There are many argumentative Indians, but very few who can hold your attention in quite the way Amartya Sen can—if you catch him, as Outlook did last week, at his expansive best. He dazzles you by moving fluidly between welfare economics and history, philosophy and international politics, the laws of Manu and Article 377, the pronouncements of Gautama Buddha and the policies of Manmohan Singh. In provocative arguments linked closely to the theme of his magisterial new book, The Idea of Justice, he asks you to consider whether Krishna was right to make Arjuna fight a war that left “women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison” and if non-violent Gandhi should have been on “Krishna’s side”; and then, crossing centuries with his characteristic agility, whether the Indian Left should worry about American imperialism “rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in”.
Outlook’s ‘attack’ on him notwithstanding, the Nobel laureate was remarkably generous with both his time and his reflections in an interview that stretched to over an hour; sharing, among other things, his opinions on such leading figures of the Indian political scene as Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Not everyone will agree with his positions, for instance, on dynastic politics, on which he takes a carefully neutral stance; or on the Left, of which he is clearly a trenchant critic these days; but as always, his words leave you with much to think about.
Excerpts from an interview...
In the 63rd year of Independence, how many cheers would you give Indian democracy?
Of all the injustices that haunt India today, the deprivations you have just spoken of, what disappoints you the most?
They are all complementary. One of the reasons that child undernourishment is so hard to remove in India is that children are born much more deprived here than in much of the world, because women are very deprived when they are pregnant. One basic issue is gender inequality. But I don’t want to say it is the only important one. I would rather speak of a cluster of deprivations. And we should address all of them together.
Apart from development issues, you’ve been speaking on a range of national issues, including, of late, the Indo-US nuclear deal. Was it a good deal?
Now, I am on record as having said I don’t know whether the Indo-US nuclear deal was a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t have a strong view, unlike Manmohan who clearly thinks it is a good thing, and the Communist Party, which thinks it is the biggest disaster.
Your friends on the Left are repenting now. It’s clear they picked the wrong issue to bring down the government.
I gave a television interview on that subject a year ago, in August, just after the vote.
And what you said hurt them the most because the criticism was coming from a friend, not from the other side.
Have you had any conversations with them about this?
I have conversations every time I go to Calcutta, many of them are very close friends, also in Delhi.
And how do they respond?
Are you saying the Left should have opposed the government on issues other than the deal?
They were part of the government, they could have done more than they actually did.
Prakash Karat recently said Cuba is a very good role model for India. Did you read that?
I didn’t read the statement, but I don’t believe that for a second. There are things to learn from Cuba about healthcare and basic education, not about democracy (laughs) and not about media freedom. It is a very unfree country. There are things to learn from America, but not about medical care for the masses. There is no country that provides us with a model.
In your new book, The Idea of Justice, you speak a lot about the difference between niti (institutional justice) and nyaya (realised justice). Do you think we have too much niti in India and too little nyaya?
Was it a just war?
Yes, you can call it a just war. That’s the power of theory, that’s niti, saying it’s your duty, you ought to do it. Niti plays a big part in the Left too, they think about American imperialism rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in. This is befuddling. Similarly, we take comfort in the institutions of democracy but not the things that would make democracy a success.
Do you think dynastic politics, of which we see so much in India, is intrinsically unjust?
I don’t take an intrinsically positive or negative view of dynastic politics. It depends on who the people are. I think it would have been sad if Franklin Roosevelt was not allowed to become president on grounds of the Roosevelt connection...
But what about India—the Gandhi family, the Abdullah family, the Karunanidhi family, sons automatically becoming leaders...
I can’t have a general attitude on this. People tend to begin with Jawaharlal Nehru, but he was the son of Motilal Nehru, who was the Congress president. If on dynastic political grounds we had excluded Jawaharlal Nehru, we would have lost something. We have to judge in each case—Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi...
A lot of people felt very disillusioned after the recent elections because it seemed that the political class had shrunk to a small, self-perpetuating elite.
What impressed you about Rahul?
I think he is very talented. He is a Trinity man, we had a meal together when I was Master of Trinity and we chatted about what he was planning to do. At that time, politics was not part of his plan at all, and he told me that. I believe those were his genuine views and he changed his mind later. It was very clear to me that he was very committed to Indian development. I pointed out to him there were ways for him to dazzle the world with the money he could make. But he wasn’t in the least interested. I would say, since I have known Manmohan at the same age, that there was a very similar commitment in both of them, in terms of being deeply concerned about deprivation in India and wanting to make a change in that. And to devote one’s lifetime to that.
On a different note, we tend to attribute injustices in India to the historical past, the colonial past. Do we overdo that? “What can we do, we have inherited this terrible legacy...”
The past is a very live issue for us, in ways other than the colonial legacy. This year, it will be 25 years since the Sikh riots, we still haven’t come to terms with them.
The Sikh riots should be in our memory because they were a terrifying event. It is difficult to believe that they happened in this city.
How should we deal with them?
One thing we have learnt from the leadership of Mandela and Desmond Tutu is that there is no way of coming to terms with past injustice until those who commit it accept responsibility. Neither retribution nor forgetting, it has to be recognition and then coming to terms. Admitting wrongdoing is an important part of it. Where the Sikh riots are concerned, I don’t think there has been enough admission in 25 years.
What is our record as a country, after 62 years, on coming to terms with such atrocities?
