Sen establishes that India’s tradition for heterodoxy and argument is not restricted to male elites but cuts across gender, class and caste. The flow...moreSen establishes that India’s tradition for heterodoxy and argument is not restricted to male elites but cuts across gender, class and caste. The flow of his argument and richness of the sources convinces easily. Very early in the treatise, he also reveals his opposition to the Hindu right-wing thought. This is where things begin to come unstuck a bit.
I do not differ from him on the Hindutava world view. I believe that respect for pluralism is essential for our well-being and there is room for all shades of opinion and beliefs. But I feel that his attempt to prove his hypothesis on our ‘argumentative’ nature and the undesirability of letting the Hindutava world-view prosper, gives parts of the theory on ‘inequality’ a contrived feel. “But how does the tradition of heterodoxy and arguing touch on this aspect of Indian social life?” he asks. “The inclusiveness of pluralist toleration in India has tended mainly to take the form of accepting different groups of persons as authentic members of the society, with the right to follow their own beliefs and customs.” He uses the Sanskrit term swikriti or acceptance to describe this phenomenon. “Swikriti is thus a momentous issue, in its own right. But....it does little to guarantee – or advance – the cause of social equality or distributive justice.”
Now, am I missing something here? Can be his argument that the horrendous inequality that has been built into the fibre of our social life is to do with ‘acceptance’ of each other’s unique life-style and, therefore, an extension of our pluralistic argument-loving Indian-ness? Isn’t the foundation of all inequality a lack of acceptance of others’ way of life? And then Sen flogs the proponents of Hindutava who, he says, are threatening that very swikriti of non-Hindus, particularly the Muslims.
He also argues that the dynamic of Hindutava also tends to bring the ‘lower castes’ of one religion in clash with another, thus hurting the cause of egalitarianism. Instead, I would argue that, at least in theory (and perhaps without intending), the Hindutava movement tends to promote egalitarianism at least among Hindus the worst offenders in the caste-based approach – by seeking to unite all Hindus across the fault-lines of caste.
Sen argues that our pluralistic tradition faces grievous threat from those votaries of Hindutava who argue that due to its vintage and size, Hindus must be pre-eminent in India. He also presents succinct arguments to demonstrate that a mischievous and deeply-flawed attempt was made during BJP’s rule to rewrite history to suggest that the Vedic civilization preceded the Indus Valley civilization (indeed, if that version of taught history is to be believed, there has been an ancient civilization called the ‘Indus-Saraswati Civilization’) and the Vedas contain scientific and mathematical order of the most advanced variety. Both the claims are false and do not stand up to scrutiny. History was also more than tinkered with to show selective highlights of the Mughal Empire to propagate the ‘us’ and ‘them’ world-view. The attempt has been to project religion as ‘identity’ and not as ‘faith’.
Sen devotes a chapter each to the world-view of Tagore and Satyajit Ray. He contrasts – and supports - Tagore’s bias for ‘reason’ with Mahatma Gandhi’s approach, towards patriotism for example.
Sen speaks at length about the historical interactions between China and India. Much of this interplay rested on the platform of Buddhism. Over the centuries, the Chinese have been rather more successful in spreading education and healthcare benefits, two of the prerequisites for economic growth and spread of prosperity. I think that the Chinese also ‘enjoy’ a huge advantage due to the lack of democracy and the sheer political power that they can bring to bear on execution of their plans; not for them the long and tortuous path of political debate, likely agitations and litigation.
The Indian ‘tryst with destiny’ remains largely unfulfilled. There is a misconception that for the growth of economy all that the nation has to do is to be successful at international trade. It must be realized that the success of China and other Asian nations has not been based only on their ability to succeed in world markets – there has been a great deal of emphasis on healthcare, land reforms, universal education and gender equity.
There are various kinds of inequities that exist in our country. Sen points out that it is the inequity relating to ‘class’, however, that impacts on all other inequities the most. For example, among the people who suffer from caste inequality those who are the most dispossessed are likely to be affected the most. The same happens during communal disturbances – those who are the poorest tend to suffer the most.
He also cites the current policy on food-grain procurement as an example of how the lower strata of society are most adversely affected by policies purportedly designed to help them. The government has created a large mound of food grain reserves (unnecessarily large, as per Sen) by purchasing at a support price to help out farmers. Storage of this lot costs huge money and finally, even when the government subsidizes it, the cost to the poor is un-affordable. So, while these reserves are an insurance against famines, the poor are still not helped.
Sen speaks of inequality for women and argues that instead of focus on mere ‘welfare’ of the women but on their overall empowerment and emancipation. Statistics pertaining to mortality and ratio of women per 100 men are examined to study the attitude towards the gender. It appears that there is a clear bias against having a girl child in Indian states in the North and the West as compared to the states in the East and the South. It does not matter whether the state is affluent or poor, progressive or a laggard – Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar all appear to be ‘anti-girl child’. The phenomenon needs further examination by social scientists.
Women tend to be treated as unequal in several ways. One of the factors that tends to affect this most is their lack of ownership rights. Women have little or no say in decision making because they do not have ownership of property except, of course, in some matrilineal societies (Nairs of Kerala being one example). The disproportionate of load of household work that they shoulder also goes unrecognized (Sen cites the work of some nutrition experts who classified household work as ‘sedentary’). Even when women begin to work outside, they are expected to do the household work too.
There is a detailed discussion on secularism. Sen says that secularism can be ‘interpreted in at least two different ways. The first view argues that secularism demands that the state be equidistant from all religions – refusing to take sides and having a neutral attitude towards them. The second – more severe – view insists that the state must not have any relation at all with any religion. The equidistance must take the form, then, of being altogether removed from each. Sen appears to be arguing for the former, advocating a view that each religion should be shielded from injury from others on reasonably held criteria (this is discussed in terms of anti-blasphemy laws favouring one religion).
There is a fascinating study of Indian calendars. The central point being made is again the influence of different cultures on each other.
The question of one’s identity is discussed. We do not identify ourselves with just one identity; we are composed of many ‘identities’ that come to fore in different circumstances. I am an Indian, a Hindu, a Brahmin, a Mohyal, a soldier, a reader of books, a bit-writer, a non-vegetarian, a party animal and so on. It is also a mistake to assume that one’s identity is a matter of discovery (on birth and later) than choice. In the former case, identity comes before reasoning and choice. It must be stated, though, that the sometimes we do not have a choice in the matter and the identity is imposed on us e.g. being a Jew in Nazi Germany or a ‘low-caste’ confronted in some parts of India. The point that Sen make is that while the reality of an externally imposed identity does exist, one has a choice within that to decide what priority to accord to one’s many identities. I can be an Army officer first and then a Brahmin or Hindu or even an Indian or I may be my identity based on any other order. Identity is a plural concept and one must not run away from the matter of making choices and allocating priorities.
The book is a strong argument in favour of reason rather than beliefs and identities discovered or acquired at birth or by association. It is an argument for respecting plurality, seeing India as a huge amalgam of cultures, religions and ethnicities with no community having priority rights, of focussing on education, of not fearing contact with rest of the word, of inclusiveness, of understanding India’s history, in the correct multi-cultural perspective and of becoming a global citizen.