By Isaac Chotiner 6 October 2019
Amartya Sen, the Indian economist, philosopher, and public intellectual, lives on a quiet street in Cambridge, just around the corner from Harvard Square. His home, which he shares with his wife, the historian Emma Rothschild, is spacious but cluttered, with old newspapers and magazines lying about and copies of Sen’s books on crowded tables. There are also photos of Ted Turner and Kofi Annan; framed paintings of the philosophers John Rawls and W. V. O. Quine, hanging in the living room, which were done by Rawls’s wife; and a photo of the poet Rabindranath Tagore in the entryway, which serves as a reminder that Sen is often mentioned alongside him as one of Bengal’s favorite sons.
Born in 1933 in what is now the Indian state of West Bengal, to a family of Hindu academics, Sen went on to study economics at Cambridge and to serve on the faculties of the Delhi School of Economics, the London School of Economics, and Oxford, among other institutions; he was the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and, for the past fifteen years, has been a professor at Harvard. During more than six decades of teaching and writing, Sen has transformed the study of famines and the field of welfare economics, work for which, in 1998, he received the Nobel Prize. His “capabilities approach,” which he developed with Martha Nussbaum, argues that countries should pay attention to broad-based measures of human flourishing, from lack of poverty to time for reflection, which requires a focus on both opportunity and the allocation of resources. His work on India—from exposing the lack of gender parity to calling for more attention to welfare spending and explaining the causes of the 1943 Bengal Famine, which killed between two and three million people—has made him one of the most important commentators on Indian affairs.
In a number of books, including “The Argumentative Indian,” from 2005, Sen has celebrated the multiculturalism of Indian existence and the capacious nature of the Indian constitution; both work against the ills of what Sen calls “solitarism,” or the idea that human beings have one principal identity. Those values are on the wane, however, under the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi, especially after winning reëlection this year, appears intent on cementing Hindu rule. His government has suspended autonomous governance in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir; the territory, which has faced decades of brutal occupation, is now under strict martial law, with reports of torture and extralegal detention. Sen has often criticized Modi’s sectarianism and has said that his government has “taken a quantum jump in the wrong direction” on poverty and health care. In 2015, Sen withdrew his nomination for a second term as the chancellor of Nalanda University, in Bihar, after the government made clear its displeasure with his tenure.
When I visited Sen, we spoke for several hours in his kitchen before going to lunch. He is eighty-five, and walks gingerly and with a cane. But he has a boisterous laugh and an astonishing memory for people and ideas. When I asked him whether he had reflected on the fact that he was now somewhat of a living embodiment of the distinction between mind and body—he is still writing regularly (including a memoir, which he said made him feel “ancient”), teaching, and interviewing candidates for the Harvard Society of Fellows—he said, “I am not the type to give thanks to a creator. But, if I were, it would be for it to have happened this way rather than the other way around.” Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. In it, we discuss his boyhood in pre-independence India, his fears and hopes for Indian democracy, and why contemporary politics hasn’t led him toward fatalism.
So, you have been following what’s been going on in India since before Partition—
Way before Partition. I was schooled in British India.
What are your memories of that?
Very strong memories of thinking of the ways and means of getting rid of British rule. Strong memories of my uncles and cousins—both on my father’s and mother’s side—being in prison in what the British used to call “preventive detention.” Not because they had done anything but because they could do something terrible against the empire unless they were kept in prison. There was no need for proof that they had done anything terrible.
I remember talking with my grandfather and saying, “Do you think preventive detention is ever going to go away from India?” And him saying, “Not until independence. We have to gain independence for that.” Unfortunately, we have gained independence, and at first the Congress Party introduced preventive detention in a rather mild form. And now, of course, it is very strong. There is an act called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which was amended this year to give the government the right to designate someone as a terrorist, without having to provide any proof and without having judicial review. And that is back again, which I never thought would happen now that we are an independent country.
Do you have memories of the war, or Partition?
Oh, yes. Partition, yes, and the war, yes. And the Hindu-Muslim riots. I come from Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh, though I was educated and stayed with my maternal grandfather in what is now West Bengal, in Santiniketan, a progressive school that Tagore had started. And I loved it. In Bengal, Hindu-Muslim violence was not very common. Even in 1937, in the elections, the secular parties won. But then, by the beginning of the nineteen-forties, the influence of the pro-Partition forces became strong. I think the first time the Muslim League actually won the elections was only 1946, the year before independence.
Where was your family in 1947, when Partition occurred?
