The Argumentative Amartya

It is obvious that the government at the Centre is interfering in academic and cultural matters, be it the choice of the Censor Board chief, the Film and Television Institute (FTII) head, or even the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research director. Books are being rewritten to project a Hindutva version of India, and the inclusion of yoga and other culturally indigenous ideas are seen as a further push in this direction.

"I was certainly ousted from Nalanda. Some members of the Board, especially the foreign members were keen on carrying on the battle for me but I stepped aside as I did not want to be an ineffective leader. The government may have held up finances or statues had I continued.  Nalanda not a one off incident. Nothing in this scale of interference has happened before. Every institution where the government has a formal role is being converted into where the government has a substantive role."

Internet-logged Indians have got divided into two camps. If there is a third, I’ll go there. For, one need not agree with the government to be able to disagree with what the professor stands for. The habit of making these remarks every once in a while is a bit opportunistic. Not everybody can claim support as he said he has from the board. Why did he not fight it out? Because, he is a safe player. 

I had written the following for a website way back in October 2005:

The tragedy of Amartya Sen is of being a non-hero, a Buddha without renunciation.

There was a great deal of flurry over his book, ‘The Argumentative Indian’, a collection of essays discussing how democracy is linked to the country’s argumentative tradition. He has a propensity for creating imaginary allegories.

A few years ago he had come up with the facile belief that famines existed where there was no democracy. He had written, “… famines have never afflicted any country that is independent, that goes to elections, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms, that permits newspapers to report freely and to question government policies without extensive censorship.”

Simply speaking, we would be talking about rich societies, socially or economically. Why bring democracy in? Forget famines. What about the other problems that beset a country like India? We have democracy, which Sen finds so delectable. Then why does he subscribe to state intervention? He had concurred that the role of the state even in matters like nutrition, health, education, social insurance was connected with the outcome of economic processes, which must empower people to become economic agents in their own right.

Here was a clear case of making both sides happy without giving a thought to the fact that state intervention can never empower people; it only results in dependency if not degradation. Perhaps, he does not mind that at all. As he once stated, “Buddha was asking himself what kind of life is that (of illness, old age, mortality)? These are problems we all face. For many of us it is also the impetus for our work.”

Whenever our filmmakers, artists, photographers, writers portray the Indian reality abroad, they have been accused of exploiting our poverty. Why is Professor Sen exempted from such blame?

The main reason, as I see it, is that we have a politically-correct individual here. Can a politically correct individual ever be brilliant? Would he not be shackled by his own need to work within the circumference of logic and rationality and miss out on many original thoughts? In fact, Prof. Sen has often been credited with linking an abstract subject with real people, but even if his theories are relevant does the outcome reach these real people?

He may have rejected “voodoo economics”, but he paid his taxes to America. Cambridge glorified his work because it did not have to live with the reality he spoke and continues to speak about. So, what do we preen about? That he held on to his Indian passport? According to the good professor, “A single citizenship is important to me because there is no loyalty conflict. I don’t feel British, I don’t feel American. I feel Indian.”

These are very convenient sentiments when you are a green-card holder in Uncle Sam’s land, teach at tony universities, and make annual trips to your roots to check how much further down the poverty line has slipped and return to your ‘naturalised home’ with these inspirations.

Prof. Sen should have got the Nobel Peace Prize and not the economics one -- for making peace with himself and his environment. After all, hadn’t he so conveniently washed himself of all responsibility when he said that if he were the finance minister of India he would have quit?

Brilliant people take risks. As John Nash did. He got a Nobel in Economics for his games theory in 1994. By then he had spent two decades in psychiatric treatment and was living in obscurity. There must have been some extra spark to his work that allowed for his resurrection.

Am I saying that you have to be a little ’mad’ to be brilliant? No. However, I am convinced that those who have experienced an unusual life - whether it is through an illness or any intense experience -- would be more inclined towards original thinking. For, they have nothing to lose but their equilibrium, which has supposedly been lost anyway. Just go through the roster -- Dostoyevsky was an epileptic, Maupassant was deemed crazy, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression, Ayn Rand went mad, and Ghalib, on the basis of an analysis of his work, has been diagnosed as a manic depressive.

Some people do well because of their sanity. Whereas insane people -- and I use the term to include those with idiosyncrasies -- succeed because they do not care whether they do or don’t. It must be taxing to spend a large part of your life wondering whether you will be rewarded or not for something that the prize-giving world will not even be aware of.

Amartya Sen comes across as one of those terribly normal human beings who want to be on the right side of everything, even as they supposedly speak their minds.

In the meanwhile we may as well celebrate Amartya’s hamartia.


  1. I consider Prof Amartya Sen to be a jewel in the crown of Indian academia. He is one of the few Nobel laureates that India can consider genuinely her own. But academic excellence does not make one a good administrator let alone rid one of cronyism and corruption. Prof Sen may not be corrupt, but can he absolve himself of the money spent, close to 1000 crore, and goods delivered or lack of it. Prof Sen was a nonresident chancellor of Nalanda University, who would visit once year in winter times. For a fledgling university is this appropriate? To manage his work in absenting, he recruited a lady academician from Delhi. She was not eligible for the post. So much so daughter of last PM was also teaching in the university, she was a friend of academician recruited by Prof Sen. For an economist of poverty, Prof Sen would travel first class and draw a salary close to 100000 dollar. All this becomes unfair if someone asks Prof Sen for delivery.

    1. When I first wrote this, I got a lot of criticism. We seem to be trapped in not only linear ideas nut also linear responses.

      You have rightly posed some uncomfortable queries. The point is that if a person in authority believes something is wrong, then s/he should call it out when they can not after they are ousted.

      What we now have, unfortunately, is institutes of education and culture getting divided into two neat halves between extreme ideologies of the right and left, and people with half-baked commitment to both getting plum assignments.

      I might not grudge Prof Sen his salary as a professor of economics, but would certainly wonder why harps on problems and not solutions, which could make them at least less poor.


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