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How to (attempt to) put words into Amartya Sen’s mouth ( and be caught ) August 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, media, rant.
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Ashish Kumar Sen of Outlook, an irresistably left-leaning English magazine from India, conducted an interview with Amartya Sen last week. Here in this post, I shall paste the questions put to Prof. Amartya Sen and how Prof. Sen started off answering them. There is a pattern here that clearly indicates how the interviewer made a consistent attempt at putting words into Prof. Sen’s mouth. This might either be submissive servility since Prof. Sen’s left of center views are well known or worse still, an attempt to get Prof. Sen endorse the interviewer’s ( and therefore the magazine’s ) views. Prof. Sen appears to me more as a modern liberal than an Indian Socialist.

If you do read the interview, you will realize that the heading given to the interview – “Hope India Now Doesn’t Get Too Hung Up On Cultivating Power To Feel For The Other Side!” does not in anyway provide a gist of the interview, nor the dominating thought. If at all, it states and predictably so, what the magazine thinks and wants you to think.

Note : I have pasted 8 out of 10 questions that were asked and have not pasted entire answers by Prof. Sen. Please visit the original page for the entire transcript of the interview.

Q : Do you think the estimation of India as a global player is already in excess of reality?A :

This has not happened yet to any great extent, since there is such a backlog of underestimation from the past (China, for example, is only beginning to take India more seriously, after looking down on India fairly substantially for many decades).Q :

What explains this change in perception: is it related to the fact that India is doing things differently? Or is it more because India has chosen to forsake its socialist past and embrace a model of economic growth that has the endorsement of global powers, notably the United States?A :

I’m not sure what you mean by India’s socialist past. A country that failed to achieve the most elementary progress that most socialist countries in the world achieved easily (despite their failures in many other fields), namely universal schooling and basic education supported by the state, primary healthcare for all provided by the state, comprehensive land reforms and so on which pre-reform Russia, pre-reform China, Cuba, Vietnam and other socialist countries achieved, can hardly be described as a socialist country. If, however, by ‘socialism’ you mean an over-extended and counterproductive state-based system of license raj, stifling domestic enterprise and the development of modern industries and the modern services sector, then certainly that change has been important, though it need not involve any necessary abandonment of the ideal of egalitarian humanism that has been central to the socialist vision presented by Jawaharlal Nehru and others who led India to political independence.Q :

One reason for the change in perceptions of India is the achievements of its diaspora, particularly in the US and the United Kingdom. What does the diaspora mean for India? Should India be basking in its glory?

A :
Certainly the diaspora’s success abroad has played a big part in greater interest in India and also helped a fuller appreciation of the creative talents in India. There is however no question of basking in the glory of the diaspora since its achievements, while important, are limited and the job that needs to be done at home, especially through removing poverty, illiteracy and bad healthcare have an urgency that the success of the diaspora does not in any way reduceQ :

The consumption pattern of urban middle-class Indians is becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts of the West. From household goods to food to cultural products, there is now a close resemblance between Indians and those in the West. Are Indians becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts in the West? If so, what are the perils of this trend?A :

The increase in global contact and association has led to much greater homogeneity of the consumption of the rich across the world—it is not an isolated trend exclusive to India (you see it in Rio, Accra and Johannesburg as well as in Mumbai and Shanghai). This is, in a basic form, an age-old phenomenon……Q :

Even as India strives to become a global power, politically and economically its social indices remain poor. In terms of human development, India lags far behind. Has India become less caring? How does it dovetail with India’s quest to become a global power? And what kind of future do you envisage for the poor as India changes?A :

You are absolutely right to point to India’s relatively poor record in human development. This is not a new phenomenon, so it is not a question of India becoming ‘less caring’ than in the past, but the old problem of the neglect of social facilities and of the development of human capabilities which has not been adequately addressed or removed. ….
Q :
To what extent is this change in perception an outcome of globalisation, where knowledge of English has become a skill that counts. A large number of Indians, even in villages, want to go through the English system of education. What do you think could be the perils of this trend?A :

Certainly globalisation has made English something like a lingua franca of the world. We have to accept that, without seeing globalisation and the spread of English as a necessarily problematic phenomenon. Indeed, I do not see the wide interest in learning English as a regressive force, since the use of the English language both allows India to speak to the world and serves as the medium through which Indians from across the country can share their technical knowledge and social and political dialogue. If the interest in English were to eclipse the interest in India’s enormously rich languages, with its rich literature and long histories, that would be a loss, but that is not the situation now and future dangers too can be avoided through giving the issue our conscious attention. It is possible to be both interested in the richness of India’s own culture and heritage and take an interest in the cultures and achievements of the rest of the world, in exactly the way that Rabindranath Tagore discussed so eloquently and convincingly. There is no necessary conflict between ‘the home’ and ‘the world’, if we continue to stand on our own feet and look at the world with interest and involvement, rather than with docility and slavishness. …..

Ashish, you are, I note from your website, are a seasoned journalist. Why then dont you appear to have got a hint of where the interview was going when question and question you appeared to have been rebuffed/corrected by Prof. Sen.

Inspirations and introspections these days are hard to come by at our desk. A river side perhaps. Hill stations, beaches…either way, take a break.

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