Sen’s new book seems to raise some questions about which there can be diverse arguments. Sen doesn’t tell the whole truth. Much of the misrepresentation and distortion of Indian diversity and Indian character had been done by the Britons. These distortions we Indians had come to believe, more so the Western-educated Indians themselves.
I am a bit embarrassed to thrown names that are too big and intimidating to the average Indian readers. I mean Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics and also our Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh. The provocation for this piece was the news that recently when asked about his pastime the Prime Minister m mentioned that” just he had finished reading Sen’s recent bestseller,” Argumentative Indian”. I was not surprised to find the book a bestseller. It carries the imprint of an Indian Nobel Prize winner.
Ironically, I was the one who, after browsing through the pages, didn’t think fit to buy it! I resisted the temptation knowing well what drove me to do so. The fact is that I knew Sen from my Santiniketan days and in fact it was after seeing him the thought arose in me to go to Oxford. I knew him so well in those years, even while at Oxford and after returning to India. I know the family well enough. Sen was a legend even in my student days in Bengal.
I also know well Dr.Manmohan Singh when he was in my time at Oxford a research economist. I used to see him along with Dr.Jagadish Bhagawathi,another brilliant economist(now at Columbia University)and at Nuffield College where I used to visit my economics tutor, a Hungarian, one Jassel. So I used to run across these two in the area often, at the cafes and outside.
Only those who know the Oxford’s ‘undergraduate’ course (three years intensive study) know when I say I used to dismiss the PhD. students there!
Yes, it was the undergraduates who get exposed to the top scholars in a number of disciplines, in my case it was philosophy, politics and economics (the famous PPE). I was also into university debating society and other “Clubs” including the Labor and the Poetry Clubs and so here I was highly active in politics and other extra-curricular activities and thus I was already an M.A.from Visva Bharati University in India and a budding politician in the making. It is another thing that Dr.Singh is now a Prime Minister.
The point is that the PM reads Sen’s book and Sen’s book is a best seller and all these things don’t impress me at all. Why I didn’t buy the book at the first instance and what I make of it now when I buy and read it through?
The book is a collection of 16 essays, written more for a wider, on-specialist, non-academic audience as much for the academic-minded specialists. Also the essays also deal with disparate topics, ranging from skepticism, reasoning and the more popular topics like India and the Bomb, Women and Men, Secularism and China and India. The readers might imagine that some of these topics lie outside Sen’s academic domain of theoretical economics. They are right. So, in a way, these essays can be called popular essays, though they all remain true to Sen’s close analysis and insights and these essays carry the required number of references to learned texts.
The dominant theme of the essays is that Indian tradition, both the scholarly and popular tradition is not any strict adherence to an orthodoxy of dominant beliefs(like Vedanta, or spiritualism for instance) but a series of heterodoxy, there were always dissenting views and thoughts within the dominant belief systems. So, Sen Advances the thesis that Indians were capable of dissenting arguments etc. To prove the thesis Sen advances several instances, Buddhism, Akbar etc.
Sen is known for his unique gift to create a paradox of our widely held beliefs. Even in economics ,the issues so far they interest the wider public is to prove that there were famines when there were also surplus of food grains, economic development is not about economic parameters but about human capabilities like human development index. So, here too Sen seem to present us with a paradox of Indian beliefs.
Now, I don’t want to get into details. Readers can find for themselves.
I have only some points to make here to draw attention what is important for the elite of this country and the masses.
First’s is not writing on Indian philosophy or religion, in the way we are accustomed to scholars like Dr.S.Radhakrishnan and others. So, you can take Sen’s views on such topics as a piece of thought for a particular occasion when he was asked to deliver some address and these essays had been composed of such addresses or journalist requirements.
Now, in the UK and USA, more so in the former, there is a long tradition of what is called media dons, those academics who writer for the popular audience, in the popular media, both quality newspapers and the tabloids and also appear on the TV, the latter are called ,tally dons! One of the famous tally dons was the late A.J.P.Taylor, the Oxford historian whose lectures I used to attend and it was big draw with the undergraduates. Taylor also wrote for the tabloids.
