the time gap with the first election of a woman president of a major British political party (which was the central point of my statement in which all this occurs): 58 years rather than the more modest 50 years that I was – and still am – content to claim.

Another bit of “correction” that Guha wishes to make concerns my discussion of Jamsetji Tata’s choice of the term “swadeshi” in naming his new mills the “Swadeshi mills” in 1886. I pointed to the connection of that choice to the nationalistic thought of that pioneering giant of Indian industrialisation, at a time when the concept of “swadeshi” was becoming “significantly assertive in Indian nationalist politics”. Guha believes that “historians would argue that the political significance of the term lay a decade and half in the future” (Guha, p 4422). Perhaps they would, and yet the term “swadeshi” as an easily interpreted Sanskrit word

– in currency already in some modern Indian languages (such as Bengali) – could hardly be separated from the growing nationalist movements of the time. It may be recalled that Jamsetji’s earlier mills were called “the Empress Mills” (in honour of the newly crowned Queen Victoria), but the times had changed by 1886, when the new mills were given the more nationalistic name, “Swadeshi Mills”, by the same Jamsetji Tata.

Regional organisations with nationalist objectives were already functioning vigorously by then, like the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha linked with Mahadev Ranade (nor, as evident from the name, were they particularly reluctant to use well understood Sanskrit words). Surendranath Banerjea, dismissed from his job as an ICS officer, started the Indian Association in Calcutta in 1883, and in 1885, the year before the Tata decision, the Indian National Congress itself had its first meeting in Bombay, which was personally attended, as I mention in my book, by Jamsetji Tata. It is certainly true that Gandhi would later reinterpret nationalism and the demands of “swadeshi” and draw out their implications for political action, but it is not the case that the swadeshi mills were being named by Jamsetji at a time of little significance for the idea – or the word – swadeshi.

Let me end these minor disputes – enough must at some stage become enough – with commenting on a different kind of “correction” that Guha makes:

Sen writes that Hindu personal laws were reformed after independence with “little opposition”; in fact, there were massiveopposition in the streets (led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh),in Parliament (led by two Bengalis, S P Mukherjee andN C Chatterjee), and from the highest official in the land (this beingthe president of the republic, Rajendra Prasad, whose attempt tostall the reforms led to a first-rate constitutional crisis).

I suppose what counts as a “massive” opposition is a matter of judgment. The evidence for it as cited by Guha as hard facts has to be assessed by taking into account the recognition that Rajendra Prasad’s reluctance was rapidly overcome, that the popular following of the RSS in those days – not long after Gandhi’s assassination – was very limited indeed, and also that the tiny opposition led by two members of a huge Parliament (even by two loquacious Bengalis) could hardly count as a groundswell.

Time to move on the Guha’s major points. The weaknesses in the minor “corrections” proposed by Guha (problematic as these proposals are, as discussed in this section) do not in any way compromise Guha’s major contentions, which are quite separate and very important. To those bigger questions I now turn.

V Different Difficulties in the Use of the Past

Ramachandra Guha’s assessment of his basic disagreement with me turns on a methodological distinction between what he sees as my approach and what he takes to be the correct approach (rather than on differences in our respective substantive views of India). He presents his central disagreement with me in the following way (p 4424):

One might choose to take Amartya Sen’s side on all these debates

– I would, at any rate. One must nonetheless refuse to endorse his methods of argument. For there must always be maintained a distinction between past and present, between contested historical truths and necessary democratic practice.

The first – but not at all the most important – problem in assessing this line of critique lies in understanding what Guha could possibly mean by the need to maintain “a distinction between past and present”? Despite T S Eliot’s profound diagnosis at the plane of interpretations that “Time present and time past,/Are both perhaps present in time future”, how can past events and present ones not be distinct at a more mundane level? Past and present deal with different subject matters and can hardly exist, in any sense, without distinction, even if it were the case

– happily it is not – that all present decisions would be best decided on the basis of readings of the past.

