Ignoble Don — The Lies, Prevarication, and Mischief of Prof. Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. The award citation said that his research was on “… how individuals’ values can be considered in collective decision-making and how welfare and poverty can be measured. His efforts stem from his interest in questions of distribution and, in particular, the lot of society’s poorest members”. A Harvard Gazette report on him winning the Nobel Prize says he earned the prize for his work on poverty and famine. The good professor’s net worth is now calculated at $16 million, and we can therefore surmise that studying poverty pays well. To supplement that income, he is now married to Emma Georgina Rothschild, a professor of history at Harvard, and an heiress to the Rothschilds’ family fortune, which is estimated at $400 billion.
This is not the introduction that you would see in the latest interview of the 85-year-old Prof. Sen in The New Yorker which is titled “Amartya Sen’s Hopes and Fears for Indian Democracy” or any of the many, many adulatory articles on the much feted economist/philosopher. Of course not, for “Marty”, as he is known to his close European/white friends and fans, is a “brown sahib” — a smart, handsome (once upon a time), garrulous interlocutor from the “sub-continent” who has tilled the European and American academic ground well, and has leveraged his status in the US and Europe to enjoy power and leverage back in India, whose passport he still carries, and whose ire and wrath against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government since it came to power in 2014 pours out regularly and finds prime Western media space without fail.
While I have not met Prof. Sen, I have been interviewed by one of his close friends (Martha Nussbaum), who dropped this little nugget of information to me (a poor professor teaching at a regional university in Missouri and then earning a meagre $50,000 a year) — that “Marty is busy getting the apartment ready for his daughter in New York City, for which he paid a million dollars” (I am paraphrasing from what I remember from the interview 16 years ago at the Des Moines airport Hilton hotel). I don’t know if it was meant to impress me or bamboozle me, but Prof. Martha Nussbaum went on to write a caricature of a book on Indian politics and democracy, titled, “The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future”. She is one of his staunch admirers and has collaborated with him on many of his poverty ventures. Poverty porn sells well in the West, whose liberals and progressives in the media and academe, as well as in elite policy circles, assuage their civilizational guilt by feting and rewarding the articulate snake oil salesmen from the old colonies.
But this commentary is not about Prof. Sen’s personal foibles and proclivities, except as an aside, but is about his campaign of lies, half-truths, and scare-mongering against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. I will highlight a few of the assertions that Prof. Sen makes in the latest interview published by The New Yorker, and unpack the same to show Sen’s proclivity to exaggerate if not lie:
1. “Then there is quite a large proportion of the Hindu population that is skeptical. Many of them have been shot. Many of them have been put in prison.”
2. “Gandhi was shot by an R.S.S. [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Fascist Hindu movement] member, which is the dominant influence on the B.J.P. today. But they were not in office. We didn’t feel threatened because they seemed like a fringe.”
3. “I was quite surprised how the business community, not just two or three that are often quoted as the big donors, they got support from the bulk of the business community.”
4. “People are afraid now. I have never seen this before. When someone says something critical of the government on the phone with me, they say, “I’d better talk about it when I see you because I am sure that they are listening to this conversation.”
5. “The newspapers don’t get government ads, and they probably don’t get many private ads, either, if the government is against you.”
6. “One of his big successes has been to get the court to squash the case against him and the Home Minister, Amit Shah, in the Gujarat killings of 2002. And so lots of Indians do not believe it.”
7. “I saw Hindu-Muslim riots, including a Muslim day laborer who had come to our largely Hindu area and got knifed by the local Hindu thugs. I was playing in the garden, and he came in profusely bleeding, and he came looking for help and water. I shouted to get my father and I did get a glass of water. He was lying on my lap. My father took him to the hospital, and he unfortunately died there.”
