Conversations with Tavleen Singh and Pratap Mehta

The pervasive elitism of higher education institutions has to be challenged. But their further decimation must also be resisted.

Written by Amartya Sen | Updated: July 19, 2015 8:50 am
amartya Sen, Tavleen Singh, Pratap bhanu Mehta, Tavleen Singh column,  amartya Sen column, indian express Tavleen Singh, bjp government, nda government, narendra modi, modi govt, amartya Sen indian express column, Pratap Mehta column, indian express column, ie column Pratap may well disagree with me that the intervention of political interference in the academic independence of public institutions is much larger and more politically systematic now, in line with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Hindutva rulers.

Since I read Tavleen Singh’s column whenever I am in India (always with enjoyment — and sometimes also with “constructive dissent”), I am delighted to receive questions from her which she wants me to answer (‘Questions for a Nobel laureate’, The Indian Express, July 12). This I will do first, but I will then go on to respond to some very important issues that Pratap Bhanu Mehta has raised about academic freedom (‘Nalanda is a syndrome’, The Indian Express, July 14).

A critic, not an advisor

Tavleen Singh expresses her frustration with me: “What I do not understand… is why Dr Sen as a virtual advisor to the last government did not get Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to change this horrible state of affairs.” But Tavleen (if I may call you that, as a virtual friend), I have never been an advisor — formal or virtual — to either of the leaders named (even though I respect them both, and Manmohan is a very good friend from our student days in Cambridge).

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As a citizen of a democracy, I have always preferred placing my criticisms and commendations in the public domain. In numerous articles and talks (including a speech to the Indian Parliament in 2008 — the first Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture, “What should keep us awake at night”) I have expressed my criticism of the governance of India. My forthcoming book (The Country of First Boys) includes essays written over the last few decades, analysing some of the things that have gone wrong with Indian policymaking, including the persistent neglect of public health and education and policies for gender equity, and the choice of overactivity in things that the government cannot do well (like bureaucratic control), neglecting what it should be able to do well (such as having good public services for all).

READ: Questions for a Nobel laureate Amartya Sen

The old mistakes have been consolidated and magnified by the Narendra Modi government. The funding for public healthcare and school education, which was very meagre under the last government, has been further slashed under the present government (cutting, for example, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and mid-day meals). There were mistakes in the past (about which I have been hollering), but that should not stop us from protesting when the mistakes are enlarged.

The two genocides
Did I protest about the genocide in Delhi in 1984? Of course I did — then and later (for governmental inaction in not bringing the criminals to justice). Tavleen asks, “Did Dr Sen make a statement saying that Rajiv Gandhi had no right to be prime minister?” I did not, but nor did I say that Modi had no such right. Tavleen is confusing here the issue of the “right” to be prime minister (on which I did not express any resistance in either case) with an argument against voting for Modi (which I did present). Did that reasoning take note of Modi’s long history of being a part of the RSS as a pracharak, and was it influenced by my strong reservations about the divisive politics of the Hindutva movement? Of course it did, and it was.

Lessons from Kerala for today
Tavleen is critical of “Kerala’s model of development”. I have never seen Kerala as a “model” (since there were many weak points in its policies), but I have persistently pointed to the lessons to be learned about the rewards of early emphasis on public education and public healthcare for all. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I pointed to the benefits of education and healthcare in raising longevity and the quality of human life, and to the long-run prospect of faster economic growth that human capability development helped generate, I was told that Kerala’s policies were unaffordable because it was one of the poorest states in India. It was not unaffordable, and Kerala has had the highest life expectancy in India for many decades now (in fact, higher than the average of China). And now that the latest data show that this erstwhile poor state, Kerala, has absolutely the highest per capita income in India, can there be a little vindication there?

READ: Another argument

Nalanda and the repeated falsehoods
On Nalanda University, Tavleen is absolutely right that the official website should say more about who destroyed the old campus (rather than just describing them as “invaders”). It is refreshing that Tavleen does not restate the same false charges that some arms of the Modi government and its political allies have been firmly planting in the media, and trying to make them look true by obsessive repetition.

To take this occasion to correct a few of these planted allegations: One, the chancellor receives no salary from Nalanda; two, I have always insisted that Nalanda should be fully accountable and its books should be both internally and externally audited (by the government as well), as indeed they are; three, Nalanda has not spent Rs 2,700 crore as alleged (a BJP hotshot even alleges Rs 3,000 crore), but Rs 46 crore (less than 2 per cent of the constantly repeated misinformation in social media) over its entire period of existence up to the end of the fiscal year 2014-15, including all the preparatory work as well as construction costs so far.

Academic independence with accountability
I come now to political interference in the academic independence of public institutions designed to be autonomous. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has rightly pointed out that this has happened before. I do actually say that in my New York Review of Books essay (“The stormy revival of an international university”, August 13), to which Pratap refers (though not without a superior dig at the journal), but does not cite me as having said that. Pratap may well disagree with me that the intervention is much larger and more politically systematic now, in line with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Hindutva rulers. But whether or not we agree on this, is the presence of past folly any reason for not protesting about what is going on now?