My father was a professor at Dhaka University, so he was teaching there along with quite a few rather good academics. But, in 1946, I think five or six people left because Dhaka University had so much rioting and trouble that there were hardly any classes. Along with my father, there was S. N. Bose, the physicist known for Bose-Einstein Statistics. My father, who was a chemist, moved, after looking for other jobs, to Delhi, and was Delhi’s land-development commissioner. But then he became the chair of the West Bengal Public Service Commission.
When did you decide you wanted to leave India?
I’m afraid I am rather boring in that way. I was very keen on studying in one or two particular places that attracted me, which included Cambridge. Cambridge was pretty good in economics in those days, in particular Trinity College. I applied there and then they rejected me and then somebody dropped out, so they asked me at the last moment to come. They recollected that when, many years later, I became master of the college. [Laughs.] I have always had interests in economics and politics. I was interested in mathematics also. But Cambridge economics didn’t have very much math at that time. On the other hand, Trinity was the great mathematics college, beginning with Isaac Newton, and so on.
Do you think your math and science interests helped when you moved into other fields?
I think they did. And it’s also the case that Trinity had a certain level of standing in the gigantic battles that were going on in Cambridge at that time, which were between Cambridge economics and what they called neoclassical economics, which was old-fashioned economics. I was attracted not only by the fact that Newton and Bacon and many others went there but also by the fact that Maurice Dobb, who was probably the leading Marxist economist, was in Trinity. Piero Sraffa, who was a very close friend of Antonio Gramsci and represented a different type of Marxian thinking, was there. And Dennis Robertson, who was the senior economist there, was very conservative. And they all seemed to get on quite well with one another. And that attracted me.
What were your politics back then?
Left. Left of center, certainly. I was in this odd position. I was influenced by Marxian thinking without becoming a Marxist, ever. I particularly liked a few things. I liked his manuscripts of 1844. I liked “The German Ideology.” I liked “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” from 1875. And also, in terms of sympathy for the poor, I thought the communists had something really important to offer. On the other hand, I was always shocked by the absence of political theory. It is not often recognized that Marx had very little interest in political organization. This whole idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat really makes no sense whatsoever. [Laughs.] And, as John Kenneth Galbraith argued, you need opposition, what he called “countervailing power.” There is no countervailing power in their thinking.
When I was a student in Calcutta—that was where I began—I loved the fact that so much of the student body took interest in the poor and the downtrodden and the untouchables and so on. On the other hand, I was shocked by the fact that they did not seem to regard opposition to be important. Democracy, often called bourgeois democracy—I always thought that was a complete misdiagnosis of what the problem of social organization is.
So I was left, but at the same time I was very skeptical of everything. I read a lot of [Nikolai] Bukharin—and then suddenly being told that Bukharin had been trying to destroy the Soviet Union, and confessed, and American tourists like John Gunther said that he was there and it was quite clear he hadn’t been tortured. I remember telling my classmates, “If you believe that, you will believe anything.” [Bukharin, formerly a close ally of Stalin, was tortured, confessed to espionage and treason, and was executed along with other prominent Bolsheviks in 1938.] When Khrushchev gave his speech at the Twentieth Congress [in which he spoke critically of Stalin], it didn’t come as a surprise to me at all.
So I realized that I would not belong to a full-fledged political tradition. I decided that I had to combine some understandings generated by Marxian analysis with other political and intellectual lines of reasoning. I was very strongly influenced by Adam Smith—his economics as well as his philosophy. And John Stuart Mill. I had to combine all that along with my own interests. Sanskrit was, along with mathematics, my favorite subject. And I knew the Sanskrit classics, including the Lokayata, which is of the materialist school. So I was influenced by a number of things. In many ways, the old Sanskrit studies that I had, along with, for the want of a better word, left or progressive European thought, combined well with me.
Does the turn that India has taken in the past five years make you think differently about the founding of the country, and its constitution, or is that too much hindsight?
I think it is too much hindsight. The Indian constitution was pretty well based on analysis of the Constituent Assembly, which had some of the finest discussion of what the constitution should be. What it overlooked, I think, as a committed secular democracy, is that if there is a political group or party or movement that came to get a huge amount of support, which happened in India with the Hindutva movement, they can manipulate the situation pretty sharply. And here I think the Indian Supreme Court is very slow and divided, and, despite the good it has done, hasn’t been able to be as much of a guardian of pluralism as it could be.
