Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s new book is a collection of essays, brought out by the Oxford University Press in collaboration with The Little Magazine. In this wide-ranging interview, he speaks to Amrita Dutta about his assessment of Narendra Modi’s first year as PM, researching gender in the 1960s, his love for Sanskrit literature, and what judo can teach those who frame social policy.
The Country of First Boys is the title of your new book, a collection of essays. Could you talk a bit about what the phrase is trying to say?
When I was growing up in Bengal, it was a big thing: ‘Who is the first boy in class?’ It had to be a boy, and, second, he had to be a great achiever. And it didn’t matter what the others did. I found it very offensive, even as a child. There are three things here. One, there is a strong gender preference, which is characteristic of India, much more so than we often recognise. If you compare India with Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, not to mention China, we come out worse in female life expectancy, female literacy, female schooling, female survival. The previous government did not do enough, but the present government is doing less than enough.
The second thing is the concentration on the more successful and neglecting what happens to the rest. [Of course], we see great successes. Indians go abroad and run institutions, whether it be Microsoft or Deutsche Bank. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of people from whom we have no expectations, nor do they have any expectations from themselves. The third point is that success or failure depends a great deal on social stratification, on caste, class, community and so on.
A year on, how do you read the PM as a leader? Were some of your fears about Narendra Modi unfounded? Were some confirmed?
The positive thing about Modi, which I recognized even earlier, was that he was telling people: we can get things done. I admired it then, I admired it now. The problem begins with what it is that he wants to get done.
I think he has a wrong understanding of economic development. You can think of development as a process with human beings at the centre, or you can see it as a process with financial and industrial leadership [at the centre]. He definitely belongs to the latter [school of thought]. You need the financial leaders, no doubt, you also need the industrial entrepreneurs. But humanity has to be in the middle. The previous government also failed in that but they were trying to correct a bit with [schemes like] Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, funding for which has just been cut. Funding for school meals too has just been cut. I don’t think we recognise how out of tune India is with Asia, because the Asian model of economic development has been to combine the power of the market economy with human beings having the capability to lead a good life. There is some idea that you first become rich, and then raise the level of human development. But every country that has been successful, whether we look at Europe and America, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China or Thailand, has concentrated on raising human capability along with the power of market economy. We pay no attention to that, as if the quality of human beings is not central to human development. If India was bad at that earlier, it’s worse at it now.
I can’t say I am disappointed, I was expecting that. Because they were playing up Gujarat, which may have had a high growth rate but has neglected the human side—recently the Economist ran an article on how its immunisation rates are lower than Bihar’s.
But what made me speak up at the time of the elections was my concern at the Hindutva elements in Modi’s agenda. You see that as an academic very much now, in the interference in the academic administration of the National Book Trust, where A Sethumadhavan has been replaced by an RSS ideologue, or at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations or the Indian Council of Historical Research. There has been that sectarianism [on display]. And despite rhetoric to the contrary, there have been cases of church burning, talk of ghar wapsi. India deserves better than that. In that respect, have I been reassured? I am afraid not.
What is happening at the Nalanda University now? Has some kind of a compromise been worked out?
What happened at Nalanda is a relatively nicer story than either it first appeared and also compared with what is happening to other educational/cultural institutions like ICCR or NBT or ICHR or for that matter TIFR, as well as what might be happening to the IIMs if the bill goes through. The board wanted unanimously me to continue as chancellor, but the government’s advice was clear: under no circumstances. Some people wanted to continue the battle but I thought that would be a mistake. First, because attention was being diverted to a personality issue. Second, it was clear to me that even if my friends in the board were to win in keeping me as chancellor, I could not be an effective leader because I would have to fight the government all the time. But I decided to make it a public affair so that it would be difficult to put a Hindutva ideologue in charge at Nalanda. The government did not want it to be made public at all. They would have loved it if I had quietly slunk away, but that, I am afraid, I was not willing to do.
Did anybody in the government reach out — the PM or the Minister of External Affairs — to you after you spoke out?
They couldn’t reassure me. The ministry of external affairs put out a lot of misleading statements, like ‘Amartya Sen was impatient. We would have liked him to continue’. But the minister did not say so. The minister spoke clearly to the members of the board and said that Amartya Sen wasn’t acceptable. Even if the ministry made public statements, they were at odds with what the minister was saying to the board. I think she was also trying to get a non-Sen solution, and we’ve got a good solution. [Former foreign minister of Singapore George Yeo has been appointed chancellor.] I am happy with the way it has turned out. If there’s one thing to learn from this, it is that in a democracy, if you are critical of the government, you have to express it. Sitting quietly and grumbling about it is not going to help. That’s not what democracy is for.
Could you talk a bit about your love for Sanskrit literature? What sense does it give you of ancient Indian culture?
