The promise of reason

Print edition : August 12, 2005

Speech serves to indicate not only what is useful and what is harmful, but also what is just and what is unjust.

- Aristotle

Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.

- Amartya Sen

SURPRISINGLY, both Amartya Sen and V.S. Naipaul share nostalgia for a kind of "universal civilisation" - an idea that recognises the value of human life and spirit everywhere and at the same time pays tribute to human individuality and cultural diversity. This, they hope, would one day prevail over regionalism, casteism, racism and sectarianism in India and elsewhere in the world. And yet, when reflecting on India's past and future, Sen and Naipaul seem to depict contrasting images. Perhaps it is possible to relate to both these contrasting and yet undeniable portraits of India, and even begin to wonder whether the contrast can ever be reconciled.

In The Argumentative Indian that brings together 16 essays on Indian history, culture and identity, Sen highlights the long-standing argumentative tradition of India and points out the importance of reviving it in contemporary social and political life. The book is an excellent interweaving of facts and values about India, and could be of interest not only to Indians but to anyone who would be interested in a balanced view of India. The anthology, instead of being a random collection of disparate essays, provides a rich variety of perspectives on a central theme: the urgency of bringing back a culture of argumentation in confronting problems in public affairs.

The use of arguments rather than physical force and violence, the practice of dialogue and discussion rather than a straightforward imposition of one's views, Sen reminds us, have been integral parts of Indian tradition and history: "prolixity is not alien to us in India"; "we do like to speak"; "this is not a new habit". Sen authenticates this by the fact that India has been supportive of various religious experiences: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity and others. Even more importantly, Sen corroborates this with India's intellectual pluralism: heterodoxies as different as scepticism, agnosticism, atheism and materialism have coexisted with mainstream religious and philosophical schools of thought; dissenting opinions and viewpoints were considered necessary prerequisites to advancements in literature, science and mathematics, already from the Vedic period; many well-developed calendars have been in practice for a long time in India's multicultural history.

What, then, happened to India's argumentative heritage over the years? One possible reason, Sen explains in Essay 7, is the preoccupation of the "exoticist" and "magisterial" interpretations of India by the West, particularly, during the colonial period and thereafter. Rationality and argumentation were projected to be something native and original only to the West, whereas India's uniqueness was assumed to consist in its `mystical' and `spiritual' traditions. Of course, the mystical or spiritual in this context often meant the absence or an insignificant presence of intellectual legacy. This tendency seemed to have dialectically affected Indian self-perception as well. In their eagerness to stress what are uniquely their `own' spiritual traits, Indians seemed to have not only passively accepted a reductionist Western imaging of Indian intellectual traditions, but have also failed to keep alive a wide range of Indian rationalistic trends in logic, epistemology, psychology, linguistics, economics and political science.

Along with these, Sen also finds the increasing tendency to view Indian culture through the narrow prism of Hindutva and the recent attempts to make a selective presentation of Indian history for justifying anti-secular sentiments as deliberate efforts to suppress the multiplicity of voices within a larger, plural Indian identity. Such efforts, Sen decries, are nothing but miniaturising "the broad idea of a large India - proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present" and replacing it by "the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically down-sized version of Hinduism". If Tagore were to see the India of today, Sen writes in Essay 5, he "would be shocked by the growth of cultural separatism" and "would have strongly resisted defining India in specifically Hindu terms, rather than as a `confluence' of many cultures". In the essay inspired by Satyajit Ray, Sen finds in Ray a person who celebrated the "dizzying contrasts" of cultures within India and insisted on respecting their individuality.

A major part of Sen's anthology, particularly Essays 1-2 and 9-12, does contemplate on the different ways of bringing back the practice of argumentation. One preliminary way, Sen points out, is the possibility for all to participate in fair and effective electoral politics. But when ballots and elections are also more broadly linked to a "public expression" of values of justice, respect and human dignity, and supported by a "wider participation" of the media, civil society groups and the general public in social criticism, political protest and public agitation, they can go a long way in sustaining and strengthening democracy. "Silence", says Sen, "is a powerful enemy of social justice."

