West Bengal BJP's diatribe against Amartya Sen exposes its poor intellect, anti-Bengali ethos

Professor Amartya Sen has been at the receiving end of the ire of the Bharatiya Janata Party a lot lately. After being removed from the chancellor of the Nalanda University, Sen had to recently face scathing remarks from Dilip Ghosh, president of the party's West Bengal unit, who called Sen a "spineless" character.

Lashing out at Sen, one of Bengal’s two living Nobel laureates (the other being Dr Muhammad Yunus), Ghosh said, “No one in Bengal understands him (Sen). He himself doesn't understand what he is. He is in extreme pain because he was removed as the chancellor of Nalanda University. Such people are spineless, characterless and they can be purchased or sold.”

The statement, naturally, received condemnation from all over West Bengal.

A file image of Amartya Sen. AFP

A file image of Amartya Sen. AFP

When Sen was asked for his response on the matter, he said, "I have nothing to say. Whatever he has felt is right. He definitely has the right to say so ... in that regard, there is no reason for me to object ... we should discuss all issues. If he feels this is also a matter for discussion, then he should do it."

But when most were expecting an apology, Ghosh reiterated his stand, saying: "I stand by whatever I have said ... no regrets." But that was not all, though. BJP leader Chandra Kumar Bose followed Ghosh' cheap attack with a similar diatribe stating that Sen "called for it”. This writer will not argue as to how great or not-so-great Sen is, but try to analyse what this attack means.

Why now? Sen has been in the crosshairs of the Narendra Modi government for some time now. He was removed from the position (by the Union Government) of the Chancellor of the Nalanda University, a project that he was instrumental in conceiving and roping in various international stakeholders. The project is now headed by a BJP insider appointee. It is widely understood that the international project that fired the idea of the Nalanda University is doomed after the Sen and his team were shown the door.

It did not help that Sen remains one among millions of people who cannot forget the association between the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Modi, and as a thinker, Sen has made clear what he makes of the ascendency of Modi. Sen is an economist and a public intellectual and has also expressed his views on demonetisation, views that would not please the Modi government.

So, what do these recent attacks on Sen signify?

Are we to believe that if any thinker or intellectual or for that matter any person expressed views that are contrary to that of the government or are critical of policies of the Union government, the official policy of the government would be to let loose the attack dogs in a coordinated fashion so as to silent such views?

Where did this sick culture of politics come from? This is certainly not the political culture of Bengal where various strains of politics existed along with scathing mutual critic that also guarantees a celebrated role for public intellectuals opinionating in such matters during crucial times.

Ghosh may belong to Bengal but his political training, ideology and conduct are completely alien to the ethos of Bengal. By criticising Sen, a Bengali icon, Ghosh has become Delhi’s Bengali hit-man in Bengal. And that Ghosh considers pleasing his masters in Delhi more important than being loyal to the ethos and culture of Bengal shows there's fundamentally wrong with the BJP in West Bengal.

The Bengaliness of the BJP in Bengal in incidental, whereas, it's BJP-ness is fundamental. And this seriously limits its appeal in West Bengal, where it is widely conceived to be a Hindi-belt party controlled by outsiders. Among the top five parties of West Bengal, BJP has the highest number of non-Bengali Hindi-speaking senior organisational functionaries. Due to its basic ideology, it is a reality that BJP in West Bengal can neither change nor flaunt very strongly.

Thus, having being cut out of the mainstream Bengali political narrative (except on issues of communal divisiveness), Ghosh has decided to troll his way in.

Sen has never said anything pertaining to Ghosh. It was Ghosh who said it. It is clear who wants to score points out of reflected glory. The adage that all publicity is good publicity still holds true for the BJP, which at any rate is still a marginal political player in most parts of West Bengal. In fact, the BJPs vote percentage in the 2016 Assembly Election was a meagre 10.7 percent. So, if people are attending to BJP’s message in West Bengal, it's because the party chief has taken the controversy generation route to publicity. And this is not completely ineffective as a strategy.

This is how it goes. On various issues, a broad political consensus exists in any domain, including in West Bengal. In that domain, if a new political interloper (such as the BJP) wants to carve out an independent space, it has to do either voice that consensus forcefully and project itself as the best representative, or practice an iconoclastic posturing and make sure press cameras are on while it does that.

The BJP’s West Bengal branch has taken the latter route. While it makes statements that are considered quite far out in West Bengal’s political landscape, the BJP seeks to polarise people along its axis. Since the party starts from a low base, it does not have much to lose. Established parties with larger support bases cannot afford such irresponsible acts. Neither are they that much removed from the civil and political compact that exists in West Bengal. The new player is trying to push the envelope, and by generating controversy around the issue, it wants to become a pole in the public narrative and eventually a decider.

That is where all of this stems from. Sen is an excuse for the most recent foray into this narrative domination game. By introducing a far out axis, the BJP hopes to polarise with every such intervention and add new converts to it, given the favourable media focus it received due to it being in power in New Delhi. The media attention that the BJP gets in West Bengal is disproportionate to both its vote percentage in West Bengal (10.6 percent) or the number of MLAs in the West Bengal assembly (6 out of 294).

Ghosh has said that he does not understand Sen’s work. That is not a crime. The solution to that is to try harder to understand or to move on. To vilify an author or a thinker because one is admittedly not being able to understand his/her work highlights and then to held the author responsible for that shows Ghosh’s limited intellectual ability. It is not only a ridiculous position; it is also a position that is against discussion, dialogue, learning and self-improvement. Such a position is against the ethos of Bengal which stresses exactly those things.

Ghosh has not been able to understand Sen whose most celebrated work is on the causes of Bengal Famine of 1943. One can critique Sen’s formulation about the causes of the great Bengal famine of 1943 but what is incontestable are some facts which Ghosh might like to know. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the ideological father of the BJP, had actually demanded caste-based cooks in famine relief stations to prevent caste pollution at a time when millions were actually dying of hunger. Some major financial backers of the Hindu Mahasabha were those business houses of Kolkata whose criminal activities of rice, cotton and commodity hoarding were among the causes that resulted in the death of millions of Bengalis. The prosperity of these business houses was built over the dead bodies of starving Bengalis.

If Bengali lives matter to Ghosh, I recommend that he reads Dr Janam Mukherjee’s book Hungry Bengal. Its content will educate him that many of Ghosh’s present heroes will figure in the list of those of did nothing for Bengal and betrayed her in the direst hour. And that is way before we come to Amartya Sen.


Published Date: Feb 15, 2017 08:50 pm | Updated Date: Feb 15, 2017 08:50 pm


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