What Guha really means is made clear by his remark that follows. He argues that while I attribute to Rabindranath Tagore (in what he rightly sees as my “heartfelt tribute” to him) the view that “important as history is, reasoning has to go beyond the past”, I myself follow this maxim “all too erratically”. So this assessment, with which Guha’s essay ends, echoes his basic diagnosis, cited earlier, that in Guha’s reading, Sen, the author of The Argumentative Indian, “accepts the BJP’s grounds for argument – namely, that the distant past must guide how one acts in the present” (p 4424).

If this diagnosis of what I do were correct, then I too would have to disagree strongly with that self of mine, identified by Guha. I have, however, already discussed in some detail (in Sections II and III) why the view that our present decisions must be guided by our past is not at all mine, and also why I have always insisted on the inescapable need for reasoning and choice in making our decisions today, no matter what our past communicates to us. In fact, going further, I have argued that even in assessing the past itself from today’s perspective we have to take note of contemporary priorities and practical reason.

How could Guha have placed me so far astray from my stated position? How could a critic who is so concerned about factual details get so radically mistaken about the entire approach of a book to which he has clearly devoted so much time? I would suggest that the answer may lie in Guha’s missing a huge methodological point, to wit, that my insistence on the importance of truth in getting a historical account right does not in any way entail – or even suggest – that if, counterfactually, we did get our historical story to be truthful, then that would be enough to determine our present choices. It should not really be hard to see that the Hindutva movement’s way of deriving from their own reading of India’s past (involving some “rewriting”) what they claim to be the correct social and political priorities today is problematic for two quite distinct reasons: (1) that present priorities cannot really be based on any reading of the past, and

(2) even within the discipline of the deluded approach of basing present priorities on the past, a falsely rewritten past cannot take the place of a more accurate reading. A pointer to the second defect does not, in any way, negate the diagnosis that there is also the first mistake.

In asserting the importance of both truth and reasoned choice, as I do, there is, in fact, no contradiction whatever (as was discussed in Sections II and III, based on my 1996 paper). The combination is part of a fuller statement that could not be captured by either of its two constituent components. I have tried to present the view – I don’t believe it is a very complex view – that truth does matter (both in itself and to scrutinise the internal logic of past-based arguments for current action), and yet even a truthful reading of the past cannot determine our present priorities, since we have to decide on those priorities, rather than our being left choiceless by our past about what to do here and now.

Let me illustrate with an example that Guha discusses. Guha points to the fact that I talk a lot about the alleged relevance of Akbar’s ideas to contemporary India. This is indeed so: I do talk a lot about Akbar in the context of the continuing interest of his arguments in today’s India. In fact, to compound my sins I have even discussed, in my later book Identity and Violence, why Akbar’s ideas are particularly relevant to Britain as well, for preventing, among other things, some of the mistakes in contemporary multicultural policies in Britain (I know that Guha also makes the charge that I use the term “multiculturalism” mistakenly through my “anachronistic” use of the concept – I will come to that further issue presently also).13

Guha gives the impression of overlooking the distinction between two quite different positions:

  • (1) Akbar’s ideas are important today because of their relevance to issues that engage us right now; and
  • (2) Akbar’s ideas are important for present-day India because they represent the past of India.
  • They are very different arguments, and while I am all behind the former, I find the latter argument, assigned to me by Guha, to be altogether bewildering – even bizarre.

    To make Guha’s attribution somewhat understandable (though, I fear, still not particularly plausible), I should say that I do, in fact, think, as it happens, that Akbar’s ideas have a great importance to India’s history as well both (1) because of their relevance at his own time (a question of contemporary importance then, which is of significance of its own in assessing history), and (2) because of the relevance of Akbar’s ideas today, to think clearly about our contemporary problems, which gives us a different kind of reason for a historical study of Akbar and his thoughts.

