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The Argumentative Indian

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen's new book has been widely discussed for the reaction it provoked from Jagdish Bhagwati and the arguments about the best growth model for India that followed. Sen talks to Manjula Narayan about his book among other things.
Hindustan Times | By Manjula Narayan
UPDATED ON JUL 27, 2013 02:46 PM IST

An Uncertain Glory

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen
Penguin Books India
Rs. 699 PP 448

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen's new book has been widely discussed for the reaction it provoked from Jagdish Bhagwati and the arguments about the best growth model for India that followed.

Here, Sen talks, with characteristic nuance, about the Indian media, caste politics, the decline of the Left and the endurance of caste in unexpected places.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the media.

I think on the whole the Indian media is quite exemplary but there are some real blind spots. I don't take the view, as some of my friends do, that media ownership by business has been a major problem. But, you know, I take the view also that businesses mostly are more broadminded than pro-business ideologues are (laughs), of whom there are many.

For example, I think it's very much in the interests of business… And from Jamsetji Tata onwards, many businessmen have recognised that having an educated and healthy labour force is extremely important for business.

It's not anti-business and I don't think businesses regard that to be an unfriendly thing, but some pro-business activists regard any support for state education or state healthcare to be wrong because ideologically, everything should be done by business rather than by the state.

That's counterproductive for business and businesses often typically recognise that.

I think, to the extent that limitations come, it's not so much ownership (of the media). I mean I'm not dismissing the issue altogether; there might have been a case for a broader ownership pattern.

It's possible; its almost certain to be the case. But I don't think it's a huge problem in India.

Obviously, state censorship is worrying and people get worried about our tendency to ban books and making it difficult for people to visit. Like Salman Rushdie had a problem visiting both the Jaipur Festival as well as the Kolkata Book Fair.

I think these are very unfortunate and it doesn't fit the tolerant Indian society where you could say these things.

The two issues that worry me, despite the fact that the Indian media is so dynamic and more people buy newspapers in India than in any other country in the world, are one, the blind spots, which are justified by consumer reader interest.

But consumer reader interest gets increased if something gets discussed as you saw in the Nirbhaya case.

Once that transformation took place and it arrived in the public domain then the newspapers cover a lot of that because people are interested in monitoring it in a way they were not earlier.

The media, therefore, had a role in creating that market for itself for that kind of news. That requires a kind of visionary editorial plan.

The second issue is the kind of inhibition that sometimes comes from knowing that if you express certain views it will be distorted and attacked. Now, I've gone through quite a bit of that recently (laughs).

I can speak with some experience and it's not pleasant. On the other hand, that is the rule of the game that we play here. That is not a question of just an individual having to face that; it's a question of whether a culture of explaining a point of view of different people comes in the reckoning of the press.

Here, I think it's not so much the print media; the internet media really can be completely biased. They want to attack; and they keep on quoting the same thing, misdescribing. I'm referring now to the belief that I believe in redistribution, which has never been the case.

You can't take money from the rich to the poor. But I do believe in good public services for the poor, which is a completely different story. But once it's in there and then everyone quotes each other…

All that emerged from the Economist...

Well, the Economist came much later. Jagdish and Panagariya were quoting that but it has been on the internet much earlier than that. They were just taking on the consensus that a part of the Internet had already produced.

I don't think they were the origin of this thought. It was the first time I wrote something in protest. It wasn't in protest at his views on my work, which could be terrible.

I mean my view of my work could be terrible and he may be right on that. He said I never took an interest in growth but my PhD thesis onwards, I have been working on that so I did have to correct it ASAP. But I'm not holding that as an example of what I'm really concerned with.

I do know that there are people who are quite worried about making points, which they think will actually generate a lot of attack. It used to happen from the Left too at one stage.

You couldn't express certain points of view because you'd be immediately sat upon. That has happened to me also (laughs) earlier on in my life.

I come from the Left but I did think, initially, that the Left was making a mistake in not taking democracy seriously. This was when I was a student in Presidency College and this idea of a bourgeois democracy was an absolute terrible thought.

Any kind of democracy requires a system whereby there is support other than the government and the bourgeoisie is a natural place where you'd seek support, and hopefully get people among the bourgeoisie who are not committed to pursuing only bourgeoisie interests.

For making that point, I got a little attack. I'm thinking of the 1950s.

Then, I got involved in the gender equity issue which the Left thought to be a mistake that if you sort out the class issue, gender will look after itself, which is never the case.

At that time, those who were fairly friendly to me said, "We regard that to be an eccentricity of yours; it is an amiable eccentricity." That was the more favourable remark I got! The unfavourable remark was that I was deflecting attention from class-based politics.

Class is very important, of course, in my thinking too, but gender has a presence in it which is not just derivative of class. So then again I got attacked. I got used to being attacked from the Left.

I'm getting used to being attacked from the right now (laughs). It has been going on for a while but at the moment it's at a kind of peak. But this too will pass.

I think if people get deterred, fearing attack, that is quite unfortunate because a democracy can work only if we say what we really believe.

Do you think we are deterred in focusing on some topics because we fear attack or is it because we are all complicit in thinking that if we talk about what's happening in Chhattisgarh, Kashmir or the North East, we are somehow being unpatriotic?

Yeah, I think there are three things there really; quite interesting that you should raise that question. Take Chhattisgarh. I went to town; I was very involved in one particular case, that of Binayak Sen getting out, and I thought Chhattisgarh was behaving disgracefully.

