Just before the release of his new book, The Country of First Boys, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen talks exclusively to the Hindustan Times' Manjula Narayan about our blindness to poverty, flaws of the Gujarat model, miniaturisation of great ideas by the Hindu right wing and interference in academia.
Q: I have to say I haven’t read the whole book…
A: You haven’t gone through all 600 pages? I’m shocked (laughs). No, whatever you want to ask me…
Q: Things have changed a lot since the last time you were here.
A: Yeah, and I was a bit depressed looking at the Times of India thing (day before) since it focussed on old issues like my leaving Nalanda. Of course, the New York Review also said many other things, which didn’t get much attention to that. But anyway, let’s not talk about Nalanda for god’s sake (laughs).
Q: Well, the country has changed.
A: Yes, the country has changed. One of the things I do discuss in the book is that despite the concentration on Gujarat with which this present government began, my hope was that they would recognise the limitation of the Gujarat model — immunisation lower than Bihar, lower health care and education, again lower than Bihar, though good performance in roads and power supply. Unfortunately, my hope that they would see they needed a broader development model with human beings at the centre has not come true. Even in the budget, there has been a cut in education and health care. And the promise of power and roads has not been quite fulfilled either. So it’s a sobering moment at this time.
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Q: In your introduction to your new book, you talk about our general bias which makes us blind to the divide (between rich and poor Indians), which is what is at the root of all our problems.
A: Absolutely. Not just one divide; there is more than one. But the big divide is between the comfortably off, which includes not very rich people and also very comfortably off, and the masses of people who don’t have decent schools, decent health care, and often not immunised. That is a very big divide. And I won’t say the lack of outrage about it but lack of knowledge, almost lack of understanding about it — about how big this division is which is one of the major problems for a democratic country like India. I think, for us, development has to be a kind of comprehensive social engagement and so it’s not just the fault of the government but also the lack of pressure from the public to see the defects in the thinking of governance, to make sure that they are rectified.
Q: Sometimes, I think, perhaps (the divisions in the country) are impossible to overcome.
A: No, it’s not impossible to overcome. I think we have to address that issue constantly. You see, some issues are very easy to make media friendly, that media take an interest and you know … places are like that ... it’s good that they did. Similarly, what’s going on about the other Modi … What’s his name? The one who is fleeing the law of the country? Lalit Modi! I mean these things are very easy to politicise and it’s right that they should be, but it’s not right that issues of varieties of deprivation from which the underprivileged in India massively suffer don’t get that attention. It’s not at the top of the mind; it’s not at the top of the newspaper.
M: Poverty is not sexy.
Q: You talk of the narrowness of identifying people by a single identity, just religion, following from your ideas on Partition. But increasingly, we are moving towards that again, towards identifying yourself by your religion or your caste.
A: I’m worried about it too. You see some of these partitions are archaic and not particularly productive ways of thinking about anything. In addition to the problem that any one Partition would never capture the complexity of human beings. But some of these distinction between a Hindu or a Muslim, upper caste or lower caste at the level of understanding who to respect, who to not respect, is really a deluding division. On the other hand, the distinction between rich and poor, between women and men, and even between upper caste and lower caste, if we see it not just in terms of who to respect but who to worry about, then I think the same division can be made to have a more productive role. But when somebody writes in favour of the caste system saying it’s not exploitative, as I think the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research had said (laughs)… I think the caste division can be made to play an important role in our thinking if we see it as a mechanism of perpetuating inequality in India as opposed to a way of generating a good society, which I think that gentleman was presenting.
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Q: You’ve mentioned the “allegedly academic subject of Vedic maths”…
A: You know, I’m a great admirer of the Vedas and I’ve spent a lot of time reading it and it’s hard because I know classical Sanskrit well. I’ve no problem with Kalidas or Sudraka or Aryabhatta, but Vedic Sanskrit is different. I had to struggle, quite happily, when I was reading the Rig Veda in particular though I spent quite a bit of time on the Atharva Veda, too, with my grandfather who knew Vedic Sanskrit also well. He’d help me read it. And some of the verses are extraordinarily beautiful, but there isn’t a Vedic maths. There is a little bit of mathematics in the Atharva Veda, which is quite interesting.
But you see people who talk about Vedic maths don’t read Sanskrit. Not only Vedic Sanskrit, they don’t read any Sanskrit. India has been so creative in mathematics in a different period, in the Gupta period, and Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara are really gigantic figures in the history of maths. To ignore them and look at these first time settling nomadic people and maths is unfortunate.
Q: You also talk of the Vedas’s powerful articulation of agnosticism.
A: I think that is one of the earliest of intellectual expressions of agnosticism. It’s not even saying ‘Does He exist?’ It’s saying ‘Does He know; if He did exist, would He know?’ There are two issues here, that people thought in these terms about three-and-a-half-thousand years ago is spectacular, and that it survived. They didn’t say ‘take it out’. It made me proud that our culture had that feature of tolerance. So, if people study the Vedas with an interest in what it is saying rather than advocacy of an unknown history of mathematics, then we could get really a lot out of it. Great work really.
