Monday, July 11, 2005

Of prolixity and precociousness

Pankaj Mishta has done a brilliant review of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity in The Guardian. In his review he has raised many pertinent questions, including this one: "Sen deplores the xenophobia and megalomania of the Hindu nationalists, while approving their "outward-looking economic programme" for globalisation. But are these cultural and economic projects really so far apart? As the Bush-voting American middle class most recently proved, ultranationalism, religious fundamentalism and a belief in free markets are not only fully compatible but can feed off each other."

And ponder this: "One closes this stimulating book wishing that Sen would say more, from his unique vantage point, about the more unprecedented aspects of globalisation today: the all-powerful forms of corporate capitalism, for instance, that threaten much of what he cherishes - democracy, development, human diversity, traditional wisdoms - while trying to turn us all into desperate, if passive, consumers."

Mishra has efficiently highlighted the main threads of Sen's argument, especially in these two pragraphs:

"Sen's more illuminating differences with Naipaul are political. Naipaul sees India as damaged by Muslim invaders and emasculated further by an otherworldly and hierarchical Hinduism - a wounded civilisation that has only recently been revived by contact with western political philosophy and industrialism. Sen points instead to an old tradition of reason and scepticism, which, beginning with the Vedas, was upheld often by India's Muslim rulers, and which he thinks forms the basis of Indian democracy and secularism. According to him, "seeing Indian traditions as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplifications of India's past and present".

By highlighting Indian achievements in mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, medicine and political economy, Sen also wishes to challenge the commonplace prejudice that the west has "exclusive access to the values that lie at the foundation of rationality and reasoning, science and evidence, liberty and tolerance, and of course rights and justice". He writes about the third-century BC emperor Ashoka, who renounced empire-building and attempted a new form of governance based on Buddhist principles of compassion and tolerance. He also presents the example of the 16th-century Moghul emperor Akbar, who by arguing for a religiously neutral state, set up the "foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India or for that matter anywhere else". As Sen is fond of pointing out, Akbar was stressing religious tolerance and upholding reason over blind faith at a time when, in Europe, Giordano Bruno was being arrested for heresy prior to being burned at the stake."

The Murdochian media machinery is also under scrutiny here:

"Sen does not say much about how the argumentative tradition is faring in India in the age of globalisation. The one "quintessential argumentative Indian" he names, the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, is little known in India. And even if he had named others, it would still have to be asked, if only for the sake of argument, whether they can be heard above the din of a media increasingly influenced by the Murdoch model, and preoccupied with stock markets, information technology tycoons, beauty queens, Bollywood starlets, fashion models and other celebrities. "Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice," Sen writes. But so are the celebratory shrieks of minorities empowered by globalisation."

Read the full text of the review here.

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