December 25, 2006

The Mythical Minority

Amartya Sen, in his book, "The Argumentative Indian", contends that Hinduism does not lend itself easily to conventional interpretation as a monolithic religion. With extensive annotations from the philosophical texts and scriptures, he argues that Hinduism can at best be considered as a conglomeration of a variety of beliefs, spanning the entire spectrum from animism to monotheism, even atheism. Quoting from a book on Hinduism by his grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, Amartya Sen lauds the heterodoxy of beliefs that the religion permits:

"Hinduism also points out that a difference of metaphysical doctrine need not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is his dharma [roughly, the personal basis of behaviour], not necessarily his religion." That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the beligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization. [Ch 3: p 46]

Not that I am terribly interested in interpreting any religion, but I am with the Sens in their philosophical interpretation of Hinduism. The problem with Amartya Sen, though, is that he confuses philosophy with politics. His target of ire, quite obviously, is Hindutva — and its political representatives, the Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP). Sen should have known better, however, than to build political arguments around philosophical arguments. Unlike philosophy, politics doesn't mix quite well with logic.

After a few pages of polemics that seem to be emanating from the political platform of the Congress or the Samajwadhi Party, rather than from a Nobel Laureate in economics, Sen gets to the details of demographic classification. Arguing that "there is no unique way of categorizing [people]", he suggests several alternative majorities [Ch 3: p 55]:

  1. the category of low- or middle-income people (say, the bottom 60% of the popultion);
  2. the class of non-owners of much capital;
  3. the group of rural Indians;
  4. the people who do not work in the organized industrial sector; and
  5. Indians who are against religious persecution.

Is it me or is Sen's bias showing here? I can come up with more neutral majorities — married men and women, cricket fans, right handed people... well, we'll let it pass. I do agree with Sen that there isn't any sanctity about computing a numerical majority on the basis of religious identity. And, I share Sen's scorn for the international journalists who "persistently describe India as a mainly Hindu country", but not the USA or the UK as a mainly Christian country.

Fast forward to a Frontline interview, given by Sen to John M. Alexander on the importance of public reasoning in a secular democracy (When does an economics scholar cross the line into politics? Is it when he points a finger at you, or is it when he seizes a photo opportunity with a child?). Responding to a question on rights and social justice, Sen says, and I quote:

Consider, for example, the issue of minority rights. When minority rights are violated, three terrible things are happening. First, the human right of the minority not to be terrorised or killed is violated. Second, there is the violation of what Immanuel Kant called a perfect obligation or duty, that no one should violate other people's rights. And here, it is being violated by those who are injuring and killing the minorities. Third, there is the non-fulfillment (to use Kant's term again) of the imperfect obligations of others, which refers to the failure of others in the community to protect the minority as in the case of Gujarat.

Which category of people is Sen labeling as a minority here — upper income Gujaratis? Whose rights are being violated according to Sen — the urban minority? Who are the objects of the Kantian non-fulfillment of the imperfect obligations — soccer fans? Of course not. Sen's crusade (or, should I say, crescentade) is against what he perceives as the violation of the rights of the Muslim minority.

If Hinduism were a misnomer for a cornucopia of religions, if the Hindu India were nothing more than a journalistic reduction, and if a Hindu majority were merely a censual fiction, then is Muslim minority anything more than an eminent historian's myth?

  1. >>Amartya Sen, in his book, "The Argumentative Indian", contends that Hinduism does not lend itself easily to conventional interpretation as a monolithic religion

    He needs to get rid of his Eurocentric view. According to me, any belief system that stakes absolutist claims to truth is not "religion". Ergo, Christianity, Islam etc do not lend themselves easily to interpretation as religion, whereas Hinduism and Buddhism do.

  2. Isn't it more true that a minority, politicians without any clear economic or social agenda along with another minority section from owners of capital who are trying to mislead a majority of rural, uneducated, low income people and non-owners of capital with non existence threats from another so called "minority" comprising of a large number of people practising another religion.
    Like kids playing monopoly simulating real business elsewhere, here people seem to be playing dangerous "hate games" simulating a real war actually happening at another level.
    There is more than one myth involved here apart from the one that you have so rightly pointed out.

  3. marxistsareretarded12/26/2006 4:29 PM

    The points made by the so called economist Amartya Sen can be dismissed as far left nonsense , but assuming amartya is right and hinduism is not a monolithic religion , the increasing efforts of 'hindus' to mobilize political solidarity is merely an outcome of the congress/marxist parties dreadful policies and condescension towards 'hindus'. The hypocrisy of the marxists is of a special nature , they would gladly drain the treasury to fund hajj visits for muslims but laugh that a hindu can be a hindu. So whatever comrade Amartya thinks right wing hindutva politics in India is here to stay.

  4. maybe I am missing something - are you taking cudgels with Sen for first denying concepts of minority and then embracing it. I believe that classification of a minority was explicitly done by one group (hindus) because Muslims - were targeted and the violence was systematically directed towards that particular group. Under such a scenario, where a majority of populace is an accomplice along with the state, there can be almost no other classification.

  5. Anonymous, Usha:

    The post is about a logical inconsistency in Amartya Sen's arguments surrounding the concept of minority. In the Frontline interview, Sen talks about the rights of the minority and the obligations of the majority and "others" towards the minority. These are special rights and obligations of the respective numerical identity.

    I dispute such special rights and obligations. Granting such rights and obligations, if tomorrow the non-owners of capital (majority) were to kill thousands of owners of capital (minority), and the State watched in silence, that would be in violation of the Kantian rights of the "capitalist minority"! However, that is a debate that I don't intend to get into here.

    The point I am trying to make in this post is much simpler, and along the lines suggested in the comment by Anonymous. You cannot deny the status of majority to the Hindus first, and then accuse them of reneging on the obligations of the majority!

  6. Hinduism is NOT a religion at all. It is a CULTURE.

    It started as CULTURE and remains as a CULTURE and that is the reason why Hindus do NOT find necessary to defend Hinduism nor convert anyone to Hinduism nor have a problem worshiping God as Krishna or Rama or Jesus or Buddha or Allah.

    The Cultural nature of Hinduism makes it very tolerant and respectful of all religions.

    So to some extent, I agree with Amartya Sen’s statement " Hinduism to a very large extent a conglomeration of a variety of beliefs, spanning the entire spectrum from animism to monotheism, even atheism."

    What makes Hinduism unique?

    1. It does not profess monopoly on truth or God.

    2. It accepts all forms of thoughts and ideas. Even an atheist can proudly proclaim he or she is Hindu.

    Thanks for reading

    3. “Absolute Freedom of thoughts and actions” is the cardinal principle of Hinduism.

    4. Hindu scriptures state, “Salvation is for all” irrespective of whether a person is Hindu or not.

    The worst thing any one do to Hinduism is to alter its image as a CULTURE and make it one of the organized religions of the word.

    Comparing Hinduism to organized religions like Islam and Christianity is exactly like comparing apples and oranges.


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