Amartya Sen: Govt might benefit in short run by stifling opinion, but memories will stay
Amartya Sen was speaking with Firstpost in light of the re-launch of an expanded version of Collective Choice & Social Welfare
Ironies are like that moment on an oval running track when the slowest runner catches up with a sprinter who is now on a successive lap. A perfectly balanced articulation of an imbalance still so wide and unresolved. One irony unfolded on a day last week, when I met Nobel laureate Amartya Sen inside the lawyer’s library at the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi. Here we were, in a chilly room cosied up by carpets and a handful of buttoned leather chairs and with a barrage of hardbound books staring authoritatively from their shelves — discussing the Delhi School of Economics, an institution he has taught at and I have been an alumnus of. The interview was in light of the re-launch of an expanded version of Collective Choice & Social Welfare. Originally published in 1970, this classic work in welfare economics has been recognised for its ground-breaking role in integrating economics and ethics, and for its influence in opening up new areas of research in social choice, including aggregative assessment.
But here’s the irony: as we sat there celebrating the existence of a great centre for liberal thought, at least 20 students and a teacher were injured after student unions linked to the Left and the BJP clashed over an invite to Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid to speak at a seminar on ‘Culture of Protests’ at Ramjas College in Delhi University’s north campus. Khalid was accused of sedition over an event where anti-India slogans were allegedly raised.
Oblivious of the particular incident in the campus where D School is, we went on with our conversation in the library. “Democracy is best seen, as John Stuart Mill did, as government by discussion. It’s about how to get different points of view critically examined by each other, paying attention and respect to the perspectives of all the different people involved in society, and arriving from that on ideas about social welfare, inequality, poverty as well as liberty and freedom of people,” said Sen, one of the finest critical thinkers of the century. The focus of the second book, he pointed out, has shifted and this is connected with the change of the world. This is because public discussion has become harder in the time of Donald Trump and there are very badly covered discussions like Brexit, with a lot of untruth being told. “Barriers are being imposed on public discussion even in this country,” he said, as he placed India within the world.
Meanwhile, back at the campus: Students from the Delhi University and JNU gathered outside the college to hold a protest march against Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s (ABVP’s) demands to call off the seminar. But members of the ABVP crash-landed at the spot. A violent clash erupted, women were groped and assaulted, men were beaten up, and journalists and policemen too were swept in. Cuss words, slogans and screams — that weren’t rising out of a street play — filled the campus air.
In the sound-proof library, Amartya Sen went on in a voice so eloquent that it made economics and ethics melt in pure love for humanity. Do you think the populism of today is a logical corollary to the liberal paradox that you described back in the day? I asked. “To say that you shouldn’t express a point of view because it’s different from the one that the government holds, is worrying. What happens is, you can then take an issue like Kashmir, in which it looks like there’s a consensus on it in the country that this is an inalienable part of India. Then, you prevent someone from saying something which looks as if it goes against that consensus,” he explained, saying that the liberal paradox is the conflict between unanimity over a particular domain and liberty of people in another domain. From an ethical point of view, and in an India where Tagore wanted the mind to be without fear, Amartya Sen feels we must stand up for each other’s liberty.
In the university, branches and bricks were being thrown at the conference hall and the electricity was cut off. Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju later came to the rescue by responding to a query about the violence: “No anti-national slogans will be allowed in the name of freedom of speech.” Amartya Sen might or might not agree with such a reassurance: “There is a climate of fear in the universities today. The government might benefit in the short run by stifling opinion, but these memories don’t go away. The memory of the emergency still haunts many politically-informed minds and the period that people were threatened with sedition charges will also be remembered.” Democracy, he feels, is a fine instrument and is not blunt and there are periodic elections. This fear of being labelled anti-national if one happens to disagree with the opinion held by the government is unhealthy for democratic practice.
And that is why re-launching the seminal work with eleven new chapters, at this point of time in history, was just about necessary. As in the original version, the new chapters alternate between non-mathematical chapters accessible to all and those which present mathematical arguments and proofs.
As soon as it is realised, an irony is a birthplace of a revolution. Amartya Sen wasn’t physically present at the campus where he once taught, and where one kind of youth was attacking another kind of youth in the name of maintaining the country’s stability and liberty. But his immortal concepts, one of them being the protection of individual rights in a majoritarian state, have returned to rescue collective reasoning. A revolution toward everybody’s India can and must begin.
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