Today, everything is dominated by a hard-nosed, hard-Hindutva thinking. And the President, Prime Minister, the leadership are all Hindu. But if you compare that to a dozen years ago, 2007, let’s say, we had a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister, a Christian leader of the ruling party. The majority of the parliamentarians were Hindu, but they were not trying to impose their way of thinking over everyone. And that’s what’s happened. And now we are suddenly in a position where you can chastise a Muslim for eating beef, which is also very nonclassical. If you go to the very old Sanskrit documents, like the Vedas, there is nothing prohibiting the eating of beef. So there is a decline not only from secularism and democracy in post-independence India but also in the understanding of the heritage even of Hindu India.
We are also overlooking the fact that India was quite important in the eastern world, and Sanskrit was pretty much the lingua franca of the first millennium A.D., because of the influence of Buddhist thinking. For a thousand years, India was a Buddhist country. That is our heritage, too. When we try to revive Nalanda—which is the oldest university in the world, started in the fifth century, to which students came not only from India but from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia—when we tried to revive that with coöperation with East Asian countries, the government, the Hindu government, made it no longer a prominent Buddhist university, and it was made to look more and more like a Hindu establishment. I am Hindu, too. [Laughs.] I have nothing against Hinduism. In fact, oddly enough, when I was young, Penguin asked my grandfather to write a book on Hinduism. His English was quite limited. So the first book I had to edit and translate was a book on Hinduism. He was always saying what’s gone wrong in Nehru’s India was talk about Hindu-Muslim tolerance, but what was important was joint work rather than tolerance between Hindus and Muslim—that was to be celebrated as part of five hundred years of Indian history.
The importance of multiple identities is something that comes up time and again in your work, I’ve noticed—
Absolutely. It is very central. And, if you think about that, Bangladesh has been, in many ways, more successful than India now. It used to have a life expectancy lower than that of India. Now it is five years longer. Women’s literacy is higher than in India. And, in terms of the kind of narrowness of Hindu thinking, it is not reflected in a similar narrowness of Muslim thinking in Bangladesh. I think multiple identities have done a lot for Bangladesh. It was doing a lot for India, too, until there was a deliberate attempt to undermine it. That had been present earlier. In the nineteen-twenties, there was a strong pro-Hindu movement. 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. But that fringe gradually became more dominant until the latest election, and they had a massive victory, a victory partially based on political effectiveness.
Modi doesn’t have the breadth of vision about India—multireligious, multiethnic India. He has been, from his childhood, relating to the R.S.S. and the propaganda of that perspective. On the other hand, as a political leader, he is dynamic and enormously successful. So there was the Modi factor. They also got a massive amount of money. 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. They had more money and gumption at the time of the election than any other party. They won an election with a massive majority, but, again, you have to look at the issues I have written about, even in the context in America. The electoral system has its flaws. That massive majority he had was based on less than forty per cent of the vote.
Yes, although unlike someone like Trump or Erdoǧan, who struggle to get much more than fifty per cent support, Modi is enormously popular. A large majority of the country approves of him.
It’s not clear that is the case. India is a country of more than a billion people. Two hundred million of them are Muslim. Two hundred million of them are Dalit, or what used to be called untouchables. A hundred million are what used to be called scheduled tribes, and they get the worst deal in India, even worse than the Dalits. 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. In these circumstances, to say that a majority supports him would be difficult. It’s a situation where there are many restrictions. The newspapers don’t get government ads, and they probably don’t get many private ads, either, if the government is against you. As a result, it is very hard to have independent TV or newspapers, because of difficulties created by the government.
The big thing that we know from John Stuart Mill is that democracy is government by discussion, and, if you make discussion fearful, you are not going to get a democracy, no matter how you count the votes. And that is massively true now. 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.” That is not a way to run a democracy. And it is also not a way of understanding what the majority wants.
But is there any tension between saying that there is popular resistance to him, and to Hindutva politics—
And there would be more if they weren’t afraid.
But it seems that, if they are afraid, that calls into question where Indian democracy is. It seems like how we think about India as a democracy should be different than it was before. Or you don’t think so?
I do think so. But it is not all gone. First of all, there are courageous newspapers that don’t mind taking the risk of publishing things. There are one or two television stations, one or two radio stations, there are public meetings held. India is also a federal country. There are a number of states in which the B.J.P. is not the only dominant force.
Including West Bengal.
