Amartya Sen on the cultural roots of democracy

October 2005 -

De Indiase filosoof en Nobelprijswinnaar voor de economie Amartya Sen heeft een nieuw boek geschreven: 'The Argumentative Indian; Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity'. Sen heeft veel invloedrijke boeken geschreven over diverse onderwerpen, variërend van ontwikkelingseconomie en welvaart tot vrijheid. De kracht van The Argumentative Indian ligt in de brede, culturele benadering van het begrip democratie.

It is often assumed that democracy is simply about a public that votes. Sen argues that for democracy to thrive, society needs to do more than simply cast the ballot. There must be a free-flowing exchange of intellectual views and public debate in society. The author argues that democracy in any society can endure only when local styles of public interaction and discussion are allowed to play a role. This insightful book has significance today, when powers-that-be engage in ‘exporting democracy’ to certain regions and curtail dissent in their own backyards.

Sen writes that India has a distinctive historical tradition of public reasoning. This cultural attribute has been crucial for "the development of democracy in India and the emergence of its secular priorities." Throughout India’s history, as Sen notes, there have been reputed political councils where matters of law and the state have been discussed by people holding divergent views.

Sen draws on India’s classical literary texts, early ‘popular’ literature and scientific contributions to demonstrate the central role of heterodoxy (or the public expression of different views) in Indian history. This element is evident in India’s diverse faith systems and its philosophical and political traditions. The ancient Upanishads are not religious but philosophical texts that illustrate contemporary debates. They pose doubts and arguments about the world and its creation. The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana do not contain prescriptive ‘truths.’ They contain deliberations about individual and state action.

Sen also discusses in depth the history of Indian scepticism and agnosticism, both of which continue to thrive today. According to the author, this intellectual tradition of placing great value on ‘doubt’ and counter argument has made India a robust democracy. He recommends that Indians exercise this cultural trait vigorously to resolve problems of social inequalities and conflict in the sub-continent.

Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian; Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity', Penguin UK, 2005.