Looking at India's past and present, there are a number of reasons to be less enthusiastic and even sceptical about Sen's proposal: Does argumentation not run the danger of being co-opted by the rich and the powerful? Do the well-educated and those who can better articulate and persuade not have an edge over others to manoeuvre the course of public discussion? For many years now, social inequalities based on caste, gender and community have been legitimised and perpetuated by different religious, anthropological and even genetic theories biased in favour of the elite. Owing to democratic politics and the rule of law, these inequalities can today be contested. Yet, making use of these democratic possibilities in order to create a less unequal society still remains a far distant dream, particularly because of the prevailing economic and educational inequalities.

Despite all these contradictions and possible setbacks, Sen's guiding principle is that argumentation can be an ally of the poor and powerless in resisting hegemony. True, a more action-oriented political protests and public agitations to demand a particular right for the poor will catch the public eye and politicise the issue at hand. They will also compel political leaders and motivate policy-makers to take the desired course of action immediately. And yet when political activism is not accompanied by public discussions and intellectual resources, sooner or later, it runs the risk of losing momentum, spirit and vigour. Indeed, political activism and critical argumentation should mutually support each other in order to evoke social solidarity and to provide an effective political voice to the poor.

IN India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), the third book in his non-fiction trilogy on India, Naipaul captures a different feature of Indian life, different from the one Sen wishes to revive. To Sen India may appear to be a land of arguments and reason, but to Naipaul it comes out as a land of resentments and rage, although Naipaul would arrive at this complex pronouncement by a complicated detour. Furthermore, despite the fact that both Sen and Naipaul commonly share a nostalgic sentiment for the onset of universal civilisation, they seem to differ from each other in their accounts of how people come to grasp universal values.

In his first account (1964), Naipaul called India "an area of darkness", obscured in its poverty and wretchedness, obliterated in its chaos and ruins, mimicry and pathologies. In the second (1977), he called it a "wounded civilisation", wounded by many centuries of foreign rule, and which has not yet found its own sense of purpose for transformation and regeneration. Naipaul often uses words such as "wounded", "fragmented" and "degenerated" for societies that are stagnant and rootless.

His capacity to observe and his brilliance to transform what he observes into words are, in the third account, less mixed up with his temperament to provoke and condemn. India then seemed to Naipaul as if "swallowing its own tail", incapable of ideology and renewal, unable to break with its past crisis and failures. But now, it turns out to be a land of revolutions, mutinies and rebellions.

Independence had come to India like a revolution; now there were many revolutions within that revolution. What was true of Bombay was true of other parts of India as well: of the state of Andhra Pradesh, of Tamil Nadu, Assam, the Punjab. All over India scores of particularities that had been frozen by foreign rule, or by poverty or lack of opportunity or abjectness had begun to flow again.


Naipaul reads the arrival of revolutions in the faces, words and sentiments of Dalit leaders, Hindu and Muslim extremists, regional politicians, Sikh terrorists and naxalite rebels. He discerns that these revolutions are not just passing events, but rather they are here to stay. These have, in fact, taken hold of the imagination of ordinary people, a wide cross-section of society: clerks, housewives, film producers, stockbrokers, journalists and holy men. Also, Naipaul realises that the present revolutions are so very different from the `proto-revolution' for independence. Freedom from the colonial rulers was worked out more or less by the people at the top. Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and others were in the limelight; people had to just follow. But the series of `new revolutions' works its way from the bottom: "people everywhere have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves."

Notwithstanding all these positive signs of life, Naipaul seems dispirited about what is going on. Normally, revolution is a threshold for a new era; social upheavals usher in a new social order. Naipaul finds that the new revolutions do not have this great stature. They look more like the failed `Indian Mutiny' of 1857, with its terrible memories of brutality, revenge and backlash. They are inhibited by gossip and petty quarrels, and break up into "particularities", "little wars", "revolutions within revolution" and a "million mutinies". In a deliberate or unintended move to blur reality and fiction, and probably to say that his words and judgments in the 1990s prevail even now, Naipaul carries over his dispiritedness to Magic Seeds (2004), where Willie Chandran, the `half-hero' of Half a Life (2001), goes on a revolutionary expedition to India only to find that he has joined the "wrong revolution" and "fallen among the wrong people".

After many years of revolutionary campaigns and imprisonment, he realises that the revolution "had nothing to do with the village people" and "the poor are treated as the poor always are".