Let us take each statement, seriatim, and show how cussed Prof. Sen’s comments are and how The New Yorker interviewer does not bother to challenge or question Prof. Sen on any of these assertions. The first assertion is that the Modi-led government has put “many” Hindus, opposed to the BJP, either in prison or they have been shot (killed). He does not give any numbers, any names, anything at all. Readers who may not know about India in any detail are sure to buy this nonsense from the Nobel laureate. What is the truth? In this report, published in the mainstream English-language newspaper, Hindustan Times, we are told that seven people — activists and journalists — all Hindu — were killed between 2013 and 2017. When we read the list, we find out that four of them were killed before the Modi-led government took office! Of the seven killed three were Hindi-language news reporters who were killed by Maoists, or by those affiliated with other regional political parties. These murders had nothing to do either with the BJP government, its policies, or its politicians. So, the only two people who were killed after the BJP government came to power were M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, both of whom were killed in the south Indian state of Karnataka, where the BJP government was not in power. Four years after the murders (one in September 2015 and the other in September 2017) there has been only partial progress in one case and no real progress in apprehending the assassins/killers in the other case. This, even though the government in Karnataka was a Congress Party/Janata Dal (Secular) led government, which put a very large investigation/police team to hunt down the assassins. As to the case of Gauri Lankesh, who has been given hero status in European and American newspapers, including The New York Times, The Columbia Journalism Review, and the BBC, it is also known that she was collaborating with a variety of extremist/murderous organizations and that her family-owned newspaper was nothing more than a scurrilous tabloid, and that she was quarreling with her brother over the ownership of the tabloid.
Excerpt #2 — Amartya Sen charges that Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member, and the RSS is a “fascist Hindu movement”. While it is true that Nathuram Godse and his brothers were members of the RSS, they had basically moved over to the Hindu Mahasabha, got disillusioned, and had specifically chosen to work in the political arena, which the RSS had forsworn from, and that it was a small group of conspirators from the Hindu Raksha Dal who carried out the assassination without any knowledge of others in the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. A careful accounting of Godse’s rationale and impetus for assassinating Gandhi is a must but then someone like Prof. Sen, known for his political gamesmanship, cannot be the one to do so. As to the label “fascist”, much beloved by left/progressive ideologues, we have to wonder that if indeed the RSS movement is fascist, and why the BJP government, inspired by this “fascist” movement, has allowed for regular elections (state, local and national) and in which it has participated, lost some elections, put no constraints on political campaigning, and has maintained the federal structure of the Indian state. But then, labels can be flippantly used without consequence by ideologues who have no reason to fear pushback from a democratic government or by the media/academic establishment which has been completely owned by the “left/progressive” groups in India.
Excerpt #3 — It shows how easy it is for Amartya Sen to get away with a smear against India’s/Hindu business communities. That he can snidely charge the Hindu business communities of aligning with the BJP, which he accuses of Hindu extremism, and get away with it goes to show how acceptable it is to make these kinds of charges, allegations and characterization of Hindu business communities without any consequence — moral or legal. Yes, indeed, in modern Indian politics caste affiliations, allegiances, and accommodation is a terrible bane, but it is the BJP that has sought to transcend caste/jati affiliations to appeal to all Hindus/Indians.
Excerpt #4 — Prof. Sen claims people are afraid now to even talk over the phone fearing that their calls might be monitored by the government — a “Big Brother Hindu State” as it were. But phone tapping has been done by different governments over the decades and the Congress Party governments, whose largesse Prof. Sen has enjoyed much, were some of the worst culprits when it came to tapping phones for political purposes. In fact, the Congress Party he so very much supports has been the least coy in the history of post-independent India to exercising political muscle, having dismissed state governments for political expediency, and for the internal emergency it imposed between 1975–77. The communist government that ruled his home state, West Bengal, has also been known for political violence, and the present government in that state is equally complicit in perpetrating the worst kind of violence on its citizens. All these governments have used the state government machinery and phone tapping for surveillance of the opposition. In the instance of Karnataka, one of the south Indian states, phone tapping has led to the fall of governments over the past three decades. But what Prof. Sen asserts, without an iota of evidence, about the Modi government is merely meant to provoke, cast aspersions, and gain political mileage without cost.