    Guha ties himself up in an awfully tight knot of his own making when he gets engaged in what seems to me to be an oddly contrived worry (p 4434):

    what are we to do if a pundit even more learned than Amartya Sen shows us that Aurangzeb was actually more representative of the medieval world than Akbar?

    Akbar’s ideas are more relevant to us today not because he was more “representative” of the medieval world than Aurangzeb (whatever that might mean), but because his ideas – for example, his non-sectarian vision and his appreciation of the role of reasoning and choice – have much greater relevance and interest for us today than Aurangzeb’s more segregated and orthodox approach.

    Indeed, it is not easy to see how it is to be determined, in line with Guha’s question, whether it was Akbar or Aurangzeb who “was actually more representative of the medieval world”? They were both there, both were powerful and effective in their own times, each said their respective pieces and did their own things. Our interests and involvements today may influence our decision on whom to concentrate between the two when we look at history from our positional perspective, but that would not resolve Guha’s onerous question about who was more “representative” of the world of Mughals. Indeed, the dilemma here would have some similarity in the contemporary world with the problem that a modern European democratic theorist might have to face if he or she were to ask what was more “representative” of Europe’s past: the history of ancient Athens for a few centuries from the sixth century BC or the much longer and geographically more widespread history of Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vikings, and others with a very non-Athenian life style led over thousands of years. Indeed, through its broader spatial and temporal coverage, the latter may indeed swamp the claim of “representativeness” of the former (if such a claim were to be made), but that issue of representativeness has nothing much to do with the interest in – and appreciation of – the Athenian ideas and experiences in contemporary Europe (or indeed anywhere else).

    To conclude this particular discussion, if we have reason to insist that the versatile presence of the argumentative tradition in India should not be underestimated, this is not because its historical presence makes it the right approach right now. Far from it. Rather, it is precisely because we have reason today to take a close interest in an argumentative approach (I have tried to present reasons for thinking that it is centrally relevant to many of our contemporary priorities, such as democracy, secularism and an open-minded pursuit of science) that the long presence of this approach in Indian intellectual history becomes particularly important for us to understand and study.

    I have also asked whether the historical presence of this tradition, in some elementary form, has made it easier for India to have a secular, democratic polity. In fact, I have argued in The Argumentative Indian that it has, and I am quite prepared to defend this diagnosis. But this does not imply, in any way, that the very case for having a secular, democratic polity in India rests on the historical presence (or “representativeness”) of this tradition in Indian history, which would be an altogether different (and also, I would argue, an altogether absurd) claim.

    VI Disjunction and the Charge of Anachronism

    If the main criticism that Ramachandra Guha makes of my “methods of argument” seems to spring from a serious misunderstanding, there are other differences between us which are more matters of interpretation and assessment. At the risk of making too much of a generalisation, I would argue that Guha perhaps sees a more unbridgeable breach than I do between the ways of thinking today and the variety of reasoning we can find in the past. His repeated charge that I use modern ideas “anachronistically” (he is sad to find this “throughout the book” p 4422) turns, I believe, on his evident belief that there is a very sharp dissonance between the ideas and concerns in our past and those today. Despite our changing involvements over time, I do not think that such a cutting disjunction is invariably present, especially if we are able to discriminate between different ideas that survive side by side at any given time.

    I have further argued that we can sometimes get a lot of help right now from considering arguments presented in the past. We still read, for example, Aristotle so much not just to admire how a person that long ago could think so well (“wasn’t he smart – he almost thought like us!”), but because – among other reasons

    – we tend to find that Aristotle’s ideas and arguments can throw some light even on our ongoing concerns today. To avoid a confusion related to the subject matter of the last section (I don’t want Guha to misinterpret me again!), Aristotle’s ideas are useful today not because historical ideas are in general helpful, but because in this case they happen to be substantively so. We can use our reasoning to assess past ideas, making use of our own argumentative wisdom and our – possibly fuller – knowledge today, and bearing in mind our contemporary concerns.

