Why Amartya Sen's shallow secularism is past its sell-by date

It is not unusual for a guest to say nice things about a country when he is being wined, dined and honoured there.

So it should come as no surprise that Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who was honoured with a fellowship of the Bangla Academy earlier this month along with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, played to the gallery.

Among other things, Sen praised Bangladesh for doing better than India on social indicators (rightly so), land reforms (possibly) and women’s empowerment through microcredit (sure). He also claimed, more debatably, that Bangladesh was a natural candidate to take up leadership on the issue of climate change because it was likely to be affected directly.

Amartya Senwent overboard when he launched into his pet subject of secularism. AFP

However, he went overboard when he launched into his pet subject of secularism – on which he is just a shallow expert. According to a report in Bangladesh’s Daily Star, he reiterated his claim that Akbar was the pioneer of Indian secularism. He also implied that AK Fazlul Huq could really have been a closet secularist. (Huq was one of East Pakistan’s founding fathers, a man who said he was a Muslim first and then a Bengali). Ditto for Nawab Sirajuddowla (whom Robert Clive defeated through deceit), who apparently also had a secularist streak in him.

I don’t know much about the late Fazlul Huq and Sirajuddowla’s secularism, but if Amartya Sen’s anecdotal evidence is any guide, the reasons given are less than solid. This is Sen’s Exhibit A on Huq’s secularism: a letter of praise to one Tapan Roy who topped a matriculation exam. According to Sen, Huq, who is today lionised as Sher-e-Bangla, “generously showered praise on Tapan Roy through a letter on his securing the first position in a Matriculation Examination (held) under Calcutta University, saying he had done Barisal (from which both hailed) proud.” So sending a letter of congrats to a fellow Barisalite of another religion makes you secular?

Next, Sirajuddowla. This is how The Daily Star reported what Sen said about him and Robert Clive. “Robert Clive, in a duplicitous move, wrote a letter to Sirajuddowla recommending four Hindus and two Muslims, of whom three had already been bribed by him, for consultations with Siraj, pretending to avert a battle. That it was a trap laid by Clive - he had made all preparations for a war in the meanwhile - escaped Siraj just as the unequal ratio between Hindus and Muslims in Clive's list of delegation didn't bother him.”

Sure, Sirajuddowla may be secular, but not because Amartya Sen presents this flimsy bit of evidence of four Hindus and two Muslims being sent to him by Clive.

Now, about Akbar. Sen has been touting the idea that Indian secularism was born with Akbar’s reign because he tried to evolve a synthetic religion called Din-e-Ilahi by mixing up good points from both Hinduism and Islam, apart from some other religions. He also was a secular ruler because he ended discrimination against the Hindu majority.

Nobody needs to dispute Akbar’s secularism. But for Sen the fact that he appointed Man Singh as his general is ultimate proof of Akbar’s secularism. Shivaji’s most trusted general, Haider Ali Kohari, was also a Muslim. So why is Shivaji not a secular hero to Sen? This is one-eyed secularism.

The truth is the Indian ethos has always been secular. From the early Christian era to the early Muslim era, India has welcomed people from all religions. The persecuted Parsis came here from Iran.

India is secular because our diversity demands secularism. This simple truth was recognised by wise rulers of ancient India, and this wisdom also dawned on Akbar, who initially started out as a bigot. But he quickly saw that you cannot rule a diverse country like India with a narrow religious outlook.

His attempts to create a universal religion reflect less his secularism than his intention to create an ideology where the ruler would have ultimate power. He was trying to be a Constantine who wanted a unified Bible to perpetuate his rule. But Akbar’s own ulema were appalled, and many sections even called him a kafir for trying to dilute Islam with his Din-e-Ilahi.

To talk about Islamic heroes in a Muslim-majority country is not an act of great intellectualism. What Sen failed to mention was Bangladesh’s failure to ensure a secular future for its minorities. Hindus were 22 percent of Bangladesh’s population in 1951 – after partition. Today they are 9.6 percent or less. Sen also never mentioned Bangladesh’s most famous refugee in India – Taslima Nasreen – or why she is here.

What Sen exhibited was a form of intellectual dishonesty during his Bangladesh sojourn. His ideas are past the sell-by date.


Published Date: Jan 07, 2012 01:56 pm | Updated Date: Jan 07, 2012 02:01 pm