David Barsamian of Alternative Radio talks to Amartya Sen on various influences on his life and his take on issues like globalization.
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Tell me about your family background.
My maternal grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen was also called Sen, as it happened. He was professor of Sanskrit in Santiniketan. In India, the first child was often born in the mother's parental home. So I was born at their house. My parents lived in Dhaka. My father was a professor of chemistry there. My paternal grandfather was a judge, a lawyer. So there was a very spread-out background. My mother, who is close to 90, edits a literary magazine in Bengali. She was also a dancer and played the lead role in several of Rabindranath Tagore's(1861-1941) dance dramas in Calcutta. It was relatively uncommon,for middle-class women to actually dance on the stage. She was quite good at it.
When did Tagore establish the school at Santiniketan?
It was established in the very beginning of the twentieth century. My mother was a student there. I have one sister, Supurna, who now lives in Santiniketan and she also went to school there. We've all been there.
Would it be fair to say in the shadow of Tagore?
To some extent. He was clearly the strongest influence. Later on,thinking about it, I thought that I agreed much more with Tagore than I recognized then, because his presence was so strong there. There wasn't enough contrast. But only when I was thinking about other people who influenced my thinking, like Mahatma Gandhi, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Adam Smith, I did think that Tagore had a very particular role which I wasn't fully aware of at that time.
He was not only a Nobel Prize winner but a Renaissance man, a musician, a writer, a playwright. He did so many things.
A great essayist, too. A visionary man in addition to being extremely talented. And his painting, which was originally thought to have just been a hobby, of course now is very highly prized.
He won the Nobel Prize in 1913. He was celebrated in the West. Then he went into a bit of an eclipse a few decades later.
The appreciation of Tagore was very peculiarly slanted in England and through England else where in the West. It emphasized his religious side. It overemphasized his mystical side, which was not all that strong in reality, and underemphasized his secularism and his interest in science, reason and social equity. It made him into more of a guru figure from the East than he could be fairly described as. While Gitanjali, the book that won the Nobel Prize, is a very fine collection of poetry, many people wouldn't regard that as being his best work in any sense. Those poems are quite often written in a religious style, but in many of them there was a great deal of ambiguity as to whether the addressee is God or a lover.
That's true of much of Tagore's love poetry, either it's a gentle love poem or a devotional poem. That ambiguity is very important because the language is used in a way that transcends that. It's part of one of the schools of Hindu thought that the relation with God is like the relation to a lover. That's certainly not a Christian thought. It's part of the Bhakti movement and the Bauls. The Bauls are kind of the wandering minstrels of Bengal. They are strongly influenced by the Islamic Sufi tradition. But in the rigid hands of W.B. Yeats, possibly the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, Tagore's poems took something of a turn. Yeats was pretty merciless in eliminating all those ambiguities as much as possible and making Gitanjali distinctly mystical and devotional. To a Bengali reader something was lost because ambiguity is a very important part of that poetry. The religious was only one aspect of one side of Tagore. Another aspect was this rather mystical experience with God rather than the fearless, warm friendship; that is a characteristic feature of his religious thought and is also absent. There's no God-fearing devotion there. There isn't very much in Gitanjali either. But some of the affectionate closeness with God is gone. I say that with some hesitation as a non-religious person. It's an intellectual subject one can react to. Something of Tagore's religion is also reduced. He gave a wonderful set of lectures called "Religion of Man" at Oxford in 1930. He also made use of a lot of Baul and Bhakti poetry, from a collection that my grandfather K.M.Sen put together. He was a great collector of songs. I think he did the first modern collection of Kabir's and Dadoo's songs. Kabir and Dadoo were mystics who combined elements from Hinduism and Islam, from the Sufi and Bhakti movement. Tagore used that extensively in his Oxford lectures.
What was your personal contact with Tagore?
I was very young. Up to the age of three I was in India, mainly in Dhaka. Then we moved to Burma. My father taught at the Agricultural College in Mandalay. During that period when I was in Mandalay, we went to Santiniketan regularly in my father's vacations. During those visits, I must have been four or five then, my grandfather thought that the time had come when I should not only speak Bengali but also start doing a little bit of Sanskrit. I was very grateful that I was introduced to a classical language very early in my life. But I didn't start doing that very seriously until at the age of six I cameback to Dhaka. For about a year I was a student at St. Gregory's School in Dhaka. Then I went to Santiniketan. But by the time I got there in 1941, Tagore had just died. I had met him a number of times as a child, but I didn't have any real communication with him. I remember him as a benign, friendly presence.
There was an interesting split between Tagore and Gandhi. It's kind of ironic, because it was Tagore who popularized the term Mahatma, "great soul."
Faith was more important for Gandhi. Reason was more important for Tagore. That's one contrast. Being free to determine what you want to do rather than being guided by tradition, received wisdom, was much more important to Tagore than it was for Gandhi. These are matters of somewhat fine distinction. In some ways Gandhi was also interested in reason and freedom, indeed, much of his life was concerned with that. But there was more constraint on what is an appropriate field of reason for Gandhi than for Tagore. Emperor Akbar, whom I cited in the New York Review piece I did called "Reach of Reason," said that there's nothing that we can accept without first reasoning about it. To some extent that was true of Tagore, even though he wouldn't deny the immediate role of raw sentiments and unexamined affection. But the point comes when you have to decide what you want to do.
In his novel The Home and the World, there's a very sharp division on the issue of the swadeshi movement. Tagore had strong opinions about that.
That's the third distinction vis-à-vis Gandhi, other than the greater focus on reason and freedom, and not unconnected with that. Tagore was very keen on traditional Indian culture. He also felt that the civilization of every country was a personal inheritance from which he himself had benefited, and so does everyone. He insisted that any idea or any cultural contribution which I enjoy instantly becomes mine for that reason, no matter where it has its origin. I don't think that would have been Gandhi's attitude. There was a clear distinction between the nation, its own contribution, and other nations. He was respectful of other nations. He was very tolerant of diversity in the world, but there wasn't a great pride in world civilization as such, even though he himself was influenced by Tolstoy and by English legal thinking, Ruskin, as well as Thoreau and Emerson. The concept of the Other was much less sharp in the case of Tagore. There's a kind of seamless wholeness to world civilization. And I grew up in that culture.