    It is for this reason that I think that ideas like Akbar’s understanding of the demands of a multicultural society has relevance to contemporary India – and as was mentioned earlier, to contemporary Britain and Europe as well (not because Akbar is part of, or “representative” of, India’s past – or for that matter, of Britain’s past!). Guha argues, however, that in making such claims, I end up placing “in another time and age, concepts unknown to Akbar but in wide currency in worlds Sen himself inhibits” (italics added).

    Guha argues, “‘peaceful coexistence’ comes from Nehru’s India, “multiculturalism” from the American academy” (p 4423). Is that the full story? Certainly these particular terms are of recent origin, but are the ideas involved quite unrelated to what have engaged people in the past? When, in the centuries following Buddha’s discourses, different schools of thought in India got together to try to settle their differences through discussion, not tearing each other apart, in the so-called “Buddhist councils” (the first one was held shortly after Buddha’s death, the largest – the third – hosted by Ashoka, in the third century BC, was in his post-Kalinga-war mode of thinking), they would not, of course, have used the Sanskrit equivalent of the contemporary term “peaceful coexistence” to describe what exactly they were doing. But we should not find it very hard to see today that they were in fact trying to do, among other things, what we now call peaceful coexistence.

    Guha’s disjunctive view reaches a kind of peak in his evident dismissal of Akbar’s claim to having provided any insights on how to pursue “multicultural” priorities, except through pure “coincidence or congruence”. The idea, we are told, came into its own only when “the American academy” came along helpfully to formulate “multiculturalism”. But what, in fact, is the history

    – and the content – of modern “multicultural” policies? As it happens, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy with a commitment to remove discrimination based on religious background and other such distinctions; this occurred in 1971. Multiculturalism was soon adopted as official policy by most member-states of the European Union, with Britain taking a leading part in the growing movement. Indeed, multiculturalism rapidly became the vogue of the day across the world.

    How did the modern Canadians interpret the demands of “multiculturalism”? As the web site of the “Canadian Heritage” proudly asserts, by being the first country in the world to adopt “multiculturalism” as an official policy, Canada “affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation”. Seen in this “modern” perspective, multiculturalism is basically about treating citizens as equals irrespective of their differences in religious and other background. As I have discussed rather extensively – some would say too extensively – in The Argumentative Indian (and also in my later book, Identity and Violence), central to Akbar’s idea of the need for nondiscriminatory treatment as a principle of governance is the religious neutrality of the state and the protection of religious freedom: “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him”. It is not hard to see that this is very much in line with the more elaborately articulated defining statement made in Canada (nearly four hundred years after Akbar’s pronouncements) on the demands of equality in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state, which India already was in Akbar’s time. To see in this nothing more than a “coincidence or congruence”, rather than a foundational connection in political philosophy, can hardly be good history.

    The connection that is perhaps even more important today to note is the focus on the freedom of religious choice of the person (the freedom “to go over to any religion that pleases him”, as Akbar put it) which has become an increasingly underemphasised dimension in the British and European pursuit of multicultural policies. Akbar’s focus on freedom of religious choice contrasts, in particular, with the growing focus on preserving – even freezing

    – religious diversity for its own sake, which is very visible in current British policies (complete with defining citizens simply by their religious “community” and making state-financed facilities for herding children off to “faith schools” before they learn to reason about how to make informed and examined choices).

    Akbar’s general focus on freedom rather than the preservation of diversity for its own sake, thus, remains relevant to debates on contemporary multiculturalism, including those in Europe. In my recent article, called ‘Multiculturalism: An Unfolding Tragedy of Two Confusions’,14 on what has gone wrong with the British official policy regarding the practice of multiculturalism in the form of separatism and the freezing of diversity, I have discussed how the growing neglect of the idea of freedom underlying the philosophy of multiculturalism has been deeply problematic for Britain. There may indeed be something to learn, still, from Akbar’s understanding of the demands of a healthy multireligious – and multicultural – public policy.

