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The Sen Master Speaks

February 2007
The Sen Master Speaks

"No identity alone can be a secure basis for peace," says Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who is also a recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award.

Amartya Sen, the holder of two named professorships at Harvard University, is not only a prominent scholar who won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1998. He is also a best-selling author and a renowned public figure whose expertise is often sought in high places around the world. His appointment as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, made him the first Asian to reach the highest position at an Oxbridge college. Now based in the other Cambridge, in Massachusetts, he serves as Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy. Among his many books, which have been translated into more than thirty languages, The Argumentative Indian and the more recent Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny have received wide acclaim.

Given the breadth and depth of his accomplishments, Professor Sen is, not surprisingly, seen as a Renaissance man. "If ever there was a global intellectual, it is Sen," writes Sunil Khilnani in a pithy assessment. So it's wonderfully apt that it was Rabindranath Tagore, another Renaissance man and India's first Nobel laureate, who named him Amartya (meaning ‘immortal') after his birth in Shantiniketan. The young Sen did his early schooling there and, before heading off to Cambridge, also studied at Presidency College in Calcutta. A wandering scholar for much of his life, Prof. Sen jokingly points out in an autobiographical essay that he and his family can perhaps one day "jointly write an illustrated guide" to all the leading universities they have been closely associated with over the decades. His extensive research in economics, philosophy, and decision theory encompass subjects as varied as famine, gender inequality, welfare and development economics, public health, moral and political philosophy, social choice theory, and the economics of peace and war.

"When the Nobel award came my way, it also gave me an opportunity to do something immediate and practical about my old obsessions, including literacy, basic health care, and gender equity, aimed specifically at India and Bangladesh," he notes in the same essay (in Les Prix Nobel). "The Pratichi Trust, which I have set up with the help of some of the prize money, is, of course, a small effort compared with the magnitude of these problems. But it is nice to re-experience something of the old excitement of running evening schools, more than fifty years ago, in villages near Santiniketan."

When Khabar recently contacted Prof. Sen in his Harvard office, he apologetically confessed that there were "a million things to finish" before his departure for Europe the following day. Nevertheless, he graciously agreed to respond to a couple of questions that build upon an earlier interview of the professor by journalist Ashish Kumar Sen—which appears as part of this cover feature on the "Sen Master."

In recent years—especially after events such as 9/11, the Iraq War, and 7/7—multiculturalism has been under increasing attack in the West. Visible minorities are perhaps under greater pressure than ever to assimilate or risk being seen as potentially dangerous outsiders who don't share the dominant culture's values, so to speak. Given this environment, how can we Indians maintain the pluralist identity that you so passionately wrote about in your last two books? How do you respond to the argument that a singular nationalist identity promotes unity and prevents chaos and division?

One important thing to recognize about identity is that we all have many affiliations and connections that make us see ourselves in many distinct ways. Group violence is typically cultivated by focusing only on one identity, excluding all others, and giving that identity a belligerent form. Religion currently plays that role in the contemporary world, but in the past nationality has also been used for divisive programs. During the First World War, the British, the Germans, and the French decimated each other by being loyal only to citizenship and nationality. Even though the three populations involved shared Christianity as a religion and European history as a common heritage, the national divisions were a source of great hostility and brutal bloodshed. The Second World War too also had this feature along with political divisions, including Nazism and Fascism, but also other national divisions, such as that between the Japanese and the Chinese.

No identity alone can be a secure basis for peace. You are quite right to point out that when religious and cultural divisions are used to cultivate violence, a sense of national identity can be very constructive. On the other hand, in a different context, national division can be a source of violence as well, and to some extent this can be seen even today in the relation between Pakistan and India. But faced with community-based sectarian problems right now, it is right to think that a sense of national identity, under the present circumstances, can be to a general extent constructive.

Focusing on a shared Indian identity can reduce the possibility of exploiting communal and religious divisions by hatemongers. What it does here is to bring in another identity, different from religion and community, which blunts the sharp edge of religious and communal divisions. So the central issue is to recognize, understand, and cultivate the richness of multiple identities that make human beings the broad creatures that we are. Any reductionist program of focusing only on a singular identity can be potentially dangerous.

Despite your wide-ranging, cosmopolitan background and long residence in the West, you've chosen to retain your Indian citizenship. Why?

Well, the answer is simple enough. Like most other Indian citizens I take my citizenship very seriously and with some pride and sense of belonging. That role cannot be played by another nationality that I could take on the basis of my residence in, say, America or Britain. The penalty of standing in long queues in front of often-rude immigration officers and that of needing visas—often quite difficult to obtain—to travel to every country in the world are small prices to pay for retaining my national affiliation.

I must emphasize, however, that this does not require me to be a belligerent nationalist, since I have many other identities as well. I have affiliations linked with my primary language (Bengali in my case), professional associations (as an academic, as an economist, and also, I guess, as a philosopher), political beliefs (linking me to others who take non-conservative positions and value equality and freedom), residence (I don't have any sense of alienation in being in Britain or America, or for that matter Bangladesh or India), and so on. The fact that as far as nationality is concerned, my priorities are quite clearly Indian, does not force me to take the view that consideration of nationality must swamp all other concerns, commitments, and affections I have. In this sense my Indian citizenship is for me an enriching affiliation, not an impoverishing one.


