Amartya Sen is an iconic world figure. In that treacherous space between economics and philosophy, he may well be the most famous living personality, having published papers in the world’s best philosophy journals and the most highly-regarded economics journals. When he got the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, it did not come as a surprise to anyone in the profession. I have a confession though. That year, I was visiting the World Bank and there was a Nobel lottery among the staff. Having taken a bet on Sen the previous two year’s and lost, I decided it was time to change my guess. And I lost my money again.
I was fortunate to do my PhD with Amartya Sen. In fact, it was his lectures at the London School of Economics in the mid-1970s in jam-packed auditoriums, with students spilling over on to window sills, that made me change my life-long career plan to be a lawyer.
I first met Sen, fleetingly, in Delhi, when I was a student at St Stephen’s College, and he was a professor at the Delhi School of Economics. But I got to know him properly in London in 1972 when I joined the London School. I did my PhD with him, when he was at the height of his career, working mainly on social choice theory, mathematical logic and moral philosophy.
There is no surprise, then, that Sen has been a major influence on me, and that I often cite his works in my writings. What has been a shocking experience in the last three or four years is the amount of trolling attacks unleashed on Sen whenever he is cited in popular writings; these come almost entirely from India. The attacks do not have any substance. Clearly, those crafting the attacks, if crafting is the word, do not have the capacity for serious debate. So what they unleash is merely a volley of completely fact-free name calling. Sen, they scream, is an agent of the Congress party, he is a slave of the West, a brainless puppet and they go on, using language so crude that it is not worth repeating.
What is sad for India is not that a few people may want to shout invectives at him, but that the leaders in government have not said anything to counter this crazy chant of abusive trolls.
I am not saying that the trolling should be banned. People should have the freedom to express their opinions no matter how inchoate, but we need leaders, even those who oppose Sen’s views, to signal their disapproval of this kind of uncouth character assassination directed at one of the most celebrated intellectuals of our time.
I have known Sen long enough to know not just about his outstanding mind, but that he is totally without prejudice against groups — caste, religion, race. Like Nehru was, he is an atheist, who respects other people’s religion; he is totally secular.
Though Sen has openly said that he does not support the present BJP government, he belongs to no party. In fact, the only time he has been a member of any political party, it was that of the left, when he was an undergraduate student in India, at Kolkata’s Presidency College.
What is ironic about these politically-inspired attacks on Sen is that they come from the very Hindutva groups that are perennially pointing out how Indians do not recognise the contributions of Indians to science, philosophy and scholarship. What they do not realise is that whether or not that has been true historically, their behaviour provides evidence in favour of their own thesis.
Not for a moment would I say that Sen’s ideas must not be challenged, contested and rejected if one is so persuaded. It is through arguments and contestation that democracy thrives. These troll attacks on Sen are unfortunate because they are attacks on the very matters on which India, despite being a poor country, stood out and commanded respect around the world. It is a tribute to Nehru and his self-confidence that he nurtured scientists, philosophers and intellectuals, including those who were openly critical of Nehru’s politics.
If I take my own field, economics, it is a remarkable fact that there are few nations outside America and Europe that are so well represented in the frontline as India. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the talent that came out of India was quite astonishing. There was, of course, Amartya Sen but even apart from him it was a string of personalities who started out in India and were doing cutting-edge research in economics. K N Raj, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, T N Srinivasan, A L Nagar, and if we were to go to a slightly younger cohort, Avinash Dixit and Partha Dasgupta stand out among them.
For a nation’s progress, nothing is as important as the nurturing of science, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. Economics is a relatively young science that is now critical for a nation to navigate today’s complicated, globalised world. And in assessing the power of ideas, we must realise that ideas must be assessed for their own worth. Doomed are societies in which people, after hearing about Pythagoras’ theorem, want to know Pythagoras’ political party affiliation in order to decide whether the theorem is correct.