The Argumentative Indian

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The Argumentative Indian
Amartya Kumar Sen - The argumentative Indian writings on Indian history, culture and identity.jpeg
AuthorAmartya Sen
PublisherAllen Lane
Publication date
June 2, 2005

The Argumentative Indian is a book written by Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen. It is a collection of essays that discuss India's history and identity, focusing on the traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism. Martha Nussbaum says the book "demonstrates the importance of public debate in Indian traditions generally."[1](pp47–48)

The Argumentative Indian has brought together a selection of writings from Sen that outline the need to understand contemporary India in the light of its long argumentative tradition. The understanding and use of this argumentative tradition are critically important, Sen argues, for the success of India's democracy, the defence of its secular politics, the removal of inequalities related to class, caste, gender and community, and the pursuit of sub-continental peace.


The book takes the form of four sections containing linked essays: "Voice and Heterodoxy", "Culture and Communication", "Politics and Protest", "Reason and Identity". The first section looks at the general culture of pluralistic debate within India, dating back to Buddha and kings such as Ashoka. The second section seeks to restore the reputation of Rabindranath Tagore as an intellectual polymath, combining spiritual and political ideas, and explores India's relationship to other cultures, including the West and China, especially the peaceful and intellectually rewarding cross-fertilising relationship between the two great Asian cultures. The third section looks at conflicts of class and criticises inequalities in Indian society and arguments that have been used to justify them. Finally, the book explores modern cultures of secularism and liberalism in an Indian context.[2]


Gordon Johnson, president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and general editor of "The New Cambridge History of India", argues that Amartya Sen's political aim is to expose "India's new cultural chauvinism", which "relates Indian identity to a particular sort of Hinduism" fanning communal violence, before a dispassionate analysis of historical facts:[3]

Amartya Sen's own political agenda is clear for all to see and is wholly admirable [...] Given the virtue of Sen's position, to which nearly all of us would subscribe, it is hard to have to say that "The Argumentative Indian" proves on close reading to be a flawed book. This is because Sen does not go beyond stating self-evident truths. Although nicely written, and with many points of interest, there is a thinness and superficiality about the whole that displeases. [...] My greatest disappointment with this book is that its use of history is as unscrupulous and trivialising as that of those Sen wishes to bring down. "The Argumentative Indian" is not sufficiently thoughtful and serves as a forceful reminder that history is constantly being used in a dangerously naive way.

Johnson questions several historical examples, e.g.

There is a more serious distortion of Mughal history. The Mughal emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, is always compared to Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1658 to 1707. There has long been a 1066 and All That view of these rulers, and it is one to which Sen repeatedly subscribes. Akbar was a good thing because he was nice to Hindus [... and] Aurangzeb [...] was a fundamentalist Islamic bigot and implemented policies that discriminated against his non-Muslim subjects, which was all a bad thing and caused the downfall of the Mughal Empire. But this is a grossly over-simplified account of Akbar, whose reign saw some pretty bloody politics and whose position on religion seems not too far removed from that of contemporary European princes with their resort to axe and fire. And it misreads the whole of the second half of the 17th century. Of course Aurangzeb was keen on Islam (or on a particular strain of it), and his piety spilled out into public policy. Of course he was cruel to his subjects, among them Hindus. But under Aurangzeb the Mughal Empire reached its greatest extent and successfully incorporated military, political and social elites of all religions into its structure. By the time of his death, the Mughals had created an extraordinarily sophisticated political and economic regime commanding consent despite its intolerances and its religious enthusiasm.


  1. ^ Nussbaum, Martha (2007). The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02482-3.
  2. ^ John Walsh, "The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen reviewed", Asian Review of Books
  3. ^ G. Johnson, Effort to right wrongs leaves past shackled, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 September 2005.

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