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Breaking Out of the Mold: Amartya Sen

The countries of Asia as we know them are no strangers to war, famine and poverty. With a long and storied tradition of social activists fighting against these phenomena and their perpetrators, it is easy to judge their efforts by their real-world consequences but this week we focus on a man whose theories and insight have fundamentally changed the way we look at things.

Born in West Bengal in 1933, Amartya Sen is a highly accomplished figure whose myriad achievements including the 1998 Nobel Prize are accessible with the most cursory of Internet searches.  In the context of this column however, it is important to note that he is the recipient of the Bharat Ratna, the Republic of India’s highest civilian honour. The award came into play last summer when he criticized current Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi for his divisive, nationalist politics that often left the non-Hindu minority dead or marginalised. (see: Godhra riots).

He drew the ire of several right-wing politicians one of whom is quoted as saying, “Amartya Sen is not Indian. He had lost his Indian-ness after he left his Bengali ex-wife and married two foreign females. He has lived abroad and only visits the country for a couple of months, which cannot make you Indian.” Fallacious logic aside, the source of this statement Subramanian Swamy has called for the rescindment of the award. This makes us wonder, what did Sen do to deserve the award and why is he so disapproving of Modi, the candidate most associated with economic growth and infrastructure development? Shouldn’t he as an economist favour a government with a strong economic pioneer at its helm? The answer to these questions strikes the core of what Sen stands for and why he merits this column entry.

Sen’s work largely deals with a capabilities approach to countries and their development. Though a complicated political and economic term, it is distinctive in that it moves away from a resource based (where people’s well-being is judged by how many resources they have) and a utility based approach (where people’s psychological happiness is paramount). Relying on the true freedom of people to live to old age, make choices and vote for whom they want, his novel approach makes the resource based development of Modi seem trivial in contrast to the freedoms he has and will (given his track record) strip from Muslims and other minorities. Considering that the decision between Modi and his opponent the Gandhi scion, Rahul will be made in about 3 weeks with the fate of the world’s largest democracy in the balance, Sen’s insight is more valid than ever. Few people of a Hindu background come to the defense of minorities, especially Muslims, given the country’s past fraught with communalism and riots which makes Sen unique in his impartiality and academic reasoning.

With his theories on feminism, poverty and especially the avoidable nature of famines (at 10, he personally witnessed the Bengal famine which killed 3 million people), being applied to most developed and developing countries, he is an important role model whose mention here is significant. His imitable aspects don’t come from accolades or prestigious teaching positions at Harvard and Oxford University, but from his unrelenting battle against the forces of misery and injustice.

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