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"I'm not a greater believer in power as a source of redemption."

Excerpts from an interview with Professor Amartya Sen


There's this belief in the media, among policymakers and even among ordinary people that the world has begun to see India differently. Have you noticed a change in the world's perception of India?

Yes, indeed. It is very hard to miss that there is a substantial change. It is to a great extent a correction that was needed. What, however, we have to watch is that the estimation of India as a global player does not become as much in excess of reality now as it was below it in the past.

Do you think the estimation of India as a global player is already in excess of reality?

This has not happened yet to any great extent, since there is such a backlog of underestimation from the past (China, for example, is only beginning to take India more seriously, after looking down on India fairly substantially for many decades). But since the elevation of India in global estimation is very pleasing to many Indians, there is a danger here of complacency which we have to be careful to avoid.

What explains this change in perception: is it related to the fact that India is doing things differently? Or is it more because India has chosen to forsake its socialist past and embrace a model of economic growth that has the endorsement of global powers, notably the United States?

I am not sure what you mean by India's socialist past. A country that failed to achieve the most elementary progress that most socialist countries in the world achieved easily (despite their failures in many other fields), namely universal schooling and basic education supported by the state, primary health care for all provided by the state, comprehensive land reforms, and so on, which pre-reform Russia, pre-reform China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other socialist countries achieved, can hardly be described as a socialist country. If, however, by ‘socialism' you mean an over-extended and counterproductive state-based system of ‘license Raj', stifling domestic enterprise and the development of modern industries and the modern service sector, then certainly that change has been important, though it need not involve any necessary abandonment of the ideal of egalitarian humanism that has been central to the socialist vision presented by Jawaharlal Nehru and others who led India to political independence.

Correcting policy mistakes by taking a closer look at reality is beneficial mainly for the country itself, but the fact that this is happening in removing the ‘license Raj' brings respect from abroad too, and that has certainly been a factor here. The changed position of the United States is, however, mainly because of the end of the Cold War in which India tried to be nonaligned in a way that the United States certainly did not approve. The nature of global politics has itself changed—the change is not confined just to India.

One reason for the change in perception of India is the achievements of its diaspora, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. What does the diaspora mean for India? Should India be basking in its glory?

Certainly the diaspora's success abroad has played a big part in greater interest in India and also helped a fuller appreciation of the creative talents in India. There is however no question of basking in the glory of the diaspora, since its achievements, while important, are limited and the job that needs to be done at home—especially through removing poverty, illiteracy, bad health care—has an urgency that the success of the diaspora does not in any way reduce. It is also important to recognize that India's success as a functioning democracy, with a relatively free media, regular multi-party elections and a lively civil society has also helped the diaspora gain respect and acceptance abroad. While there have been domestic failures, for example in basic education and basic health care, India's domestic success, through a flourishing democracy and progress in advanced higher education and technical skill formation, has given the diaspora an easy entry into the global civil society—and that too must not be underestimated.

The consumption pattern of urban middle class Indians is becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts of the West. From household goods to food to cultural products, there is now a close resemblance between Indians and those in the West. Are Indians becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts in the West? What are the perils of this trend?

The increase in global contact and association has led to much greater homogeneity of the consumption of the rich across the world—it is not an isolated trend exclusively in India (you see it in Rio, Accra, and Johannesburg as well as in Bombay and Shanghai). This is, in a basic form, an age-old phenomenon. I have discussed in my book The Argumentative Indian how the consumption pattern of rich Indians changed in the early centuries A.D. with the trade in luxury products from China (with plentiful references in the Indian literature, including Kalidasa and Bana) to Chinese silk, Chinese fruits, Chinese cosmetics used by the rich. But this is happening in a much larger scale in the contemporary world.

The basic problem is not what commodities the rich spend their money on, but that the economic gap between the rich and the poor is so large and also that it is growing (it has not grown as fast as in China, but it has certainly grown in significant ways). In fact, it is the existence and the expansion of this gap that we have to address. This may be an inevitable part of the price to pay to retain high-skill technical experts within the country and realism may well require that this connection be taken into account. But social ethics also demands that we examine—with realism but also with a sense of equity—what is really inescapable and what can be done to reduce the divergent fortunes of the rich and very rich, on one hand, and the poor and very poor, on the other. This is not a matter only of the commodity pattern of the consumption of the rich.

Having said that, however, I should also mention that there is still at least one special problem in the hold of modern Western consumption patterns on the rich in India—and in other poor countries. The labor component in the production of these ‘modern amenities' is often quite low in comparison with the older patterns of luxury consumption (for example, widespread services provided directly by unskilled labor), and this can have a negative effect on labor demand and through that on employment. This is not in itself a strong enough reason to curb that type of consumption through government control, but it is a reason to pay special attention to the critical role of employment generation in the process of economic development and to see what can be done to address this issue.

