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Argumentative Indians: Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie in conversation

About the authors
Amartya Sen was born in west Bengal in 1933. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1998-2004, and is currently Lamont University Professor at Harvard. His most recent books are The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity , and Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny . His books have been translated into thirty languages.
Salman Rushdie is a Booker Prize winner, a leading post-colonial literary figure and a prominent activist for freedom of speech.

The "Amartya Sen – Salman Rushdie" conversation took place on Sunday 30 April as part of the PEN New York World Voices festival. For more information see

Discussed: Transcultural migration, Indian verbosity, the recent or not-so-recent invention of Indian identity, freedom's economic components, class similarities in the victims of Hindu/Muslim violence, the unholy alliance between Islamic extremism and western parochialism, the clash-of-civilizations thesis.

Listen to the full event (74.22mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps

These recordings are part a series of audio features from the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York

Also in the series on openDemocracy:

"Freedom to write: Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie" (April, 2006)

Part 1: Migration, plural identity and sectarian violence

We are not one, we are many
– Walt Whitman

I am what I am and that's what I am
– Popeye

Amaryta Sen: History and background are not the only ways of seeing ourselves, and the groups to which we belong. There are a great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong. I can be at the same time an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or Great Britain resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a non religious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, a non-believer in an afterlife, and also, if the question is asked, a non-believer in before-life. This is just a small sample of diverse categories. There are a number of other categories which can inform and engage me.

Salman Rushdie: It seems to me that Popeye had not read Freud, otherwise he would know that we are much more fractured than that. And as selves we are bags of selves and we contradict ourselves. The way we are with our parents is not the way we are with our children, the way we behave with our employers is not the way we behave with our lovers. We have whole series of behaviours we contain within ourselves – different sets and circles. The problem is Amartya, you talk about a great deal of the importance of choice. Basically what we all need to do is choose the relative weight that we impart to our different identities. How much of this is free choice?

Listen to part 1, Migration, plural identity and sectarian violence (44.29mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

Part 2: Terrorism, choice and "wishy-washy" liberalism

Salman Rushdie questions Amartya Sen:

You describe "singularity" i.e. putting oneself in a box, as an error of self-description. Let's take as an example the 7 July bombers in London. What happens if that "singularity error" is the choice made by the individual?

You're saying that we must make choices about the weight we give to our different identities. What if the choice we make is that only one of our identities matter, and that only one of our identities is truthful or powerful or necessary as a basis for action?

If that is the free choice made by the individual – which you say the individual should make – to reject pluralism to become singular. A consequence of that is an event like a suicide bombing.

If you are advocating free choice then that must be something that you would have to respect. Is that a mistake or a choice?

The fact is that these boys decided to strip away from themselves all their other identities – British, as brothers, sons, or cricket players – they chose to be this self I'm not sure you can explain that away by outside pressure.

Listen to part 2, Terrorism, choice and "wishy-washy" liberalism (29.54mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

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