    Given the restrictions placed on religious conversion in India in recent years, through fresh legislation in some states (through playing up the fear of coercive – or pressured – conversion), the issue of freedom of religious choice has acquired some importance in contemporary India as well. The central question is, of course, the priority of reason over tradition and practice. Interestingly enough, it is precisely this priority on which Akbar made one of his most visionary intellectual pronouncements (as I have discussed in The Argumentative Indian and Identity and Violence), in favour of what he called “the pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism”.15 For me to join Guha in seeing nothing other than “anachronism” in these historical discussions in terms of their contemporary relevance would require me to move closer to his implicit but evident belief in an uncrossable disjunction between the past and the present, and this I fear is not a thesis that I am able to endorse.

    VII Is the Idea of India Itself Anachronistic?

    Guha’s fear that I am being anachronistic also finds a powerful expression in his astonishment about my reference to a country called India before the modern times (Guha, p 4422):

    Throughout this book, Sen uses the term ‘India’ anachronistically; speaking of a time long before its meaning was known or the political and cultural unity it presumes ever existed.

    Guha is obviously right to express his definitional concern, and also to point out that the issue of Indian unity has been problematic over the past. It can also be argued that the formation of a political state called British India, or the rather reduced post-independence India, has given the idea of India a definiteness – if a varying definiteness – it could not have enjoyed many centuries ago.

    Underlying this interesting question is another huge methodological problem (of similar interest in epistemology to the one about the “relevance of the past” discussed earlier in Sections II and III) of the viability and usability of an irreducibly complex and ambiguous concept in public discussion and communication. The historical idea of India does have many ambiguities, but should we have to abandon a concept if it contains ambiguity? I would argue, on the contrary, that if ambiguity were to give us definitive ground for abandoning any concept (no matter whether the subject matter itself has an ambiguity similar to that of the concept proposed), we would do some injustice not only to history but also to social analysis of nearly every kind, including economic development, social inequality and significant poverty.

    As Aristotle had noted, providing an early defence of, as it happens, political science, the “account of this science will be adequate if it achieves such clarity as the subject-matter allows; for the same degree of precision is not to be expected in all discussions, any more than in all the products of handicraft.”16 We have to make room for the inherent ambiguities of political, social and cultural concepts, such as poverty, inequality, class, or community. Indeed, the idea of a well-defined and universally accepted geographic delineation of India still causes problem from time to time, not just through arguments about the status of Kashmir, but also through a continuing lack of international agreement on where India ends and China begins. And yet India and China, despite whatever ambiguity there is in their connecting borders, are eminently useful concepts, and we have little reason to abandon the idea of China and that of India because of the ambiguities on where to draw the dividing lines.

    I did, in fact, discuss in the book that many commentators have been baffled by the idea that we can talk about any country called India before the allegedly unifying British Raj. When, for example, Winston Churchill made the momentous announcement that India was no more a country than was the Equator, it is evident that his intellectual imagination was severely strained by the difficulty of seeing how so much diversity could fit into the conception of what can be seen as anything like a country. The British belief, which was very common in imperial days and is not entirely absent now, that it is the Raj that has somehow “created” India reflects not only a pride in the splendidness of an alleged authorship, but also some perplexity about the heterogeneities and ambiguities involved.