The recent awakening to one's own claims and entitlements, in Naipaul's perception, does not also have finesse. Out of the great revolutions that history has witnessed so far, emerged a larger idea about the value and dignity of human beings in general. But out of the present ones emerge sectarianism and parochialism: Dalits, Hindus, Muslims and others would have loyalties first to their clan or faith; they would have no obligation towards a "higher" or "general" idea about human solidarity and brotherhood; the word "brethren" becomes irony.

And finally, what characterises and sustains the post-Independence uprisings, for Naipaul, are not great "ideals" and well thought-out "strategies", but feelings of anger, rage and resentments.

To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one's group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.

Naipaul discovers that feelings of resentment of individuals against individuals, groups against groups is not just a marginal phenomenon, but an all-India, all-encompassing experience: Ambedkar, a deified leader of Dalits whose photograph can be found in every Dalit house, "had remained embittered to the end"; "male ego is the most hideous thing in our present society", ventilates a feminist writer; "the local people were so full of resentment against those Muslims that they had clashes with them"; Shiv Sena, the army of Siva, which wanted Maharashtra to be for Maharashtrians targeted its anger towards poor migrants of South India; "I should think that, like any other Indian, I had no sense of ethical outrage in advocating killing for a cause", justifies a naxalite rebel; and so on.

Yet, Naipaul is not altogether dispirited. He imputes a pattern and meaning to the unrest and upheavals. He realises that people are not forever doomed to be crippled by their clan loyalties and group affiliations. Indeed, they begin to grasp the general idea of human values.

Excess was now felt to be excess in India. What the mutinies were also helping to define was the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians now felt they could appeal. And - strange irony - the mutinies were not to be wished away. They were part of the beginning of a new way for many millions, part of India's growth, part of its restoration.

Naipaul seems optimistic, but his optimism is carefully measured out in small doses. Ironically, Naipaul's realisation of the dawn of humanism on the surface of Indian life seems a `naturalistic' reading. It is a growth out of "excess": "group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess". The liberation from the narrow affiliations of caste, creed or cult and the appeal to a broader notion of human values arise not so much out of reason and choice of individuals and groups, but out of excess and mutinies. People have indulged themselves in so much of violence and animosity, have gone through so much of anxiety and strife, and have bottled up so much of resentment and hatred, that they cannot go on any more. Now at last they begin to realise how senseless and shortsighted they have so far been.

IN narrative literature and social philosophy, there are two different ways of viewing human advancements. The first one, reminiscent in some ways of the 17th century philosopher Hobbes' view of society, suggests that societies, as it were, progress towards the recognition of the values of order, toleration, justice and respect out of an inevitable necessity: periods of bloody and prolonged war create a longing for peace and agreements; too much of uncertainties and fragmentation create nostalgia for stability and wholeness; fear of anarchy and social chaos lead to toleration and rules of justice. One does not have to acknowledge, on this view, the role of moral reasoning or sympathy in society's progress.

Perhaps Naipaul tries to infuse this moral scepticism into his narratives. Without doubt, his narratives about India are literary masterpieces. But his invocation of the notion of excess in order to explain the dawn of humanism and universal civilisation leaves his narratives rather unbalanced. Moreover, a general assumption about the lack of moral motivations and reasoned choices in individuals and groups prior to the recognition of humanism of values, and the idea that people arrive at the thought of universal civilisation out of excess can make one doubt whether Naipaul is telling the whole story about India and her people.

Resentment is a complex and compound human emotion. Perhaps it may not be as overt as anger, but it can cause bouts of unmanageable violence and rage. When argumentation is not mediated and resolved amicably, it is likely to leave residuals of resentments in the participants. There is first and foremost a kind of resentment that arises due to some misfortune or loss of self-respect suffered by individuals and groups in society. But there is also another kind of resentment that arises due to envy or a lack of magnanimity at the success or prosperity of others. Moreover, the degree of resentment can indeed be constructed to an irresolvable intensity if the victims - rightly or wrongly - are made to see that their misfortune was deliberately intended by the offender. Likewise, the intensity of resentment can be severe when the success or prosperity of my neighbour is perceived to be undeserved.

