Thoroughly Engaged

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen speaks to Anasuya Basu
about his latest book, Identity and Violence, and
his future projects.

Planning for the future

With The Argumentative Indian and Identity and
Violence
, Amartya Sen seems to have ventured into
a different genre of writing. Was it a conscious
decision prompted by recent developments?

Sen: These two books deal with rather different
problems from most of my earlier work. I
recognized that I was getting into other
territories. But it was a deliberate decision. It
is not the case that I wouldn’t have done these
studies - respectively dealing with Indian
intellectual heritage and the confusion generated
by identity politics and communitarian theories -
without there being the Hindutva-oriented
violence or Islamic terrorism in the world and so
on. But I had conceived of them as primarily
intellectual, if not academic, projects. I didn’t
see them as being immediately relevant for policy
here and now.

I was going to try to explore the long
intellectual background to contemporary India.
But because of Hindutva violence, as well as the
miniaturization of the idea of India that
happened in that politics, the focus had to be
not just on historical interpretation in the
context of understanding contemporary India and
Indian modernity but also on those sectarian and
rather divisive issues which Hindutva brought out.

As a matter of fact, it turned out that the
broader intellectual project I was following had
a lot to say (or at least so I think), and was a
response to precisely these subjects of
divisiveness and sectarianism. So I think if
politics hadn’t intervened, The Argumentative
Indian
would still have come out. But I brought
it forward in my programme of work and pushed
back my book on Theory of Justice that Harvard
University Press has been promising to publish
over the last ten years. But I had to postpone it
given the urgency of the politics in India.

The same thing happened with Identity and
Violence
. I pulled that forward into immediacy
because of 9/11 and the violence that we have
seen since then. Three years before that, in
1998, I gave a talk in Oxford called ’Reason
Before Identity’. This was my Romanes Lecture in
Oxford, quite an old series, originally given by
William Gladstone in 1892. That came out as a
pamphlet. My intention was to pursue the issue of
identity as a philosophical question at leisure.
I brought it forward and I think the casualty was
the Theory of Justice book again because I had to
postpone it, sadly. Now that the second book has
been published also, I am back to working on the
Theory of Justice, which is a rather ambitious
project in moral and political philosophy.

Q: In Identity and Violence, you say that the
tendency to classify people according to their
religion or civilization is wrong. Why are you
equating religion with civilisation? Is not
civilization a much broader category to which
people must belong and identify with?

Sen: Civilizational partitioning need not be
identified with religious identification, in
general. But, unfortunately, that’s the way
civilizational “classifiers” have tended to see
it. Like Samuel Huntington. His categories are
Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization, Buddhist
civilization, Western or Judaeo-Christian
civilization and so on. These have ended up
largely as religious categorizations. This, I
believe, is one of the problems in Huntington’s
thesis.

Second, even if civilization is more broadly
categorized, we still have a further problem.
Take Indic or Arabic or Chinese civilization.
They have a lot of interconnections between them.
So the idea that they have evolved separately and
are competing for our attention and indeed will
undermine each other, given an opportunity - that
view is not a good way of understanding
civilization. But it is the view you get from
theories of ’civilizational clash’.

Third, a person’s identity includes many things,
all of which cannot be put into the basket of
civilization as such. Like class, gender,
political belief, profession, literary taste,
language, interest in sports or games. And all
these would take a variety of forms in any
country, culture or civilization or among
followers of any religion. In some ways, a very
basic mistake is to see a human being in terms of
only one identity, the civilizational identity,
no matter how civilization is defined.

Q: You have devoted a chapter to West and
anti-West. Is not anti-West a product of
post-colonialism?

Sen: Anti-West attitude and post-colonialism are
both products of imperial history. If you look at
the history of the world over the last few
centuries, some people have been extraordinarily
powerful - some white people - and some coloured
or non-white people have been subjected to
Empires. This has changed the landscape in which
we see countries and the people. There is here a
reality of power difference and there is also a
perceptual difference that goes with it. Now in
that context, those who contrast themselves with
the Western people react to it sometimes in the
form of great admiration for the powerful West,
great envy - how can we be more like it. A good
example is what we call in Bengali
’Anglicization’. But there can be, also, much
hostility to the West.

Another more dialectical feature of anti-West
attitude is found in Asian values. The attitude,
as I have discussed in my book, of Lee Kuan Yew,
the architect of east Asian resurgence. He says,
"You say you people (the West) have a great
history of liberty and freedom. We in Asia don’t.
All right, we accept that. But we have something
much better, namely discipline." That is an
anti-West attitude. We cannot lose the tradition
of thinking about freedom in Asia so easily. You
cannot even begin to think about Buddhism without
bringing Mukti into the story. That is diminution.

Similarly, what Akeel Bilgrami, quoted in my
book, discusses that the people living in
colonies tend to think of themselves as ’the
other’, not the sahibs as it were. That again is
a result of the imperial past.

The sense of great anger and getting even, not
imitate them but defeat them, which is reflected
in the terrorism of the anti-Western kind and
particularly of the Islamic anti-West terrorism,
also comes out of the general anti-West idea.
This, too, is much influenced by the real history
of imperialism and takes a particular form.

These different forms of being ’anti-Western’ may
be easy to understand or at least explain, but
they all involve diminishing ourselves by a
self-vision only in the light of our relations
with the West, parasitic on the West. It is an
odd way of seeing oneself, not in terms of what
we stand for, but as people who have been
maltreated by the West.

Q: Will you tell us about the health programme
for India that you are involved with, along with
the support of Manmohan Singh’s government?

Sen: It is a programme of a collaborative kind.
We are very grateful for Manmohan Singh’s
support. It is an interactive programme involving
an initiative to make a change in the public
health situation in India. It is a quite dreadful
situation which many people active in the field
of public health had been agitated about for a
long time. And I too got involved, insofar as I
got into it and partly in terms of my writing
about Indian society, its people, and its
economy. But partly also after I set up the
Pratichi Trust - our studies were concerned with
the delivery of not only basic education but also
basic health services. It became clear how
imperative it was to change the situation. So a
lot of us became involved. It is going to be a
combination of certain individuals, foundations,
the government and some private firms, hopefully
more than has emerged so far.

The project must involve public health personnel
in India, who will have a dedicated and informed
understanding of the nature of public health
problems and how they can be addressed and dealt
with. Besides, a lot of organizational changes
are needed in the delivery of public healthcare.
For example, to make sure that doctors turn up
when they are needed, patients, particularly poor
patients, are not referred to private medication
which they cannot afford and get thoroughly
exploited by a combination of quackery and
crookery. We want to make a change in the way
public health delivery functions in India,
especially for the rural poor.

Q: How often will you be coming to this part of the country now?

Sen: I used to come six times a year when my
mother was alive. She died at the age of 93. I
visited this part partly due to her and partly
for other work. The latter has not changed. So I
expect I will be coming here four to five times a
year. I don’t see that changing radically.

P.S.

* From “The Telegraph”, April 19, 2006. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | 28 April, 2006 | Dispatch No. 2243.

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