And similarly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. There are also other areas where the B.J.P. monolithism is under dispute. Similarly, there is also the Supreme Court. I am a great believer in the court. But it has also been very slow, and some of the justices have been quite willing to kowtow to what the government wants. So, in many ways, there are elements of democracy left. On the other hand, has democracy declined since ten or fifteen or twenty years ago? Yes. We had a huge threat in the nineteen-seventies, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government had an Emergency, but she went into a general vote, the opposition was not as afraid and restricted as we thought it was, and she lost. She gave that up. So I think there are elements of resistance that could become stronger. There is a category called Naxals, who are supposed to be Maoist extremists. There are people who have been accused of that and put in prison for that. So it is a mixed picture. But it is not the kind of shining democracy that we could have easily had, and to some extent almost had earlier.
You wrote, after the election, “Many might prefer the account that the B.J.P. won what is called ‘the ideological argument’ against the Congress Party. But there has been no particular victory for the philosophy of Hindu nationalism and no noticeable vanquishing of the idea of inclusiveness and unity championed by Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore.” Can you explain what you meant by that, and if you still feel that way?
I do feel that way. It is very easy to excite people on particular causes, like Kashmir, which I think is a bad cause, because there is no reason Kashmir should not have continued to have the dispensation it had as a part of the Indian regime. But it is easy to increase popular support. That, of course, happened in the general election, in much the way it happened in favor of Mrs. Thatcher at the time of the Falklands War. If you remember, Mrs. Thatcher was losing the election, and then came the Falklands War.
I was born that year, so I don’t remember. But yes, the “Falklands factor.”
The Falklands changed the British into becoming nationalists. It didn’t last very long, but enough to get Mrs. Thatcher a massive victory. If you look at the election earlier this year, a part was played by strong propaganda, a part was played by the fear factor, a part was played by the excitement of the war that was going on between Pakistan and India, when there were government claims about a sabotage of an Indian Army convoy. Worse than war was war hysteria. Given that that’s the test of Hindutva being popular, it wasn’t as popular as the vote indicated. Every time there have been attempts to see whether minorities should be crushed, in the rural areas in India, you don’t see that massive desire to crush the minorities. There is a tolerance of minorities, and that is a strong tradition that continues to this day.
India did elect someone as Prime Minister who presided over massive ethnic violence against minorities.
That is true, yeah. 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. [In 2002, shortly after Modi became the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, more than a thousand people were murdered in anti-Muslim riots. Modi was barred from the United States after being accused of helping incite the violence and failing to intervene to stop it.]
I think if you wanted to say there was a victory of the Hindutva idea, then it has to be the case that everyone has a great chance of finding the truth. More public discussion, more newspaper freedom, more television freedom. And with no one threatened with being in prison. So I think I wouldn’t say that there has been a victory. There would have been a victory if there was a press without fear, censorship from government, and the tyranny of advertising control. If all this hadn’t happened, and he had won the election, I would have said yes.
It seems to me that it is a longstanding R.S.S. desire to change India in ideological ways.
Yes, they have generated an outlook which is quite effective: “This country has been dominated by Muslim invaders for a long time, and it is our time, and we should destroy that for once and all. And the country is mostly Hindu, and that should be reflected.” But it overlooks that, in Hindu history, there is a lot of tolerance of different points of view. I once wrote a book called “The Argumentative Indian,” where I discuss how much arguing there was. They have constructed an ideology, which they have sold and which has become very, very effective.
It’s a sad story, but I think it is a mistake to play up the sadness too much because it is still in our hands. When I grew up in British India, the British were immeasurably more powerful than the Indians were at that time, than Gandhi was, for example, and yet it became possible to win that war.
In the past month, things have obviously worsened in Kashmir, but Kashmir is also a place where things have been bad since Partition, and especially in the past thirty years. Do you think there was a failure on the part of Indian liberals and intellectuals to speak out about Kashmir during the past several decades?
I think it is certainly part of the story. Kashmir looked like it was Indian-administered, rather than part of India. But, after recognizing that, Indians often carried out very punitive retaliation of the separatist tendencies, sometimes even more than pro-Pakistani tendencies. It was often the case that the separatists got more harmed by the Indians than the pro-Pakistanis, because the pro-Pakistanis could escape to Pakistani Kashmir, whereas the separatists had nowhere to go, and it was easier to destroy them, thereby making the anti-Indian movement turn more pro-Pakistan than for independence. So there were all kinds of political mistakes that were made by the previous governments, too. And, as you rightly say, by a kind of apathy by the Indian majority, even secular majority, to get involved in that story. I think that was a mistake that should have been addressed much earlier.
Do you wish you had addressed it more?
Possibly, but I had enough to do. People had other callings, and often found Kashmir difficult to really understand, particularly because you are dealing with essentially an alienated people. And people kept on saying that there was no way of avoiding the situation, except by tough actions. And that was a mistake. Do I think I, too, should have written more about Kashmir? Possibly, yes. I think the answer is yes. But, on the other hand, can I explain why I didn’t? I can, because with famines and poverty and gender inequality and so many other things, my hands were pretty full. So yes and no.
