Amartya Sen Pontificates from Ivory Tower – Ravi Shanker Kapoor

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 You have to levitate to the rarefied realm of intellectualism in which Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen dwells to comprehend that freedom of expression is… well, not very important. At a time when liberty is under attack from an array of forces, the illustrious economist says that a discussion on freedom “will distract attention” from the “serious issues of health, sanitation, food and education.”

A Kolkata Lit Meet session, ‘What Moves India, What Stops it,’ was blessed with such gems of wisdom. Sen was responding to a question about the stopping of Salman Rusdhie’s scheduled visit to the litfest and Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam due to resistance of bigoted Muslims. The Nobel Laureate said, “In West Bengal, there are disadvantaged Muslims who need attention towards larger problems facing them. I do not want to speak about an issue that has been in news for some time now, simply because this will distract attention. There are serious issues of health, sanitation, food, and education that are facing several marginalized sections of the society here like anywhere else in the country. I am more concerned about them.”

Sen presents individual liberty and social safety as two watertight compartments, with the former being less important than the latter. Worse, his statement is the product and function of a ludicrous doctrine: liberty may be at loggerheads with social safety. He may not have said it in these words, but the import is that only. And the doctrine, howsoever sublime its nativity might be, has real consequences. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is actually working on this doctrine; its overemphasis on entitlements, and the concomitant hostility towards individual liberty and the rule of law, emanates from a tacit acceptance of this nefarious theory.

The fact, however, is that there is nothing antagonistic between liberty and social safety or equality: liberty is not a jealous goddess that can’t stand another god; she is actually gracious enough to facilitate the comfort of other deities like social safety and equality. Those who try to pitch liberty against equality end up hurting both ideals. This is what Benjamin Franklin, the 18th century American statesman and author, meant when he said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It’s not an either/or situation; nor is there any sequentiality involved, with one preceding the other. Actually, it is the other way around: both liberty and safety go hand in hand; without the one, the other can’t go ahead. Both are the prerequisites for the unfolding of the true human potential, for authentic happiness and joy, for fulfillment. Women in Saudi Arabia enjoy safety and prosperity, but they are treated like cattle. They have to cover themselves up from head to toe; they have to be accompanied by a male relative for an outing; they can’t drive; their litany of woes is endless. They have safety but their lives are miserable. No woman in Saudi Arabia can be happy, unless she is an incorrigible masochist.

In India, on the other hand, women—technically—enjoy all the democratic rights and civil liberties any modern philosopher ever thought of. But the turpitude of socialism (which, by the way, Sen favors) has rendered the rule of law a joke, thus ensuring that most women could not enjoy their rights. The realpolitik imperatives of dirigisme have also empowered retrograde elements in the society like khap panchayats, mad mullahs, and saffron vandals.

Sen is concerned about the “serious issues of health, sanitation, food, and education,” but none of them can be addressed without individual liberty. How does Sen expect either of these possible when mullahs are breathing down the necks of ordinary Muslims? The Islamic clergy hates anything that is at variance with the Koran; this is the reason for the most backward-looking curricula in madarssas that they favor. And they don’t brook any dissent. Without the freedom to choose, how can Muslims hope to get out of the ghetto?

Earlier, the fundamentalists in our country were also opposed to polio drops; they are still doing that in Pakistan; in December last year, they killed half a dozen health workers who were trying to immunize children from the crippling disease.

In general, the Muslim clergy create and sustain an ecosystem that strikes at any move to bring improvements in health, sanitation, food, and education. They offer and impose strict prescriptions and proscriptions everything from hygiene and proper behavior to books and movies. Obedience is expected; disobedience is frowned upon, sometimes squashed. Dissent is treated harshly.

But in the ivory tower in which Amartya Sen lives, such facts—or, for that matter, any facts—don’t matter. Empirical evidence is not allowed to pollute the purity of the Theory. After all, what is important is the Theory, even if it ends up killing over 100 million people in China, the erstwhile Soviet Union, Cambodia, North Korea, and other unlucky nations. And the Theory has no place for individual liberty. Nor does the venerable economist.

(also published also on South Asian Idea)


  1. malaydeb /

    Amartya Sen should be stripped of his Nobel prize forthwith and Ravi Shanker Kapoor should be awarded instead on the strength of this article alone.

  2. I take issue with the dual propositions that Ravi Shanker Kapoor provides here. On the one hand he says that development without the freedom of speech and expression (FSE) would lead to a Saudi Arabia and on the other, he says that no development is possible without the freedom of speech and expression.
    To begin with, there are inherent contradictions in his argument because these propositions, juxtaposed against each other talk of two different scenarios- one with development and one without but the former reflecting the absence of FSE and the latter, its presence.
    Further, the issue here seems to be the FSE of the filmmakers and not the impoverished population and I am quite certain the filmmakers are rather well to do. I think Sen appropriately restricted himself by not talking about the allegation of violation of FSE of the filmmakers. As this article tries to prove, he did not think of FSE in a scenario where Kapoor’s first proposition seems relevant i.e. absence of FSE as an obstacle in the path of development of the poor.
    Beyond these structural issues, the claim that Sen purposefully prioritized education, health and so on seems to be completely out of sync with the complexity of Sen’s idealogical underpinnings is coming from which could perhaps be understood with a more nuanced understanding of what Sen has always claimed. Sen in his widely accepted thesis has espoused that poverty can be understood as not having the capability to lead a life that the person has reason to value. He thus underscores the importance of freedom of choice of the individual. Hence, the issue it seems, is not so much whether or not the FSE of the individual is being protected but whether or not the population has enough capability to lead a life of their choice. At this juncture only I agree with Kapoor that development without the basket of freedom is pointing towards the direction of countries which are prosperous with no FSE as such. However, if even there women cannot lead their own lives how can we claim there is development? There very much is poverty and our task is to ensure that in India, every section of the population including women can lead lives which they themselves value.
    When Sen said that talks on the issue (in all fairness, he did not say, as the article itself suggests, what the specific issue is, over which he chose to keep quiet) would only distract from other critical issues such as health, hygiene and so on, I am sure what he meant was not that FSE can be sacrificed but that the FSE of the population which was directly affected by the banning of the film was only marginally affected when it came to leading a life which they had reason to value. Discussion on this from Sen would perhaps distract the attention Sen’s intervention requires in issues such as health and hygiene which directly affect a huge population which is devoid of even the basic capabilities. On the question of state support that Kapoor talks of, I believe that the enjoyment of liberty and FSE is a part of the basic capabilities that every man, woman and everyone in else require to lead a life of their choice. Courts in India have highlighted that there can be no hierarchy of fundamental rights. But this article, while trying to claim that Sen reduced the importance of FSE, also tries to present a picture of an extraordinary importance to the FSE. FSE can only be a component of the basic human capabilities everyone needs. The proportionate emphasis required on each component can never be set in stone.
    And quite frankly, in as much as I am a strong supporter of freedom and genuinely believe rules of freedom present a managerial response to a dynamic issue, I challenge everybody supporting this piece to descend from their high horses and pontificate on the virtues of FSE to the dying population who cannot afford two square meals a day. Try telling them that it is all right that you have limited food till you also have the FSE and you will get your answer.

  3. @Kushank Sindhu

    Brillintly articulated. The author had to give a little twist in what Sen has said by making the argument in a binary of ‘one, or the other’. He himself leaves a rider somewhere in the article…”he may not have said it in these words”. Once he sets the agenda to his level of comfort he goes on to peddle his raving and ranting against UPA, pro-poor economic policies but not without flogging the favourite horse of the Hindu right-wingers, the Muslims.

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