    Were the earlier writings on what they called “India” hopelessly muddled? What was Megasthenes talking about when he wrote a book, already in the third century BC, called Indika? Indeed, as I also tried to discuss in The Argumentative Indian, general statements about India and Indians can be found throughout history, from the ancient days of Alexander the Great and Apollonius through the “medieval” times of Arab and Iranian visitors, who wrote so much about the land and the people of India (for example, Alberuni’s 11th century book, Ta’rikh al-hind (The History of India) remains a classic and arguably the best book ever written about this country). These generalised examinations continue all the way to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe (with heroic assessments of Indian ideas and thoughts in general presented by Herder, Schelling, Schlegel, and Schopenhauer, among many others). It is also interesting to note that, in the seventh century AD, as the Chinese scholar Yi Jing returned to China after spending ten years in India, he was moved to ask the question: “Is there anyone, in the five parts of India, who does not admire China?”.17 That rhetorical – and as it happens somewhat optimistic – question is an attempt at saying something about the country as a whole, despite its divisions, including what Yi Jing called its “five parts”.

    Akbar is merely one of the characters in Indian history, who would not accept that their regime was complete until the bulk of what he took to be one country was under his unified rule. In this respect, Akbar’s sense of geographic integrity was not dissimilar to that of other ambitious and energetic emperors, like Chandragupta Maurya (who established the first empire over the bulk of the country), Ashoka (whose successful bid to “complete” his empire by adding Kalinga to it had so decisive an effect on his subsequent thinking), the later Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty, Alauddin Khilji, among others. The wholeness of India, despite all its variations, has consistently invited recognition and response. This was not entirely irrelevant to the British conquerors either, who – right from the 18th century – had a more integrated conception of India than Churchill would have been able to construct around the Equator. Indeed, even the preimperial travellers from Britain also tended to see India as a country. This clearly applies, for example, to that determined English tourist, Ralph Fitch, who roamed around India – and wrote about the country – in the 16th century, and others whose travels to explore what I insist on calling India is well compiled in William Foster’s Early Travels in India.18

    As I have discussed in The Argumentative Indian, the features of India’s unity vary greatly with the context, from the politics of empire and demands of collective practice to the commonalities of cultural correlates and literature and the unity of social and economic practice, including several shared calendars, with an early agreement among practising astronomers to use the city of Ujjayini for placing the “principal meridian” for Indian time keeping in several different Indian calendars (indeed, it is still the proximate basis of the Indian standard time today, nearly two thousand years later, an awkward five hours and 30 minutes – a workable approximation – ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time). Similarly, there is a sense of cultural integration in Akbar’s abortive attempt, many centuries later, to get a consolidated calendar for India, the “Tarikh-ilahi”, for the whole of India over which he ruled (including the recently acquired extension to Bengal, which is the only place, ironically, in which some vestiges of the Tarikh-ilahi survived through its influence on the Bengali san, as I discuss in The Argumentative Indian). To some extent, a similar remark can also be made about Akbar’s unsuccessful efforts to have a synthetic religion, the “Din-ilahi”, drawing on the different religions known in India, which reflected a constructive search for an overarching unity, combined with a firm acknowledgement of plurality.

    The idea of a country is complex and has inescapable ambiguities – even today, as we know from recent history, for example of Yugoslavia. Neither a homogeneous conception of a unitary India, nor a view of isolated segments, could take the place of the ambiguous but coherent idea of India that had emerged well before Lord Clive began establishing the foundations of British India. What we are dealing with here is not anachronism, but accommodating a necessarily imprecise historical idea of a country, in line with Aristotle’s admonition to look for “such clarity as the subject-matter allows”. The idea of a historical disjunction that would allow us to talk about India as a country only after the British rulers of India could rub their hands in pleasure at their success in transforming an amorphous landmass into a country does not, I believe, do justice to India’s past or present.

    To conclude, Guha and I do remain in disagreement on many matters, despite the force of his alternative approach, and despite my welcoming the dialectical creativity of his insistence that I address some questions that he thinks I have not discussed adequately in the book. Some of his sharpest criticisms of my writings arise, as I have shown, not from a substantive difference in how we want respectively to see the relevance of the present in assessing the past, but from his basic misinterpretation of the nature of my arguments on the subject. But in addition, there are other differences that go beyond misinterpretation, and many of them are rooted, as I have argued, in the more disjunctive view of history that he seems implicitly to favour, on which his charges of anachronism against me are based.