Didn't Tagore feel that the burning of British-made clothes would exacerbate communal feeling, particularly in Bengal?
There were two things here. He thought that burning any useful product seemed a negative and basically unattractive gesture. One could say that Tagore was not being sufficiently political. Gandhi was capturing the high ground of politics by burning British made clothing by showing how it had brought about the decimation of the Indian textile industry. I think Gandhi was making his point, which Tagore, being not such a political person, may not have attached importance to and could actually have missed. But there's a second aspect of it connected with your question, namely that it so happens that a number of people involved in the cotton trade were Muslims, so that the burning of these cloths would be particularly detrimental to the interests of that community. Tagore foresees in The Home and the World that the Muslim traders' resistance to the swadeshi movement and reluctance to join it, for which they had good economic interests, would actually exacerbate tension between Hindus and Muslims, which in effect it did. Here Tagore was being a more far-seeing statesman than the followers of Gandhi who are portrayed in the novel. Tagore was careful not to make it a criticism of Gandhi himself, and I think that's fair.
What impact did the first partition of Bengal have in the early 1900s?
The partition was clearly politically motivated. Like any decision you take, there are several reasons. But one of them was the political agitation. Bengal was certainly the hotbed of political revolt at that time. Virtually all of what the British would say were terrorist activities at that time was coming from Bengal. Throughout the nineteenth century the British found the Bengalis particularly difficult to control. A distinguished member of my college, Macaulay, was very explicit on the failings of the Bengalis. In Kipling's stories there is often the caricature of the Bengali babu. Hence there is often the dislike of Bengal, which was resisting British rule more and more. Oddly enough, much of the administration of the British Indian Empire was basically based in Bengal and the capital was in Calcutta until past the 1905 partition. The Bengalis had produced a new urban middle class to a great extent connected with the Raj. They served as the junior boys in the administration, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the rebellious element is beginning to get strong. By the beginning of the twentieth century it had become very strong. That political consideration must have played a part in the thinking of the Viceroy Lord Curzon and others involved in that partition.
And the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi, to build a new imperial city in 1911, what was that about?
There are at least three good reasons for moving it. First of all, Delhi had been the capital of Mughal India for a long time and therefore held a position such that even when there was a rebellion against the East India Company and British rule in 1857 in the so-called Sepoy Mutiny, while the British headquarters remained in Calcutta, the rebels wanted to have their headquarters in Delhi. Second, Delhi offered a much greater opportunity of expansion, more open land than Calcutta could offer. A place like New Delhi, which was built as it were almost like the ninth city of Delhi. There were seven Islamic cities, and then there was an earlier Indian city, near Hastinapur, and at last comes the British city. The third reason was that Delhi was much more central in the days before partition, as it no longer now is because it's so close to the Pakistan border. At that time it was very central. On top of that, the irritation of the occasionally sharp-shooting Bengali must have been quite strong also at that time. All these contributed to that. I don't want to insist on a purely political (narrowsense) explanation. But it would have been a matter of relief for the British that they were moving out of Calcutta to safer ground elsewhere.
Today the position that Gandhi and Tagore occupy in the Indian imagination, some people have said they have been deified. They're icons. The content of their work has largely been vacuumed out.
To a certain extent that is true. That statement is often made, and you can see why. They are both respectfully remembered, Gandhi more and much more often than Tagore, and yet Gandhi was very concerned that his model of self-sufficient village economy, his opposition to technology, his skepticism of international trade, these have not really survived in today's India. But after having said that, one also has to recognize that this cannot be a just criticism of modern India, partly because many of Gandhi's ideas were very difficult to relate to a program of economic and social development. I don't just mean things like opposition to big dams. It's not clear exactly what Gandhi's position on that was. Certainly it was less clear than Nehru's. But these are not issues that seemed that big. Dams looked very good in Nehru's time, too. At that time the analysis seemed to indicate that that would raise living standards, like the Tennessee Valley Project. They looked promising, but they often proved to be creating more problems than they solved. But the general hostility to modern technology and to modernity as such wasn't such an easy thing to deal with. Gandhi was opposed to railroads. He was opposed to modern medicine. One of his children suffered from illness and infact died without getting the benefit of modern medicine. There are many aspects of Gandhi which are not the reasons we remember him. We remember him because of his message to love humanity, because of his perfecting of the technique of nonviolence, because he was able to show that to fight evil you don't have to be evil yourself. You can fight evil with good. All these are major thoughts. Those, too, are often not remembered sufficiently. That I would complain about. But the neglect of some of his other ideas, including the self-sufficient village economy, opposition to railways and other modern technologies and modern medicine, that I don't lament.
There are more thoughts needed about his attitude about our position in the world. I am very opposed to the Indian nuclearization.There is something to be learned from Gandhi here, since he was soopposed to militarism. But at the same time, I don't think there the analysis has to be primarily Gandhi-oriented. We have to see what India gets from the nuclear bomb. All Indians lose by insecurity and diversion of resources. Rational economic and political analyses show that we have good reason to reject militarization. There Tagore has more to offer. That's Tagore's territory. You ask yourself why you are doing it, what do you get out of it. You ask yourself, Am I being sufficiently self-critical? Am I asking the right questions? Is this right for me? What will it do to other people, because we also belong to a world community? What do we owe to others and what do others owe to us? How do we relate to each other? One could say that Tagore's ideas, not so much ideas but techniques of analysis are more relevant than Gandhi, who was less concerned with reason in a very broad sense. To take into account affection and sentiments and emotions but at the same time subject them all to reasoned scrutiny. That is quintessential Tagore territory.
Tagore had been knighted by the British. After the Jallianwala Baghmassacre in Punjab in 1919, he renounced his knighthood. What kind of impact did that have on the nationalist struggle?
He denounced the British action and that made dramatic headlines. As a political act it drew attention to his renouncing an honor that the Rajhad given to him, and that was quite important. The beastliness of that massacre was so great that it would have been very hard for somebody as sympathetic to humanity in general to live quietly with the kind of distinction that the Raj had offered him in the form of the knighthood. So it was a natural act to undertake. I don't think Tagore undertook it as a political action. Gandhiji, who was much more a political person, would have probably seen the political consequences much more clearly than Tagore. For him it was a gut reaction. He did not want to associate with murderers. But it so happened that it was a politically important step. I personally don't think he thought of it as a political step at all, but it proved to be one.