Quite paradoxically, most individuals and groups of Naipaul's narratives are presented as if carrying with them extreme forms of resentment devoid of any moral reasoning and sympathy. References to stories, anecdotes and `subaltern' literature of how individuals, groups and the nation as a whole through democracy and argumentation, successfully or unsuccessfully, work their way out of resentments could have made Naipaul's narratives more complete. Towards the very end of India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul does make a passing reference to the "Indian state" as the "source of law, civility and reasonableness". However, this is somehow overshadowed by his overall dispiritedness about the mutinies and their protagonists, and by his preoccupation with the notion of excess.

A SECOND plausible view of social progress is what Sen seems to advocate and hope for. Not only does Sen acknowledge fully the role of moral reasoning and sympathy in human advancements, but he also realises that dialogue, argumentation and public deliberation are some of the surer ways of enriching our moral imagination and universal convictions. In The Argumentative Indian, Essay 13, Sen writes:

The possibility of reasoning is a strong source of hope and confidence in a world darkened by horrible deeds. It is easy to understand why this is so. Even when we find something immediately upsetting, or annoying, we are free to question that response and ask whether it is an appropriate reaction and whether we should really be guided by it. We can reason about the right way of perceiving and treating other people, other cultures, other claims, and examine different grounds for respect and tolerance.


Sen does not deny that individuals and societies have their dark moments. Dialogue, toleration and argumentation may have been India's valuable heritage. But these have always existed concomitantly with bloody battles, communal killings, caste based atrocities and violence against women. Sen is also aware that often an unguarded reason itself can be the cause of moral atrocities. Nevertheless, Sen counts heavily on the capacity of human beings to step back in order to reflect critically and consider different course of actions. The possible dangers of uncritical reasoning, argues Sen, require not an endorsement of moral scepticism, but rather a further critical scrutiny of reason and a liberal encouragement of plurality of voices.

Sen's plea for the revival of argumentative tradition seems to make sense. In 1829, Raja Ram Mohan Roy's anti-sati (widow burning) campaign successfully led to a law against the practice of sati and eventually paved the way for its disappearance from social life. Even though Roy and many others around him were convinced that sati was a morally outrageous act, a wider support for the campaign was hard to come by until Roy marshalled different arguments and initiated a public discussion on the issue. He had to base his case first and foremost on a critical reading of the shastras (Hindu scriptures) in order to argue that the justification of sati was sheer bad hermeneutics. Simultaneously, Roy also had to convince the then British government that, even if it meant an alleged interference in the religious affairs of people, it had a moral duty to outlaw a practice which was nothing short of murder. Above all, Roy had to expose to the public the fact that what really motivated sati was not religious commitment, but rather the greed of widows' relatives to increase their own share of inheritance and marital property. Indeed, Roy's multi-pronged approach can continue to inspire efforts to counteract many deeply-embedded social evils.

Sen's eagerness to revive argumentation has philosophical aspirations as well. In Politics, Book I, Chapter 2, Aristotle assigns a political significance to the capacity of human beings to speak and communicate, and elevates this capacity to the very condition of being human. Here, Aristotle, at first, is amazed by the number of commonalities between animals and humans especially by their social nature. Keen, therefore, to suggest a trait that would be typically human, he points out that it is the capacity for "speech" (logos) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals: animals have only "voice" (phone) and use them to communicate their feelings of pain and pleasure, whereas humans have speech and use them to express not only what is useful and hurtful, but also what is just and unjust.

Argumentation, however, is a double-edged sword. It can positively be used to resist hegemony and to pave the way for a more equitable society. But it can also be manipulated by the elite to work in their favour. That is why when arguments are biased in favour of the privileged and well-educated and when the voices of the powerless are not listened to, resentment may seem inevitable. Oddly enough, Aristotle himself cannot be completely innocent of certain forms of elitism. Although he pointed out that being human fundamentally involves a public sphere so that citizens can participate and interact with fellow citizens through their speech and action, he did not draw this insight within an egalitarian framework. He seemed to have easily accepted the idea of his time that certain sections of society like slaves, labourers and women did not have the free time and qualities required for a fuller participation in political life. The revival of Indian argumentative tradition, therefore, can shed light not only on the inconsistencies in Aristotle's position, but also on the contradictions in Indian social life.


Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2005), pages 432.

V.S. Naipaul, India: A Million Mutinies Now [1990] (London: Vintage, 1998), pages 520.

V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilization [1977] (London: Picador, 2002), pages 161.

V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness [1964] (London: Picador, 2002), pages 290.

V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds (London: Picador, 2004), pages 294.

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