What Does the Argumentative Indian Argue About?

By Anjum Altaf

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of the argumentative Indian with his book of the same name. Given that Sen has never allowed himself to be constrained by arbitrary divisions, and the fact that his family origins are in Dhaka, we can safely assume that he is referring more generally to the argumentative South Asian. So, although this post pertains to India, the question I would like to pose for discussion is: What is it that the argumentative South Asian argues about today?

The occasion for this question was attendance at a recent presentation by the Indian Foreign Secretary. In the course of a long discourse covering many topics the Foreign Secretary articulated the position of her government on relations with Pakistan. This position came across to me as overly hawkish even after allowing for the fact that a Congress government has to protect itself against BJP accusations of being soft on Pakistan.

By itself, I did not have a problem with the position expressed by the Secretary. The evidence of problems created by Pakistani agents was real as was the accusation that not enough was being done to restrain them. No one could doubt the frustrations that resulted in India as a consequence. The question that arose in my mind was a more general one: Had there been a debate in India regarding the options that could be adopted vis a vis Pakistan? And had the hawkish option emerged as the one likely to be the most effective?

The question occurred to me because I am not aware of such a debate. Perhaps it has taken place behind closed doors in strategic think tanks but that is not a substitute for public debate. I recall the Secretary mentioning that the position on Pakistan reflected the will of the Indian population. How has this will been manifested and communicated to the decision makers for whom this is a critical issue?

Here one is faced with a conundrum because one hears all the time that asides from a segment of the Delhi and Mumbai elites and a section of the media, the majority of Indians do not give much thought or importance to the issue of Pakistan. This would suggest that the official Indian position on Pakistan really reflects the choice of the Indian government of the time. This could reflect prejudice and bias or narrow self-interest as much as it could reflect an intelligent choice from a set of strategic options. The flip side of this assertion is that Indian governments might be able to sell to their citizens any one from a number of feasible alternative policies regarding Pakistan.

This issue assumes importance in my mind because I am not convinced that the hawkish position as articulated by the Foreign Secretary is really the one that would deliver the best outcome for India or for South Asia. Rather, it is one that could perpetuate antagonisms for a considerable period into the future. Personally I feel there are smarter options available to India and would like to see a serious discussion of the alternatives.

I am aware, of course, that there are variations in the positions taken on Pakistan by the Congress, the BJP and the parties of the Left. But these are more or less stereotypical positions that have become fossilized over time. Just as one does not observe a national debate on the issue, one does not see a vibrant debate reflecting new developments within the individual parties. And this brings me back to the question I had asked in the beginning: What exactly does the argumentative Indian argue about today?

Pakistan is, of course, not the only foreign policy issue that calls for debate and discussion. India’s involvement in Afghanistan to the point of losing lives there also calls for an argument. And, how many people are discussing the Indian flip-flop on Burma? Is the will of the argumentative Indian reflected in these policy positions?

At the end of the presentation by the Foreign Secretary I was struck by the fact that a shift in the Indian position on Pakistan was abetted by the war on terror launched by the USA. It was mentioned that just as the US was the target of terrorism, so was India. And just as it was justified for the US to take retaliation to the lairs of the terrorists, so was it for India. The parallel is certainly there without forgetting the fact that the US can withdraw and retreat into its borders ten thousand miles away if its strategy fails to deliver. Such a luxury would not be available to India.

This is yet another issue within an issue that calls for the argumentative Indian to start arguing. The Pakistani state has proactively silenced the argumentative Pakistani or indoctrinated him/her into arguing in a particular way. Is the argumentative Indian silent by consent? Or is the argumentative South Asian a myth dreamt up by Amartya Sen?


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9 Responses to “What Does the Argumentative Indian Argue About?”

  1. Shreekant Gupta Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post and agree with it considerably. But also note the Indian media esp. electronic media is a willing handmaiden in this, a la Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”. Besides among many Indian Hindus there is a latent anti-Muslim bias though they may not admit it. All this plays into the hands of the government and the political parties.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Shreekant: Antipathy between two communities in a country is bad for the national interest. One can understand it because there are historical reasons which parochial interests have exploited. While this is unfortunate, it is a fact of life. The relevant question pertains to the trajectory of this antipathy over time. What is your prediction? The parallel history of the US is comforting but both civil society and the state had to take strong and proactive stands to push matters in a favorable direction. Are we likely to see something similar in India?