Tagore is the only composer in the world who wrote the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh.
I mentioned that in my New York Review article. I kept on thinking and searching to see whether there was anybody else who might have that distinction, but I didn't find any. I think it's remarkable. Both the Indian anthem "Jana Gana Mana" an the Bangladesh anthem "Amar Sonar Bangla" are not only poems of Tagore, but they had been very well-known poems before they were adopted in the two countries as the national anthem. I have a very strong association with Bangladesh myself. I come from there and to a great extent grew up in Dhaka. If somebody asked me where is my home I would have to say Dhaka and go more deeply into the village in the Dhaka district where I come from, Manikganj, and a small village called Matto, that sense of belonging is very strong. I've visited it recently also. Given that sense of attachment, it's particularly pleasing for me that somebody whom I knew, namely Tagore, who also happened to have given me my name, is also remembered in Bangladesh not just through his rich artistic output, but also in having one of his poems as its national anthem. The other one is similarly a very powerful song on India and its diversity. That's what the song is about, a celebration of India's diversity. Nevertheless there is an attempt to stick together. That's the main theme of the Indian national anthem. That comes through very well. The two songs are in a very different spirit, but they both work respectively, one for a large federal country like India, and the other as a culturally integrated country like Bangladesh. Both nations chose their anthems very well.
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You had an early childhood experience in Dhaka involving a man named Kader Mia. Can you tell that story and the influence it had on you?
I was very small then. I think it happened when I was ten. I was playing alone in the garden of our home in Dhaka, "Jagat Kutir," which means world cottage. I was suddenly made aware of the presence of somebody. I looked up and there was a person profusely bleeding from his stomach. He had clearly been knifed. He came through the door wanting help and some water. I had never seen somebody knifed like that before. I shouted for help while trying to make him lie down on the ground. There was a little cement seat where I helped to place him. While my father, who was upstairs, came down, I brought him a glass of water. I was chatting with him. He was a Muslim daily laborer who had come for work in this largely Hindu area called Wari. He had come despite knowing that these were troubled times, where in Hindu areas Muslims were getting butchered and in Muslim areas Hindus were getting butchered. He came with great reluctance, but he was poor. His family had very little to eat. He wanted to come and earn some income. He was offered a job. He was on his way there when he was knifed. He kept on telling me then, as well as when I went to the hospital with my father in the car, that his wife had said not to go to such a dangerous area. But he felt economically compelled to do so in order to have an income. The penalty of that economic unfreedom proved to be death. It had a tremendous impact on me. First of all, it was incredible to me that members of one community could be killing members of another community not for anything personal that they hold against the person other than the identity of the person as a member of another community. That's a very difficult thought. People get used to it because of experiencing that kind of event so often. It's still a hard thought for a human mind to comprehend, why you should try to take the life of someone who has done you no harm, whom you don't even know, just because he belongs to some group. I found that terrifying and utterly perplexing, both from an ethical point of view and intellectually. What kind of thought process can lead to such an act? Secondly, it also had the impact of making me deeply skeptical of community-base identities. Even to this day, I remain instinctively hostile to communitarian philosophy and communitarian politics. Part of that hostility is based on some analyses, which I've tried to present in my writings. But I think the instinctive revulsion is connected with having seen some of the ugly sides of community identity. That was a very strong thing. I knew that there were riots going on, but until I held somebody in my own arms who was bleeding to death, and he did finally die in the hospital, it wasn't as real to me. I think nothing could have made it as real as an experience of that kind. Thirdly, of course, what he told me, and that he particularly told me about his decision to risk it, which was the second sentence after I had given him some water. He said that his wife had told him not to come. It's difficult for me even to recollect those moments now. The lack of freedom in his life, if he was to be a good father and feed his children, he had to take every opportunity that came his way, even at great personal risk. He took the risk and lost his life and the earning power for his family. I was overwhelmed even to think about it. It also made me take a view that I've tried to develop in my book Development as Freedom. Different kinds of freedoms interrelate, lack of economic freedom, could be avery major reason for loss of liberty, in this case, liberty of life. The fact that freedom of different kinds interrelate was a central notion for me. The beginning of that idea was those moments. It stayed with me in my student days in Santiniketen and at Presidency College in Calcutta, where I was politically quite active, and later at Trinity College in Cambridge. Over those years, Kader Mia's explanation of why he could not listen to the wise counsel of his wife, was a strong presence in my thinking. It was a very important experience for me.
In 1943 the Bengal famine occurs. Three million Bengalis die. Your call as a child handing out a tin of rice to starving refugees as they passed your grandfather's house in Santiniketan. There was no evidence that there was a shortage of food supplies, even though it was during World War II. What did you later learn about this horrific event?
First a comment on the tin of rice. It's true that I remember that, but that's not my strong memory. Somehow in one of the interviews that was done of me, I did mention, among many other things, that my grandfather allowed me to take a cigarette tin and from the large jar of rice we had I was allowed to give one tin to any family that came for help. But it's not a big thing. I sometimes dislike the focus on that because it makes it look like too much of a charitable activity. The main memory that I have of that period is not of my trying to help in a tiny little way, but the opposite. The bewilderment as to why suddenly people were dying in such numbers. Where did they come from? I didn't know any of them. Like all famines, this was a rigidly class-based one. Depending on which occupation group you belonged to, which class you came from, you either got decimated or you had no problem whatsoever. Ninety to ninety-five percent of Bengalis' lives went on absolutely normally, while three million died. Three million, by the way, was my estimate. The official estimate was much lower, a million, perhaps a million and a half. That was far too low, but it is possible that my number, three million, overestimated it somewhat. On the basis of later statistics it would seem that a more acceptable number is somewhat lower than that, like two and a half million. It was a large number, but they all came from a small community, a small class. Famine is a kind of subject in which class-based analysis is very helpful. The people who died were primarily rural wage earners working and cultivating fields, but also wageworkers working in river transport, minor trade, minor services like barbers and craftsmen producing crafts to sell, for none of which there was a market once the famine hit. They belonged to a small group of people who were economically most vulnerable. They got drowned by the famine. I had not met anyone of that kind. They didn't come to the school that I went to, not a rich person's school, but primarily a middle-class school. I don't think there was any fee worth mentioning, but you had to be moderately well off to be able to send your children to a school. There was a very nominal fee. So I think the class basis was a very strong memory of that. Later I would find studying famine that that's true everywhere. Hardly any famine affects more than five percent, almost never more than ten percent of the population. The largest proportion of population affected was the Irish famine of the 1840s, which came close to ten percent over a number of years. But mostly this is a small proportion of the underdogs of the society.