The Gates Foundation just announced they were going to give Modi an award. Are you surprised that internationally he is still seen as a statesman?
Yeah, I think the world likes success, and I think the Gateses like success. And Modi is so powerful that he is often seen as a success of some kind. I was surprised and shocked, quite frankly, by the news of the Gates award to Modi.
You have written a lot about famines and the importance of democracy in preventing famines, the need for democratic accountability, and so on. When you see democracies where institutions get weakened, or respond less, or get captured by non-democratic forces, does that make you think differently on the work you have done on things like famines?
No, I still think famines take place only in the absence of democracy. Democracy does not succeed so much in preventing non-visibly explosive nastiness, such as regular undernourishment, regular inequality of women, and so on. It can be used to do that, but that depends on political organization. Democracy isn’t an automatic remedy of anything. It isn’t like quinine to kill malaria. Democracy is a way of enabling. The enabling circumstances are very easy with famine. And that is why, even though British India had famine right to the end of imperial rule, it stopped immediately when press freedom became widely available and there was a multiparty election. It was extremely easy to politicize the nastiness of famine. But the nastiness of regular undernourishment, the regular deprivation of women compared with men, and the continuation of bad schooling for children, these are much harder to politicize. I don’t know if I use the word “democracy” too much. But for some things it is a very easy remedy. For others, it is harder work.
You seem generally more sanguine about things, and less depressed about the state of the world, than I expected to find you.
I wouldn’t say sanguine, but I am sometimes less hopeless than I am expected to be. [Laughs.]
Why do you think you are expected to be hopeless, and why do you think you are not?
Because as a child I came through an experience where things looked really bad. When I was growing up, all my uncles were in prison, in preventive detention, and there was no hope for when they would be released. When I was nine, there were things like the Bengal Famine, which I saw, where three million people died. 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. He told me in an inarticulate way, and my father in a more articulate way, that his bibi, his wife, had told him not to work in a Hindu area, but he said the children had not eaten anything, and he had to get income to get them a little food.
I had never seen anything like that, and the experience, at the age of ten or eleven, to have someone bleeding profusely, and then my father, from the description he gave, had picked up which thugs had killed him. He told that to the police, and the police in this Hindu area refused to do anything. I experienced that, and I experienced India becoming independent.
So I have seen big problems and then their being solved. That doesn’t mean that I am sanguine. I am not sanguine about anything. It does mean that I don’t see that one has to be hopeless before such hopelessness is due.
Is there some subject or area you wish you had worked on more?
There are some philosophical problems. I have been so tied up with things that I haven’t gotten back to epistemology, so I have to do more on that.
Because it is important or because it is the type of thing you would like to do?
Both. But I can’t withdraw from politics, especially with what is going on in India. I am a very proud Indian. I am not only a proud Indian. [Laughs.] I am also a proud Asian and proud human being. One of the great advantages of the school I went to, Tagore’s progressive school, was that I was allowed to specialize even as a child of eight or nine, so I studied a lot of history.
I once read that you called yourself an “unreformed secularist.” Are you still?
Yeah. That’s not an issue, actually. There should be no need to talk about secularism.
Democracy should cover that your origin doesn’t matter. But, if you need to play that up, that is because democracies often fail, and that is why multiple identities become very important.
Do your kids read your work?
Not a lot. [Laughs.] One is a journalist. Another writes children’s books. Another is a musician. And one is an editor of a magazine. I never particularly wanted them to be high-grade achievers rather than doing what they liked doing. I didn’t have any predetermined idea about how they should excel. I was astonished to see some actress going to jail, because she tried to push her child—
Oh, Felicity Huffman.
What she did seems exorbitant. It may be quite important if you think it is important for your child to go to a good school. It can’t be all that important. [Laughs.]
Do you get to read fiction anymore?
That is what has declined a lot. I had cancer twice. The first time I had it, at eighteen, I had to get radiation. They said I had a fifteen per cent chance of living five years. That was sixty-eight years ago, so I take it I am O.K. now. I have been treated for prostate cancer, which also was a huge amount of radiation—though recent tests show no sign of relapse. I had to lie down with a linear accelerator, so I got a lot of chances to read. I read a huge amount of novels at that time. Short stories I still read a lot, but novels need a longer span of time, and I feel I should spend more time reading novels. I want to have more time to read. I don’t think I will get it.