Over the last two decades, the idea that Indian civilization is a Hindu civilization has gained some ground; it has also led to considerable political intolerance, playing up Hindu-Muslim conflicts rather than their constructive interactions, says Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.
His latest book, Identity and Violence is far from being a study of violence; it is more a plea, repeated over and over, for people to see the similarities, the plural identities, in each other.
Sen questions the clash of civilization theory proposed by political scientist Samuel P Huntington, and other such theories that have gained currency in the post 9/11 world. He questions assumptions about the cultural differences between what is termed a democratic Western tradition and a non-democratic Islamic tradition, and argues that freedom is an integral part of the Asian tradition.
'This book rescues us from that ghastly militarist theory, the War of Civilizations (proposed by Huntington), no choice but eternal conflict between Them and an Us,' notes Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Literature. 'Sen is one of the few world intellectuals on whom we may rely to make sense out of our existential confusion.'
The second part of his interview to Arthur J Pais.You have argued in your new book against Samuel Huntington's definition of Indian civilization as a Hindu civilization. But many Indians think of the country as a Hindu country, in terms of religion and culture. Why do you call such thoughts politically combustive and descriptively flawed?
India has had a phenomenally rich and immensely diverse history, and any unifocal interpretation of that history in purely Hindu terms cannot but miss out a lot of India's traditions.
Aside from religious differences, we have also had a long tradition of scepticism, yielding among other approaches agnosticism and even atheism. Indeed, going back all the way to the Rig Veda (circa 1500 BC), we can find in it the Song of Creation, which questions the omnipotence and omniscience of God, and perhaps even the existence of any entity like God.
Buddhism and Jainism too posed quite a few challenges to Hinduism, and while Jainism survives today, Buddhism -- it is good to remember this -- was the dominant religion in India for around a thousand years. Among other important features, Buddha maintained an agnostic position, and saw the question of God to be not only hard to resolve but also as being quite unnecessary to resolve for moral thinking. It is often not recognised that Buddhism is the only world religion that does not invoke God for its theory of good behaviour.
India has always had room for different religions, and apart from indigenous development of non-Hindu religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), the country has been tolerant and welcoming to people from different religions immigrating to India. Jews arrived in India from the first century, Christians from the fourth century, followed by Parsis from Persia in the seventh century, and Muslim Arab traders in the eighth. Indian culture has benefited greatly from the diversity that the various religions have produced.
Over the last two decades, the idea that Indian civilization is a Hindu civilization has gained some ground. It has also led to considerable political intolerance, playing up Hindu-Muslim conflicts rather than their constructive interactions. This has also gone with some targeting of minority groups, for example in Mumbai in the early 1990s and in Gujarat in 2002.
That is why I think that to understand India as a Hindu country is not only a big descriptive mistake, it is also politically nasty. It is used to ignite the ferocity of an exclusive and allegedly dominant identity of the Hindus, and to undermine the common identity that all Indians can share.
You write of how you cheered a Pakistani cricket team that was playing against India. That same behaviour, when carried out in Mumbai and elsewhere, has led to condemnation by the majority...
I have written in the book that if you really enjoy the game of cricket, cheering for one side or the other is determined by a number of varying factors, including one's national loyalty or residential identity, but also the quality of play and even the interest in the game.
During the Pakistani team's tour of India in 2005, when Pakistan promptly lost the first two one-day matches in the series of six, I hoped Pakistan would win the third match, to keep the series interesting. There is nothing particularly odd about that.
Most of the Indian Muslims I have known indeed do, in fact, cheer for the Indian team, but if they were to cheer for a Pakistani player because of the quality of that person's play -- or for whatever reason -- it would be wrong to think that this must be because they are politically disloyal to India. Cricket is not a good way of testing a person's national loyalty.
I know of course that the Conservative British politician Lord Tebbit has argued that a 'cricket test' would show the loyalty of the immigrants. He said that a well-integrated immigrant must cheer for England in Test matches against the country of the person's origin (such as Pakistan) when the two sides play each other.
This is like saying: 'Cheer for the British team and you would be fine!' If this were really accepted, it could of course make the lives of many immigrants much easier by providing them a simple fool-proof way of showing their political loyalty to Britain (no matter what their politics might be).
Tebbit has even said had his cricket Test been used, the British-born militants of Pakistani origin would have been caught before the London bomb blasts. I argue in my book that a terrorist who is planning to blow up things in Britain would have to be extremely incompetent indeed if he could not manage to cheer for the 'right side' in a game of cricket. It is hard to match the naivety of the much-hyped 'cricket test'!
Your book reveals an eclectic passion for poetry, ranging from Ogden Nash to Mathew Arnold. You quote Arnold's lines, 'And we are here as on darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night' to warn us about unreasoning times. Is there, in that poem or elsewhere, something that celebrates the recognition of multiple identities, which you advocate in your book?
Poetry is often not the best place to look for a theory, but there are lots of celebrations of multiplicity of identities. In fact, among the lines I quoted in my book is Derek Walcott's rhetorical question, '...how choose/Between Africa and the English tongue I love?'
Walcott's identity with Africa, from where his ancestors came to the West Indies, is strong, but so is his affiliation with the English language and the community of English poets. He is not ready to give up either, and this certainly is a celebration of the plurality of his identities.
Rabindranath Tagore too indirectly celebrates the possibility of multiple links and loyalties when he pleads for a time and place, 'Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.'