Secondly, there's also considerable evidence which I already knew, as a child, from my parents and others that the crop hadn't been bad in any sense, so it was surprising that there would be a famine. The Famine Inquiry Commission appointed by the Raj later reported that the food statistics must have been wrong. But in fact, when I studied it much later, it was clear that the food statistics weren't really very wrong. They needed only minor correction, and that wouldn't explain the famine. One must see it plainly in terms of a fuller economic analysis of how people earn a living and how they can use their wages and income to buy food. Just to give an example, sharecroppers and cash wage laborers in normal circumstances are almost equally poor, but the famine hit the wage laborers much harder than the sharecroppers. It happened during World War II. The Japanese were in Burma and the British army was in Bengal. There was war-based production. Prices shot up. When prices shot up, the wage earners, with fixed money wages, started going down right away, whereas sharecroppers, since they get their income in the form of part of the food, didn't suffer in the same way. Indeed, I found on the basis of indicators of mortality as well as indicators of occupational distress on which we had data that sharecroppers were not distressed at all in the way that cash wage laborers were. This indicated that I was on the right line. So the kind of economic analysis, the complexity of the entire economic system could be brought into the story. This is a simple example; there were more complex issues as well, such as the effect of government procurement and of speculation by traders. The recognition that the story was not just about food was already clear when I watched the famine and its class-based nature, its suddenness and its contrariness.
In Development as Freedom, you write that "No famine has evertaken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."
It became increasingly clear to me by the 1970s that both empirically famines have actually not occurred in functioning democracies and also that that didn't seem like a fluke but there was a good reason. My first book on famines, Poverty and Famines, came out in 1981, by then I thought I understood something about how famines operate and how easy it is to prevent them. You can't prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort, without difficulty. Then the question was, Why don't the governments stop them? The first answer is that the government servants and the leaders, whether they be military or non-military, are upper class. They never starve. They never suffer from famine, and therefore they don't have a personal incentive to stop it. However, if the government were vulnerable to public opinion, then famines are a dreadfully bad thing to have. You can't win many elections after a famine, and you don't like being criticized by newspapers, opposition parties in Parliament an so on if you are in a democratic country. Democracy gives the government an immediate political incentive to act.
Given that political incentive, and taking note of the economic analysis that famines are easy to prevent, you would expect that in a democracy there will be no famine. Whereas in the absence of a democracy you may avoid famine if you are lucky. A famine may not develop. On the other hand, if one were to develop, there's no guarantee that the government will try to prevent it. Some time there will be a visionary leader who will actually do it without needing the political incentive, but you don't have the guaranteed reaction by the government which you would expect in a democracy if there is no democracy but a dictatorship, either of an alienated kind, like a colonial administration, like the British Raj in India or for that matter in Ireland, or military dictators in one country after another, like Somalia, Ethiopia and many other countries. Also, the one-party states like we had in the Soviet Union and China, despite the fact that the governments were generally committed to the interests of the underdog, indeed, that's how they had come to power, they were so dominated by theory that they were not in a position to react. Often they were particularly in humane in not feeling the manifest suffering that they saw around them, thinking that somehow in the long run this would turn out to be right. The Chinese had the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine between 1958 and 1961 inwhich nearly thirty million people died. While tens of millions were dying every year, the disastrous policies of the government were not revised for three years. This would be unthinkable in a democracy. Similarly, while the famine was going on, there were also starving of information for the government. This is an additional factor, the informational connection as opposed to the political incentive connection. This is because each commune in China, each collective, obviously saw that they were not doing very well themselves but they read in the papers that everything was fine in the rest of the country. That's what censorship does. They all came to the conclusion respectively that they alone were failing. So rather than admitting failure, they cooked the numbers and reported higher food output than was true. When Beijing added these up at the height of the famine, they thought that they had a hundred million more metric tons of rice than they actually had. So the censorship of the press which often goes with lack of a democratic system had the effect not only of hoodwinking the public but ultimately hoodwinking the state. Something similar happened in the Soviet Union. They were partly deluded and partly theoretically arrogant and overconfident of their policy. But in the case of the Ukraine and the Soviet famine, there was also a kind of dislike of one group, the Kulaks, so there was somewhat of a basic lack of sympathy for the rural areas. But on top of that, the lack of democracy, of political incentives that go with democracy and the lack of information added to the story. So I think the one-party state in the Soviet Union or China (or Cambodia, or North Korea) or the military dictatorship as in many of the African countries or the colonial rule like in the British Empire and the French Empire bring out plentifully the penalty of political unfreedom, the lack of democracy.
Talk about what you've described as "subcontinental nuclear adventures." In May 1998, India conducts nuclear tests. A month later Pakistan follows. Within a year, the largest military confrontation in decades occurs in the Kargil sector of Kashmir.
I thought this was a disastrous development. India of course had exploded a nuclear device in 1974. That was a regrettable event. The Indian government didn't admit that this was actually a nuclear bomb, but said that they would not manufacture nuclear bombs. To some extent, there was some consolation in that because it did seem that after having established its capability to do so, India wasn't keen on taking it further. But all that was changed by 1998, when the new government came into office. There was pressure in that direction anyway by the scientific community involved in the nuclear military research. Part of the army also had been interested.
The new government being the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP.
Yes, the BJP led the Hindu nationalist-led government which came to office in the early months of 1998. While there was strong support for nuclearization of the military on the part of part of the military and a part of the research establishment connected with military research, given the nature of Indian democracy, that could not sway the government easily. There was no way the military could impose a policy unless the civilian government agrees. The previous governments had been tempted but restrained in this respect. It was part of the BJP's agenda when they were elected that they would develop a nuclear bomb and carry forward the nuclear program, and this they did. A lot of the writing in the West has underestimated the extent to which it divided the country and how much there was opposition to it. It's very easy to capture pictures of jubilant people on the street after the nuclear bomb. But if you approve of an event, you're much more likely to come out on the streets and be jubilant than if you are opposed. There are no pictures of morose people sitting in their kitchens and living rooms. But immediately after the partial euphoriawas over, mainly in urban areas, when one looked at the real numbers, it was quite clear that the government got nothing in terms of popular support for nuclearization, so much so that when the government fell later on and had to go to the polls again within the year, they decided not to put nuclearization as part of the electoral manifesto ofthe BJP. To me it's a very important lesson, that the nuclear program which they thought was a success had the effect of taking it out as apolitical vote-getting issue. That to me is worth emphasizing. India, being a democratic country, it does make a difference what people ultimately think. The rural population never showed a great enthusiasm for the nuclear weapons at all.