Sanskrit and maths were my favourite subjects in school. When the Nobel academy asked me to donate two items to its museum, I gave them Aryabhata’s book on maths, Aryabhatiya, which I had read in Sanskrit in school, and my bicycle. The bike I had used to collect data about the famine period. I would ride to farms in Bengal and get them to open their dusty rooms where they had kept their records. I used it even more while researching on gender and inequality, when I would go to villages near Santiniketan to weigh boys and girls under the age of five. (By the time girls were five, they had fallen behind in terms of weight.) I was very proud that I had become quite good at weighing children. I had a very good research assistant, the first Santhal in her village to get a BA. On one occasion, she called me to help her weigh a teething child. And I did it without getting bitten.
I get an extraordinary positive impression of the past, which makes me very proud. I get an impression of a very cerebrally active society — never as remarkable as the Chinese in observational science — but in the philosophy of science, and the speculation of it, very high brow. On the philosophy of jurispredence. In fact, my book Idea of Justice is based on a distinction that only Sanskrit scholars make, between niti and nyaya. I think Kalidasa’s Meghdootam is extraordinarily important to understanding Indian culture. But my favourite play is Shudraka’s Mricchakatika — and it had a profound influence on my understanding of justice. I also like the Vedas, and I don’t think you have to be a passionate believer in Hindutva to like it — it is a great book. People don’t even recognise that it is not just a book on religion but also a book on human behaviour. Some of the verses are absolutely overpowering. But I don’t at all accept the view that the Vedas had interesting mathematics. It had some arithmetic puzzles, that is all.
When you started analysing women’s health and education with respect to economic growth, in the 1960s, what were the reactions?
I became interested in gender equality when I was in college at Presidency, Kolkata. Marx’s idea of false consciousness, I thought, applied to women. I also did a few papers when I was teaching in Jadavpur University. I was amazed not just at the inequality but the fact that people knew about it and took it for granted. Secondly, if you drew their attention to it, they would give you lectures about culture. I was told that this was a Western point of view, that Indian women do not think of themselves as individuals, but as an extension of their families. I had an argument at the Delhi School of Economics in the 1960s, and I said this was a form of ultimate denial of a person’s individuality, which is one of the huge possessions we have. That is the way inequality survives, by making underdogs become upholders of the inequality.
Are you working on any books right now?
I wrote a mathematical book when I was at the Delhi School of Economics, it was published in 1970, called Collective Choice and Social Welfare, which I hope I am not being immodest when I say that it had quite an influence in the literature that followed in economics. A lot of people have grumbled that I should write a follow-up. But then some people, including the big influence on my economic thinking, Kenneth Arrow, told me that it’s a classic, you can’t change it. So I have begun adding a few chapters to it, and I am about half-way there.
I am also writing something of a memoir, not to be confused with an autobiography. It is not about what happened, but about what I thought. I have reached the age of 12 or 13, so I have a long way to go.
You were around 11 when you first saw the ruins of Nalanda. What has the idea of Nalanda come to mean to you?
I remember being bowled over, especially at the sight of the excavations at the site. That’s when I thought I should do something about it. So my ability to lead the first stage of the Nalanda revival has been a fulfillment of a dream. The idea of Nalanda emphasises that human progress has always been linked to thinking, and not just doing. Secondly, that Indians were capable of building and running such a university at that time is a matter of considerable pride. They were teaching religion and philosophy, but also medicine, public healthcare, linguistics, certainly astronomy—in a way that is distinctly modern. Third, Nalanda attracted people from everywhere. They were ready to sit down together and discuss things together, resolve differences through discussion.
You have lived all your life on university campuses, haven’t you?
My father was a teacher, my grandfather was a teacher. One reason I haven’t retired even though I am 81 is because I love students, and they like me. Ultimately, when I look back on my life, the thing that I am happiest with is that I was a teacher.
You have written for decades on India’s education. What was your experience of school like?
I was very lucky because I went to a very nice school in Santiniketan. [Before that], I had a little over a year at St Gregory’s School in Dhaka, which was very keen on performance. After I got the Nobel, I visited the school. The headmaster said they had started a few scholarships in my name. He also said he got out my old exam scripts to inspire the students. Inspire, I said? ‘That was my hope,’ said the headmaster. But then he checked that my position in class was 33rd in a class of 36, and he wondered whether it was a good idea.
I have to say I became a relatively good student once I went to Santiniketan, where no one worried about grades, it was almost shameful to worry about them. One of my teachers described a classmate of mine: “She is quite an original thinker, even though her grades are very good.” I liked that aspect: there was no pressure to be a first boy.
Not only were there girls with me (I was in school in the 1940s) but my mother was also schooled there earlier. She was proud of the fact that she did judo there, 90 years ago. She must have been one of the first Indian women to do judo. She had a Japanese teacher, who for the first week, only taught them how to fall without hurting themselves. In some ways, the idea of what happens to those who fall seems to me not just an approach fit for judo, but for humanity at large—and for social policy.