Dear Prof Amartya Sen, you’re off-track

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

After watching the interview on NDTV on Monday last of Prof Amartya Sen by Vishnu Som, one of the more balanced anchors on that Indian TV channel, I feel compelled to respond because I have been disappointed by the professor – notwithstanding the fact that he is a Nobel Laureate in economics, for whom I have great respect and admiration for many reasons. He is not only very articulate, but he also has a way of expressing with great clarity and coherence his thoughts and points of view in reply to questions put to him.

Besides, I am familiar with several of his views on a number of important issues and subjects, having read his book on freedom and development, his ‘The Argumentative Indian’, a comprehensive review of his book on justice in the Indian publication Outlook some years back, and his paper on health and development which was published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation several years ago. There was also the detailed coverage given in India Today on his book about India co-authored with the economist Jean Dreze, in which he made a potent advocacy for consolidating health and education there.

Bias and amnesia

During the interview, he said that he was a proud Indian citizen, not having given up his nationality in spite of having lived abroad for most of his life, in pursuit of his academic and professional interests. Unfortunately after that, he then goes on to take positions which are likely to do more harm to his country and add grist to the mill of the Breaking India forces. The latter are the subject of the book bearing the same title, that is, ‘Breaking India’ by Rajiv Malhotra, a public intellectual and thinker based in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. He has set up the ‘Infinity Foundation’, and for more than twenty-five years now through his books, talks on social media and in various forums, sponsored academic research and other studies and publications, he has been countering the anti-India narrative that the Breaking India forces, both within and outside of India, have been peddling, and being active on the ground to fulfil their agenda.

Sadly, Prof Sen has nothing to say about this, and finds nothing good happening in India since May 2014 when Narendra Modi took over as the leader of the largest democracy in the world after a landslide victory of the BJP, with a stronger repeat performance in May this year. And in previous interviews of his I have listened to, he has never missed a chance to throw barbs at Gujarat’s development record, and in the present interview he was at it again, in the same breath citing Kashmir’s ‘good governance’ record!! Nothing good about India, worse things in Gujarat, and aha! praise for Kashmir’s leaders – on which planet is Prof Sen living!? He should get out of his ivory tower and go on the ground to find out what is happening.

On being asked whether he thought the way the future of Kashmir has been recently defined – an obvious reference to the new constitutional arrangements brought about there – would bring peace and better the quality of life of the people of Kashmir, without surprise he answered in the negative. For the rest of the interview he waffled about democracy, which according to the New York Times (which he mentioned later) is in acute crisis in the West itself. The interviewer was right to point out that Prof Sen has specialized in the economic angle of inequality, but that inequality had to be looked at in ‘various senses’. It was therefore in that perspective that the question was posed to him.

He said that putting great leaders who had been elected (democracy!) and had formed governments in jail did not conform to democratic principles. Correction: they are not in jail, but in luxurious residences under house arrest, and are being provided with all the amenities and comforts needed – except for communication, for security reasons as has been repeatedly emphasized by the Indian authorities. So it is not as if they are languishing in jail, as happened to others in the past, for example Dr Shyam Prasad Mukherjee, founder of Bhartiya Jan Sangh (who had opposed Article 370), was arrested by police while entering Kashmir,  and in fact died in May 1953 while in custody in Srinagar under circumtances which have never been fully elucidated.

Let me correct the professor’s amnesia: it is under the watch, in 1989/90, of these ‘great leaders’ that one of the greatest ethnic cleansings after the holocaust of World War II took place: the cultural genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits, nearly 400,000 who were brutally driven out of their ancestral homelands preceded by killings of men, women and children and forced conversions. Hasn’t Prof Sen read journalist Francois Gauthier’s account of this modern holocaust that happened even before those of Bosnia and Rwanda?

India: democracy and age-old tolerance

Interestingly, he cites John Stuart Mill as saying that ‘democracy is government by discussion’ – and goes on to suggest that the proper democratic way would be for government to ‘engage intelligently’ with those who are protesting. I am amazed at the naivete of the professor! How does one ‘engage intelligently’ with armed militants and terrorists, paid stone pelters and their likes? Do they contribute to create the ‘atmosphere of democratic facility’ that he thinks is necessary for peace?

Further, according to him, the current situation shows that India is intolerant! Do we need to remind the professor about India’s tradition of welcoming Arab traders, and accepting Christians and persecuted Parsis and Jews who made the country their home – this land of toleration which the great Swami Vivekananda (who hailed from Bengal like the professor) extolled about to rapturous acclaim at the World Parliament of Religions in September 1893?

But since he went on and on about democracy, not his forte unlike economics, it will surely open his eyes about what future awaits Kashmiris from the contents of a letter addressed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by a Member of the British Parliament, Bob Blackman:

Dear Boris

I have seen the strongly worded and inflammatory letter made public by a number of Labour MPs regarding the recent decisions of the Indian Government with respect to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

I would draw the following points to your attention: (all italics aded)

  1. Constitutional changes are an internal matter for India. There is a widely respected convention that we do not interfere in the domestic affairs of a third country, especially a long-standing friend and ally like India. Whilst not wishing to break this convention, it appears very strange that Labour MPs are criticising the Indian Government for equalising the rights of all its citizens. Surely such a step should be welcomed in any democracy?
  2. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s democratically elected Government is perfectly entitled to implement its own election manifesto which explicitly proposed these constitutional changes to Articles 370 and 35A. Labour MPs should not be so surprised if an elected Government keeps its promises. Indeed, the current Indian Government has only recently been elected for a second term with an even larger majority. In making these changes it wishes to promote prosperity in the region by improving security and attracting inward investment into the state. (…)
  3. Unlike other countries in its neighbourhood, India has a long-established tradition of respecting different faiths including Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Jews. Indeed the separation of Ladakh into a separate Union Territory with a 70% Buddhist majority demonstrates the respect and tolerance towards different traditions.
  4. The comments made about ‘land grabbing’ and promoting ‘exclusive Hindu settlements’ are highly provocative since they totally ignore the tragic history of the region, which has seen thousands of Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee their homeland following persecution and threats by radical Islamists and militants and ordered to leave Kashmir, convert to Islam or be killed. The changes therefore redress, rather than promote, flagrant ethnic cleansing.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Labour Party has become an anti-Indian, anti-Hindu party which is not interested in building a friendly relationship with the world’s largest democracy but instead wants to import the politics of the subcontinent to the UK for its own narrow and communal interests. (…)

Bob Blackman MP”

Coming as it does from the land of John Stuart Mill, this is a more realistic appraisal of what the Indian government is doing to bring equality, correct past injustices and ensure a secure future for its people rather than the blinkered view of Prof Sen. He seems to be indifferent to or woefully unaware of the larger and complex geopolitical forces that are convulsing not only that region but the world – and to take stock of which and respond with grit and determination, there is at long last a strong and committed leadership in India.

Salute to a great economist, who should leave politics to the equally great politician and leader whom he should be saluting instead of criticizing negatively continuously: the Prime Minister of his country India, Narendra Modi.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2019

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