Pratap also plays the elitism card. I sympathise with him there too, but elitism is such a pervasive feature of university education in India, where the majority of people have no good schools to go to, and some — especially girls — may have none at all (or none safe enough with their single-teacher structure). It may be good, but not good enough, to protest about the elitist character of the IITs, IIMs, Delhi University, or — for that matter — Nalanda, without having a line to spare on how terribly biased the opportunity of higher education is in our dear country, and how much talent is smashed into pulp by the biased education pyramid India has constructed. I promise to send Pratap a copy of The Country of First Boys when it is out.

Where Pratap and I may have a real difference is his tendency to think that the general “public does not see” the governmental interventions as bad, and has no sympathy for elite educational institutions. My experience is that the extent of sympathy is strong (I have even had a flood of support on Nalanda, from people unknown to me), and there is even some public pride in having elite institutions in India. The social media hounds may go on with loud denunciations and repeating concocted statistics, but if Pratap would take those organised attacks to be the voice of public opinion, they would have an unearned victory.

There is no lack of understanding of the fact that even though the pervasive elitism of the educational structure has to be challenged, that very large issue cannot be resolved by allowing public educational institutions to be further decimated on grounds that they have had interferences before. The public does understand the need for resistance.

The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University

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  1. V
    Venkat
    Jun 5, 2016 at 9:16 pm
    Mr. Amartya Sen - yes Manmohan Singh and you were personal friends. MMS needed to appease LKAdvani and LK Advani wnted to further harm his former daughter-in law Gauri Advani. Gopa Sabharwal was hand picked for the job. The disgusting bit is that Gopa Sabharwal willingly accepted to harm her own sister Madame Gauri Advani who also suffers from Chronic Epilepsy. Gopa Sabharwal was THEN given A Diplomatic Pport to save her from illegal and unlawful acts in the UK and India AS her sister is a conically disabled person in UK. Such was the wretchedness and sickening behaviour of the UPA-II government. WHY DOES GOPA SABHARWAL NOT HAVE THE GUTTS TO SPEAK OF HER OWN SISTER OR HER EPILEPSY - AS THE ATTEMPTS TO KILL GAURI ADVANI THANKFULLY FAILED. THIS GOPA SABHARWAL NEEDS TO BE IN POLICE CUSTODY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND CRIMINAL ACTS OF DISABILITY RELATED CRIMES AGAINST GAURI ADVANI.
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      Ivian
      Jul 15, 2015 at 6:53 pm
      At least they have THAT ONE talent, unlike those who spew venom at them, and those who rule this country today.
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        Ivian
        Jul 15, 2015 at 7:01 pm
        Nationalists who hate their own people.
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          Ajay
          Jul 15, 2015 at 12:35 pm
          I can believe he is Nobel laureate with English in this article where are the editors he is in state of loosing brain cells.
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          1. V
            Vivek Nair
            Jul 15, 2015 at 8:20 am
            Excellent response to both Tavleen and Banu Pratap.
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            1. S
              student
              Jul 15, 2015 at 7:52 am
              Good rebuttal. But replying to Tavleen singh is waste of time and paper. She is most biased author in this paper. No article is complete without blaming Nehru, sonia or rahul or congress. There is just crazy blame game and nothing else . But no matter whatever we discuss , politicization of education is going on and will continue. Dont worry we will definitely become Vishwaguru in next 25 years , as Smritiji is there.
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                Bijli
                Jul 15, 2015 at 6:55 am
                Beautiful rebuttal for Tavleen singh. Her argument that anyone who does not agree to the functioning of the present government should have spoken earlier also falls flat on her face. Just because Dr. Sen is telling truth that Bhakts don't want him is not reason for tavleen to present Dr. Sen as pro congress but he is certainly against majority politics. As for 1984 can Tavleen say RSS was not involved in butchering of innocent people just like 2002/1992.
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                  Vikrant
                  Jul 15, 2015 at 5:12 pm
                  Atleast bhakts are nationalist unlike anti national comrades
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                  1. V
                    Vikrant
                    Jul 15, 2015 at 5:08 pm
                    Comrades end up as naxalites maoists and non existant creatures who ruined any country or state they came into power
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                    1. V
                      Vikrant
                      Jul 15, 2015 at 5:03 pm
                      He finds the Muslim invaders great intellectuals and find Hindu rulers of this country culprit. He has good advice on how to spend money but no idea how it should be earned. And his high regards are gor Manmohan singh and Sonia hi one a lapdog and other who controlled most corrupt government post independance
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                      1. V
                        Vikrant
                        Jul 15, 2015 at 5:11 pm
                        Sen clearly says he is against Modi because of his RSS background a Hindutva organization. So his analysis are based on his prejudices. All these years leftists had only agenda spew venom on hinduism and whiteash and present Muslim invasion as glorious years
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                          Vikrant
                          Jul 15, 2015 at 5:53 pm
                          So if Keralites dont go to gulf, kerala would be the poorest state of the country.