In effect, the tests contributed very little to India's well-being. It made the entire subcontinent less safe. It was predictable that Pakistan would retaliate. Everybody knew that Pakistan had the capability to produce the bomb. It doesn't matter that its capability is much less than that of India because with a nuclear holocaust you get hundreds of millions dying anyway. It made the situation much less stable. The argument that that would prevent conventional war, which is a kind of quick wisdom from the Cold War days between the Soviet Unionand the U.S., was often aired in India. That was given a lie by the Kargil confrontation that occurred in the summer of 1999 which indicated that it didn't have that effect at all. If anything, just the opposite. The Indian view, which is probably right, is that the intruders came in from Pakistan to India. Pakistan, which could be now quite certain that India would hesitate to do what would be the standard thing to do. Since Pakistan was occupying the high ground in Kashmir and coming down into the valley, they had reason to try to cross over on the Pakistan side of the border in retaliation. But the fear of a nuclear holocaust was a deterrent, so that India had to fight the battle in most adverse circumstances in going uphill. So it didn't stop the war and didn't make the Indian case easy.
As far as taking India more seriously is concerned, I think there's deep confusion in Delhi about the effect. It's true India is taken somewhat more seriously now. But that's much more to do with economic development, with the fact that in information technology India is a relatively big player. There is a big presence of India in America and in Europe. India is the second-largest producer of computer software in the world. And India is a big economy which is moving in a way Pakistan's economy has not been. So because of these factors we would have expected greater recognition of the presence of India in the world among the bigger powers. To attribute that recognition to the nuclear bomb is a great mistake. Nuclear bomb is something that India and Pakistan have in common. If that had made the crucial difference, then Pakistan would have exactly thesame greater recognition as India has. But it hasn't. The reason is that what differentiates India from Pakistan is a more solvent and dynamic economy and a functioning democracy. I'm full of sympathy for Pakistan as a neighboring nation, because of the stagnant nature of its economy and its polity. Because of the absence of the same kind of interaction in the world economy as in the Internet and informationtech-nology and computer software, Pakistan does not get the attention that India does. I think the whole reading that India got some advantage, either diplomatic or political or military, is mistaken. On top of that, from an economic point of view, it diverted a lot of resources which could be much more productively used for economic and social development, for which India badly needs money. It is a disastrous policy.
On the other hand, I have to say that at least the bulk of the Indian population was not taken in by the argument that this is a great thing and in India's interest. The voters have not voted in that direction. It hasn't done much for the ruling party. In fact, in some ways, the part of the BJP government which is on the economic side which has continued the policy of more market orientation and more intercourse with the world probably has done more to expand India's standing and political and social role in the world than the nuclearization of the military which government did with the hope of achieving these results.
India is often hailed in the Western press as the world's largest democracy. Yet paradoxically, it's being led by a nationalist, Hinduformation with quite frankly some very fanatical elements. What has led to that kind of "jihadization" of politics in India?
First of all, I don't think that India is much celebrated for its democracy. Democracy has been a very neglected commodity at home and abroad. In India it did not get much praise from many in the left because there is a tendency to dismiss democracy as bourgeois and asham. It was very strong in my student days and it remained strong until very recently. The idea that democracy is something that is in itself important and even if you don't achieve much economic development is something which is relatively new. I remember crying hoarse on this at Presidency College in the very early 1950s when I was a student there. I was very active in left-wing politics. Many others who were active in politics thought it was an amiable eccentricity on my part to regard democracy to be such a big thing. Similarly, in the West people have taken relatively little interest in Indian democracy. The governments and the hard-headed military establishment and the general conservative part of America have never taken much interest in democracy anyway. But also on the left there is a deep skepticism: what does democracy mean if you are hungry and poor? The celebration in that context of China, which of course had many reasons to be celebrated but not for its lack of democracy, did actually act as a kind of barrier to see that India was doing something major. So I want to correct that impression, that even now the importance of democracy in India I don't think is adequately recognized anywhere in America.
My second point is that I regret of course the fact that the BJP is in power. I've never voted for it and never will. However, in a democratic country it could easily happen, especially with coalition politics, that you might end up being in office. It has to be said that the BJP has not been opposed to democracy as such. There has never been a proposal to suspend the Constitution, to change voting rights or to dispense with elections. So in that respect you couldn't say that it is a contradiction, an anti-democratic party had been elected to run the government. That's not the case. But their interest, of course, is much more in favor of one community in a multi-community country. India, I believe, is quintessentially multi-community, multi-religious, multicultural, with Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Jains and others making up the population. It's unfortunate that they have gone in that direction. The BJP has tried to argue that they have Muslim members. I don't take that terribly seriously. They're not very powerful. In fact, the political underpinning of the BJP lies very much in Hindu sectarianism. But it's interesting that even with that sectarian base, given the nature of Indian polity, they have to claim that they are somehow multi-cultural themselves, which to me is a kind of backhanded tribute to the constitutional democratic secularism that we are lucky enough to have in India.
The third point to make is that the BJP gets about a quarter of the vote. Its share of the vote has not grown for many years now. To some extent they have been able to capture the ground of nationalism in a way that other parties have not, and to some extent the dissension within Congress has made it easier for BJP to capture that ground. Since Hindus are a very large majority in India, it is possible to utilize the Hindu rhetoric as a kind of Indian rhetoric, which I regret, but I can see its feasibility. But the fact is that the voters have never given them a mandate to run a government of their own. They are in a coalition government, and they have made good electoral alliances, more skillfully than Congress or the left coalition in the form of the Janata group managed to do. As a good democrat, I think it's only right that they should run the government. I'm certainly in favor of accepting that. To a certain extent, in a number of fields they have done relatively better than I feared. On the other hand, I would have expected them to move even more in the multi-cultural direction and restrain the hotheads on the Hindu sectarian side of the base of the BJP, which they haven't done. Persecution of minorities, while not intense, is present and occasionally takes a beastly form, like the killing of a Christian missionary. In those cases, the government should come down with a much stronger and heavier hand than it hasdone. It tries to establish itself as being a mainstream party, which has been one of the reasons why they have been quite restrained, relatively speaking, in economic and social affairs. So you have to take the rough with the smooth, and the BJP is part of the rough edge, in my judgment, of Indian politics.