Even as India strives to become a power politically and economically, its social indices remain poor. In terms of human development, India lags far behind. Has India become less caring? How does it dovetail with India's quest to become a power? And what kind of future do you envisage for the poor as India changes?

You are absolutely right to point to India's relatively poor record in human development. This is not a new phenomenon, so it is not a question of India becoming "less caring" than in the past, but the old problem of the neglect of social facilities and of the development of human capabilities has not been adequately addressed or removed. It is hard for me not to feel frustrated when some of the things I wrote in the media in the 1950s and early ‘60s—illiteracy, lack of basic health facilities, etc.—still remain relevant. I'd love to have become a purveyor of obsolete problems—but, alas, these problems are not obsolete even now. More attention is certainly being paid by the present government to elementary health care and other basic failures in capability formation. But much more needs to be done, without shutting off other good things like the expansion of Indian industries, extension of its global economic connections, development of more technological sectors, greater attention to physical infrastructure. These too are potentially helpful developments for reducing economic deprivation, but they are not adequate in themselves in eliminating India's handicap in human development.

Globalization has made the knowledge of English a skill that counts. A large number of Indians, even in villages, want to go through the English system of education. What do you think could be the perils of this trend?

Certainly globalization has made English something like a lingua franca of the world. We have to accept that, without seeing globalisation and the spread of English as necessarily problematic as a phenomenon. Indeed, I do not see the wide interest in learning English as a regressive force, since the use of the English language both allows India to speak to the world and serves as the medium through which Indians from across the country can share their technical knowledge and social and political dialogue. If the interest in English were to eclipse the interest in India's enormously rich languages, with rich literature and long histories, that would be a loss, but that is not the situation now and future dangers too can be avoided through giving the issue our conscious attention. It is possible to be both interested in the richness of India's own culture and heritage and take an interest in the cultures and achievements of the rest of the world, in exactly the way that Rabindranath Tagore discussed so eloquently and convincingly. There is no necessary conflict between ‘the home' and ‘the world', if we continue to stand on our own feet and look at the world with interest and involvement, rather than with docility and slavishness.

What has to be watched however is the possibility that the role of English acts as a serious barrier for the underprivileged to get their voices heard whenever they are expressed in other languages. The linguistic divide can also contribute to the strengthening of economic divisions. These are, however, issues that can be addressed through intelligent and humane government policy, rather than our seeing them as inescapable problems that make the use of English irresistibly retrograde.

What are the attributes of power you would want India to acquire?

I fear I'm not a greater believer in power as a source of redemption. Power is mainly the dividing line that separates the powerful from the powerless. Having been on the powerless side in the world for so long, I hope India does not get too hung up on cultivating power to be on the other side! The really important powers to acquire would come not so much from India's nuclear arsenal or missiles, but from our ability to help in solving the problems that ail the world today, which—alas—are too plentiful. We have something to offer through our experience of a working democracy (not just the rhetoric of democracy, delivered through invading armies) and sustained secularism (tested but still thriving in India), and these are not negligible issues in the thoroughly messed-up world today. If we do try to be good global players in the confused world in which we live, then a bigger global voice for India would indeed be an excellent thing.

There is a further issue about power. There is a positive role for the empowerment of the underprivileged groups within India—the landless laborers, the subjugated housewives, the economically deprived making a precarious living, the social underdogs maltreated by the privileged, and others. If we are concerned with inequality, then inequality of power must command our attention. And if a reduction of inequality of power within India is seen as making India as a whole more "powerful," then we may sensibly want "more power" in that rather special sense. We have to think more critically and more fully about exactly what powers we want, in what sense, and precisely what we want to do with power. Having more power is not a virtue in itself.

[A version of this interview first appeared in Outlook magazine.]

Speaking of Sen

"Amartya Sen is not just an Indian or Asian, not just an economist or philosopher. He is a truly global man, cosmopolitan in his sympathies, and universal in his concern for all."

- Meghnad Desai (TIME)

"He has a mind like a searchlight, yet he works at Mozartian speed. His output is staggering in its volume."

��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� - Robert Cassen (The Guardian)

"Sen won [the Nobel Prize] in economics, though, as his writings demonstrate, he could just as convincingly be described as a sociologist, a historian, a Sanskritist, a political analyst or a moral philosopher."

������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ - Shashi Tharoor (The Hindu)

"When I first went to Cambridge my tutor [said]: ‘You Indians don't do well in economics.' I mean that's hardly a thing to say to a young person who's just come from India. Three years later, [Amartya] Sen had got a first. Next year, I had got a first and Manmohan Singh had got a first."

���������������������������������������������������������������������- Jagdish Bhagwati (The Financial Express)

"Making Amartya Sen [India's] president would be good for that august office, better for the country's foreign policy, and still better for its domestic politics. And it would be good for Sen himself, as the perfect climax to a glittering career."

��������������������������������������������������������������������������� - Ramachandra Guha (The Telegraph)

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