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                            Amit
                            Jul 15, 2015 at 9:52 am
                            A completely failed response, probably he could have followed his friend policy - silence is golden. This response doesn't answer Fifth column questions rather it's exposing broken thoughts. Also it's an exhibit to tell world that his book is coming.
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                              Anil Maheshwari
                              Jul 15, 2015 at 9:39 am
                              Dr. Sen must be complimented for answering the questions. It is a good step in the present atmosphere where the space of debate has shrunk to an alarming point. But he has preferred to answer only those questions which suit to him, not the unpleasant questions such as the promotion of 'four friends' from Delhi like the 'four sisters' who once ruled Europe. He has opined that the presence of past folly is not a reason for not protesting about what is going on now. Yes but only someone who protested equally vociferously in the past has a right to protest the follies of the current political dispensation. The columnists, intellectuals and commentators wish to see only what suits to them in this materialistic world.
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                                Anuradha Kalhan
                                Jul 15, 2015 at 3:37 pm
                                Prof Sen must love India too sentimentally to want to respond to Ms Tavleen Singh. Most of us do not even read her for fear of suffering a heart burn (for the space made available to her uneducated, right wing comments ) . But I am glad he has responded and in doing so demolished her. As for us common folk in India not looking up to the few elite / good academic insutions we do have... has he ( Mr Mehta) any idea how many students appear for their entrance exams and how many more parents hope that their children can grow to be eligible to appear !?
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                                  Anuradha Kalhan
                                  Jul 15, 2015 at 10:25 pm
                                  Really . Why not find out the data on number of students taking IIT exams every year or IIM or wanting to get into reputed public funded medical colleges. Is it declining? Whats the data on the number of coaching cles preparing students for these? Are you going to look at/ misread only one page article even if it is Tehelka?
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                                    Ashali Varma
                                    Jul 15, 2015 at 8:02 pm
                                    Amartya Sen is so obviously biased against PM Modi and so much a fan of Mrs. hi he glosses over many facts. One wonders why he did not speak up about the scams that were happening during the Congress rule and is so vociferious now. For a Nobel prize winner in Economics not to even mention or ever say anything against Coalgate, CWG scam, Spectrum etc where the Indian government lost so much revenue makes me suspect that he had a good thing going under the Congress rule!
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                                      A S
                                      Jul 15, 2015 at 8:41 am
                                      I respect Prof Sen for his economic theories, particularly contribution of democratic values for eliminating m starvation deaths. Improvements in health and education is very important if India has to progress. Education and health are state subjects particularly primary education and primary health. Prof Sen must be aware that based on last Finance Commission recommendations large increase in allocation to states has been done. And recent coal auctions has substantially augmented stare coffers. Not mentioning these essential economic statistics is painful that from a Noble laureate in economics. May be a strong personal animosity towards BJP snd Modi in particular is affecting academic objectivity. Mis allocation of money for primary education and health where most budget go towards ries resulting in poor efficiencies of service delivery. The body language during TV debates also shows a pathological dislike for BJP. When can we as Indians start saying that India is more than 5000 years old and not 68 years old ie beginning of Nehru dynasty.
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                                        A.Murali Krishna
                                        Jul 15, 2015 at 11:10 am
                                        Mr. Sen wasted public money, said nearly 2000 crores on Nlanda. He spent time in foreign universities and never spent time for Nalanda. He criticized the policies of present government. His own policy will not give economic empowerment but will make India poorer. He says PM is a dictator. But Mr. Sen wants absolute authority, no accountability,dictatorship and infinite power. Mr. Sen is more political than Mr. ManMohan Singh. Truely an ARGUMENTATIVE INDIAN. As an Indian citizen, I request Mr. Sen keeps quite and does gr root work for developing India, in India.
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                                          Bhogendra Thakur
                                          Jul 15, 2015 at 11:24 am
                                          Bhakts will remain bhakts. They have nothing to do with using their own grey matters. Some of comments to this article prove it once again.
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                                            BHAGWAT GOEL
                                            Jul 15, 2015 at 8:37 am
                                            AMARTYA SEN. STOP YOUR LIES. TELL US WHERE 2000 CRORE GONE. WHY YOU PUT YOUR GIRL FRIEND, NOT UPTO MARK AT THE HELM OF AFFAIRS? WHY THERE ARE NOT EVEN 10 STUDENTS IN NALANDA? YOU CLEARLY APPEAR TO BE A COMMUNIST CROOK. WHAT ADVANTAGES YOU GOT FROM SONIA CONGRESS? IN ANY CASE ALL YOUR THEORIES ARE NO LONGER RELEVANT. SO SHUT UP AND STOP WASTING OUR TIME.THIS GOVT WILL NOT FALL FOR YOUR MACHINATIONS. PRESENTING YOURSELF A VICTIM.
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