What is the nature of a democracy when forty percent of the population, as in the case of India, that's 400 million people, is illiterate?
There's no question that literacy increases the effectiveness of democracy. But I would certainly dispute the claim that democracy makes no sense if you don't have literacy. That has been the argument that dictators have used again and again. This is a classical argument that the ruling elites always used in order to keep out the masses from having a share of power. In a wonderful play of Tagore, Raja o Rani, there is a great discussion about how the palace is skeptical of the masses who cannot think of anything high because they're illiterate and only think of such things as food and clothing. Defranchising the illiterate would be a terrible crime.
It's a reactionary argument. I'm not saying your question is reactionary. But if it had been a rhetorical question it would be reactionary. Democracy can be used as a means to expand people's social opportunities if it's properly used. The fact that in India education did not become until very recently a politically active issue is very unfortunate. But for that you have to look not at current illiteracy, but to the classist nature of Indian society, of which caste is one manifestation, but not the only one. In some ways the leadership of all the parties has tended to come from the same group, with some exceptions. In Kerala, the Communist Party may have been led by the underdogs of society, namely those coming from what used to be untouchable castes, but in my part of the country in West Bengal, where the Communist government has won elections for a longer stretch than any other place in the world, the leadership has tended to be always middle class, often Hindu, often Muslim, but basically middle class. That again contributed to the skepticism about education until recently. It's changing now, both among the left parties as well as in Indian politics in general. But it took some time. Properly used,it could be a great means of expanding demand for education and the circumstance in which you find yourself, whether in India or Africa.
It's not the case that illiterate people don't worry about their political and civil rights. When we're talking about democracy, we're looking not only at an instrumental virtue, but something which is intrinsically important, the right to participate. The Indian population, even the illiterate Indian population, takes that quite seriously. So when in the middle 1970s Indira Gandhi's government suspended electoral rights and basic political liberties and also habeas corpus andthen she still went to the polls, she was resoundingly defeated because poor, illiterate Indian population still felt very strongly that democratic rights were important. So the scepticism about the voting rights of illiterates would be not only reactionary, but also wrong. It overlooks the possibility that democracy opens up and the fact that illiterate and poor people still value political liberty. After all, human beings, even in the most reduced circumstances of poverty as well as in articulateness that illiteracy produces have a desire for freedom that is quite strong. That is what makes human beings what we are.
Perhaps to get beyond the conventional notion of literacy, I've met rickshaw drivers in Delhi who were technically illiterate but who could recite "shers" (couplets) or "ghazals" (poems).
This is a double-edged sword. On one side, it's important to recognize that even illiterate people have other sources of wisdom and sometimes you have illiterate people who resent the fact that they'reilliterate and later on in life still achieve something. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the Mughal emperor Akbar. He was one of the greatest emperors that India ever had. He was a great defender of reason, of intellectual scrutiny of every subject, but he was formally illiterate. He was on the run because his father, Emperor Humayun, was being hounded out of India by Sher Shah. He didn't acquire the letters. He resented it, but he insisted on things being read to him. He wanted to chat with people like Abul Fazl, one of the learned members of his court. Akbar achieved tremendous wisdom and knowledge and acquired a level of intellectual judgment which is breathtaking.
One must emphasize that while literacy is not all there is in education, it is in fact extremely important. It's a great opportunity. It's quite remarkable that even sometimes you can quote great people in India, including Mahatma Gandhi, being quite skeptical of "mereliteracy." I think that's a mistake. Literacy makes a big difference. We talked earlier about Tagore and Gandhi. It's interesting that when Tagore goes to Russia in the 1920s, the thing that he separates out for special praise is the expansion of education across the territory in the Soviet Union, including Soviet Asia. The thing that he was critical of, in an interview that he gave to Pravda that was not published in Pravda but appeared in The Manchester Guardian, was the lack of democracy. It was quite interesting that in terms of getting his perspectives right, he did emphasize what personally I believe to be the important part of the Soviet achievement, namely its education. At the same time he was already very aware of the penalty that the Soviet Union was paying and would pay more in the future by not having a democracy and not allowing criticism and open public discussion. Since you began by asking a question about Gandhi and Tagore, if I may come back to that to say that to me there was a great sense of depth and wisdom in Tagore's attitude to these issues. He was really at his best in his writing and art. But also when it comes to international affairs, the penetrating nature of his analysis, whether it was the Soviet Union or China or Japan, there's a lot of learning, even in today's world, from Tagore's ideas.
You are a strong advocate for women's rights. You talk about the centrality of gender equity and link it to economic freedom.
The differential treatment of women in education, health care and sometimes nutrition are striking facts which one can see in many parts of the world today. It exists in many countries in Asia and Africa. There is a reason to rebel against it, just on grounds of equity even if it didn't have any other bad effects. But it soon also becomes clear that the penalty of gender inequality is paid not only by women but also by men. The neglect of women's education tends to reduce the voice of women in family affairs and fertility decisions. That has the effect of increasing child mortality rates. There's a strong connection between reduction of child mortality and women's literacy and women's empowerment. There's also a clear and strong connection between fertility reduction and women's literacy and empowerment, including women's gainful employment. If you look at the more than three hundred districts of India, the strongest influence in explaining fertility variations are women's literacy and gainful economic employment. No matter what the effect of the rapid rise of the population may be in the long run for the environment, the immediate impact of constant bearing and rearing of children is on the lives, liberty and freedom of young women. Anything that increases the voice of young women tends therefore to reduce the fertility rate. There is another connection which I've been working on recently. It turns out that women's maternal undernourishment often leads to fetal distress. One effect of that is seen not just among the children when they're born, neonatal or older children, but decades later in the lives of people in their being more vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases. This is a connection which has emerged from the works of a number of English doctors in particular, led by Professor D.J.P. Barker of Southampton University. It's not surprising that for example the South Asian population, where maternal undernourishment is high, where women's neglect of health care and nutrition is also quite high, also happens to have the highest case of cardiovascular diseases, even after correcting for the economic and social factors that might influence it. This shows that the reach of gender inequality often penalizes men, because it's men who are much more vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases than women are. I don't believe in God, but if I did, one could see almost a divine retribution that you neglect women and they ultimately hit back on men in terms of contributing to greater cardio vascularailments in late life. The recognition that the interests of men and women have great interdependence is very strong, both on grounds that it's unjust and inequitous for women to have a worse deal than men as well as in terms of the interconnection that ultimately affects the interests of men, too, as well as children immediately. That seems to me to be kind of an inescapable thought that one has to be interested in the issue of gender and gender equality. I don't really expect any credit for going in that direction. It's the only natural direction togo in.
