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‘Crackdown on protests shows govt’s brutal claws, leaves it open to ridicule’: Amartya Sen

"Young people being in the forefront of political rebellion is not uncommon. More strikingly, women's leadership, especially that of young and minority women, has been very prominent. This gives the protests much greater reach and force," Sen said.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |
Updated: March 1, 2020 7:50:44 am
“We fought hard for a secular democracy during India’s Independence movement. That commitment remains important,” Sen said. (Express photo: Abhinav Saha)

Nobel Laureate and philosopher and economist Prof Amartya Sen speaks to The Indian Express about the ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, National Register of Citizens and National Population Register, and the Delhi violence:

* What do you make of these protests across the country?

When the executive and legislative actions of a government depart fundamentally from the requirements of secularism and democracy in the Indian Constitution, it is not surprising that protesting voices will arise from across the country. We fought hard for a secular democracy during India’s Independence movement. That commitment remains important.

* What is the most significant feature of these protests?

These protests are important in at least two respects. First, protest movements can play a significant role in influencing electoral outcomes. Second, even without an election, protests give people an opportunity to get their voices heard. And if the protests are subdued through authoritarian intervention, with attempts to incarcerate protesters without proper judicial assessment, the government ends up revealing to the public — at home and abroad — its brutal claws. Distorted use of legal terms, such as a tendency to describe ‘dissent’ as ‘sedition’, can also generate ridicule, in addition to providing evidence of intolerance.

“The Tricolour belongs to the nation, and the national anthem belongs to the people. To dispute the government’s views or actions cannot be portrayed as ‘anti-national’. Democratic rights stand behind it,” Sen said.

* Young persons, especially women, have been at the forefront of this movement. How significant is that?

Young people being in the forefront of political rebellion is not uncommon. More strikingly, women’s leadership, especially that of young and minority women, has been very prominent. This gives the protests much greater reach and force.

The regional picture is important too. The fact that women’s leadership in the contemporary protests has often come in states where women have traditionally had a low voice (North India for example) is very important. The regional pattern of gender inequality in India was investigated in my joint book with Jean Dreze, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (the Expanded Edition of which is just coming out), and some of the states in which women’s deprivation is strongest (particularly in terms of neglect of girls vis-à-vis boys and also in terms of the prevalence of selective abortion of female foetuses), such as Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, they have played a very active role in the leadership of the current protest movements.

* Protesters have embraced the Constitution as well as national symbols usurped by the Right. How crucial is that?

This is hugely important. Authoritarian governments often pretend that they stand for the nation, so that ‘anti-government’ is often seen as ‘anti-national’. But in a democracy, a government is only a part of the State, and of course it is nowhere near being the sole spokesman for the nation. The Tricolour belongs to the nation, and the national anthem belongs to the people. To dispute the government’s views or actions cannot be portrayed as ‘anti-national’. Democratic rights stand behind it.

“The power-holders of today have reason to recognise the tentative nature of their power. They also have reason to recognise that historical judgments of transgressions — large and small — cannot be eliminated once and for all,” Sen said.

* What should the government be doing?

That question is difficult for me to answer — I am not a government advisor. If I am going to be of any use in helping bring about a change, it will be through public discussion. As we know from John Stuart Mill, democracy is ‘government by discussion’. In a public discussion, I would make the obvious point that the government should not — most importantly — be stifling the voices of protest or of opposition. I was happy to see Justice D Y Chandrachud say something like that in a recent speech.

The government can stifle the voices in opposition by trying to ban dissent (calling it sedition is a simple but confused way of doing this), relying on the slowness — or the inability — of the courts to stop such tactics. Or it can get there by using its policing power to allow — and sometimes even to encourage — violence against non-violent dissenters. The recent political experiences in a monolithically governed India do not give people the confidence that authoritarian power is not being misused.

* Where do you see hope?

Courageous dissent is itself a powerful way — as our leaders have taught us (Gandhiji leading the field). Opposition is part of the process of governance. Reasoning itself, which we should try to encourage, can also make clear why even the great holders of power need restraint. World history is full of examples of impermanent tyrannies — large and small. Where did the Latin American oppressors end up?

The power-holders of today have reason to recognise the tentative nature of their power. They also have reason to recognise that historical judgments of transgressions — large and small — cannot be eliminated once and for all. It is not the case, for example, that no one will ask in the future: ‘Why did the peaceful protesters in Northeast Delhi have so little help from police, in fact sometimes just the contrary? How did armed thugs have the opportunity to beat up students at JNU or AMU? How was it possible for a young protester to be roughed up while in custody? Why was a doctored video put in circulation trying to tell a false story about what happened in one campus or other?’.

What gives force to Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetical reminder Hum Dekhenge, written in 1979, includes the understanding that everything terrible being done right now — no matter how cunning it looks today (and how much of a ‘mastermind’ their ‘smart’ planners appear to be at this time) — will come up for assessment at some stage. Faiz was concerned mainly with a dictatorial Pakistani President (Zia-ul-Haq), but the point is perfectly general and applies everywhere.

There is a grand illusion in the implicit tendency of authoritarian rulers to believe that because they have power now, they really have power forever. Even if there is a change, the future won’t be able to judge adversely what is happening now. But, as Faiz knew, the deeds of today will remain open for examination tomorrow. Records will emerge in many different ways. The stories that are championed in a strong-armed way today will not last forever. That is how history is written.

Sen is Thomas W Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University

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