  2. Sam (Shreekant Gupta) Says:

    SouthAsian: Well put and also a very pertinent question posed…

    The current state of antipathy is also unfortunately fed and reinforced by negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims globally, esp. in the West and esp. post 9/11.

    In India where do we (or will we) go from here? Frankly, there are days when I don’t feel very optimistic about the future trajectory and on other days I do. There is much to applaud and also much to despair in the discourse on these issues in India (see for instance the whole issue of M.F. Hussain).

    Needless to say, with nuclearisation the stakes have become high. One mis-step and the consequences would be catastrophic for all of us.

    It is up to us individuals/civil society to take this forward. I also do beileve stronger economic ties and cross-border trade and travel would help immensely.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Shreekant: I am puzzled by two aspects of the first point you have made. The negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims globally seem to have affected antipathy only towards Muslims in India. Otherwise, Indians have expressed no concern about the government courting Islamic countries in Central and Western Asia and sending development assistance to Afghanistan. Second, is it the case that antipathy towards Indian Muslims has increased markedly after 9/11? Are their good explanations of these points.

      By referring to the nuclear stakes you have brought in the Pakistan factor. It could well be the case that Indian Muslims bear the brunt of the anger towards Pakistan, the antipathy going up and down with the state of the relationship. It seems the most plausible explanation to me even though it makes little sense for Indians to promote tension within India for that reason. Unfortunately, Pakistani governments have never shown any concern for the implications of their policies on the lives of Indian Muslims. Come to think of it, they have never shown any concern for the welfare of Pakistani Muslims either.

      • Vinod Says:

        SA, the Indian government’s courting of muslim countries goes down OK with most Indians because it is viewed as something that is done to get some long term resource benefits from these countries. The underlying sentiment is “We are interested in your resources. We will pretend to like you by providing some assistance when you need it because when we want your resources we will need your permission. We don’t really care what happens to you per se.”

        That can be contrasted with actually housing and caring for the rights of muslims in India, regardless of their resources.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: I am unable to subscribe to this explanation – it is too complex. I feel most people don’t pay attention to issues of foreign policy and therefore do not confront any contradictions that might exist with their personal beliefs. The exceptions occur when foreign policy issues become embroiled in domestic politics – this would be the case for India’s relations with Pakistan and Pakistan’s relations with the US, for example.

          The kind of thinking you have suggested fits the profile of a shopkeeper – ‘I don’t care who or what you are as long as you do business with me.’ But a rational shopkeeper does not discriminate between customers from out of town and those from his or her own town – a Rupee is a Rupee after all. In fact, the shopkeeper pays more attention to the latter because they constitute the regular clientele.

        • Vinod Says:

          I feel most people don’t pay attention to issues of foreign policy and therefore do not confront any contradictions that might exist with their personal beliefs.

          That, I believe, is true. But I was trying to explain the thinking of those who do deliberate on foreign policy issues. They deal with it with the shopkeeper’s attitude.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: My assertion was that a shopkeeper does not discriminate between out-of-town and in-town customers. In fact, he treats the latter with more care since they constitute the regular clientele. Therefore, the shopkeeper analogy is not the right one for the behavior you are describing. There has to be some other analogy or else the people are behaving irrationally.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    In this post we had asked the following question: “And, how many people are discussing the Indian flip-flop on Burma?”

    Nobody, it seems, and the very disappointed author of The Argumentative Indian has had to speak out himself:

    I have to say that as a loyal Indian citizen, it breaks my heart to see the prime minister of my democratic country—and one of the most humane and sympathetic political leaders in the world—engaged in welcoming the butchers from Myanmar and to be photographed in a state of cordial proximity.

    Public discussion on the Burmese situation and on India’s Burma policy has been conspicuous by its near absence in India. This is not because there is any kind of governmental restriction on such discussion, or any fear of public penalty for expressing disapproval of India’s stand on Burma.

    This raises a number of issues:

    First, Sen’s style presumably finds favor with those of our readers who call for a non-belligerent message and a productive approach. But what happens if such a message is ignored completely?

    Second, Sen’s message also speaks to those who argue that the external world can do nothing in such issues and speaking to it is pointless. Sen clearly has the South African experience in mind which contradicts the presumption.

    Third, how can India’s stance be squared with what it claims it stands for and why does it not discomfort Indian citizens?


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