Excerpt #5 — Regarding the BJP government’s decision to freeze government advertising in specific newspapers for a while, it is indeed true that the Modi government had briefly stopped advertising in three major English language newspapers, but it is in the nature of the quid pro quo between newspapers and the government, both at the state level and the central government level, that such use of government leverage has been par for the course over the past seven decades. To single out the Modi government therefore is pure mischief on Prof. Sen’s part. What he also fails to note, however, is that the three major newspapers that were targeted by the government had over the past five years received some of the largest amount of government ad spending., with the Times of India group receiving the largest amount of government ad money. The Congress Party spent huge amounts of tax-payer money on ads in newspapers on the twenty-seventh anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s death, clearly a ploy to win influence, seduce media coverage, for example. The story of how Ramnath Goenka, the publisher of the Indian Express group of newspapers, withstood the pressure from Indira Gandhi’s government is easily forgotten by Prof. Sen who seems to conjure up fears about the BJP government to distract people’s attention from the crimes of ones whom he has supported and whose party leaders he has supped with. Ironically, it was the BJP-led government that in 1999 bestowed the highest honors on Prof. Sen, the Bharat Ratna! That people are angry at Prof. Sen for his non-stop attacks on Prime Minister Modi and the BJP government should be no surprise, and that a few of them have asked that he be stripped of the Bharat Ratna should also come as no surprise. Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati, who has done more substantial and sustained work in economics, and who has been among the short list of nominees for the Nobel Prize in economics, has mocked Prof. Sen for saying that he would return the highest award if the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asked him to do so!
Excerpt #6 — Prof. Sen claims that Prime Minister Modi and his now Home Minister Amit Shah have pressured courts to squash cases against them in the Gujarat 2002 riots cases. This is such balderdash and a bald-faced lie that we wonder how The New Yorker would countenance such lies. Prime Minister Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, and Home Minister Amit Shah, as home minister of Gujarat, complied with edicts from both state courts and the investigation ordered by the Supreme Court of India, during the time when the Congress Party was in power between 2004 and 2014. The Special Investigation Team set up by the Supreme Court of India absolved Modi of any wrongdoing.
Excerpt #7 — While Prof. Sen remembers a Muslim man stabbed and stumbling into his childhood home bleeding, sometime in 1944 (?), 1946 (?) in Dacca, and dying in the hospital, he does not remember the 1946 riots in Kolkata (then Calcutta) when Muslim leaders instigated the riots, and thousands of Hindus were massacred, raped, and bludgeoned before Hindus began to retaliate and brutalize in kind. It was the call for “Direct Action” by the Muslim League Council that led to one of the bloodiest massacres in twentieth century history. What Prof. Sen also conveniently forgets or ignores is that the war of liberation of Bangladesh in which a large majority of the people killed and women raped, by Pakistani soldiers and their East Pakistan abettors, were Hindu. What Prof. Sen also conveniently masks is that the Hindu population in Pakistan, which was about 15 percent in the West Pakistan part of Pakistan in 1947, and 31 percent in the East Pakistan part of Pakistan has now been reduced to about 1.5 percent in Pakistan (West Pakistan) and about 8 percent in Bangladesh (East Pakistan). Some peg the percentage of minorities in Pakistan in 1947 at 23 percent. But then, Prof. Sen sheds no tears for his fellow Hindus but harps on the “protection of minorities”. There have been no communal riots in any BJP ruled state or in the country over the past five years. How come? That he fails to mention the work of Gary Bass, the American envoy in Dacca, who wrote the book, “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide”, in which he estimates that at least 300,000 people were killed, a vast majority of them Hindus, by the Pakistani soldiers and their many local Muslim abettors, is another indicator of the blinkers Prof. Sen continues to wear, and which allows him to magically target Hindus as perpetrators and Muslims as victims. There is no accounting for this Humpty-Dumpty world of Prof. Sen and his “progressive” ilk.
Prof. Amartya Sen, some felt, did not deserve the Nobel Prize for Economics. And his concoctions about “functionings” and “capability” have also been challenged but in the carefully curated and managed public websites, much of the criticism of Sen’s gobbledygook does not find mention. And that Amartya Sen not only ignores the massive undertakings of the Modi government — to build toilets and stop people from open defecation, to offer cooking gas connections to millions of households, to offer simple, direct access to banking services to the poor and marginalized farmers and small businesses so that they can escape the vicious grip of the middleman and corrupt government bureaucrats — goes to show that he is not just an unfair evaluator of government policies but an unethical manipulator of public sentiments. What can we make of these Indian public intellectuals, Nobel Prize winners, much sought after by the “liberal/progressive” deep state actors in the West, when their view of the world is so cussed, blinkered, and partisan?
Note: This article has been updated and edited based on feedback from the editors of Medium. A version of this article appears in the online magazine Swarajya.