Mixed. The country reacted well to the Gujarat riots with the exception perhaps of Gujarat itself. The popularity of the government responsible has diminished but not as much as I would have expected. But it certainly contributed to their (the BJP’s) loss in the general election in 2004, and certainly did not help them consolidate the fight for 2009, and if I am any judge, is not helping them now. With that kind of blood on your hands, it’s very difficult if people forget. And I think Indians haven’t forgotten.
Our corporate chiefs—Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani, Sunil Mittal—went to Gujarat and showered praise on Narendra Modi. They said he ran the state so well, and that he was fit to be PM.
I don’t think Narendra Modi is fit to be prime minister of India. But I haven’t seen the reports, so I won’t comment on the statements you cite. The person I know best among them is Ratan and it surprises me to hear that he could have said that. Newspaper reports can be unreliable. (But) would I like Narendra Modi to be prime minister of India? No, I wouldn’t.
Akbar, Ashoka and Gautama Buddha are your three great heroes, you come back to them time and again in your book.
The BJP was very upset when in an interview with Outlook some years ago, you gave primacy to Ashoka and Akbar.
That’s because you put a gigantic headline—two great emperors of India, and neither of them Hindu (laughs). But even if they were Hindus, my point would have stood because great Indians have come from every part of the nation. India is not a great history-based country, we don’t know who said what to whom and when. In contrast, Akbar, Ashoka and Buddha were well-documented, it is easier to illustrate from them.
One last question about politics. The prime minister and his economic team—P. Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia—have embraced neo-liberal economics. Schemes like NREGS were initially resisted by this team. Given Manmohan Singh’s background, are you surprised?
I don’t think his policies have been neo-liberal. Had they been, we would have done much worse in the economic crisis. That’s not to say the government’s policies are entirely correct. There are issues to be dealt with, and the main issue is whether there is adequate engagement with the primary injustices in India.
I must add that in the context of politics it is very difficult to judge what a person would say as a free intellectual, as opposed to being prime minister. In general, I see Manmohan in the right territory. Would I like him to go a bit more? Yes. Am I able to judge how far he can go, given the politics of the situation? No.
Is he doing that now, with the Indo-Pakistan relationship?
I haven’t followed that. But in the American context he did think there was a strong case for improving relations with the United States and he went for that. But when he came back to office in 2004, he said from the start that along with reforms we have to expand the state in education and healthcare. And more money has come in, not as much as I would like, but it has come in. There is more radicalism needed.
Do you think Manmohan has emerged as a good politician?
As an old friend, may I say something that people seem to miss? He is immensely well-behaved with absolutely everybody. People say things like “When I saw him with Bush he looked so happy and so supportive.” But you see any picture of Manmohan and he always looks friendly and supportive. You see him standing very happily with the King of Bhutan, and you could immediately say this is a lackey of the King of Bhutan. But in the case of Bush they say it, in this case, not (laughs). I would defy you to find a picture of Manmohan looking angrily at anyone. I haven’t seen one in the 54 years I’ve known him. Whether that is a lacuna in a politician, whether he has to jump and lose his temper, I don’t know. But if there is a fault, it is a fault of generosity and courteousness.
No doubt that Amartya Sen is a better breed of Left-leaning academic than most of the pseudo-Leftists from Bengal (“I prefer to fight today’s battles”, Aug 17). At least he concedes several problems in the strategies of the Left. Sathish P., Pune
The Left Front government in Bengal should seek the wise and gentle counsel of Amartya Sen for next year’s elections. Ashok Lal, Mumbai
A very interesting interview. Dr Sen’s answers are frank and betray a delightful sense of humour. I loved his comments on Manmohan Singh. V. Krishnamurthy, Chennai
Dr Sen gives almost three cheers to Indian democracy but justifies dynastic rule, even though of only the Nehru-Gandhis. He finds Rahul Gandhi very talented only because he is a Trinity man. He again and again falls back on the Indian tradition of knowledge but opposes education through Indian languages. He distinguishes niti from nyaya and argues in favour of justice but doesn’t support the social justice measures of our Constitution (such as preferential rights as against meritocracy) which are meant to fight primary injustices. He says he belongs to the Left but he thinks Manmohan Singh should be yet more liberal. He coins new words but gives no new ideas. How do your explain these contradictions? M. Kapoor, New Delhi
Frankly, one expected more from the Amartya Sen interview than the profoundly inane and unreasoned responses he gave on dynastic rule, Indian Communists and the suitability or otherwise of Modi as PM. M.H. Rao, Hyderabad
Very bookish and superficial comments. Ramesh Raghuvanshi, Pune
Modi is less evil compared to Rajiv Gandhi, the Abdullahs and Nehru. Yes, the very Nehru who allowed the genocide of Hindus in Pakistan. Malavika Patil, San Jose
Whether algebra or zoophilia, how does Outlook manage to bring in some reference to post-Godhra riots and Modi? Niranjan Sharma, Mangalore
Fact is, Modi is a murderer. No amount of revisionism can justify his acts. Reddy, Bangalore
Rahul, talented? My Left foot. Shrikant Patil, Pune
In your interview with Amartya Sen (“I prefer to fight today’s battles”, Aug 17), you posed to him this question: “Prakash Karat recently said Cuba is a very good role model for India. Did you read that?” I made no such statement while speaking at an India-Cuba solidarity meeting in Bangalore. What I said was that the Left in India should learn from Cuba on how it has consistently faced heavy odds with the American blockade and hostility and has yet overcome them each time. The CPI(M) does not believe in any model from outside for our country to follow.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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