But those who thought I was making a mistake said, basically, he (Binayak Sen) had pro-Maoist sympathy, which even if it were the case and it may well be the case; I don't know has got nothing to do with his human rights being honoured.

Secondly, there were those who thought that the Naxalite danger was so large... They had this terrible word (sic) that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs…

I wish they broke eggs and not human heads! So there is that "realpolitik" guy saying, of course, this is tragic but we have to do this. I think they are making a big mistake too.

But another thing I've encountered is and that is central to what I'm trying to say now, in the book but even in general that if you look at a government which you don't like there may still be things that you ought to take seriously and like.

In the case of Modi I'm already on the record and I think it was the Hindustan Times that said "He did say that, in fact, he did believe there are things to learn from Modi".

In Chhattisgarh, the fact that they are doing a pretty decent job of food, the PDS system, which we discuss in the book did create some consternation among my friend who rightly thinks Chhattisgarh has a very bad record of human rights.

But that shouldn't prevent us from talking about those things in which they have had a success. There's the example of Lee Kuan Yew with whom I disagreed, some of it in the public domain.

But I thought then as I do now that there's a huge amount to learn from Singapore's treatment of minorities as well as their focus on education and health care as a basis of economic progress.

So the wanting a kind of non-existent clarity in terms of a government being either comprehensively good or comprehensively bad… because you will find cases where you think on the whole you don't like the government but there are good things that they are doing from which there's something to learn.

And in the case of a government that you do like, there may be dreadful things they are doing which you may object to. So I think there is a kind of seeking of simplicity, which is generally a good thing.

It served the cause of science very well over the centuries but there is a problem with that.

About Kerala, I remember hearing about the abject poverty and the craziness of caste there in the early 20thCentury. Now it's not like that at all.

In some ways, that's one of the few examples where dialectics really worked, the fact that Kerala has totally revoked the caste system. Kerala is the only place in the world where, in addition to untouchability, unseeability was also practised.

That, of course, led to the anti-upper caste movement, which went in the pro-education department, which is one of the reasons why Kerala became so successful.

What do you think about the accusation that the Indian media does not cover human rights abuses of the State enough?

I think that not covering human rights abuses is partly the fault of the media, but partly, as things stand, it's also a lack of interest of the public in human rights issues.

I think there is a gross sense that these are finer issues. From the Left sometimes it takes the form of saying, "There are hungry people and people dying of illnesses" and on the Right it often comes from insecurity and a misplaced faith in abuse as a way of making you more secure.

But these are all mistakes. The way to deal with it is to broaden the notion of human rights to include education and health care as well as civil rights, political freedom and individual liberty.

I think what we decided, as far as the human rights issue is concerned, is just to focus more on that and hope that the recognition that there is a blind spot in the media would serve as a way of addressing and confronting that issue. Creating an interest in people depends on discussing it.

One often thinks of the difference that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 made to the Human Rights movement. It did not have any legal power. The declaration was just endorsed by all the UN countries at that time. What the universal declaration did was to get these issues discussed a lot.

I did write an article in the New Republic called The Power of the Declaration. It has no legality but its power rested on the fact that it led to discussion and discussion led to interest and interest led to curiosity and curiosity led to more reporting on human rights abuses.

In the book, you point out that caste hierarchies are replicated in workers' movements and in the media too in India. Unless that changes, won't our perspectives continue to be like this?

That is very striking. Well, in Bengal, there are three castes - brahmins, kayasths and vaidyas, which is what my caste is. If you look at all the names, it is difficult to find anyone else now you can find one or two; sometimes a token presence.

But when I first went looking at the pattern of the Left movement in West Bengal or what was then undivided Bengal, when I was in college, it was absolutely striking that these three castes dominated.

Three castes covering 21 percent of the population covered every leadership position in every field!

This rides on the lack of education and schooling. Some of it's not intentional discrimination but better schooled people happen to be from these limited caste backgrounds.

In Bangladesh - partly, of course, being a Muslim country they don't have the caste system with the solidity of traditional Hindu society the spread of education has made a difference. But political parties have to take a conscious position on this.

The Labour Party did this in the West on the women question for example. So I think that can be done. I think some of the cure would be within the realm of the media itself by focusing more on these issues and creating an interest; also the political movement particularly of the Left parties.

But, of course, the tragedy is the sunset of the Left parties makes it very difficult for them to do anything, demand anything of them.

Now, you know in polite society you don't mention caste. It's not politically correct.

Yeah, and that's very unfortunate. India was thinking of abolishing caste information in the census. And for a while it did that but then we lost the only bit of data we were getting!

What do you say about caste being used for vote banks?

That is unfortunate. I think the most important thing one can attribute to Nitish's vision is to get beyond that, though it so happens I gather from my Bihari friend that he ultimately is also reliant on particular caste groups.

Of course, in some way caste politics has always been lower caste politics or middle-low caste politics so, in some ways, it's a little better than the dominance of Brahmins, Kayasths and Vaidyas in WB politics.

The main problem, as I see it, is that caste to the extent that you have caste politics what you exclude is a class interest based politics of the underdogs in society.

Class is not necessarily only in the Marxian sense but also those who don't get the benefit of good schools, decent hospitals the combined class interests in there that will cut through caste. When you have caste politics you don't have a united voice protesting about that.

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