Ever since Amartya Sen wrote his book on “The Argumentative
Indian”, we have taken unholy pride in this debatable – if not wholly wasted - strength
of Indian democracy from ancient times. The problem is not the idea of
argumentation itself, but what we have reduced it to. Our argumentation is
about a battle of egos, point-scoring, putting down others, and not agreeing on
anything. And usually, the argumentation is never about things that matter to
You only have to look at the barely civil duels our political
class engages in, both inside and outside parliament, our vacuous shouting
matches on TV channels, our twitter abusathons, or even our school and college elocution
competitions. What you see or hear is not the argumentative Indian keen to
engage with ideas and thoughts, but the deaf Indian, driven by ego and hubris to
The point is this: if the purpose of argumentation is not to
come to a better solution or compromise, assuming there are strong points on
either side, then we are better off with as little of it as possible. Show me
one major argument that has ever been settled through civil compromise after heated
discussion, and I will gladly concede I am wrong. When we do see forward
movement, it is because one side is weary, or does not have the numbers to
block the other, or is forced to acquiesce due to the other’s superior power,
or is secretly afraid that arguing the opposite will cost him dear.
This is how bad laws get legislated: laws like the Food Security
Act (basically a plan to subsidise two-thirds of Indians when only half as many
may be “poor”), the Right to Education Act (what right, what education?), the
Land Acquisition Act (the right to receive four times the “market price” for
land without establishing a market for land in the first place). There are no
debates on critical issues, for opposing bad ideas are thought to be vote
losers. There is never an argument against bad ideas.
Even on things where there should be agreement, like the President’s
address to parliament, which largely comprises motherhood statements, there is
discord; and if good suggestions come from the opposition, they will largely be
rejected. Reason: if you can embarrass me just because of your power in the
Rajya Sabha, I will not acknowledge your concerns when the Rajya Sabha is
irrelevant to the passing of a bill (Eg, Aadhaar).
Then we have vacuous debates on the “Idea of India”, “secularism”
and “nationalism” without defining what we mean by these terms. Can there be
one Idea of India for 1.25 billion people? In any case, can we define this term
in such a way that it does not exclude anybody, including parties subscribing
to the Hindu view? After all, if the Idea of India is inclusive, and parties
with “Muslim”, “Christian” or “Dalit” stamped all over them can be brought
under this tent, why not the BJP or RSS?
Ditto for “secularism” or “nationalism”. Can we argue what it means to be secular or
nationalistic without even defining these terms? If, like Humpty-Dumpty, each
party can use words to mean exactly what they “choose it to mean – neither more
nor less”, where is the basis for dialogue or argumentation? If, by communalism,
the Congress means the BJP, and if by “anti-national” the BJP means the
Congress and the Left (and JNU, of late), what is there to argue about? We all
know what these words are meant to mean when they are uttered by the relevant
people. These words have no independent meaning that everybody can relate to.
They are nonsense.
Little wonder, we talk at
each other than talk to each other. We
are not talking the same language using words that mean the same to all of us.
If secularism is about the state being neutral to your religious
identity, it should not matter if religious identity is important to a party or
not. A party will be judged not on whether it is “communal” or “secular” but
whether it is following the law of the land. If we believe in “free speech”,
and then use it to mean only one kind of free speech, how is it “free” speech?
I am not arguing against the idea of argumentation itself, for
arguments are vital to a democracy, but any debate has to be conducted to
The giants of our past, from the Vedic rishis to the Buddha to
Mahavira to Adi Shankara, argued a lot among themselves, and they did not mince
words. But they argued on the basis of fair rules, and when they lost, they had
the grace to accept defeat and agreed to take another path. When Adi Shankara
argued with Mandana Misra, the arguments are said to have taken place over months,
and after Misra lost, the argument went on between Adi Shankara and Misra’s
wife. But when the arguments ended, both Mandana Misra and his wife Ubhaya
Bharati, who was no less learned than her husband, became followers of the exponent
Even though it seems likely that the challenge of Buddhism and Jainism
brought the Argumentative Indian to the fore, we are probably overstating the
extent of argumentation going on. If one looks at Indic philosophy and thought,
they seem more the results of contemplation and introspection and intuitive
understanding of truths than just argumentation. They seem more about listening
and learning than mere argumentation.
For argumentation to be worth the candle, it can only be
productive if we agree on the rules, preconditions and fundamental premises. Among
these would be the following:
One, do the arguers respect one
another before they start arguing? If they do not, the argument will result in
a personality clash.
Two, do they accept that the other party has no mala fide intent
in pursuing an argument. The second point is as important as the first, for if
you believe someone is not arguing out of a legitimate concern, you cannot concede
a point or compromise. The India-Pakistan argumentation over Kashmir falls in
this category. Neither party concedes the legitimacy of the other’s position. The
talks are for optics, not a solution.
Three, are both debaters willing to
let go of their initial positions, or at least agree to a compromise, as the
argumentation proceeds? If the answer is no, there is no point in
Four, are both participants aware
that arguments are as much about emotion and ego than just ideas and reasoning?
Very often some parties see their position as rational, forgetting that humans
are often “irrational” and emotional. Not giving space to emotion in
argumentation will lead to disagreement and disengagement.
It is also an established fact that we tend to agree more with people we like and less with people we don’t even if the latter has better arguments. Without understanding and acknowledging the importance of our human emotions, “rational” argumentation is futile. This is why political personalities seldom find it easy to work with each other, as they hate each other as humans.
Five, can both parties agree to a
referee? Referees are important both to prevent undue mauling of one individual
and call out foulplay. They can also call for timeouts when arguments become
too heated to be meaningful.
Six, if neither party is
convinced of the other side’s arguments, can they then agree on empirical
experimentation to see who may be more correct? This method is particularly
important in politics when we discuss contentious debates like quotas and reservation,
food security versus cash transfers, etc. There can be strong points on both
sides, but pilot projects enable a point to be established (or disproven), so
that the argument can be settled better, and without rancour. Most of Indian
politics is about arguments without experimentation and data and experiments.
Little wonder, we cannot agree on anything.
If we don’t agree on rules and premises and experimentation, it
is best not to argue. For argumentation without the willingness to listen and
rethink your position is a dialogue of the deaf, and can only add to
Just as you can speak without being heard, arguing without listening
is not a virtue. We should abandon our argumentativeness if we are not willing
to be contemplative and introspective as well.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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