Every year when the Nobel Prizes are announced, Indians lament that they have been deprived of their “due recognition”. Yet when an Indian, such as Abhijit Banerjee, is awarded the Nobel Prize, Indians, as a whole, take no pride in it. India does not love its Nobel laureates. Nor does the rest of South Asia. Pakistan and Bangladesh too, berate and belittle their laureates. South Asian laureates are treated in a shabby manner at home, as if they are undesirables, best got rid of.
This year, the response was somewhat mixed. Generally, “progressive” sections of the intelligentsia cheered when the prize was awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, along with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. Though there were conspicuous exceptions.
Bengalis felt they had a particular reason to be proud. Banerjee, though a US citizen now, is a Bengali. Bengalis have produced five of the 10 Indian Nobelists, beginning with Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, the two foreigners — Ronald Ross in 1902, for discovery of the malaria parasite, and Mother Teresa in 1979. The other two are Amartya Sen in 1998 and Banerjee in 2019. Of the three laureates from Madras (now Chennai), the first, Sir C V Raman, who got the Nobel in Physics in 1930, worked in Calcutta. While Tagore was the first Asian to receive the Nobel (for literature), Raman was the first Asian to get one in the sciences. Both had a Bengal connection.
Bengalis may also recall that when Abdus Salam, the Pakistani laureate in Physics, came to India, he went to his pre-Partition physics teacher Anilendra Ganguly’s house in Calcutta. Salam placed his Nobel medal in Ganguly’s hands and said, “Sir, this is yours, not mine”. Modesty muzzles the Bengali from claiming credit for that Nobel.
While the prime minister and a galaxy of eminent individuals greeted Banerjee, there were big names in academia and public life, including Union ministers, that trolled and trashed this year’s Nobel winner and his seminal work which is part of a global trend among economists concerned with the poor. All because Banerjee did not endorse demonetisation, criticised the GST implementation and had his evidence-based poverty alleviation proposals, including the scheme for a minimum income, lauded by parties other than the BJP.
Though the applause for his Nobel is fulsome, Banerjee’s focus on choices of the poor as opposed to the structural causes of poverty is debatable. This is a matter of ideology, difference in approach and something that concerns him and his peers, although it affects public policy. It is not a reason to be churlish about his Nobel. Just as Amartya Sen and Raghuram Rajan, in spite of their divergences, can be civil, have a dialogue and support each other at times, Banerjee’s peers should applaud him unabashedly now, as some of the leftists, particularly those from JNU, have done. In fact, being from JNU earned Banerjee much applause and support across academia and the thinking class. Above all, if his focus is on poverty, regardless of his method, his heart is in the right place.
Banerjee’s Nobel has earned him a vastly more flattering response at home than Amartya Sen or Kailash Satyarthi, who in 2014, shared the Peace Prize along with Malala Yousufzai of Pakistan.
India’s philosopher-economist Sen has been vilified for his criticism of Narendra Modi — for the killing of Muslims in Gujarat under his watch in 2002. Sen is outspoken on issues of identity and academic freedom, and the majoritarian forces resent this. Instead of being honoured, valued and utilised in national interest, Sen was hounded out of the Nalanda University. The campaign of calumny and slander against Sen may have abated, but it continues.
Satyarthi and Malala were not cause for celebration in either India or Pakistan. Far from home, in the mid-December Nordic winter, snow-bound Oslo came alive with Prize-related events where Satyarthi and Malala were the toast of the town. They were feted as one for their work on child rights, without any trace of the hostility that marks India-Pakistan ties. But, many in India, including in the government, felt it was no honour, as the focus was on child rights, where India has a poor record.
Malala, who was forced by extremists to flee abroad for her life, did not evoke even a single cheer in Pakistan. Living in the West has earned her enemies at home where she’s seen as an agent of anti-Islamic forces. Sadly, she was not sought after elsewhere in South Asia either.
The benign “neglect” of Satyarthi and Malala, compared to the shabby treatment meted out at home to Pakistan’s Abdus Salam and Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, is no cause for comfort. Somewhat like Sen, Yunus had a hard time in Bangladesh: He was reviled, including by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and ousted from the board of the iconic institution that epitomises his work, and which inspired the micro-credit movement worldwide. Pakistan refused to accept Salam, one of the world’s greatest physicists, as one of its own because he was an Ahmadiya — an excommunicated Muslim minority. Pakistan disowned both Salam and Malala.
It is cold comfort that Indian laureates are not consigned to obscurity (like Salam in Pakistan or Yunus in Bangladesh) when South Asia treats its globally acclaimed eminences in such a despicable manner.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 1, 2019 under the title ‘Our unloved laureates’. The writer is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. He was invited to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2014.