What are your views on globalization? Advocates hail it as a great economic force that is going to liberate the world's poor. Critics see the rise of transnational corporations with concentrated power as a new form of colonization.
Globalization is a complex issue, partly because economic globalization is only one part of it. Globalization is greater global closeness, and that is cultural, social, political, as well as economic. I think the whole progress over the last two or three millennia had been entirely dependent on ideas and techniques and commodities and people moving from one part of the world to another. It seems difficult to take an anti-globalization view if one takes globalization properly in its full sense. I'm beginning in this high ground because it's also hard to be opposed to just economic globalization while you want globalization in everything else. David Hume noted in the 1770s, shortly before he died, in one of his essays, that if you have global commerce and come in touch with people whom you did not know before, you cannot but take an interest in their lives. They become real as part of your life in a way that in the absence of commerce they wouldn't be. So commerce in that early globalization would have the effect of making people take an interest in each other. It is also true that there would be no ability to have such a well-organized protest movement against globalization in the absence of globalization. The anti-globalization movement is one of the biggest globalized events of the contemporary world, people coming from everywhere, Australia, Indonesia, India, Poland, South Africa, to demonstrate in Seattle or Quebec. What could be more global than that? We are beginning to have a world community, and economic contact has partly contributed to that. It's also the case that economic opportunity opened up by economic contact has helped to a great extent to reduce poverty in many parts of the world. East Asia's success is in that direction. Going further back, the escape from poverty in Western Europe and Europe generally and North America is also connected with the use of economic opportunity that international trade helped.
But the American experience was built on genocide and expropriation of an entire continent, and Europe's wealth was directly connected to its colonial empires.
I think one has to separate out the different factors in it. It is certainly correct to say that America was very lucky to get a large amount of land, and the native Indians were extremely unlucky to have white men coming over here. But to say that the whole of the American prosperity was based on exploiting the indigenous population of America would be a mistake. To a great extent it was based on productivity of modern industries which Karl Marx in particular saw very clearly. When Karl Marx discusses in Kapital volume 1 what is "the one great event of the contemporary world," he separates out the American Civil War. What is the Civil War about? Replacing a non-trade-based relationship, namely slavery, by a wage-based relationship, which in other contexts Marx described as wage slavery. But nevertheless, in this context it is the one great thing happening in theworld. He doesn't talk about 1848 and the Paris Commune as "the one great event." Marx as a realist saw that industrial capitalism was producing a level of wealth that was never achievable earlier and which could be the basis of a prosperous society. In this respect, Marx was a great follower of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in seeing that a market economy had enormous opportunity of expanding wealth across the nation and making people escape poverty. You needed to go "beyond it," but you needed it first. Similarly, there might have been genocide, but the history of the world is full of mixed stories. To say that it was the genocide that made Europe or America rich is a mistake.
In Europe it was the direct expropriation from the colonies. Bengal itself was stripped of its wealth, pauperized. Bengal got a very raw deal. Its development was put back. There's no question that Bengal suffered enormously from colonialism. But to say that Europe would not have had any industrial revolution but for the colonies is a mistake. I don't think that's the analysis you get. Ultimately, imperialism made even the British working classes suffer. This is a point which the British working classes found quite difficult to swallow, but they did, actually. The labor movement did emphasize that ultimately it's not that poverty is removed in Britain by exploiting the colonies. To say that the whole of the industrial experience of Europe and America just shows the rewards of exploiting the Third World is a gross simplification. Look at some other country, like Japan. It became an imperialist country in many ways, but that was much after they had already made big progress. I don't think Japan's wealth was based on exploiting China. Japan's wealth was based on their expansion in international trade. One has to be realistic. One's concern for equity and justice in the world must not carry one into the alien territory of unreasoned belief. That's very important.
To continue to engage in some of the points you raised, I'm infavor of globalization in general. I'm generally in favor even of economic globalization. Having said that, economic globalization doesn't always work and does not immediately work in the interest of all. There are sufferers. It's a matter of statesmanship to see how to deal with those who are displaced from jobs or who may work in very unsavory conditions. They may still prefer them to starving and not having a job, but nevertheless there is a question to be asked. Do we need these sweatshops? Why is it not possible to have the productivity of modern industries without these extraordinarily unfavorable circumstances?
