A knack for debate and argument are supposedly in the Indian DNA. But have we lost touch with it in recent times? And can we get it back?

Last month, climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s anguished question, ‘How dare you?’, posed to an august audience made up of top political leaders at the United Nations in New York, created a stir on social media.  

She was voicing her generation’s genuine concerns about global warming and the impact on the ecology due to the complete indifference and empty actions of our heads of states. While the teenager’s spunky speech might have raised eyebrows in many places like India, back in her home country of Sweden, what she did was not considered anything out of the ordinary at all.

That might be because Greta is a product of the Swedish education system where vocal teenagers like her are the norm. In a very individualistic society, schools in Sweden prioritise critical thinking over the accumulation of knowledge. Students are encouraged to be independent thinkers and don’t hesitate to speak their minds. 

That approach seems to be diametrically opposite from that in India where obedience is prized above all and a head-down focused attitude promoted at the school level. Questioning is impertinence, to huddle with the herd appreciated, and there is no real ecosystem to foster independent thinking. This conditioning combined with the ingrained Indian culture of respect to elders at all costs, explains why it might be easier for Indian teenagers to build mobile phone apps rather than stand up to challenge an assembly of powerful, silver-haired men and women.

This begs the question: are Indians really culturally less willing to question authority?

In The Argumentative Indian, economist Amartya Sen writes that Indians have a long tradition of talk, argument and public debate, something that he says is central to his idea of India. He goes on to cite the examples of Swami Vivekananda, Ashoka, Gandhi and Nehru, among others who conquered the world with their loquaciousness. Kings of ancient India, he says, ruled their kingdoms by inviting the airing of opinions through open debate, a forum in which women also had the right to participate and express their views. Sen believes that in a country known for such intellectual pluralism and generosity, silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.

Sadly, a majority of Indians today have put that inherent spirit of questioning to sleep. Instead, aimless questions are being fired on crowded social media platforms and televisions, in an attempt to provoke and incite. Often, in a post-truth world, there are many questions out there Ñ on why Indian history should not be rewritten, for example, or how we can establish our love for our country Ñ that obfuscate the real issues. 

For, isn’t it important to ask the right question? As the renowned late Indian philosopher and thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurthy said: “The solution of a problem lies in the understanding of the problem; the answer is not outside the problem, it is in the problem.”

In business too, those who ask the best questions come up with the most innovative and successful ideas. For his book A More Beautiful Question, American journalist Warren Berger probed companies such as Google, Netflix or Airbnb about the role of questioning in their success. He found that these questions often led to innovation and breakthroughs. The simplest question to spark innovation, “Why aren’t people doing this?” is likely to be behind the birth and growth of Indian startups and unicorns as well. 

The outlook for questioning in India is not entirely bleak. Teenagers in India are slowly coming around to ask some relevant questions about personal career choices for one Ñ why not music instead of medicine, or culinary school instead of engineering? Millennials are questioning the need to buy cars and add to the emissions and traffic congestion problems. Young Indian women are challenging the norm of viewing women through a male lens. The MeToo movement would not have taken off in India if these women had not pushed back to ask: how dare you? 

In the 80s, it was not easy for women to go up against patriarchyÑ at home or in the workplace. There were exceptions, of course, but if you were outspoken and questioning, you generally were ‘asking for it’. Instead, we buried our heads in Simone de Beauvoir’s books to ask esoteric questions on the myth of the feminine mystique and battle with the conundrum of the sense of “otherness” in a Camus novel.

But it’s heartwarming to see young people today stepping up to protest on the environment and civic issues. These youngsters symbolize a New India Ðthey are willing to stand by what they believe and go against conditioning to take on authority. There are Greta Thunbergs rising in our midst today, and this trend might be just what we need to regain our ability to ask the right questions.

Kavitha Shanmugam is the Chief Content Curator at The PRactice....