M: Or, instead of this focus on the religious, also the secular…
A: One of the features in the Rig Veda which struck me very much is that you are encountering enormous power of nature which overwhelms us and we don’t quite know how it’s governed: floods, torrential rain and lightning, this enormous force of droughts, the sudden appearance of disease… It’s quite tempting to think that each of these is being controlled by some supernatural power. And to an extent, the Rig Veda is a struggle. On the one hand, there’s an attempt to see that there’s maybe one central authority, to wit, God. Of that there is enough in the Rig Veda but then the problem that why are so many terrible things happening?
There’s a very interesting book by Arun Shourie about why he is an atheist, about if there’s a god, what about his kindness; he’s talking about his son, his family and the agony. It’s a very good book. He and I are not on the same political side but it’s a book I read with the greatest of interest. I think that struggle through which Arun is going is the struggle in the Rig Veda, too. How do I reconcile all these disasters around the Rudra and the Indra and all these natural elements and attempt to integrate, attempt to disintegrate and then in the middle comes this agnostic line, maybe there isn’t anything at all, these are maybe just forces of nature and there isn’t anyone who created it and there isn’t anyone who is even a historian who remembers, not only no god but no supernatural everlasting historian … The gigantic flights of imagination, when I was reading the Vedas, I was just bowled over.
I like Sanskrit plays a lot. My favourite, Sudraka’s Mricchakatika, we need a better translation of that. The English translation at the moment is not good. Narayan Murthy’s son Rohan, they have the Murthy classical library. I’m on the advisory board of that and I’m trying to encourage Sheldon Pollock, a great Sanskritist, to do a new translation of Mricchakatika. I’ve worked with him earlier. I wrote the introduction for him on the Ramayana. The Ramayana is so much beyond just claiming some ground to be Rama’s birthplace. The richness of the Ramayana story actually influences not only India but parts of the world to the east of India all the way to Japan. I have always been interested in maths and Sanskrit. I could have hoped that with the interest in Sanskrit with the new political forces, there would be more actual study of Sanskrit rather than using of Sanskrit as a battle slogan. That’s the tragedy.
Q: The tragedy is that everything seems to be miniaturised.
A: You are absolutely right. Miniaturisation is a huge problem.
Q: Also the constant bashing on the head with the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is bigger than that.
A: The Bhagavad Gita is a profound argument about the ethics of violent action for a great cause and only Mahatma Gandhi is on both sides because on one side he’s the apostle of non-violence; on the other hand, he is a great admirer of Krishna as opposed to Arjun. You would think that Mahatma Gandhi would be on Arjun’s side but not so, because he takes a different take, that’s also an important take, that action may have to be undertaken without looking for the result of it.
I don’t take that view but I can see that many people have taken it even in the West. There are passages in Immanuel Kant which are very like that. My natural sympathy was with Arjun and yet, there is the problem: What should they have done? Leave the whole kingdom to the Kauravas and go away? So Krishna wins the battle. But after all, the Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata and the Mahabharata ends in desolation. People are dead, the Pandava brothers themselves are all dying, and there are funeral pyres burning. So again, it’s the same dilemma, like in the Vedas, and you are absolutely right … To convert that profound human predicament of facing dilemmas … converted into the certitude of Krishna’s point of view winning … (laughs)
Q: Makes it much narrower…
A: Of course. If people read the Gita with an interest in arguments on both sides and then placed it within Mahabharata, it’s, after all, a small text in the Mahabharata, then I think it’s quite a big education rather than a kind of driving one interpretation.
Q: That’s quite un-Hindu actually.
A: It is un-Hindu … No, you said that! You are going to get into difficulties for this. I didn’t say it! (laughs)
Q: A recent report says the number of poor children in India is much higher than many countries in Africa.
A: Yes, and the undernourishment is enormously worse. The immunisation rate is not worse than Africa but not much better and certainly much worse than Bangladesh, and dramatically less than Southeast Asia.
Q: Why are we still grappling with this after so many years?
A: I don’t think we have got the seriousness of the issue. I mean when people say that Gujarat was a successful economic model, they overlook the fact that, in terms of undernourishment, illiteracy, lack of immunisation, Gujarat has one of the worst records, and as the Economist magazine points out, under Modi’s chief-ministership, Gujarat’s position slipped down rather than slid up. It was slightly better than Bihar earlier and it became worse than Bihar. In some ways newspapers allow people to get away with this, as if infrastructure is just physical infrastructure; just roads and power. In fact, infrastructure is also education and health care. India is trying to be the first country to become an industrial giant with an illiterate and unhealthy labour force. I don’t think it can be done. To me, it’s one of the biggest problems.
Q: Whether it’s the UPA or the NDA, there’s a sense that nothing has changed, really.
A: No, very little. Actually in some ways it has slid down. The allocation for education and health care was meagre but in the last budget, it’s been cut.
Q: It’s not as though there’s been a transfer of power to a radically different set of people.
A: I agree. The change has been far less. Where it has been stronger is in academic interference. We’ve had a withering change in the Indian Council of Historical Research, National Book Trust, and so on (laughs). That’s where the change is and Nalanda is a tiny speck in that large picture. That is a change, not a change for the better, unfortunately. The bigger story as far as the poor are concerned, there is very little change; if anything, some regression.
(Amartya Sen's new book, The Country of First Boys, is published by OUP and Little Magazine. It will be released in August 2015)