    VIII Choice, Reasoning and Acquiescence

    In this essay I have paid far more attention so far to Guha’s critique than to the critique, which is also engaging and stimulating, of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. The reason for this difference rests only partly on the fact that Bhattacharya’s essay is far less combative – indeed I would say not at all – than Guha’s spiritedly argued mixture of general appraisal, qualified approval and specific reproach.

    My concentration on Guha, neglecting Bhattacharya, also relates to the fact that the critical points that Bhattacharya makes seem to me to be largely convincing. I am glad that Bhattacharya quotes me as saying that I am not claiming that the analysis offered in The Argumentative Indian “is the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India” (p 4425). What I did not go into, however, is to explore what would be the kind of variations that could be fruitfully considered without losing entirely the type of reasoning that takes me to focus on the particular view of India’s past and present that I have tried to present in the book. Bhattacharya points to the importance of that question, and rightly so.

    Bhattacharya himself has actually offered a number of possible variations. Each of the lines he pursues are, I believe, plausible and rich in terms of possibilities, including the case for taking greater account of the impact of the barriers of multiplicity of local languages which could be overcome only in a class-selective basis with a shared use of a classical language, particularly Sanskrit, Arabic, or Persian. There is certainly a fruitfully different account of India’s past and present to be written that would do more justice to this language-cum-class barrier than has been accommodated in my own book.

    Perhaps Bhattacharya’s most important proposal comes from his penetrating question: “While looking at the argumentative Indian one might also ask: ‘How about the acquiescent Indian?’” (p 4427). There can be little doubt that over a vast span of history many Indians – perhaps even most Indians – have been strikingly acquiescent. How does this recognition relate to my focus on the importance of arguments in Indian traditions? To this wonderfully engaging question prompted by Bhattacharya’s critique, I would propose two responses.

    The first is that in The Argumentative Indian I look at the presence of a long and robust tradition of disagreement, dissent, debate, protest and agitation that has influenced India’s past and continues to influence its present, but the power and reach of which have not received the attention that, I would argue, they deserve. There is no claim here at all that there do not exist other traditions to be seen in India, or that the particular heritage I focus on must be more powerful than the other practices that also exist, including that of acceptance, suffering and docility. My concentration is motivated by the need to focus on a tradition that I argue is important and should receive more attention.

    Overcoming a neglect does not require me to argue that the neglected tradition has, in fact, been in any sense “more effective” than other influences that have already received much more attention. The acquiescent Indian has figured quite prominently in the writings of many authors, for example Tagore, varying from his marvellously subversive short story, ‘Kartar Bhoot’ (‘The Ghost of the Leader’) to the eloquent defence of acquiescence by Gora before his recognition of the inviability of his own presumed identity (and of his intellectual priorities linked with it), as portrayed in Tagore’s novel, also called Gora. The incessant presence of the argumentative Indian among the plentiful tangibility of acquiescent Indians supplements – and in some ways helps to complete – the story, but there is certainly no conflict between this recognition and the acknowledgement of a massive acquiescence in India’s past and – alas – present.

    The second reason, which is very important for motivation of my book, is that one major way to fight and overcome the grip of sweeping acquiescence is, precisely, through making use of the argumentative route. Silence, I have tried to argue in several previous writings as well, is a huge enemy of justice and change. In showing the strength of the old argumentative tradition in India, I argue that political action for a more liveable society can follow a route that has been powerfully pursued in the past as well and remain available for more vigorous and more determined social and political use today, strengthened by the opportunities that a contemporary democracy and modern communication provide.

    I have also argued that the limited success that secularism, democracy and scientific progress have already achieved in India has drawn substantially on the argumentative tradition. Looking to the future, I see the possibility of much further – and more clearly articulated and designed – use of the constructive potential of this tradition. It can certainly help to make India’s overall economic, social and political progress more rapid, but more particularly, it can also serve as a powerful vehicle for altering the inequities of class, gender, caste and other social divisions that we have inherited from the past (this I have tried to investigate in Chapter 3, entitled ‘Inequality, Instability and Voice’ in The Argumentative Indian).