What we have to look at is not a kind of wholesale denunciation of globalization, which gets us nowhere. This is like King Kanute trying to discipline the sea. Quite aside from the importance of globalization, it's inescapable. It's a question of how to make it more humane and just. That requires paying attention to the underdog. I believe that virtually all the problems in the world come from inequality of one kind or another. And what we're looking at is inequality. Globalization tends to benefit most people, but not all. Some benefit greatly and others benefit relatively little. We have to see how we can make it more equitable. That requires a great deal of attention being paid to particularly labor conditions. It requires much more activism by the labor movement. It requires more reviving of cooperative attempts, and they have been successful in some countries. Bangladesh is a good example. We need more of that. It requires revision of the financial architecture of the world, because as it emerged in the 1940s it reflected a reality which is no longer true. The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 set up the IMF, the World Bank and and GATT. The WTO was the one late addition to that, but basically it's the same architecture. In the 1940s, half of the world was colonial territory. Most people were living in colonies. Democracy in the Third World was unknown. Human rights wasn't an active issue. The prospect of rapid economic growth for any poor country, especially in Asia, was unknown. The fact that people could agitate for their rights and defend the environment and demand global equity was unknown. One of the great realities today is the positive influence of the anti-globalization movement. Even though I'm pro-globalization, I have to say thank God for the anti-globalization movement. They're putting important issues on the agenda. The themes that the anti-globalization protesters bring to the discussion are of extraordinary importance. However, the theses that they often bring to it, sometimes in the form of slogans, are often over-simple. But just because the theses may be easy to reject and a skillful economist or even a skillful financial journalist will be able to shoot it down, does not mean that the process itself is valueless. The process is basically putting certain items on the agenda. My attitude to globalization is that one has to recognize first of all its inevitability, secondly its importance as an intellectual, social, political force, even as an economic force, but recognize that it can be very unjust and unfair and unequal, but these are matters under our control. It's not that we don't need the market economy. We need it. I would certainly reject the view that we don't need the market economy, but I would equally strongly reject the view that the market economy would have priority or dominance over other institutions. We need democracy. We need political activism. We need social movements of various kinds. We need the NGOs. I'm proud of the fact that I'm an honorary president of OXFAM, which has done a lot of good in the world. We live in a world where there is a need for pluralistic institutions and for recognizing different types of freedom, economic, social, cultural and political, which are interrelated. It's that complexity which would seem to me quite central which cannot be captured either being anti-globalization or being pro-globalization without qualification.
You mentioned the need for statesmanship. One study indicates that of the one hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-one are corporations. States seem to be receding in terms of power.
States have sometimes over extended in the wrong direction. So some of the recessions I don't mind at all. When I wrote my first book on India in 1995, with Jean Drèze, called India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, I was very struck by the fact that the government was overactive in controlling industry and making it almost impossible to get a licence to introduce and expand competition. It provided great protection to domestic bourgeoisie which could make a good deal of profit in the absence of international competition and make the life of the small entrepreneurs particularly difficult through bureaucratic red tape. At the same time the government was doing very little on basic education, basic health care, land reform, expansion of microcredit movement and so on. So I don't think the attitude is one of wanting more government or less government. It's a question of seeing what the proper role of government is. I think the proper role involves many supportive things, improved expansion of social opportunity, especially through education and health care. It also requires making sure that the benefits of the market expansion are more widely shared. But if you're illiterate, if you haven't gone to school, if you don't have any credit facilities, if you have no collateral to borrow money on and there are no microcredit movements, you don't own land because there hasn't been any land reform, you can't even enter the market economy. One of the criticisms I would like to make of the pro-market people is that they don't take the market sufficiently seriously, because if they did they would make it easier for people to enter the market. For that you often need state action, through land reform, microcredit, education and basic health care. These are very important areas for state action which make the market economy itself more efficient and more equitable. So I would tend to think of the problem in terms of what the complementarities are between the different institutions and not judge it in terms of whether, taking everything into account, the state is increasing or coming down.
The issue of corporations is a different issue. That is a matter of competition, a matter on which one could be a very pro-market person and be very anti-corporation. Indeed, trust-busting is a very old capitalist virtue, that is, a virtue of a pro-market economy where you want competitive capitalism. A kind of Smithian pro-marketing person would want some restraint on the corporations. That's a different question. One has to separate out the question of inequality within the market economy in the form of corporations at one level, which is the highest level, and inequality at the other end, whereby a lot of people are prevented from entering the market because they can't borrow money, they are not educated enough and skilled enough to enter the modern economy. That is one kind of issue. There is the other issue of the state and the market. The market is after all only an instrument.To be anti-market, pro-market, anti-state, pro-state, I think that's not the right way of thinking about the issue. One has to take it in terms of what it does to the lives and freedom of the human beings that make up society. We need different institutions, not choose "between" them to get exclusiveness.
What drives you?
I wish I knew. We live for a short stretch of time in a world we share with others. Virtually everything we do is dependent on others, from the arts and culture to farmers who grow the food we eat. We live in an interdependent world. Given that fact, the idea that somehow a person could feel very comfortable being enormously ahead of others seems to me to be ultimately a mistake. Quite a lot of the differences that make us rich and poor are matters just of luck. To somehow revel in one's privilege would be a mistake. An even bigger mistake would be trying to convert that into a theory that the rich are so much more productive than the others. That's at the one end. But the other end, if one thinks about the people who live in a world in which they need not be hungry, in which they need not die without medical care, in which they need not be illiterate, they need not feel hopeless and miserable so much of the time, and yet they are, that seems to be scandalous. But this is not just a matter of poverty. There are some people who say that they're concerned only with poverty but not inequality. I find that very difficult for the reason that Adam Smith discussed a long time ago in The Wealth of Nations. He pointed out that the same thing that everyone likes doing, talking with others, appearing in public without shame, taking part in the life of the community, if you live in a community that's relatively rich, you need a much bigger income to be able to do these elementary things. If you are a villager in rural Bangladesh or Uganda, you might be able to meet with people very easily even if you're not schooled or if you don't have a car or if you're not clothed in a way that's regarded as obligatory in some cultures. But in, say, America, if you don't have a television at home your kids might find it hard to converse with each other in school. The income that we need in order not to be poor is much higher in a richer society. So that relative poverty, which is really a matter of inequality, in terms of income can be the cause of absolute poverty, the inability to do the basic things which Adam Smith noted we all like doing. The idea that we can be interested only in poverty but not in inequality I don't think is a sustainable thought. A lot of poverty is in fact inequality because of this connection between income and capability. The same capability to take part in thelife of the community requires a much bigger basket of commodities and therefore a much bigger income in a rich society. So you have to be interested in inequality. And since we live in a global village, events in different parts of the world influence each other. The Internet begins to penetrate in my country. Indians begin to find out how other people live in the rest of the world. Given these circumstances, the issues of inequality and the issue of poverty are not separable even globally. They're very closely linked, both in terms of the need to ask the moral question, Is it right that I should enjoy my privileges, and not feel I owe anything to others? As well as the other level, Do I have a right to be content living in a world with so much poverty and inequality? Both these questions motivate us to take these issues to be central to human living. Ultimately, the old Socratic question, How should I live? has to include a very strong component of awareness and response to inequality.India Together
[This interview is republished with permission from David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, Colorado, USA. For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:]David Barsamian
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