Now, I read with interest how even the great economist, John Maynard Keynes wrote extensively for the press. As a consequence, much of his serious economics writings too suffered the lack of required academic rigor. Keynes even served a term as a special correspondent to the Genoa Conference in 1922 and between 1920 and 1922, he wrote no less than ninety-four newspaper articles in all. Keynes made in 1997 prices currency value earned 77,280 pound sterling a year. There were other media dons who earned equally large sums.
The point I want to make here is that Sen for long was known for his densely written heavy learned treatises and hardly known for popular writings.
Now, he is still a professor at Harvard which just now had undergone a radical change with the departure of its president Larry Summers. The Time magazine has carried an essay on Harvard crisis (Time, March 6, 2006) and notes that the magic brand of the university where the faculty teach only 28 weeks a year, and the faculty with the highest pay and lowest workload is economics! May be the economists after they made it to the top rung and won the Nobel Prizes and the other high profile jobs in government or like Sen who headed the age-old prestigious job of the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, now thought right to take time off to become more accessible to the wider public.
If so, that would only much good for the wider world and India in particular. The trouble is that lately the NRI intellectuals who come to India to give lectures have become terribly diplomatic! They don’t give any practical policy inputs. They praise the incumbent government and they talk of China and India(as Sen also does) and we Indians are left with wondering whether these intellectuals are Marxists and non-Marxist.Sen hasn’t clarified his position and also he doesn’t seem to be worried, say, the state of his own West Bengal which by all human development indicators is a disaster!
The many details in these essays in the book are of course very important but what the practical implication of such wonderful insights is and comment if they don’t lead to some action.
Sen is an academic success par excellence! But we should realize that economic theorists didn’t make India abolish poverty or raise our HRD index.Dr.Manmohan Singh too couldn’t lift the agri sector to the desired growth rates. For the first time under him after 7 years we are importing wheat! There is a terrible insensitivity under this regime towards the plight of the poor, the weak, those affected by human rights violations. So, often theoreticians even with administrative experience like Dr.Singh don’t make for nation-builders. That is a lesson. Some of the economic Nobles proved disasters! So, economics’ claim to supremacy among the social sciences is a bit misplaced. Time we realize this too.
His friend, the Prime Minister, too is becoming very diplomatic by the day and what we, the public are left with is the same set of policies that keep the large mass of people in poverty and backwardness.
As for the basic themes treated in the volume, one is left with the feeling that after all Indian tradition, in the ancient times, from Vedas to Upanishads and later is a highly critical tradition, with so many schools of philosophy and arguments, with Charvaka, Lokayudha etc. Prof. Daya Krishna had even questioned our basic beliefs to the extent of calling our philosophical tradition is not spiritualist as widely believed.
The simple common sense is that India is a multicultural society and as such we must have been having this argumentative tradition as part of our Indian heritage.
There are other issues on which too we can take exception to Sen’s otherwise insightful observations like James Mill’s view of Indian character.Sen doesn’t express his opinion on such a controversial observation of a Briton who earned his bread under the East India Company and yet he wrote so prejudicially about Indians whom he didn’t know at all.
So, this book might give reading pleasure to a wide audience, there are dry patches and makes for hard reading, but for those who are familiar with the themes Sen deals with, a more provocative author and one whose style of the English prose won universal praise is the late Nirad Choudhry.English prose style is not everybody’s domain and Nirad babu at any time is a pure joy to read and enjoy, each word and turn of phrase is a celebration indeed!
Some topics don’t lend themselves for close academic scrutiny but better written by non-specialists. Nirad babu was one such person, learned as well as a creative writer of elegant prose and thus he earned a wide audience at once provocative and always thoughtful. You don’t have such talents anymore in the Bengal of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee!
Before the modern universities produced academic writers who also wrote on popular topics, it was men like John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle and their writings are read to this day while the later-day university men’s writings faded away.
So, there is a case for modern day academics to turn into media dons or better still telly dons! After all great ideas too must percolate down to the masses and what better medium is there than the easy to view TV screens!