    In overcoming some of the terrible legacies of the past and odious practices of the present, the tradition of using arguments can play a creative role, supplemented by contemporary public reasoning. The argumentative Indian does indeed have something to offer to the acquiescent Indian as well. To wit, active arguments for overcoming passive acquiescence.



    [This essay draws on a talk I gave in Chicago on ‘India: Large and Small’ at a conference on “India: Implementing Pluralism and Democracy”, at the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism and the Martin Marty Center of Chicago University, in November 2005.]

    1 The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History andIdentity, Penguin, London and New Delhi, 2005 and Farrar, Strauss andGiroux, New York, 2005.

    2 Economic and Political Weekly, XL, 41, pp 4420-25.

    3 This was in a lecture given at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata in 1995 andpublished by them as a pamphlet, and published also in Sugata Bose andAyesha Jalal (eds), Nationalism, Democracy and Development, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996.

    4 Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Norton, New York and Penguin, New Delhi and London, 2006.

    5 Now that I serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of EncyclopaediaBritannica, I should also say how impressed I am to see the care thatthe present editors, whom we advise, take to avoid the kind of error thathad accidentally crept in earlier, including – as in this case – in the famouseleventh edition.

    6 Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986.

    7 I have discussed the methodological issues involved and their far-reachingimplications in ‘Positional Objectivity’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1993; reprinted in myRationality and Freedom, Harvard University Press,Cambridge, MA, 2002.

    8 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975, p 2167.

    9 This issue is discussed in my ‘Positional Objectivity’ (1993). See alsoG A Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978.

    10 See ‘Positional Objectivity’ (1993), see also my Objectivity and PositionLindley Lectures 1992, University of Kansas, Kansas, 1992; ‘On theDarwinian View of Progress’, Annual Darwin Lecture 1991, London Review of Books, 14, November 5, 1992, republished in Population andDevelopment Review, 1993, and also in Rationality and Freedom (2002);‘Objectivity and Position: Assessment of Health and Well-being’ inLincoln Chen, Arthur Kleinman and Norma Ware (eds), Health and Social Change in International Perspective Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massaachusetts, 1994; ‘Health: Perception versus Observation’,British Medical Journal, April 2002.

    11 On this see Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore:The Myriad-Minded Man, Bloomsbury, London, 1995, p 193.

    12 Ambedkar’s role in virtually authoring the Indian Constitution and itsconsequences as well as the worries he entertained at that time arediscussed in my joint book with Jean Dreze, India: Developmentand Participation, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995. See alsoB R Ambedkar’s own reflections on the making of the Indian Constitutionin Valerian Rodrigues (ed), The Essential Writings of B R Ambedkar, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002.

    13 Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Norton, New York and Penguin, New Delhi and London, 2006, pp 161-62.

    14 The Financial Times, August 22, 2006; Italian translation, Corriere della Sera, August 23, 2006; Canadian reprint, Toronto Globe and Mail, August 23, 2006; French translation, Le Monde, August 30, 2006.

    15 See the discussion on this in The Argumentative Indian, pp 287-91. Seealso Akbar’s defence of the priority of reason over tradition in varioushousehold debates, beautifully discussed by Shirin Moosvi in Episodesin the Life of Akbar: Contemporary Records and Reminiscences, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1994.

    16 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book One, Section iii; in the translation by J A K Thomson, The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, Penguin Books, London, revised edition, 1976, pp 64-65.

    17 J Takakusu’s translation of Yi Jing’s book, A Record of the Buddhist Religions as Practised in India and Malay Archipelago, Oxford, 1896, p 136.

    18 William Foster (ed), Early Travels in India, Oxford University Press,Oxford, 1921.

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