Monday, February 14, 2005

Frontline cover story on Amartya Sen

The latest issue of Frontline has several articles on Amartya Sen. Also a lengthy interview. Excellent read, overall. Some excerpts:

    On economic liberalisation:
    My position has been that Indian policymaking and planning have suffered both (1) from "the licence Raj" with an overactive government in some fields (stifling industrial initiative), and (2) from the "neglect of social opportunities" with an underactive government in other areas (such as school education, basic health care, land reforms, micro-credit facilities). Liberalisation addresses the first problem, but not the second.

    There are also issues of local policies, to make a country move forward in benefiting from the opportunities of global exchange of ideas and commodities. The lessons that China offers in this second respect have to be viewed more seriously in India -- there is much to learn from, there. To admire China's performance, but to ignore what makes that possible, cannot be a sensible attitude.

    On the similarity between Hindutva and colonial interpretation of Indian history:
    India's religions and mystical thoughts did not threaten to undermine[the] imperial intellectual distance. There was no great difficulty in providing encouragement and assistance to those who gathered and translated "the sacred books of the east" (as Max Muller did, with support from the East India Company, commissioned in 1847, resulting in a 50-volume collection). But in the standard fields of pure and practical reason, the propensity to see a gigantic intellectual gap between India and the West -- stretching long back into history -- was certainly quite strong.

    The Hindutva activists are, of course, keen to take pride in India's past, but seem to have some difficulty in knowing what to take pride in. The focussing on religion is similar to a part of the British imperial reading of Indian history. The neglect of real Indian science and mathematics, which began flourishing from the first millennium CE, in favour of some imaginary view of "Vedic mathematics" and "Vedic science", plays right into the hands of James Mill's charge of Indian fabrication.

    On affirmative action:
    The whole idea of merit is a contingent one; it really depends on what things are to be valued. We cannot disassociate the idea of merit from the idea of a good society, from the idea that people have reason to value what is seen as merit.

    [The] argument that caste must be avoided in politics can be seen, at least partly, as a move to escape addressing issues of inequality linked with caste. It does depend much on who is invoking caste and why. If the upper caste Hindus want to go around terrorising and killing landless lower caste peasants (as has happened in, say, Bihar), then caste is being used for anti-egalitarian regressive politics. But if caste is used for solidarity of the lower castes in order to demand some right and to have a less unequal society, then it has clearly a positive function. The problem, however, is that even for lower castes, sometimes the identities are so divisive that instead of being a source of solidarity against the top-dogs of society, they end up being internally divisive for bottom-dogs.


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